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Review: Black Panther

Ashley Marshall and Kevin Taghabon

March 10, 2018

As the excitement of Black Panther begins to dissipate, it becomes increasingly important to dissect the film with sober minds. It is important that this review is published after the peak of excitement and enthusiasm, so as to not at all mitigate or detract from the joy that Black audiences were finally free to relish in. This review contains spoilers.

Hollywood and afro-futurism

Hollywood films are not revolutionary tracts. The course of the past century, particularly the inter-war era and the Cold War, were characterized by a fervent hostility to anything remotely socialist in the United States. Hollywood was perhaps the principal hunting ground for anti-communist goons in the US security state. Seen in this light, the hopes of a revolutionary film being shipped out to thousands of theatres across the globe by Disney seems downright childish.

Nevertheless, creators break through. There is something deeply disturbing about the American nightmare as seen through the eyes of the subjects of the Florida Project, Moonlight, Fruitvale Station, or I Am Not Your Negro. Director Ryan Coogler has attempted to make an action behemoth in this vein, all while the Marvel-Disney beast breathes down the neck of the creative team (as all studios do). The creators of this film were also tasked with assuring that the project is, at minimum, passable in the eyes millions of progressive moviegoers. Hopes are extremely high.

Black Panther is the synthesis of these forces. Ryan Coogler, for his part, is another in a line of talented young directors plucked from relative obscurity and given a quarter-billion dollar project to manage. Coogler's handling of both an ensemble cast and quite complicated action scenes is commendable, especially for a director whose last two projects have been indie darlings about identity. Neither of his previous projects have had the pressures of a movement’s hopes riding on them. 

Part of the excitement and momentum of Black Panther is that it is a modern, mainstream example of afro-futurism. Coined by Mark Dery in 1993, afro-futurism is the praxis of (pan-)African art that prioritizes how Black people will survive, not if they will. Afro-futurism (sometimes also known as the Black Fantastic, a subsection of the science fiction genre) is a refreshing movement away from depicting Black people, culture, and identity being confined to slavery, oppression, and servitude. Rather, the emphasis on futurity allows for more robust versions of identity and potential to become legible, and hopefully, normalized. As authors within the genre have described, given the current cultural milieu of police brutality, over-incarceration, redlining, and simultaneously, the rise of what Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor calls “Black faces in white places,” it becomes clear that “It is a radical act for Black people to imagine having a future.” 

Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole do a good job of allowing their Black cast to actually have texture. There is little in the way of repetition when it comes to the main personalities within the film. Most of the principal characters are layered and three dimensional, with their own senses of humour, ethics, progress, and survival. In short, they are human beings, and their development is largely free of the rigid roles prescribed to Black actors in most blockbuster films. The characters are not, as many feared, a Marvel-sanctioned Blackwashed Iron Man, nor a collection of Black stereotypes aimed at majority white audiences . (The notable exception is Killmonger – a distillation of white America's stereotypical fears of Black men – who is still anything but “simple”.) This was a standalone Black-centered film inside the unwieldy Marvel Cinematic Universe.

With this focus in mind, the following review dissects the potentials and pitfalls of the Black Panther film. The sections written in italics are the voice of Ashley Marshall, a comrade and critical race studies scholar. Ashley currently teaches Communications at Durham College for the School of Interdisciplinary Studies. The non-italicized paragraphs are from Kevin Taghabon.

Liberation politics

Black Panther was a film truly for Black people, for more reasons that the fact that it was fun, stylish, and released during Black History Month. Black Panther included characters and dynamics that challenge Black audiences to really look in the mirror and introspect. As a Black socialist, the tension that drove the plot was disorienting. I found myself in alignment with royal Wakanda's “outsider” Erik Killmonger’s agenda for global Black liberation. I was inspired by his determination to help oppressed people all over the world.

