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Black Panther: Crowning Wakanda

Crowning WakandaBlack Panther poster

 

Marvel’s Black Panther, directed and co-written by Ryan Coogler, the acclaimed director of Fruitvale Station and Creed, is already a record-breaking blockbuster film.  The $192 million 3-day (Fri – Sun) opening in domestic markets cracks the top 5, making it more successful than every other superhero opening in 2017, including Justice League.  Black Panther’s earnings over President’s Day weekend totaled $242 million dollars domestically.  A grand success for the first major motion picture with a $200 million budget directed by a black man, featuring a largely minority cast and crew.

Enough time has passed where I can drop my take on the film and venture into spoiler-ish territory throughout the discussion.  Feel free to post your comments and thoughts in response to the various points addressed in this post.  Below I have broken out my review to assess the wide range of colorful characters featured in the film and touch on some of the themes addressed in the film.

THEMES

There are several themes that the film addresses several of which are discussed throughout, however,  I wanted to particularly briefly examine the following:

Fathers and Sons


Tackling the issues of legacy, the lessons and impressions that Father’s make upon their sons is one of the primary themes the film addresses.  The actions of the father figures, even including Forest Whitaker’s, Zuri, reverberates through the young men they leave behind.

“You are a good man, with a good heart. And it’s hard for a good man to be a king.”

T’Chaka (John Kani), the father of T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) and Shuri (Letitia Wright), is initially presented as a great and revered king, over his journey throughout the film T’Challa comes to learn that his Father may not always have been the good man that he believes him to be, and that he too sometimes made the wrong decisions.  This is a strong through line which informs T’Challa’s story arc building toward the resolution of the film.  T’Chaka is a traditionalist who has raised his son to be a good man with reverence for the traditional Wakandan ways of interacting with the wider world.  T’Challa was raised to perpetuate the lie of Wakanda, engaging in the isolationist policies which led to Wakanda sitting on the sidelines through much of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) history.

“No tears for me, son?”

In contrast, T’Chaka’s younger brother N’Jobu (Sterling K. Brown) has experienced the world and life beyond the borders of Wakanda.  Via flashback we learn that N’Jobu had been dispatched to America as a War Dog — one of Wakanda’s undercover spies.  He has witnessed the horrors humanity is capable of inflicting upon itself, more specifically he has seen how Americans have treated African Americans and he wants to do something about it.  He views the morally correct course of action to be to arm the oppressed with weapons from Wakanda and fight back against the oppressors, showing them in the process the proper way to rule over people.

This clash of inaction versus action, the old ways versus a dynamic, radical approach, fuel the themes that drive the narrative.  N’Jobu has gifted his son with a radical worldview and a plan of how to reshape the world while T’Chaka has gifted his nephew, Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), with rage, loss, and loneliness.  Each in their own way is a Father of Killmonger.

Identity and Abandonment


What does it mean to be African?  What does it mean to be African-American? What happens when you have no land to call your own and no community to raise you?  These questions propel the theme of identity and abandonment set in motion by the theme of legacy.  This theme is one that several characters are forced to address.

Killmonger and T’Challa both struggle with the effects of abandonment and how loss shapes their identity.  For T’Challa, having recently lost his father, he wrestles with what kind of king he must be in order to live up to the legacy of his father.  As the film unfolds he must later confront the idea of abandoning the Wakandan isolationist tradition and the potential ramifications of what doing do so will have upon the country.

CHARACTERS

Everett K. Ross

In the Hollywood system where black and other minority actors are relegated to secondary or tertiary roles which only exist to service the white main characters, it is striking to find CIA agent Everett Ross, as played by Martin Freeman, in a throwaway role that truly only serves to provide bits of exposition and advance the black characters’ story.  In the comics Ross is the gateway character during a large portion of Christopher Priests’ run, acting as comic relief and surrogate for the reader. In this film it is through Ross we discover how Wakanda appears to the world and how the lie of what Wakanda truly is, is perpetuated.  Freeman does what he can with the little he has to work with and on one hand I am actually cool with that, I understand the narrative choice since Ross’ antics may have been too silly to incorporate but on the other as a comic head I definitely want to see more of the Everett Ross of the comics.

