Black Panther – More a Social Commentary than a Review

Three days ago I saw Black Panther. It surprised me in many ways. It took me about a day to really mull over the film before I felt comfortable putting my thoughts about the film to text.

Let me start by saying that, like the title clearly states, this isn’t really a traditional film review. If you want to know whether or not you should go see the movie, that’s an easy question to answer. Yes, you should absolutely go see Black Panther. It’s a well-made film worthy of the Marvel name. It is not the best installment within the MCU ever made, nor is it the worst. I’d place it somewhere in the top half but I’d have to do a thorough ranking review before I could give it a specific placement within the Marvel hierarchy. It’s a beautiful, well written, excellently acted, great sounding movie and there is no reason any MCU fan shouldn’t see this film. And really, because of the way it was written, even if you’re not a committed MCU fan, this movie is still very good and very watchable. Similar to Ant-Man, the plot is very small and enclosed within the world of a specific character, in this case Black Panther and Wakanda, without really spilling into the rest of the MCU, save for the post credits sequence, which honestly gives you no information that the Avengers: Infinity War trailer hadn’t already given us. There are a total of two characters, not including T’Challa or any other Wakandans, with speaking roles that you’ve seen in past films plus one more in the after credits short. Both of these two have only been seen in one previous MCU film, don’t have special powers, and are of little consequence to the overall plot of the film, though they do have some important impacts on the events that take place. Even placing Black Panther on the MCU time line is very negotiable because of the way it was written. The only thing we know for absolute certainty is that it takes place after Captain America 3: Civil War, and with the inclusion of the after credits sequence, most likely but not necessarily before Avengers: Infinity War if we disregard the traditional notice at the very end that says “Black Panther will return in Avengers: Infinity War”.

Wakanda
The majority of the film takes place in Wakanda.

From a neutral film-making/viewing standpoint, with no bias towards race or specific characters, I only had two minor complaints about the film. The first was that it felt short. Not under written, but short. This is strange because the film has a 135 minute runtime. I think most people would agree that when you leave a film wanting more and also don’t feel like the plot left unanswered holes that should have been addressed, it’s the mark of a good film. That’s exactly how I felt leaving Black Panther. The second, which I don’t actually believe has any real bearing on the film, is that the soundtrack was too limited. The trailers sold this film as if it was going to be the Black equivalent of Tron: Legacy (2010). As in, even if the movie sucks, which I’m not saying about either Black Panther or Tron: Legacy, you’ll still get a movie chock-full of amazing music from amazing music artists. In the case of Tron: Legacy that meant Daft Punk and they absolutely delivered on the music front. In Black Panther that means Kendrick Lamar among, or at least that’s what I was led to believe, a number of other music artists. That’s not what I got from Black Panther. Or if I did it was done in a very covert way and most of the music, which at many times I was actively listening for when viewing the film, was undercut too heavily by the movie’s sound effects. The only song I was genuinely moved by was the end credits song by Kendrick Lamar. And that’s mostly because the rest of the music just didn’t stand out to me during the movie. I don’t feel that the movie provided the audience bad music. In fact I’d say that what I actually heard was really good music. But it was few and far between as far as number of tracks that stood out. Which again, I only cared about and even noticed because of the way the film was packaged in the trailers and music, specifically “Black music”, was a big part of that marketing.

Though I don’t personally subscribe to the number based review system, because of how detrimental it is to both the overall image of films and because it prevents many people from taking the time to actually read reviews, I always play along because it’s a standard entertainment media review norm. I would rate this film an 8.4/10, which in my book is a very good score for a film, video game, or any other form of entertainment media. I would absolutely watch any movie scored a 7 or higher from someone with my level of experience reviewing entertainment media and my educational background (B.A. in Cinema Studies) so I don’t feel like my giving this movie an 8.4 should be considered a put off in any way. But I’m sure at least one person will take that score as low, not actually read the rest of my “review”, and move on with their day. But ultimately my point, which again is not the actual intention of this post which is far from being over, is that you should definitely go watch Black Panther from a purely film making and comic book movie viewing standpoint.

cast

From here on out there will be a great many SPOILERS and an in depth analysis of the plot, or at least important portions of it so if you have not seen the movie and you actually care, you have been given fair warning.

