February 16, 2018

∴ Black Panther

Movie poster for Black PantherMy group of friends went to the debut showing of Black Panther last night. It’s been one of the most anticipated films of 2018, and the first stand-alone comic genre film featuring not only a black lead, but a mostly black cast. Initial reviews of the film have been very positive.

I’d been looking forward to last night for two years, since the Black Panther character was revealed. Some folks have been waiting for last night much longer.

There is one specific spoiler in this article, so if you haven’t seen the film and don’t want to know what’s in it, stop reading now.

Overall, Black Panther turned out to be a good film, but not great. The acting, story, costuming, music, and effects were very good. The direction, though, meandered. A two-and-a-quarter-hour run time felt like three, yet I wondered more than once how co-writer and director Ryan Coogler could bring the story to a close before the end credits, right up until it was actually over. Though the film possesses plenty of action scenes, and these are among the best scenes in the film, it feels less like an action flick and more like straight drama. And many of the dramatic scenes go on.

That’s a minor quibble, though. Superhero films are rarely of Academy Award level stature. Where this film shines is in its depiction of a proud, advanced culture bearing technologies and social mores beyond our own, peopled entirely by African black men and women. The story incorporates more than enough empowered women and positivity to overcome sluggish direction. It was, if nothing else, a good story well-acted and well-photographed.

***

One thematic element bugged me, though. I’ve since come to a reasonably positive conclusion about it, but I was stunned when it joined the overall theme of empowerment, and still wonder about its placement in what is otherwise a very ethnic-positive character story.

In a flashback it’s revealed that T’Chaka, the now-dead king of Wakanda, left behind a nephew in America after killing his brother, N’Jobu. It’d been discovered that N’Jobu had stolen Wakanda’s precious vibranium, and planned selling it to arm people of color with this powerful weapon, helping them fight oppression.

Since this scene was set in 1992 Oakland, California, and all of the characters are black, we know the referenced oppression was American racism. Later reference was made to the “two billion people who looked like us,” so the underlying theme is both contemporary and historical global oppression of people of color.

In order to keep their kingdom and its advanced, vibranium-based technology and culture secret from western colonialists, Wakandans had long portrayed theirs as a poor, third-world African country. The king would tolerate no-one violating that defense. N’Jobu dies.

N’Jobu’s son, N’Jadaka, grows up to become a US soldier, and later an elite, mercenary-like CIA paramilitary known as Killmonger. His life goal becomes reaching back to the culture responsible for his father’s death and his own abandonment, and further, the abandonment of people of color around the world. He aims to continue what his father set out to do: arm the oppressed.

Killmonger lays blame for the toleration of oppression at the feet of Wakanda, the fictional African nation that could have stopped it; this film’s screenwriting therefore blames the continued oppression of blacks on … fictional black Africans.

My mind boggled at that, to the degree that I was pulled out of my storytelling-induced state of disbelief and out of the film entirely for a few minutes, thinking it over.

Film critic Eric Willis puts the ensuing confrontation between T’Challa and Killmonger well at The Movie Waffler:

Of course, this is the origin story of how Black Panther realises the error of his society’s narcissistic ways, but we’re left to ask the uncomfortable question of why it took this long. Assuming the Wakandans refused to intervene during the AIDS and famine crises that rocked their continent makes it incredibly difficult not to fall in line with Stevens [Killmonger], who plans to take over Wakanda and use its technology to actually better the lot of the African diaspora.

My thought during the drive home was that this played like a white guy’s idea of a black superhero origin story: blame the victim, then have him make amends. In doing so he is cleansed of his sins. That clash of fiction and reality would be, of course, an utter betrayal of basically every black and brown person walking the Earth, if only a fictional one.

Why would Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole, both black, incorporate such an element in what is entirely a story about strong, smart, empowered people of color? Even if this thematic device were “true to the comic,” as defense of the occasionally indefensible usually goes, why carry it on?

On my way into work next morning, I recalled that the story had ended on a very positive note. T’Challa, the new Wakandan king and son of T’Chaka, begins revealing Wakanda, its people, technology, and culture to the world. That’s when I made the connection between “the blame” in mid-story and T’Challa’s eventual response which will, presumably, help lift people of color out of oppression and poverty.

That ties up in a neat bow Wakanda’s change of heart, redeeming T’Chaka’s egregious error. The story comes clean in the end and T’Challa is revealed as a wise king, after all.

Still, the scripted lines about Wakandans hiding from and ignoring two billion people who “looked like us” spoken by a strong black character are jarring. It appears a road the story simultaneously had to go down—how else to explain an unknown Earthly culture so alien-like in its advancement—and shouldn’t go down. Do we really need to hear continued oppression of people of color blamed on other people of color for the sake of entertainment?

The cognitive dissonance remains uncomfortable. It’d play better, and truer, if Wakandans were white. But then it wouldn’t be Black Panther.

#BlackPanther #T’Challa #T’Chaka #N’Jobu #N’Jadaka #Killmonger #MCU #Marvel