Klaue - Black PantherUlysses Klaue – “I made it rain!

The real fun of the film kicks in with Andy Serkis portrayal of Klaue!  He chews the scenery like Pac Man at a pellet factory.  He is a longstanding Black Panther foe so it was only natural to assume that he would have a larger role in the film before the slight twist with the Killmonger reveal as the true antagonist of the movie.  Klaue is representative of the colonizers who have traditionally plundered African countries for their resources.  Vibranium being a stand-in for the diamond trade and how that resource has been stripped from the continent.  His brief stint in the film is exciting, fun, and filled with memorable moments and one-liners.

M’Baku – “Are you done?

M'Baku - Black Panther

M’Baku (Winston Duke) offers a dual function that examines a dynamic of black relationships that is rarely, if ever, explored in typical Hollywood fare.  The leader of the Jabari tribe, a Wakandan offshoot of traditionalists who reject technology in favor of living off the land, M’Baku is a rival of T’Challa but NOT his enemy.  They are bonded by the community of Wakanda and a deep seeded respect for tradition.  In an average movie M’Baku would be presented as a dumbed down sub-villain only existing for the protagonist to battle and discard.  Beyond his function as the traditionalist counterpoint to T’Challa and Wakanda in general, he is a well of comedy gold undercutting the tension of moments that would be played as overdramatic beats if this were the usual Hollywood production.  Winston Duke truly shines in his feature film debut!

THE WOMEN OF WAKANDA

One of the greatest feats the film manages is to be radically pro-woman without being in the least bit anti-male.  Far too often one gives way to the other pitting the uplifting of women against the denigration of men, yet Black Panther manages to elevate women, demonstrating their power, strength, beauty and wisdom without any need to compare them to men or downgrade men in order to demonstrate their equality or even superiority.

Sides are chosen as the women do argue but they also understand. They are not monolithic in their perspective. Each has their own valid rationale, a core set of principles guiding them as they pursue various different courses of action. Their choices are their own, not beholden to the whims of any man.  In Wakanda, men and women are equal, peers who respect one another and enhance each other.

The portrayal of the Dora Milaje, Shur, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), Okoye (Danai Gurira), and Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) will give young women and men even more reasons to believe in themselves and their own capacity after seeing on screen greatness that is a reflection of themselves.

It is a beautiful, wondrous sight to behold.

Shuri - Black PantherShuri – “Don’t scare me like that, Colonizer! ”

Guided by Shuri, the sister of the titular character and a sixteen year-old genius, the audience is able to see a young woman of color who is intelligent, humorous and respected for her brilliance.  A great role model for young people to see reflected on the big screen.  Shuri not only functions as the equivalent of the James Bond technical advisor, Q, she also helps to humanize T’Challa.  Her love for her brother radiates warmth and affection with their care for one another demonstrated through their playful banter.  Much will be made of how Shuri steals scenes, what cannot be underestimated is the sheer fun and exuberance she exudes whenever she is onscreen.  In a film chock full of characters wrestling with identity, Shuri comes across as the most comfortable with herself.

Shuri is the princess of DOPENESS!

Okoye - Black PantherOkoye – “For Wakanda!

Okoye commands the Dora Milaje, she has a small arc where she has to confront her identity as a general charged with protecting the King, upholding the traditions and protecting Wakanda.  For her Wakanda is everything.  Her world is turned upside down as her identity, which is so deeply intertwined with her patriotism, is challenged by the notion of what to do when someone whom she believes to be unfit comes to occupy the throne.  Does she abandon her traditions in favor of doing what she believes to be right or embrace them despite her distaste for the new Wakandan ruler?  Her decision not to escape into the night with Nakia and the royal family speaks volumes about who she is and the significance of Wakanda to her.  Danai infuses Okoye with a strength of will and vibrancy that is often missing from characters of this archetype.  Her general adheres to tradition and order but is by no means a stiff.