However, as a Black woman, I quickly had to check myself: Killmonger also embodies the toxic masculinity that damages Black women, and as is seen in the film, literally gets them killed. While accepting the heteronormative slant of my perspective, I do find it pertinent to highlight the culture that many Black women have been socialized into, which is the “ride or die” chick who will hold her man down, at all costs. In another review, David Dennis Jr. writes “The defense of Killmonger is pretty typical, because we as a society are so incredibly capable of overlooking someone’s treatment of black women on the road to being pegged as a revolutionary.”

I echo these sentiments as I amplify the mutability of Nakia, the spy who has pleaded with King T’Challa several times about how Wakanda can do more to help oppressed people around the world “the right way.” While it is easy to overlook the abuse that Black women endure on the road to revolution, it is also significant to recognize how and when Black female liberators and revolutionaries are mitigated. After all, in the beginning of the film audiences see Nakia liberating a truckload of – what we may assume to be – female slaves in Nigeria, which is recognizable given today’s knowledge of Boko Haram. In fact, when T’Challa arrives, she tells him that he has “ruined her mission.” In any review I have read so far, Nakia’s power, prowess and potential is relegated to the rank of “best supporting actress” rather than the revolutionary she is, or could have been if T’Challa knew how to put his ego aside.

Yet, I cannot fully assert that it was T’Challa’s ego that prevented him from advancing Wakanda’s outreach to oppressed people the world over. T’Challa is Wakandan nobility, and making his father proud was his main focus at the beginning of the film. T’Challa is kept ignorant to the realities that other Black people experience outside of Wakanda’s privilege. Although T’Challa does not exude fragility when his privilege is made obvious to him, he also does nothing to align himself with the struggle. This is an important realization, and a major component of why I think Black Panther was truly for Black people: Black middle and upper classes that look like us, but distance themselves from Black struggle because, economically, they are not struggling, are enemies to collective liberation.

Thus, I argue, that this film is not for liberals at all, at least not comfortably. I think this film is meant to radicalize (although, admittedly, in a way that Disney approves of) the Black American youth who have experiences of exclusion, loss, abandonment, and destitution, and highlights the Black people who have done the excluding. As Killmonger says in an exchange with his father, “maybe they’re [Wakandans] are the ones who are lost, that’s why they can’t find us.”

It is less a matter of us being invisible: the problem is the Black middle class’s unwillingness to struggle with us, to fight for mutual liberation. As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor says, “the size of this group [the Black middle-upper classes] was less important than the fact that their existence would vindicate American capitalism.” While running the risk of giving Disney too much credit, I think this dynamic is meant to get audiences angry. This tension, paired with Kendrick Lamar’s bass lines and lyrics in “King’s Dead,” has audiences nod along to “Not the title y'all want me under/ All hail King Killmonger.”

Audiences are forced, then, to reckon with the question: are we [Black people] ready for a revolution? There is nothing wrong with a Black person walking out of the theatre chanting “Wakanda forever” having finally seen themselves represented in positions of power, and further, with a nation never having been touched by the white hand of European colonialism. The anthem, however, endorses the ruling class in Wakanda, and is not a liberatory chant. It is an appeal for a good ruler. It is propaganda for the maintenance of an oppressive dominant class. Not to mention Wakanda's monarchism.

Chadwick Boseman, who plays T'Challa, confesses thatI actually am the enemy, It’s the enemy I’ve always known. It’s power. It’s having privilege,” and continues by characterizing T’Challa as “born with a vibranium spoon in my mouth.” As audiences left the theatre chanting “Wakanda forever,” I was unconvinced about how “ready” some of us are for what it takes to become free. As the film illustrates, myths need to be maintained in order for the status quo to fulfill its inertia.

One of the most significant political tensions in the film is that between T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman / Black Panther) and Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan). T'Challa has a deep respect for the traditions of his proud nation. Wakanda, despite their enormous undisclosed power and technology, has decided to essentially be isolationists for the past several centuries, at least. Killmonger sees this as a capitulation to the established order outside of Wakanda. Born and raised in Oakland, California without a father, Killmonger understands the plight of Black people in a way that the comfortable aristocrats of a resource-rich nation never will. Killmonger goes further than pleading to Wakanda's leaders to help the global Black underclass, demanding that they be fitted with the tools to violently rule the world for themselves. In the choice between “humanitarian interventionism” and simple isolation, there is no real winner.