I want to discuss Black Panther speaking/viewing specifically as an African American. So obviously we’re about to talk about the racial politics of the film both on and off screen. If you’re not prepared for that then you may want to stop reading now. You’ve been warned. That’s not to imply in any way that only African Americans or Black people should read and/or comment on the rest of this post. All people are invited to read and discuss the opinions laid out here and I hope you take the time to do so. I’m merely stating my perspective and inherent bias when viewing and discussing the film from a social/political standpoint.

The first thing I want to say is that the plot of Black Panther very much surprised me. I went in not exactly sure what I was going to get because no other live action Black Panther film has ever been made to the best of my knowledge. This meant that unless you watched the animated stuff, of which there are only a few options, at least one of which I find/found very stereotypical and offensive, or actively read (about) or at least researched the character then you really had no background information on him outside of what was shown in Captain America 3: Civil War. So I wasn’t sure if I was going to get a traditional origin story or a day in the life plot that assumes knowledge the viewer may or may not have. I was actually very happy with the way the film wrapped up the character’s (Black Panther not specifically T’Challa) origin myth very early and actively used that explanation throughout the film to inform the viewer about certain plot occurrences such as the involvement but ultimate lack of inclusion concerning the Jabari Tribe and their leader M’Baku, who is a reference to Man-Ape and the White Gorilla Cult. The one thing I can say for sure is that I went into the film expecting this to be a very straight forward good versus evil plot with a hero and villain and as the hero in this film is ethnically Black, and more specifically African, I of course expected the villain to be White.

mbaku
M’Baku and the Jabari Tribe

Black Panther starts off by pretending to confirm my bias induced plot expectations. The first 30 – 40 minutes of the film make it come off as if this is going to be a movie about T’Challa, a Black African leading a country of exclusively Black people, fighting against Klaw (Ulysses Klaue), a literal Nazi who in at least one timeline was personally sent by Adolf Hitler to Wakanda to steal their secrets. In fact, early on in the film we’re told that 30 years prior to the modern day events of the film Klaw snuck into Wakanda, stole a ton of Vibranium, and killed several people including the parents of T’Challa’s best friend and the leader of possibly the strongest military tribe within Wakanda with the debatable exception of the Dora Milaje, the badass, super tall, bald personal security squad of the King of Wakanda. This is all set up early on in the film very well to lead the viewer to believe that they’re about to get a normal and mostly predictable Black person/people versus White person/people plot. And as a Black person living in 2018, I’ll be completely honest and say that I would have been completely ok with that. Is it interesting writing? No. Is it out of the box plot development? No. Do Black people both need and appreciate straight forward forms of entertainment like that right now? I think it’s fair to say yes. That’s not to say that all our entertainment should be that way or even most of it but as a race we definitely need those easy wins at least some of the time. But to my great surprise, Black Panther is not that film . . . and ultimately that’s a good thing but the reasons for that when viewed in the context of the world and industry outside of the film can be read in a number of different ways ranging anywhere from introspective to pessimistic and sinister.

dora-milaje
The Dora Milaje

Klaw, played by the great Andy Serkis, is setup as the epitome of evil and antithesis of Black people, literally referring to Wakandans, arguably the most technologically advanced society on the planet within the world of the film, as savages on multiple occasions knowing full well that they are the most technologically advanced society on the planet. The viewer is led to believe that he’s a powerfully troublesome villain with Mark Hamill Joker level psychopathy, a Heath Ledger Joker level strategic mind, and technologically advanced firepower. A big part of this character is due to the excellent, but ultimately short lived performance by Andy Serkis. Though as a Black person I’m not supposed to say it in reference to a film like this, he, yes a White man, gave the best performance in the movie. Granted his character was the only one that isn’t traditionally written as stoic and emotionally controlled within this particular story. And any experienced, socially aware Black film viewer knows exactly why that is. Black people are often presented as overly emotional, comedic, and illogical in their film characterizations so presenting the Wakandans as such not only would have broken canon, but also done a disservice to the image of Black people in cinema, which we should all be able to agree goes against the supposed intention of this particular film. Especially considering that two of the three credited writers for the script are Black. It’s for this reason that Klaw was able to stand out among the rest of the B characters in the movie.

