Nearly three decades ago, my grandfather took me to the local pharmacy in Broadway, NC to get ice cream (it had an ice cream bar!). While there, I was perusing the shop and came across the comic book section; one in particular (see the feature image, I still have the comic). It wasn’t the incredibly popular Captain America or Falcon’s “new dynamic wings.” Instead, it was the guest star, The Black Panther. From that point on, I had a love affair with comic books, leading to getting covered in Marvel tattoos.
Black Panther was finally given the title character in the latest Marvel film, Black Panther. He was first introduced to us in the Marvel Cinematic Universe in Captain America: Civil War, Captain America was again the vehicle to deliver greatness and the moment T’Challa was introduced, I immediately felt that joy that I experienced in 1989.
Less than two years later, and we get Black Panther, a beautiful, engaging, and socially aware film. The movie follows the former prince and newly crowned king of Wakanda, T’Calla (played by Chadwick Boseman), son of T’Chaka. T’Chaka is killed in Captain America: Civil War during the signing of Sokovian Accords in response to the events of The Avengers: Age of Ultron. This is the catalyst that broke T’Challa’s inertia and sent him on his way to herodom.
Prior to the film, Black Panther has had a long comic history, first appearing in 1966 alongside the Fantastic 4. It took over a decade to get his own comic but played an important supporting role in the Avengers prior to that. Black Panther was created due to two primary reasons (according to Jack Kirby). The first, because Kirby realized that there were no black superheroes despite headway in civil rights and the second, to embody the the burgeoning black-power movement and provide a positive representation of a black man.
Fast forward fifty-two years and what we get is a cinematic masterpiece. Instead of the subtle hints of racial inequality, Black Panther sticks it right in your face, using racism, oppression, and inequality as a key motivator for the antagonist, Killmonger (played by Michael B. Jordan. Notice that I do not say “bad guy”) and pinion for T’Challa’s transformation from a nationalistic, protectionist leader, to one that feels an obligation to use his great power to make a difference in the world.
Instead of spending time reviews the cinematography, writing, and acting (all of which was excellent) I want to discuss important social implications addressed in the film. First, Black Panther turns the trope of backwards “shithole” (screw you Hegemon) Africa on its head. Wakanda is a vibrant, successful, technologically advanced, and politically enlightened nation. There are casts of people designated by tribe–while the Jabari occupy a liminal group, on the outskirts of Wakandan life–they all seem to be valued as equals. Each have the opportunity to challenge for the mantle of “the black panther” during each power shift, albeit only royal blood can do so, and it seems that, in the film, each respects T’Challa’s ascendancy to the throne. The rest of the world views Wakanda as one of the poorest Third World countries on the planet and simply disregards it. Wakanda is hidden from the eyes of the world with a shield that makes it functionally invisible and other nations seems content assuming Wakanda fits the Africa stereotype.
N’Jobu, T’Challa’s uncle and father of Killmonger, has radicalized and wants to use Wakandan technology to liberate his people around the world, providing them with weapons to stand up against white domination. This leads to his murder by T’Chaka, then Black Panther and king of Wakanda, which sets Killmonger on his mission to continue his father’s goal of black liberation. This theme of the story is expressed explicitly, with Killmonger serving, not as a traditional villain, but instead as a catalyst for T’Challa’s evolution into a new type of leader with an obligation to the citizens of the world. In response to T’Challa’s refusal to lend help to the oppressed of the world, Killmonger asks “Did life start on this continent? Aren’t all people your people?” insinuating that T’Challa has a moral obligation to all people. If anything, the true villains of the movie are white supremacy, nationalism/protectionism, and the bourgeoisie that actively exploit people and neglect them in their time of need, as T’Chaka did with Killmonger.
The movie handles race brilliantly, not simply by starring predominantly black actors but for broaching issues faced globally by blacks, at the hands of whites. Shuri (played by Letitia Wright) refers to the white men in the film as “colonizers”, passively castigating the history of European colonization and raping of Africa.
Beyond racial commentary, the film also portrayed gender in an interesting way. Women were not portrayed as passive actors but were primary movers in the plot. Shuri completely destroys the stereotype of engineer and, not only is the innovator behind the Black Panther costume, but also innovates Wakandan technology. Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) and Okoye (Danai Gurira) embody powerful women that serve as protectors of T’Challa, keeping him focused and principled.
Martin Freeman’s character, Everett Ross, has been a little contentious as many do not understand why he needed to be in the film when the focus was on Wakanda. I think his participation worked for two reasons. First, he provided a more direct link to global influence that Wakanda would come to take at the end of the film, but more importantly, he shift the trope of white leads with supporting characters as people of color. Instead, the entire story was driven by black actors, with a black lead, and a white character served as support. For me, this symbolism is powerful. It tears down the “white savior”, places power into the hands of oppressed peoples, and allows them to construct their own destiny, which they have so long been denied.
This movie is excellent. It may be Marvel’s best film yet. I am so pleased to see Disney give Ryan Coogler (writer/director) the power to execute his vision and make a socially aware movie that is both entertaining, introspective, and moving. While I love Chadwick Boseman’s portrayal of T’Challa, the real star of the film was Michael B. Jordan. As the antagonist, he was able to say the things that the titular hero couldn’t and his position was legitimate. The struggle instigated by Killmonger moved T’Challa from a protectionist leader to one with a moral responsibility to the world and through that, Killmonger accomplishes his mission. His last dialog is the most moving, “Nah, bury me in the ocean with my ancestors that jumped from the ships because they knew death was better than bondage.”
This film is both art and a call to action. A call to break the bondage of oppression and right the wrongs of the past. As Kurt Vonnegut said “Another thing they taught was that no one was ridiculous or bad or disgusting. Shortly before my father died, he said to me, ‘You know–you never wrote a story with a villain in it.’ I told him that was one of the things I learned in college after the war.” Killmonger was not a villain, instead he was an anti-hero and martyr.