NOTE: This review of the film, Marvel’s Black Panther, contains important plot points. If you have not seen the film – and don’t want to be spoiled before seeing it – I would suggest waiting to read this posting until afterward. These are my overall impressions.
My relationship with Marvel‘s T’Challa, the Black Panther, goes back to my pre-teens years reading Jungle Action Comics and reprints of Fantastic Four stories in Marvel’s Greatest Comics. This proud, powerful African king from the technologically-advanced nation of Wakanda was also one of the brightest and wealthiest characters in the Marvel Universe. He took on the Fantastic Four to test whether they were a threat to his people. He was the scientific genius that gave Falcon his wings. He took on the Klan. Regularly, he would take an arrogant Tony Stark or Reed Richards to task for their inability to see the human cost in their actions. He spoke truth to power all the time. If you were a young Black kid in the 1970s looking for a hero, you could not do any better.
So needless to say I have been ready for a Black Panther movie for more than 45 years.
But I wasn’t ready for THIS Black Panther.
First, a few misperceptions about this film. The Black women who populate it have the freedom to choose between being maternal or a politician, warrior, activist, technologist or anything else they want to be. There are no damsels in distress. Instead, they are the ones who save others. This is one of the biggest differences between Black Panther and every other Marvel film produced in the last 18 years.
Secondly, free yourself from simplistic comparisons of Black Panther to other films. This is not Marvel’s James Bond film. If for no other reason than that the aforementioned women aren’t important simply because they’re sexually appealing to the lead male character. Moreover, tech wizard Shuri isn’t T’Challa’s Q. She’s intellectually curious and has the ability to exercise that curiosity. Finally, this film is in no way similar to The Lion King. Just because it’s set in Africa and there is a succession of leadership from father–to-son doesn’t make T’Challa some clone of Simba or Killmonger this film’s version Scar. Simplistically looking at it that way will only have you missing the larger message within.
Now, to the review.
Screenwriters Ryan Coogler and John Robert Cole have cherrypicked some of the best elements from character’s fifty-two year-long comic book canon. Primarily, they used material and motivations from writers Christopher Priest and Ta-Nehisi Coates. Two of the few Black creators who have worked on the character.
The main conflict here isn’t world-saving. Instead, it pivots on the theme of “Privilege.” Using these two writer’s work for his T’Challa, Coogler has given us a Black Panther who questions what his power and resources provide for him as well as what they require of him in return.
Coogler has created a Wakanda that has never been conquered or colonized. Wakanda is a world wherein Blackness is the default. Where a white character is openly called “colonizer” and later on publicly silenced when he speaks out of turn. The perspective is Blackness, but it is a Blackness that isn’t infused with Pan-Africanism, the ideological movement that seeks to build solidarity between all African descendants through the diaspora. This is the main tension in the film.
There’s much to admire about this Wakanda, an African nation where it’s people have never known want, slavery, political corruption or racism. This film is one of the most beautiful depictions of Africa ever filmed thanks to some great cinematography of spectacular real-life African locations. Moreover, Wakanda is a nation and culture that is elder-ruled, adult-run but focused on providing for the next generation. We see this in T’Challa’s multigenerational Council of Advisors. It’s seen in the responsibilities of Zuri, the Keeper of the Heart-shaped herb that has given the Black Panthers their strength and skill for generations. Also, we see preparation for the future in the father-son relationship of Kings T’Chaka and T’Challa. T’Chaka prepares his son to one day lead his people from an early age. It is T’Chaka’s intention for his son to be prepared to lead after his death.
But to say Wakanda is untouched by colonialism is wrong. Wakandan success has been built on a lie in order to avoid the fate of every other African nation. Coogler is a brave enough filmmaker to present to us with a Wakanda that is morally complicit in one of the greatest horrors ever afflicted against Black people. Black Panther shows us a world wherein an African people had the power to stop the Transatlantic Slave Trade, to stop genocidal civil wars, the rape of natural resources and political manipulation by powerful foreign nations,…and did nothing. Instead, they use ‘the soft bigotry of low expectations’ to hide from the world. Even though they are shielded by a holographic screen, their true shield is racial stereotypes. They allowed the world to believe Wakanda is a poor nation of simple farmers because that is what the world wants to believe. Apathy for the plight of African people allows others to believe that a nation which does not trade with anyone else, for anything, who supposedly have no natural resources to exploit, somehow maintain a stable political state. Given the attitudes of political leaders in this country and others, it’s very easy to believe they would be convinced of that.
