To be honest with you, since I don’t know much about Marvel or D.C, I was drawn to this movie by the Black director and Black cast more than anything else. And I sure don’t regret seeing this film.
Firstly, it must be noted that as this was always going to be a movie about Black empowerment and challenging stereotypes, the natural choice of geographical location had to be a fictional and hidden; so that it wouldn’t draw the typical “yes but in reality that country is pretty poor” that you’d get from many Americans if Wakanda was a real country. Instead, the idea that somewhere there is a country where Black people are wealthy, developed, smart, powerful and peaceful to the point of isolationism is an idea that escapes the condescending and detached eye that White America sometime has. This idea of Black mysticism is cultivated unopposed for dark skinned kids all around the world to marvel (no pun intended) upon.
What did however slightly put me off was the total lack of African actors in a movie set in an African country. Black America does seem to also hold a very narrow-minded viewpoint of Africa, a viewpoint ironically very similar to that of White America’s. The film is set in Eastern Africa, “heart of the African Savannah” (*Stereotypical African voice for dramatic effect*) where all the characters have South African accents; because, you know, South Africa with its status as an “emerging nation”, it being the birthplace of Mandela and its Xhosa language with funny clicks making it the only relevant country in Africa.
Nevertheless, this was a movie that I thoroughly enjoyed. It is most notably very engrained within the current American/Western social context, where isolationism, obsession with racial homogeneity and the perception that somehow most refugees are bad are rampant. These concepts are conveyed generally through the refusal of Wakandan kings to be active in World affairs but also more specifically and subtly through quips about how refugees might flood Wakanda and destroy its social fabric – incidentally a sly dig at Western xenophobia.
Furthermore, the film displays a completely unconventional portrayal of White people that fuels Black empowerment shown in the movie. The first villain is White, which is particularly striking considering that it implies that half the White characters in the movie are villains. Yes, there are only two White characters. This low number of White actors indicates how meaningless White people are in the movie as well as how meaningless White people are to Wakandans, who have lived perfectly good lives of prosperity and progress for thousands of years without them. Wakandans are independent, and do not – unlike so many poor African countries – rely on the dominant White man’s generosity. A generosity isn’t necessarily there – a concept that Klaw, the first villain, clearly embodies.
He’s the one that is particularly dumb and superficial; self-absorbed and cruel – which is what Black characters are so often portrayed as being. In addition, White people are the subject of generalisations and stereotypes. Shuri, for instance, says to her her older brother “When you said you’d take me to America, I thought you meant Coachella”. Martin Freeman’s character is weak and naive – traits you generally see Black people having in movies. When he character wakes up abruptly from a brief coma, panicking and gesticulating, she interjects something to the effect of “Calm down, Coloniser”. This gag in particular is quite interesting, because, in our times, most stereotyping of Black people is offensive or objectifying (barring of course how Black people love chicken); with White people always targeted with barely used inoffensive ones. This dichotomy evidently is a sign of the subconsciously negative view of Black people that our society has. Shuri’s gag, however, showcases the subconsciously negative view of Whites that Wakandans hold. Therefore, in this fictional country at the very least, a mere joke highlights how Black culture controls the narrative, and how Black people are the dominating force behind their society’s structure.
If, in Wakanda, Black people are so powerful and dominant, they should also act powerful and dominant. As such,
Black people are portrayed first through their nobility. Wakanda is an intrinsically African monarchy where traditions and rituals, and, of course, respect for elders are of extreme importance. Wakanda also refuses to break with pacifism: it tries to stay dignified, away from all the violence and cruelty that seems to characterise human interactions so often. Even in Eric Killmonger, an individual full of vengefulness and lust for power, there is a strong sense of moral justification in his motivations for wanting to rule the world: he hates how passive Wakanda can be knowing full well that Dark skinned folk around the world are viciously oppressed. As a result, sees racial war against Caucasians and colonisation as a necessary means to uplift his own people. Whilst I do find the idea of there being a risk of racial retribution as the director endorsing what is the apex of White paranoia, i.e the inherent fear of “reverse racism” I do think that the director’s choice of not making it the main issue of the movie makes me forgive him just a little bit.