Klaw
Klaw (Ulysses Klaue)

After setting up this very black and white plot, the movie flipped and tossed my expectations out the window. I referred to Andy Serkis’ performance of Klaw as “short lived” because literally minutes after he escapes capture from both T’Challa and the CIA, with the help of two Black people mind you, he gets killed. And by killed I mean shot point blank, by a Black guy, from Oakland, in an almost gang style execution. It’s a very cathartic scene . . . after you’ve already seen the movie. The first time you watch this scene, you’re very surprised, but you don’t get to experience any of the emotional, social, and political overtones of the scene because of the sequence of events leading up to the killing and the person pulling the trigger. What you don’t know till the end of the movie is that Klaw’s executioner, Eric Stevens aka Killmonger played by Michael B. Jordan, is a highly educated (I believe MIT), extremely well trained (US SPEC OPS), very socially and historically conscious, direct descendant of the Wakandan throne that had to live his entire life as a lower class African American orphan whose father was murdered by the previous Black Panther and King of Wakanda, who also happens to be his uncle. At this point in the film you also have pretty much zero knowledge of his motivations. All you really know is he’s Wakandan, he has murdered or assisted in the murder of several innocent people on screen, betrayed Klaw, who he was working for up until this moment, and literally in the same scene murdered his supposed girlfriend who also happens to be Black. So when you see this execution happen, you don’t get to experience all that cathartic goodness of seeing a well-educated African American/Wakandan Black man take down a murdering Nazi psychopath that very well may have murdered, not necessarily intentionally, members of his extended family in Wakanda three decades earlier. It’s made clear later in the film that this was all part of Killmonger’s grand scheme. His motivations are two fold because the only thing he seems to hate more than White racists and oppressors is Wakanda for their apathy towards other Black people suffering at the hands of White people around the world. So it was all intentional that he would use Wakanda’s greatest enemy to hurt them only to then turn around and betray him with a shot at point blank. And that’s really what makes this movie so interesting to watch for Black people. It’s a multi-layered web of social and political questions that occur in moral grey areas for the Black community.

killmonger vs black panther
Killmonger vs Black Panther

This film is difficult to watch as a Black person because it externalizes a longstanding internal debate that pretty much all non-upper class African Americans and presumably many Black people around the world have been thinking about for centuries. Killmonger is not a villain. He’s an anti-hero. He just happens to cause problems for T’Challa and Wakandan tradition, which paints a negative picture of him in the eyes of Black Panther for much of the film. But it’s important to note that even T’Challa feels guilty about Killmonger for most of the movie. It doesn’t help that they are actually cousins that had grown up not knowing each other. By the end of the film it’s safe to say that T’Challa not only sympathizes with Killmonger but actually puts his ideals into practice in a peaceful manner. But we’ll get to that later. Killmonger is one half of this internal debate and T’Challa is the other. By the end of the film we’re asked what the right answer is/was but really it’s impossible to say for sure what the right answer is when you’re a Black person with even a high school level of knowledge about the history of Black peoples around the world and how they have been affected/treated by White peoples. I use the term peoples here rather than people because there is not one homogenous group of White people responsible for all the atrocities against Blacks throughout history nor is their one homogenous group of Black people that have incurred all the suffering of these atrocities directly.

