I went to see Black Panther with my wife on Saturday night. Thanks to the insane level of hype surrounding the film, I expected to be disappointed; since I’m a DC rather than a Marvel fan, I expected to be doubly disappointed. I wasn’t. The movie is beautiful to look at, well-written and terrifically acted. It’s a top three Marvel movie, emotionally stirring and visually compelling.
Those are my thoughts on the film as a film.
Then there are the politics embedded in the film.
Now, the media have been playing a bit of a double game in their coverage of Black Panther. On the one hand, they’ve been stating that the release of Black Panther is a historic, important moment for black Americans, and also that the film itself promulgates important messages. Here are some of the titles of pieces in The New York Times alone about the film:
- “Black Panther” Smashes Box Office Records and Hollywood Myths (February 18);
- I Took 7th Graders To See “Black Panther.” Here’s What They Said. (February 18);
- “Black Panther” And The Revenge Of The Black Nerds (February 16);
- How “Black Panther” Got Its Gorgeous Afrocentric Hair (February 14);
- Why “Black Panther” Is A Defining Moment For Black America (February 12);
- “Black Panther” Brings Hope, Hype And Pride (February 9);
That’s not the complete list.
On the other hand, if anyone suggests that perhaps the film’s release isn’t that important (there have been blockbusters with black leads, black comic book characters in featured roles, and hit movies primarily about black people for years, and the American people have already shown enthusiasm for such films both critically and commercially), or that the politics in the film are actually rather controversial, these same critics will suddenly protest that the movie is a fantasy, a fiction — so what are you getting so mad about?
In reviewing the film, therefore, I’ve separated out the movie itself from the hype. That’s what my first paragraph was about: the movie. I’ve reviewed it just as I would a Thor film, where Asgard and Wakanda are both just fictional universes.
But now let’s talk about the politics.
Again, it’s the suggestion of many in the media that Wakanda has a lot more meaning than Asgard. Here’s Carvell Wallace in the Times:
In a video posted to Twitter in December, which has since gone viral, three young men are seen fawning over the “Black Panther” poster at a movie theater. One jokingly embraces the poster while another asks, rhetorically: “This is what white people get to feel all the time?” There is laughter before someone says, as though delivering the punch line to the most painful joke ever told: “I would love this country, too.”….No one knows colonization better than the colonized, and black folks wasted no time in recolonizing Wakanda. No genocide or takeover of land was required. Wakanda is ours now. We do with it as we please.
The first implication simply isn’t true — there hasn’t been a race-based Marvel movie to this point, and beyond that, nobody went to Captain America thinking about Cap’s caucasian heritage. But suffice it to say that Wallace thinks Black Panther is serious business.
According to another article in the Times, black students saw “deeper meanings in the movie.” What were some of those meanings? “The film makes me want to start my own tribe …” “It reminds me about the time white people would question my tale because of my skin …”
So, let’s analyze some of the messages of the movie. Some are great. Some aren’t.
1. Martin Luther King Jr. > Malcolm X. It’s impossible not to watch the film and see the parallels between T’Challa (a stolid Chadwick Boseman) as MLK and Killmonger (a spectacular Michael B. Jordan) as Malcolm X. T’Challa doesn’t want to overthrow existing regimes; he wants to work with them to better life for everyone. Killmonger wants to give resources to oppressed peoples to help them overthrow their oppressors. Killmonger loses. But . . .
2. While MLK Wins, Malcolm X Is Actually Right. In the film, only two countries are truly examined: Wakanda and the United States. Wakanda is a utopian paradise, untouched by colonization or even trade (for some odd reason, lack of trade makes Wakanda awesome, in contravention of every known fact about trade ever).
And it’s amazing. It sits over a giant deposit of unobtainium — er, sorry, vibranium — and they’ve isolated themselves from the outside world, generating the best technology and a wonderfully tolerant and open civilization to boot (never mind the fact that the leadership in Wakanda is decided based on wrestling contests to the death).
The United States, by contrast, is an awful place for black people. Killmonger’s father gives a speech about how the black community of Oakland in 1992 is plagued by drugs apparently placed there by the government, as well as over-policing. He decided to try to use vibranium to help the oppressed people of Oakland, and T’Challa’s father kills him in order to stop him.