Which leads me to the plot and its structure, which both were, in my opinion, particularly original. Yes, it is true that Eric Killmonger wants to attack and take over the World. But first, he has to attack T’challa. Thus, this film is about responding to local threats; threats from the inside – not about some global apocalyptic menace to humanity that characterises so many modern action movies. In addition, the movie’s structure was just as original as its plot. In most films, the protagonist pends most of the film at some kind of disadvantage, trying to climb some kind of slope. In this movie, the slope is surprisingly short in terms of screen time: the Black Panther wins when he becomes king, wins when he defeats his challenger, wins when he arrests Klaw, loses when Klaw escapes, loses when he is defeated by his challenger, at which point his fight to regain his throne begins: which means that this slope begins slightly after halfway through the film. Suffering is concentrated in the middle of the plot, giving the movie a naturally optimistic tone, to the point where the audience only seldom has serious doubts about the Black Panther’s ability to ascend this slope, and to defeat the his mysterious cousin. However, the fact that there are more joyful and inspirational moments than painful ones doesn’t make Black Panther easy to watch: in fact, Coogler stretches out – in terms of screen time – the few heart wrenching and/or suspenseful scenes in the movie; something that as a fan, you do tend to hate, but as a reviewer, you do tend to love.
If Wakanda is powerful, Wakanda has to be ahead of its time. Black and Avant-Garde seems to be, as John Mayer said “such a weird juxtaposition”, but Coogler skilfully approaches this duality. In fact, the weirdness of this juxtaposition stems from modern stereotypes of Black people. As a result, challenging these societal prejudices becomes essential if we are to bridge the gap between Blacks and pioneers. The first key topic is Science, which is known for it’s extraordinary lack of Black folk. Sure, we have geniuses in music, in the arts, in sports and quite a few in politics. But what about Science and technology, a community that society sees as behind tougher than any other community to belong to? A handful of Black people, maybe, and then there’s Ben Carson. As a result, if Black Panther, as a movie, wants to be racial and political, Wakanda has to be a technological marvel (again, no pun intended). Which it is – the main highlights would be its transport system as well as T’challa’s kinetic energy absorbant Black panther suit, and Wakandans’ ability to heal any wound thanks to the power of Vibranium. As a matter of fact, there is one direct reference to this concept of showing challenging stereotypes through showcasing modern characteristics: when T’Challa’s mother and sister visit M’Baku, the latter surprisingly barks (yes, like an actual dog) repeatedly when agent Ross tries to participate in the conversation, before saying “If you don’t shut up, I will feed you to my children”. M’Baku lets the room be assaulted with tension, before adding, “Relax, we are vegetarians”, after which he can’t hold his laughter in. As hilarious as this scene was, it also was to me – through the principled and modern sophistication that we associate with vegetarianism – a witty rebellion against society’s subconscious view of Black people as primitive individuals shown in M’Baku’s dog like barking.
Finally, as especially as International Women’s day approaches, it would be important to recognise this film’s feminist message. If Black Panther is a movie about an empowering racial representation, female empowerment is also of substantial importance. Even if the main character is male, all of those who surround him and support him are Women. His Father has tragically passed away. (Absent Black Father guys) Nakia, his mother, Okoye, and of course, his sister – who simply by being a young female visionary scientist defies so many conventions – make up the people most critical to the Black Panther’s success. Race and gender are intertwined when Okoye, during her mission in Seoul, can’t stop ranting about how much she hates weaves. And let’s face it, she has a point. The key to empowering ourselves does partly lie in racial introspection. Moreover, in the dying scenes of the movie, the same character manages to make her estranged husband yield to her by telling him that she’d happily kill him for Wakanda. In Black Panther, women are powerful.
This movie was, in my opinion a fantastic display of Afro-futuristic enfranchising, social commentary, an ode to feminism encased within an original plot and extremely talented cast that playfully quips its way into political messaging.And the end of the day, representation matters. I saw an Instagram video where two or three African Americans, after seeing the film, start hugging the film’s poster outside of the cinema, saying “IS THIS WHAT WHITE PEOPLE FEEL EVERYDAY? I WOULD LOVE THIS COUNTRY TOO IF I FELT THIS EVERY DAY”. I loved that point. Representation makes us feel confident, proud, strong, optimistic and hopeful. I can only hope that more such movies will soon come out.