cousins

Wakanda is a literal Black utopia. It’s an idealized realization of Afrofuturism, a term that I don’t personally like using, that places Black people in the best of circumstances. It’s a society that is 100% pure blooded Black with no history of slavery, internal prejudice, unfair class divides, poverty, or even drug trafficking and/or addiction. The key premise of this society is that it has always existed, always been ahead of not just the Black curve but the entire Earth curve, and has always remained hidden in plain sight. It’s a culture steeped in ancient tradition that they have adhered to into the modern times even while advancing technologically and socially. This is seen in the fact that they have technologies that make Iron Man look like a kid playing with LEGOs and their entire research and development structure is run by a girl of no more than 20 years old (portrayed by Letitia Wright who is actually 24 in real life). They have advanced well beyond the rest of the world in every facet of technology including but not limited to medicine, weapons development, stealth technology, transportation, clothing production, mining, and even animal husbandry (loved that rhino scene). It is the ideal society of just about every Black person. Even the ones doing well would like to live in Wakanda. The most important tenant of Wakandan tradition is non-involvement with the rest of the world. They do not interfere, they do not give aid, they do not conquer, and they do not wage war even though they are very good at it. Though they do have spies hidden all over the world, their position is that it’s all simply not their problem. They believe, and have pretty much always believed, that in order to preserve their society they must remain hidden and uninvolved with the rest of the world. Publically they present themselves as a third world farming nation with sovereign borders and a functioning monarchist government. They are often referred to as third world within the film and refuse all trade and aid from all countries. They pretty much want everyone to think they’re a poor nation of uneducated farmers that have so little value as a country both economically and in natural resources that no one would even take the time to try to invade, conquer, or even visit their lands.

wakanda airship
Wakanda is possibly the most technologically advanced country on Earth.

The key reason for Wakanda’s seclusion is best expressed with a quote from T’Challa’s best friend W’Kabi, played by Daniel Kaluuya (the guy from Get Out). “If we let them in, they’ll bring their problems with them,” he says to T’Challa when asked his opinion about opening their borders and sharing their knowledge with the world. This is not a new idea. It’s not even an original one. We are currently dealing with this very debate right now in reference to Syrian refugees, illegal immigrants from South America, Muslim influence in the West, and a host of other immigration issues around the world. In general, many if not most people believe that foreign influence changes the way a country or culture works and often don’t see that as being a good thing. This is even more apparent when the country in question sees itself as being vastly superior to the country the immigrants come from. It’s the reason our President says things like “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?,” in reference to countries with predominantly Black and Latino populations and favors predominantly White countries like Norway. And if the supportive responses to his comments are any indication, he is clearly not alone in that opinion. This makes even more sense when we’re talking about a country like Wakanda where other people of any race could offer them literally zero benefits technologically, “steal” their technological advancements for their own countries, and in the case of White people, from a historical standpoint, would absolutely attempt to screw up their system of government and racial hierarchy. And many Black people agree with this position coming from the Wakandans. When I was watching the film, I didn’t feel angry or unsympathetic to their position. I understood it completely and had to really struggle over whether or not their position was acceptable. As a Christian, I was raised that when you can help people you should. But as an African American with a minor in history, I was/am very reluctant to support the idea of the Black utopia being ruined, and yes that is the correct word here, by outside influence, especially that of White people. Just look at something small like the history of gentrification in the United States to understand why an African American might feel this way. And let’s also remember that there are no actual laws saying any country has to help any other country fix their problems. Especially when we’re talking about a country with no actual treaties in place. Though Wakanda does appear at United Nations talks both in Black Panther and Captain America 3: Civil War, it’s never clearly stated that they’re even a member of the UN coalition. They have zero obligations to help struggling Black people in other countries or anyone for that matter. It would be nice, of course speaking as an African American, if Wakanda chose to help Black people around the world, because I would stand to gain in a such a scenario. But that’s a clear bias that clouds my objective judgement of the situation or would if it was actually happening and I was for whatever reason asked to give my opinion on the issue. And I feel the feelings I’ve expressed on this specific issue make sense to most people of all colors and are shared by many Black people.