If this was the only big political problem in the film, one might chalk it up to human oversight, or Coogler & team bending to the whims of Marvel-Disney. But it is not. The audience is to accept from the beginning that Wakanda has achieved (or is approaching) a technological and industrial utopia. Yet there are people performing menial tasks and difficult manual labour. Their lives – like that of Killmonger's mother - are virtually invisible in the film.

Indeed, the clear class stratification and complete absence of currency (foreign or internal) in Wakanda is never acknowledged. T'Challa and his long-time adviser W'Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), wander through a pasture where animals are being raised, among other farm work. Are these people compensated? Why are they doing this labour? Is technology stratified as well as wealth? None of this is explored. Meanwhile, W'Kabi advises T'Challa not to extend sympathies to oppressed Africans outside Wakanda, saying, “if we let in refugees, they will bring their problems with them, and then Wakanda will be like anyplace else.” Coogler portrays W'Kabi here as cold, but not the scene surrounding him. The workers are window dressing to the royal conversation.

We must as well recognize that Killmonger is also nobility and exercises privilege. He would not have had an audience in the throne room or the opportunity to ritual combat if he were not within his noble rights. However, it is also important to remember how many times he was referred to as an “outsider” despite this fact. He is never accepted.

At the end of the film, with a blade in his chest, Killmonger rejects T’Challa’s offer to try to save him. Instead, Killmonger says “bury me in the sea with my ancestors who knew death was better than bondage.” I predict that the white gaze celebrated as the “thug” (and I use the term “thug” here deliberately, with Tupac Shakur in mind: recall his tattoo “THUG LIFE” which was an acronym for “The hate you give little infants f*** everyone. No better term could be applied here) Killmonger was finally slain by the respectable King T’Challa.

In this scene, I could not help but think about the Haitian revolutionaries, the slaves who destroyed capital by throwing themselves overboard in the Middle Passage, the mothers who killed their children so they would never have to experience slavery themselves; yet all of their scarifies being the pinnacle embodiment of what slavery truly was.

Like Plato’s allegory of the cave, we killed our own revolutionary. He accepted his death more than he expressed his liveliness: Killmonger is every young Black boy who learned to not shed tears, who learned to not feel joy, who learned to not smile. My heart broke when reuniting with his father, we see the first time that Killmonger is stripped of his hubris, the shield he uses for survival and says “everybody dies. That’s just how it is around here.” For some, accepting death as inevitable is the only way to exist, and that needs to be put under a much keener microscope by the Black community.

When we have people willing to die for the cause, and when we have people who know they are already dead, afro-futurism, or consideration for “not if we will survive, but how” is absolutely a radial act. However, civil war seemed “unavoidable” in this movie, and, thus, a complete collapse of the afro-futuristic potential of our survival. So, then, I ask again, are we “ready” for revolution? Revolution is the point of the film, but we lose sight of our common liberation and imagining ourselves not dying, in this film. Why couldn’t Killmonger, Nakia, and T’Challa work together for Black liberation? Partly, because then it wouldn’t be an action film. Beyond this, capitalism always wins: people who have the most power have their will enacted on screen.

Simultaneously, I do not want my allegiance to be so easily bought. Because of the abuses of slavery, systematic oppression, and “organized forgetting” (deliberately negating courses on Black history from school curriculum), I found myself parched for a film like this. Much like the fervour of having the first Black president, cultural producers are well aware of how to create a market out of those who are marginalized.

This is “disaster capitalism” of another kind. If not for the structural amnesia and ahistorical rhetoric of “slavery is over,” would Black Panther have had such bombastic box office numbers? I am not laying blame here on Coogler, who was inspired by his own experiences as a young Black man from Oakland. Rather, I am critical of the machinery that organizes Black consumers to purchase their own freedom.

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