One of the great ironies surrounding the phenomenon of Marvel’s latest cultural behemoth Black Panther is that a lot of Bible-believing, white evangelicals would really love it, if not for the fact that its name is remarkably similar to the revolutionary socialist political party of the 1970s.
(I’m guessing the Wikipedia Black Panther disambiguation page is getting a pretty good workout right about now.)
I’m serious. If it weren’t called Black Panther, if it was called T’Challa’s Triumph or Game of Thrones: Wakanda or something similar, even more white people would love it than already do. I mean, don’t get me wrong, this movie is a huge freaking deal for a black people, and our people are seeing it in droves, but African-Americans cannot solely account for its record-setting box office numbers. White people are supporting this movie, if for no other reason than it’s the next hit of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).
Even Marvel Studios boss Kevin Feige, after screening it for the first time, told director Ryan Coogler, “that’s the best movie we’ve ever made.”
He’s right, of course. Black Panther is a truly excellent movie, and it works both as a standalone film as well as an enriching chapter of the unfolding MCU tapestry. It’s got an immersive African locale, a futuristic design aesthetic, great music, impressive action set pieces, and an impressive stable of stars in its mostly black cast. Seriously, any movie with Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Angela Bassett, Lupita Nyong’o, Forest Whitaker, Daniel Kaluuya, and Sterling K. Brown would get me on board, regardless of its content.
But one of the things that struck me long after my first screening, was how, well… conservative the whole story is. If you ignore all of the (still very important!) conversations surrounding representation and identity and how rare it is for black people to be portrayed onscreen with such depth, vitality and intra-racial diversity, the story is fundamentally a meditation on the importance of family and tradition.
And the political overtones that do exist point the conversation toward a shared sense of responsibility, both to one’s country as well as to the global community. There’s even an important thread of forgiveness and a meditation on loving one’s enemies. The whole thing, if tilted just so, could almost be viewed as a veiled paean to Reagan-era conservatism, or at the very least, an allegorical corrective to refine the idea of American exceptionalism into something more Biblical.
That said, don’t get me wrong. Compared to the nationalist, WWII-era, baseball-and-apple-pie tone of Captain America: The First Avenger, to a lot of mainstream white audiences, Black Panther will feel … well… foreign.
And for good reason.
To call Black Panther “pro-black” would be a criminal understatement by an order of magnitudes.
Black Panther is one of the blackest movies of all time. Its blackness is loud, proud, and on constant, ubiquitous display. One small example… when a member of T’Challa’s inner circle first interacts with Martin Freeman’s CIA agent character, one of the two “Tolkien white guys” of the movie, she calls him “colonizer.”
So yes, it’s got a political bent to it. But anyone who says that Black Panther is inherently more political than the other MCU movies just hasn’t been paying close enough attention.
When Iron Man dropped in 2008, Robert Downey, Jr’s Tony Stark was more than just a witty playboy, his character was a stand-in for the military industrial complex of PMCs (para-military corporations) that had come to dominate the landscape of the various warzones in the Middle East. His Iron Man costume was designed to combat the various warlords that weapons suppliers and foreign interventionists from the U.S. had been propping up for decades. Captain America: The Winter Soldier was, in addition to being a great cat-and-mouse spy thriller worthy of its James Bond and Jason Bourne influences, a meditation on American fascism and the futuristic surveillance technology that empowers it.
So the political trafficking of ideas into superhero tales are not only par for the course, but part of the history of superheroes to begin with. And in Black Panther, Ryan Coogler extends that conversation into two locales that don’t normally receive the kind of nuanced discourse that accompanies billion-dollar Marvel blockbusters: sovereign African nations, and inner-city black American neighborhoods. It’s no wonder, then, that black people are flocking to Black Panther and driving unprecedented box office numbers, because films like this, that celebrate the black experience with such an audacious combination of style, grace and wit, are like once-in-a-generation experiences.
White people had the solar eclipse… we have this.
One of the things that surprised me the most is how Coogler’s script and direction managed to make the central conflict between T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), the rightful king of Wakanda, and Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), a usurper to the throne… feel so personal.
And it’s here that I can no longer avoid getting to some major spoilers, so … if you haven’t seen the movie, STOP RIGHT NOW and skip to the end, after the sign that says “SPOILERS OVER.” Otherwise, you’ve been warned.
Michael B. Jordan has starred in all of Ryan Coogler’s films, first Fruitvale Station, then the excellent Creed, and now Black Panther. In all of them, Jordan carries a combination of magnetic charisma, physical bravado, and raw pathos… except that in this one, he’s the antagonist instead of the hero. Nevertheless, part of what makes Jordan’s portrayal of Killmonger so lifelike and believable (especially for a character whose comic-book iteration was so on-the-nose as to be literally heamed “Killmonger”) is the sense of insecurity that fuels his quest for revenge.
During the 2nd act, Killmonger is revealed to be N’Jadaka, son of Prince N’Jobu, who was killed decades prior by T’Challa’s father, the late King T’Chaka. N’Jadaka’s claim to the throne is fueled for revenge, not only for his father’s death, but more pointedly, for the decades of racism and white supremacy that he experienced during his upbringing in the United States. Killmonger wants to leverage the Wakandan wealth and technology to arm oppressed people across the African disapora, so that they can turn the tables on their oppressors.
It’s here that the contrast between N’Jadaka and T’Challa comes into focus. N’Jadaka’s character has been shaped by decades of fatherlessness and economic oppression. His outlook is true to the archetypical Black American experience… frustrated, angry, and tired of being cast down. T’Challa, on the other hand, has no such chip on his shoulder. He’s lived his entire life as royalty, and has no such insecurities. While he was, for a time, consumed with revenge for his father’s death (a significant storyline in Captain America: Civil War), T’Challa is more consumed with an overwhelming sense of responsibility to protect his nation, and the people and assets that make it great.
This desire underscores the other major emotional tension in the film, that of T’Challa and his love interest, played by Lupita Nyong’o. She desires to see Wakanda branch out into humanitarian work, to ease the suffering of their African neighbors. But T’Challa’s primary allegiance is to Wakanda (if he were running for election, he might’ve used the slogan “Wakanda Above All”), and wants to maintain the defenses that protect its wealth and its primary resource, the precious alien metal vibranium.
The political parallels are obvious… and yet, the most powerful story beat is less political than personal.
During of moment of imagined prayerful communion with his dead father, T’Challa feels the weight of his father’s revenge killing, and laments the fact that his nemesis Killmonger was the scared little boy who found his father murdered in an Oakland housing project.
Thus, the final battle where T’Challa’s returns to wrest the throne back, is partially motivated by revenge, but also compassion. T’Challa sees his enemy not as a fearsome former military assassin, but as an emotionally wounded, estranged brother. Even after the climactic moment where T’Challa deals Killmonger his final, mortal wound, he offers the possibility of healing.
Before the Black Panther could defeat his enemy, he first needed to love him.
That, to me, was the most compelling moment in a movie absolutely brimming with compelling moments.
In the end, T’Challa makes the bold decision to bring Wakanda out from the shadows and onto the world’s stage, testifying to the UN and opening an series of outreach centers in the very place where his family trauma played out decades prior. It’s a statement that Wakanda can be strong and caring, and that humanitarian aid doesn’t have to come at the expense of secured borders and resources.
So seriously, if you haven’t already done so… go see Black Panther. It’s such a good movie.
And if you can, take some conservative white people with you. You’ll have plenty of good stuff to talk about afterward.