Black Panther (2018)
Directed by Ryan Coogler
Starring Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, and Lupita Nyong’o
The day that “Black Panther” was released was – to borrow John Dewey’s turn of phrase – an experience. I was filled with a mixture of trepidation and hesitation the entire day. I am, after all, a nerdy black man in academia, and “Black Panther” had already been lauded as a watershed moment for the representation of black people in mainstream cinema. As such, most of the people in my life wanted to either see it with me or have a long conversation about it afterward. The stakes, however, felt high and I had too many questions.
Would “Black Panther” do justice to and be respectful of the myriad cultures we see in Africa? Would it fall prey to the same mistakes of hokey blacksploitation films of the past? What current political issues would the moviemakers take on, and what stance would they take on them? Would the film succeed as a representation of black men but fail in how it represents black women?
In short, and getting to the crux of it, would I have to give my non-black friends bad news?
Fortunately enough for all of us, “Black Panther” delivers on its promise. Not only does it tell a complicated story about the kinds of characters who typically don’t receive airtime, it takes on a conversational tone that feels more like a heart-to-heart between black people than a comic book adaptation.
Even more, the film’s often surreal visual conventions drew me into the moral–political quandaries the movie raises. By the end of “Black Panther”, I was left with still-lingering thoughts about colonialism, globalisation, and the lost genealogies of post-slavery blacks. I was left asking: what does it even mean for black men to be heroes, and to whom must they be heroes? It will take a number of spoilers to explain myself, but I will try to keep them to a minimum.
“Black Panther” is set in Wakanda: a wealthy, utopian, hyper-futuristic African nation. Wakanda disguises itself as a poor nation in order to thwart outsiders who would steal their natural resource, vibranium – a mineral ore so versatile that it has allowed Wakanda to become the most technologically advanced nation in the world.
In the film, however, we find Wakanda in a vulnerable position. The king, T’chaka (John Kani), has been killed, and his son, T’challa (Chadwick Boseman), prepares to take his place. But becoming king of Wakanda comes with a unique burden: kings must also act as the Black Panther, a super-powered warrior thought to embody the power of the panther-god Bast.
The Black Panther receives his power through an ancient ritual. T’Challa drinks the juice of a heart-shaped-herb, gets buried beneath bright red sands, consults with kings long past through vivid visions, and wakes up with superhuman strength and agility. He also dons a vibranium-imbued suit designed by the brightest minds in Wakanda – the brightest of them being T’challa’s sister Shuri (Letitia Wright).
But T’challa faces an even more unique challenge: the threat of civil war and Wakanda’s role in a world-wide coup d’etat. T’challa’s throne (as Black Panther and as king) is challenged by Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), a long-lost relative turned U.S. black ops soldier. We later find that Killmonger – hardened by a rough childhood in Oakland, California, frustrated by the oppression of blacks worldwide, and disappointed by Wakanda’s inaction – means to lead a global uprising with Wakandan weaponry. Okoye (Danai Gurira) – leader of the Dora Milaje, Wakanda’s powerful all-woman royal guard – staunchly opposes Killmonger’s plan. Her husband W’kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), the head of Wakanda’s army, sides with Killmonger. A short-lived, but intense, civil war ensues.
If I take “Black Panther” as a thought-experiment, it leaves me anxious: Killmonger’s case is too compelling to dismiss as villainy simpliciter. Is he the film’s unlikely hero insofar as he means to empower and liberate blacks? Is T’challa an unwitting villain for trying to maintain the status quo?
And, to pull back to the lack of black representation usually found in films like these, which character represents people like me (black Americans) in this film? I have no Wakandan heritage – Wakanda doesn’t exist – so I have no utopia to retreat to and no hyper-futuristic means to overcome oppression. But when Killmonger drank the heart-shaped herb, I wondered where he would be in his vision beneath the red sand: Wakanda or California?
I will not spoil the scene, but it should suffice to say that it was at once surreal, beautiful, and disconcerting to see Erik Stevens’ identities intersect the way they did. I wondered, then, who (or what) I would see in my own vision – what connection I would find there. Through moments like these, “Black Panther” reminds us that even though some of us have become estranged from our homelands, they are still a part of us.