w'kabi
“If we let them in, they’ll bring their problems with them.” -W’Kabi

Killmonger’s position is the exact opposite of T’Challa and most of, but not all of, Wakanda. He speaks as the lowest of the low African American. He was born and raised in Oakland until the age of, I believe, nine when his father was murdered, by the Wakandan King and contemporary Black Panther. His mother isn’t actually mentioned in the film but it’s assumed that she was already dead. His position, which is of course formed by his experiences and education, both of which are well expressed in the film, is that White people have and continue to mistreat and oppress Black people all over the world and Wakanda’s refusal to use their superior resources to help Black people throw off the chains of these White oppressors makes them complicit in the continued subjugation of all Black people. He is the physical manifestation of what Black people refer to as “The Revolution”. This is a half joking, half serious ideal that one day all Black people will collectively organize, rise up, and overthrow White oppression through the most extreme and historically relevant measures. Essentially imagine if tomorrow all Black people as a homogenized group picked up the same detailed history book, read all the ways that White people had hurt Black people in the past physically, emotionally, socially, and economically and then reapplied those same practices back towards White people en masse. So basically that means murder, enslavement, denial of education, denial of rights, physical abuse, and if we’re going to be completely honest with ourselves about how people actually behave one has to admit that there would be a large presence of rape and sexual abuse as well. That’s not to say that I’m personally advocating for any of that behavior, and to be clear I’m not. But it’s foolish to pretend like in this revolutionary scenario that Black people would magically apply their form of oppression with some sort of higher moral standing than literally every other application of oppression in any region in the history of the world. If it happened, it would the same way. The only difference would be that Black people would justify the behavior by referencing historical occurrences of the same behaviors in order to dilute the issue from being a serious problem. Killmonger’s position is that the only way to fix the world is to conquer it with Wakandan resources and advanced weaponry and then rule the world with an iron fist that places Black people on top and Whites at the bottom. He’s not seeking or advocating for peace. He’s arguing for revenge. But again, he feels justified in this positon because of his own personal experiences growing up as a lower class African American and because of his knowledge of history. And just like when thinking about Wakanda’s choice to remain uninvolved, Black people as a whole can definitely sympathize with Killmonger’s position. That’s not to say that all, or even most, Blacks support his position as the correct way to approach this issue. It’s just to be honest in saying that we fully understand and have no problem considering this position as one of multiple possible ways to fix our problems as a race.

the revolution
“The Revolution”

This is why Black Panther is so hard to watch for Black people. It’s not a straight forward good and evil plot. Once Klaw dies, there’s no real villain. There are simply two opposing opinions, both of which are valid because they’re advocating to help/protect Black people. The only difference is which Black people fall under that umbrella of protection and what’s the best way to do that. And it’s important to note that even before Killmonger shows up, T’Challa and his girlfriend, and presumably the future queen of Wakanda, Nakia already felt an obligation to try to help Black people outside of Wakanda. They didn’t agree on how to do that, but they both agreed that because they could do something they needed to try to do something. So this film tasks the Black viewer with having to choose between preserving the Black utopia or possibly destroying it by trying to help Black people around the world. And it does this by creating a Black versus Black plot that pretty much removes White people from the equation because it’s never assumed that White people couldn’t easily be defeated. Just that war with them may or may not be the correct course of action. Even now I still can’t say with absolute certainty which side of the argument I would side with in a real life scenario. And I know that many people who aren’t Black will take offense to that statement. They will accuse me of supporting racism for not vehemently opposing Killmonger’s position, while totally ignoring the fact that they make the same decision every day by having voted for and continually supporting the current President and administration of the United States, advocating against public healthcare, and fighting to essentially cease all immigration, legal or otherwise if we’re really being honest, of non-Whites. It’s the exact same thing. The only difference is I’m discussing theoretical fantasy scenarios shown in a Disney movie (See what I did there?) and they’re literally advocating to destroy and/or ruin actual people’s lives every day. So no I don’t feel guilty about my fence sitting on this issue. And I can say that as a person who not only has many close White friends and colleagues, but also as someone whose father is a White immigrant to the United States. I of course did not get to benefit from that because of my complexion, but my mixed blood heritage does factor into my opinions on such issues, even though I have always, not always by choice, identified as Black.

