Certain films create a cultural footprint that transcends the films themselves. Black Panther is one of them. As a piece of entertainment, it’s just one more in a growing list of superhero movies based on the comic-book world of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. The story is fairly familiar — the superhero, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) must save the world by preventing a new weapon from falling into the hands of an arms dealer, Klaue (Andy Serkis), who is aided by the supervillain, Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan). Along the way there are ample badass battles to satisfy the superhero fans in the audience.
What makes this film significant is that T’Challa is the first black superhero who’s more than a sidekick to the real superhero. As such, Black Panther is having an impact across the nation. Finally — a film set in a black community that isn’t about the ’hood, drugs, gangsters, sidekicks, buffoons, or slavery. It isn’t even about racism or being black. No wonder it’s breaking box office records.
Finally — a film set in a black community that isn’t about the ’hood, drugs, gangsters, sidekicks, buffoons, or slavery.
Granted, the filmmakers had to go all the way to Africa to accomplish this task. Black Panther is set in a Shangri-La-like kingdom called Wakanda, located in the center of Africa and hidden from view in the way Harry Potter’s Hogwarts is — a shimmering, reflective barrier blocks the way, but it just takes a little faith and courage to enter the utopian kingdom. Wakanda flourishes because of a secret mineral deposit called vibranium that can be used to create everything from microchips to skyscrapers to weapons. It’s also responsible for a glowing medicinal flower, infused with vibranium, that has seeped into the soil. An elixir made from this vibranium plant gives Black Panther his powers and can also heal mortal wounds.
Five tribes occupy the kingdom of Wakanda, each with a distinct language and culture represented in the film by the color and design of their costumes and accessories. One of the five tribes, Jabari, has chosen not to join the federation of tribes, but the five coexist peacefully; the other four do not force the Jabari to join or succumb to majority rule. I like that.
The Wakandan culture is an odd yet beautiful mixture of technology and tradition. The architecture of the royal city is futuristic and grand, built of vibranium, powered by vibranium, and protected by an air force of wasplike jets that are guided by vibranium-charged computers. A Wakandan princess (Letitia Wright) also makes gadgets from the stuff for the hero to use in his battles against evildoers, reminiscent of the gadgets Q provides in the James Bond films. On the other hand, the Wakandans’ clothing is made of bright, colorful fabrics, their jewelry is large and gaudy, their feet are mostly bare, and their warriors’ weapon of choice is a spear with a shield, suggesting a traditional culture of long ago.
The cotumes, props, and sets help the film successfully navigate the fine line between tradition and stereotype, providing an authenticity that counters the “oonga-boonga” of the Tarzan era.
One scene of celebration, with tribespeople chanting and bouncing, feels riskily close to wide-eyed Tarzanesque stereotyping, and the elixir used to transform the king into Black Panther comes dangerously close to witchdoctor voodoo. However, director Ryan Coogler and production designer Hannah Beachler, who based the costumes, props, and sets on traditional African culture, successfully navigate the fine line between tradition and stereotype, providing the film with an authenticity that counters the “oonga-boonga” of the Tarzan era.
Also adding to the authenticity is the quality of the acting. Angela Bassett as the queen mother brings a quiet dignity to her role, while Danai Gurira is fierce as Okoye, the chief of the bald female warriors who serve as the king’s guard. Academy Award winner Lupito Nyong’o brings depth to the role of T’Challa’s partner and love interest, while Michael B. Jordan (Creed, Fruitvale Station) is simply superb as the villain who exudes magnetism and swaggering leadership rather than two-dimensional evil. Martin Freeman, the token white, amiably provides the comic heroism usually reserved for a token black actor in movies like this. The actors recognized that they were part of something important in this production, and it shows.
One of the things I especially liked about Black Panther is the fact that I could watch it without feeling that nagging collective white guilt. In poems such as “Negro” and “A Negro Speaks of Rivers” Langston Hughes marginalized the impact of the American experience by turning it into a blip on the vast African timeline. Coogler does something similar with Black Panther by setting it not in America but in Africa, where he is free to create a noble and heroic backstory that transcends the need to be factual. While I’ve outgrown superhero movies, I was able to enjoy this one for its cultural import and what it says (and doesn’t say) about modern politics. In essence, Coogler has appropriated Lee and Kirby’s story and used it to create a whole new myth of African society. (Incidentally, the Marvel character predates the Black Panther organization by two months and was temporarily changed to Black Leopard to distance the superhero from the political movement.)
Martin Freeman, the token white, amiably provides the comic heroism usually reserved for a token black actor in movies like this.
So what about the politics of the movie — does it have a message? As the new king, T’Challa receives political advice from several sources. His sister Shuri (Wright) runs the technological research of Wakanda and represents the brains of the kingdom. Her answer to the problem of global poverty is to provide aid and technology. Recognizing Wakandan exceptionalism, she feels a responsibility toward the poorer nations of Africa akin to noblesse oblige. Coogler portrays her as something of a Bill Gates — creating wealth through technology, and then using that wealth to provide for the needs of others globally. Of course, we’ve seen the disruption caused by the Gates Foundation’s global influence, but giving aid always has a nice ring to it.
W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), T’Challa’s best friend and the leader of the border tribe, favors isolationism as the way to maintain peace. “Let refugees in, and they bring their problems with them,” he maintains, suggesting that it’s wiser to go out and clean things up where the refugees live, so they can stay where they are. Meanwhile Okoye, representing the military, is loyal to the throne, regardless of who sits there or what the new king represents ideologically. Killmonger favors the path his name would suggest. Eventually T’Challa decides that “the wise build bridges, the foolish build barriers.” And the peaceful coexistence of the five tribes? This enlightened civility is contradicted by the way they choose a new leader. When the king dies, a representative of any tribe can challenge his heir’s sovereignty through physical combat à la David and Goliath, and the king’s guard will immediately swear loyalty to the winner. So much for thoughtful discussion and peaceful transition; might evidently does make right — especially when it leads to an exciting battle at the top of a waterfall.
Ryan Coogler describes the film's central theme as “responsibility and identity.” He said in an interview, "What do the powerful owe those in need? It separates the good guys from the villains. What value is strength unless you're using it to help someone? Wakanda pretends to be just another struggling African country, but some of its neighbors are struggling for real. If Wakandans don't stand up for themselves, who will? But if they stand only for themselves, then who are they?" What I find troubling about this noble goal is the way it has played out in practice around the world, leading to imperial expansionism, victimhood, and an unintentional restraint against poorer nations becoming self-sustaining. Entrepreneurship, the only sure system for rising out of poverty, is never mentioned, and in fact, no one seems to work in this Wakanda where vibranium and the military take care of all needs. Still, the goal of sharing one’s good fortune is noble, and I like the fact that Wakandans plan to share, not just their wealth, but their knowledge and technology with the world.
Of course, we’ve seen the disruption caused by the Gates Foundation’s global influence, but giving aid always has a nice ring to it.
Black Panther has the potential to empower black families and black children in a whole new way. Instead of identifying with the victims, gangsters, and sidekicks they see on the screen, now they’re identifying with a leader. One of my black friends saw the movie five times on opening weekend. He is as energized by it as if he had taken a dose of vibranium. That makes me happy because, as I said in my review of last year’s Oscar nominated documentary I Am Not Your Negro, “Could the solution [to black victimhood] be as simple as mothers and fathers and teachers telling black children everywhere, ‘You can do anything. You can be anything’?” If seeing a black superhero as the leader of a strong, successful, smart kingdom can give black children that kind of boost, I’m all in favor of it.