An even more personal price is paid for this secrecy when a young King T’Chaka – T’Challa’s father – kills his own brother, Prince N’Jobu. Living under a false identity in Oakland, California in the early 1990s, N’Jobu witnesses African Americans struggling against racial discrimination, police brutality and other forms of disenfranchisements. His solution is to arm Black people with vibranium weapons in order to overthrow a racist and oppressive America. This act would, in turn, destroy the illusion of a poor, depressed Wakanda. N’Jobu’s death stops that rebellion and keeps the lie alive. But the idea doesn’t die with him. Erik Stevens, Prince N’Jobu’s orphaned American son, takes up a twisted version of his father’s vision. The boy who was left behind to keep a secret grows into a trained killer called ‘Killmonger.’ Killmonger is Hellbent on retribution.
And that is what I didn’t expect from Black Panther. I didn’t expect it to be asked am I my brother’s keeper. This Black Panther weights the consequences of the famous Spider-Man adage “with great power there must also come great responsibility” in a way that no other superhero film ever has.
The conflict between T’Challa and Killmonger isn’t a comic book version of debates between W.E.B. Dubois and Booker T. Washington or Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. Those disagreements were over different approaches or tactics towards the same goal: African American empowerment. At the heart of the battle in this film is a choice between entering a Faustian bargain for selfish comforts vs. unleashing chaos on the world in order to punish the people who abandoned a child to suffer alone.
Played by a very charismatic Michael B. Jordan, Killmonger could be seen as the protagonist. In truth, it’s his actions that sets things in motion. But, he is the antagonist of this story. Killmonger is more interested in punishing Wakanda than he is in freeing Black people from suffering. His hatred and pain have led him to believe that the accumulation of power is for its own end. Killmonger’s flaw is that he is grounded in nothing. He openly displays disdain for Wakandan traditions and rituals. He kills or threatens to kill his elders. When he has the gardeners burn all of the remaining Heart-shaped herb Killmonger is symbolically destroying the foundations of Wakandan faith and culture. On top of that, he’s an imperialist. He has adopted the ways and thinking of the very oppressors he seeks to overthrow. These are the biggest distinctions between his approach and that of his father.
By contrast, some critics have described T’Challa, played by Chadwick Boseman, as a less compelling character. He’s less emotional and his arc seems to be undramatic in comparison to that of Killmonger. But, in truth, T’Challa’s path is the more difficult of the two. At the beginning of the film, we see him attack a caravan of Boko Haram-like mercenaries. They have kidnapped a group of young women. It’s most likely they will be exploited sexually. The fact that T’Challa frees them is the byproduct of his actions. His main objective is to bring his ex-girlfriend home to attend his ascension to the throne. T’Challa risks revealing himself and Wakanda for a personal benefit. His compassion for others is in proportion to how must risk it takes to uphold those traditions.
T’Challa was born with every advantage his cousin was denied. Unlike his cousin, he measures the world – and himself – by his father’s example and strict devotion to their people’s traditions. T’Challa’s tragic flaw is his adherence to those traditions. For him, T’Chaka is the perfect example of a just and successful King. So when he learns of his father’s sins, it falls to T’Challa to choose between continuing to blindly adhere to tradition or face “a monster of our own creation.”
But to truly defeat Killmonger means also ending the circumstances that created him. T’Challa has to address their original sin, the abandonment of his African “family” throughout the diaspora. This is why T’Challa is so dynamic. He is the protagonist who is transformed by the arguments of his antagonist. T’Challa adopts Killmonger’s cause. Wakandans can no longer ignore their responsibility to other Africans descendants. They must redefine themselves with the sweetest and most powerful idea. Wakanda – this African nation – is planning to do foreign aid outreach to America. If there was nothing else this film gave us, that one thing was the richest.
That re-definition is the great journey T’Challa has to embark on. Leaving their past mistakes behind them, and reaching out towards an uncharted future, they must press towards the prize that comes from forging new relationships and taking up new responsibilities. This thought is encapsulated in an Ethiopian proverb that is spoken during the mid-credit scene.
“In times of crisis the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers.”
Congratulations to Ryan Coogler, John Robert Cole, Nate Moore, Ruth E. Carter, Rachel Morrison, Chadwick Boseman, Lupita Nyong’o, Michael B. Jordan, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke, Daniel Kaluuya, Sterling K. Brown, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, John Kani, Martin Freeman and Andy Serkis for a phenomenal experience.
Praise the ancestors!
P. S. – The casino scene in Busan, South Korea has a hidden Pan-African easter egg. Danai Gurira, Chaswick Boseman, and Lupita Nyong’o are each wearing one of the colors in the Pan African flag: red, black and green. Sweet!