ritual combat

Now ultimately the film climaxes with a split decision on the issue. Killmonger takes the throne and begins his plot for benevolent, for specifically Black people at the expense of Whites, world domination, after believing that he had killed T’Challa in ritual combat, as was his right as a member of the royal bloodline. T’Challa had actually lived and returns to retake the throne after an epic battle sequence and the death of his cousin, Killmonger, at his hands. And he takes no joy in that killing. He even tries to save Killmonger’s life, but he refuses help because he doesn’t want to spend the rest of his life in prison, stating that death is superior to bondage by referencing slaves that chose to jump off the slave ships in the Middle Passage rather than accept their lives as slaves. Also a very powerful scene. T’Challa’s response to this whole sequence of events and his deceased cousin’s worldview is to agree to tell the world about Wakandan technology and help improve life for Black people through peaceful aid and cultural diffusion. Now personally I didn’t like this ending because I felt like it was too soft because it’s a fence sitting position. But for a Disney film that exists as part of a much larger (and profitable), predominantly White franchise this ending absolutely made sense and I saw it coming a mile away once I knew for certain that T’Challa was going to get the throne back by the end of this movie. You can’t intentionally undercut your franchise target audience in order to make one really powerful film for a specific micro-audience within the market. That’s just bad business. I also think it’s fitting that like me, the two Black writers also were unable to make a hard decision in support of either side of the issue so they chose conclude the film on the fence as well.

black-panther-imdb-vote
The Black Panther IMDB public rating scores in the 1st 24 hours of release.

I personally think Disney’s decision to greenlight this plot was more calculated than many others might read into it. I think it’s intentional that the film is ultimately a Black versus Black narrative rather than a Black versus White one. In the latter scenario Black people would obviously be the hero and by extension win because the movie is called Black Panther after all. It would be odd if the character’s debut standalone film ended with him losing. Not to mention it would be a PR nightmare. But at the same time making a film about an evil White man trying to destroy Black culture and people only to be defeated and presumably killed in the end would not sit well with the White target audience the MCU is geared towards. This movie had PR problems from certain groups before it was even released. There was even a campaign to destroy its IMDB score on opening day. And this is with the film as a Black versus Black conflict as the central focus. A White main villain would have brought racists out of the woodwork calling the film an anti-White SJW pandering film with pro-immigration undertones. Disney isn’t stupid. They know exactly what they’re doing. They may not be able to stop 100% of blatant racists from trying to destroy the film but they can and did definitely take steps to ensure that the bulk of White viewers would see the film as mostly innocuous from their point of view, which it is. And because of the film’s lack of direct ties to the other MCU heroes and films, people don’t even technically need to see the film to keep track of the rest of the MCU. White people can completely ignore it with little to no consequences. Or they can watch it and see a film about Black people fighting other Black people, ultimately confirming their racial bias about Black communities being violent, disorganized, and self-afflicting. It’s a genius tactic that will ultimately work very well in the grand scheme of things. Black people get a hero and movie for themselves and White people are left unaffected by it. Yet for those who do watch it, they still get Martin Freeman essentially playing the same slapstick sidekick he portrays in Sherlock as a bit of inclusionary comic relief. Plus the presence of not one but two credited Black writers makes it all seem benevolent and inclusionary rather than calculated.

black-panther

It’s not as if Marvel/Disney doesn’t do traditional, straight forward good versus evil plots in the MCU. Iron Man 2, Thor 2, Guardians of the Galaxy 1, Captain America 1, Doctor Strange, and Avengers all have plots like this. It would have been very easy and justifiable to do it with Black Panther as well. The fact that they didn’t as the first film for the character says a lot, in my opinion. That’s why I truly believe that Black Panther was written the way it was intentionally and for PR reasons.

Ultimately Black Panther is an important film. It marks the first non-White featured hero in the MCU to get their own film as well as the first Black hero to get his own film since like Blade. And thankfully it doesn’t suck. But this was an easy film to get made and sell. Minorities of all colors have been waiting for a non-White focused MCU film since at least Iron Man 3. The film doesn’t directly attack White viewers either overtly or covertly. Whites and Blacks can both watch the film without changing their biases about Black people whether they’re racist viewers or not. What I’m truly curious about is what Black Panther 2, assuming there is one, will look like because eventually Black Panther will have to face a White main villain.

Thoughts?

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