Winston Duke’s M’Baku is set to play an interesting role in Marvel’s Black Panther. The character, originally “Man-Ape” in the comics, was created by Roy Thomas and John Buscema in 1969, and his appearance traditionally involves a Gorilla suit – as in, a suit made entirely out of an actual Gorilla. He’s the leader of the Jabari tribe, an element that we’ll see make it to the big screen, though rather than being an outlawed cult, the Jabari appear to be one of several co-existing Wakandan cultures, and their function within the film sounds pretty politically charged.
Before we get to the Jabari, a couple of neat changes to Man-Ape are that he won’t dress up as an ape and won’t be called “Man-Ape,” though his status as a ruthless leader and outsider will remain. There’s no reason to carry forward five decade old ideas if they comes off as racially derogatory – an unintentional implication M’Baku’s white creators may not have considered – which is another advantage to having so many black filmmakers behind this production.
Here’s what EP Nate Moore had to say while speaking to EW:
“We don’t call him Man-Ape,” executive producer Nate Moore told EW during our set visit. “We do call him M’Baku.”
The problem was self-evident. “Having a black character dress up as an ape, I think there’s a lot of racial implications that don’t sit well, if done wrong,” said Moore. “But the idea that they worship the gorilla gods is interesting because it’s a movie about the Black Panther who, himself, is a sort of deity in his own right.”
So he’s still adorned with elements of fur on his arms and legs and sports a chest-plate that hints at the animal that is symbolic of his tribe. But he doesn’t wear the full gorilla mask that, in the comics, often made him literally look like that creature.
In the comics, the Jabari are one of four Wakandan cults dedicated to animal deities – Panther god Bast, Gorilla god Ghekre, Lion goddess Sekmet and Crocodile god Sobek. In the film however, these will be translated less as extreme religious groups and more as co-existing tribes with underlying political tensions in order to make Wakanda feel more like a real African country as opposed to a monolithic culture. In fact, the Jabari will be a religious minority, and M’Baku appears to take an isolationist stance in response to T’Challa and his father joining hands with the U.N.
Director Ryan Coogler hopes the ideological differences being the crux of various conflicts will help blur the lines between “good guy” and “bad guy,” and frankly, we couldn’t be more excited. Black Panther hits theatres February 16th