The contrast between victimized black people (Killmonger) and gloriously successful black people who are successful because no white person has ever interfered in their lives (T’Challa) is obvious. It’s also underscored by snide commentary from T’Challa’s sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright), a sort of Wakandan Q who calls one of the only two white characters in the film, Martin Freeman’s CIA agent Everett K. Ross, “colonizer” and “white boy.” This is played for laughs, because, of course, white people are responsible for both historic and current-day black suffering.
Now, in real life, this stretches facts beyond recognition. Colonization was wrong and unjustifiable; so, of course, was slavery. But the suggestion that the problems of modern-day black Americans can be almost entirely attributed to white colonization and slavery and discrimination is wildly oversimplistic. The same holds true for blaming Africa’s modern-day problems on those factors. The suggestion that modern-day America is a terrible place for black people overall is absurd.
But anyway, with all of this as backdrop, when Killmonger returns to Wakanda and suggests using Wakandan power to help out oppressed people, is he wrong? Of course not. He’s utterly correct. His case – that Wakanda should have helped out black people being enslaved – is right. And given the portrayal of the United States, his case that Wakanda should help out oppressed black people in America is right, too. The only reason he’s the villain is because he’s over-the-top and apparently doesn’t care about killing innocent people. And he doesn’t care about killing innocent people because…
3. The US Military Is Terrible. Killmonger joined up with the military to learn how to kill. In fact, he got his nickname in the military, where he killed hundreds of people in Iraq and Afghanistan. Then he learned how to topple regimes by working with the evil CIA. Now he’s brought that evil skill set to bear in Wakanda. One of the premises of the film is that if Killmonger had been brought back to Wakanda and grown up in this utopia, he wouldn’t have become Malcolm X. It was America that made him into Malcolm X rather than an ally to T’Challa.
4. The Solution Is Lots Of Money. In this universe, culture doesn’t matter – all civilization is dependent on material wealth unaffected by outside forces. So African Wakanda, which has had little contact with the West, looks roughly like an exoticized Los Angeles; women run the military and the science programs; in the comic books, at least, gay rights are predominant. What makes Wakanda different from Oakland, then? Obviously it’s a lack of cash and a predominance of white people. Hence the sympathy for Killmonger’s position.
But T’Challa’s alternative is essentially the Democratic Party platform: spending lots of money in inner city Oakland, as though that hasn’t been tried. One of the great ironies of the film is that a throwaway laugh line actually tells a story the film isn’t willing to contemplate: when a Wakandan ship decloaks and lands in Oakland, one of the kids immediately begins thinking about how to disassemble it for parts. The audience laughs – but it’s that attitude that has cursed Oakland in real life, not simple material privation. That’s why Democrats can throw trillions at the War on Poverty and end up achieving nearly nothing.
5. Walls Are Bad. Unless They’re Good. One of the debates in the film concerns how much Wakanda should help the outside world. Should they decloak? Should they share vibranium with others? T’Challa argues that to do so would flood the country with refugees and open the country to exploitation (Make Wakanda Great Again!). He’s not wrong – only three people we know of have entered Wakanda without being native, and two of them are criminals (Andy Serkis’ Ulysses Klaue and Killmonger). Later in the film, though, T’Challa suggests that it’s time to share vibranium with the world. So, which is it? It’s unclear – but it seems wildly unlikely that the visa program to Wakanda is likely to expand radically anytime soon.
6. Women Can Be Great At Science! This is both true and a worthwhile message. The message that 120-lb. women can kick the living bejeezus out of 250-lb. men is another story – but that isn’t unique to Black Panther, of course.
7. Race Isn’t An Obstacle To Success. This is both true and a worthwhile message.
So, those are the politics of the film. To those who say that it’s a fictional film, so who cares – I’m with you! And so is most of the American public, which made the film an enormous hit over the weekend – with the vast majority of the audience obviously being non-black. But if we’re going to analyze the film for messages that the media suggest are embedded therein, let’s be honest about those messages. Meaningful films are meaningful because they have meaning. Whether that meaning is positive or negative matters.