Wakanda

Black Panther depicts the fictional country of Wakanda as a character itself.  A technological wonder, far more advanced and progressive than any other country, the culturally rich mecca of black excellence that is Wakanda, is a superb stand-in for the many countries in the world that contain resources that can enlighten and inspire the youth of the world to pursue excellence for themselves.

Unlike the other major fictional city in the MCU, Asgard, Wakanda looks like a country that is actually lived in.  Time is spent in different regions where we are treated to shops and animals and a variety of people moving about the world.  Ryan Coogler and his production design team, including costume designer Ruth E. Carter, weave a wonderful tapestry from various threads of the African diaspora.  Language, culture, community, all integrating into a new entity seasoned by the various flavors of the continent.

THE BATTLE FOR THE CROWN

Killmonger – “Can you believe that? A kid from Oakland walking around, believing in fairytales.

Killmonger - Black Panther

Erik Killmonger is a man who knows who he is, that is in search of what he was told that he is supposed to become.  His disconnect from his Wakandan heritage creates a crisis of identity, a distorted embodiment of righteous fury epitomized in James Baldwin’s classic quote, “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.”  In many ways Killmonger’s story is that of a fish out of water tale taken to the furthest most vicious and violent extent.  In part, that is the story of black people in America who were forcibly disconnected from their African heritage.  He is the literal embodiment of isolation.  Not merely because when the opportunity arises he manages to murder everyone near to him, but because he is a man born of two worlds who believes he belongs to neither.

Killmonger has a cause, a relatable anger, and a plan for retribution, but he is unrepentantly evil.  He has a black heart that comes through in every frame.  He wants to end Wakandan isolationism by implementing change and through his ruthlessness, cunning, and violent force of will his plan actually succeeds, allowing him to take the throne of Wakanda. His seeming victory over T’Challa inches him ever closer to his desire to enforce an imperialist take-over under the guise of black liberation.  Although, he does not achieve his ultimate goal of an uprising that leads to the murder of all oppressors, he does succeed in eliminating an enemy of Wakanda, taking the throne and causing T’Challa to re-examine himself as a man and as a king which leads to an end of Wakandan isolationism – albeit less violently than Killmonger desired.

Nakia – “I save my country.

Nakia, a Wakandan spy,  is T’Challa’s love and confidante.  She is an independent minded woman who is as dedicated to her country as Okoye, yet she is willing to push back against the wave of tradition if it means saving the world from drowning in ignorance and depravity of its own making.  The takeaway for several viewers and media critics is that T’Challa and Killmonger exist as two sides of the same coin.  This is not true.  Nakia is actually the side of the metaphorical coin opposite Killmonger.Nakia - Black Panther  Nakia, similarly to N’Jobu, believes that more can be done if Wakanda plays a bigger role in world events, she just doesn’t think that innocent people have to be murdered in order to enact change.

She and Killmonger both share an insight into the world beyond Wakanda and they have very clear ideas about how that world can best be served by Wakandan intervention.  Her worldview is not limited by the rose colored tint of Wakandan isolationism.  Just as Killmonger’s exposure to the hardships of the world informs who he becomes, she too is cognizant of the underlying workings of the world, having traveled through the upper crust and underbelly of society, realizing that there is so much more that Wakanda could be contributing to push the world in the right direction.

Black Panther

Killmonger has appropriately received attention given his backstory and radical ideals, but not enough attention has been paid to the journey that T’Challa himself undertakes.  One of the criticisms being bandied about is that T’Challa lacks flaws and quirks etcetera, completely missing the point that the policies of Wakanda have been flawed and are what create the central conflict that set the events of the film in motion.

Black Panther shines by demonstrating that every hero does not have to be depressed or fucked in the head or suffering from PTSD or a cocky ego maniac or trying to adjust to being unfrozen from ice.  T’Challa is presented as two things, firstly as a normal, well-adjusted, rational black man, which is like a unicorn in movies – we rarely see this occur.  T’Challa is not a nutcase.  Not a drug dealer.  Not a pimp.  Not a one liner spewing caricature.  T’Challa is a king.

It is the policies of Wakanda that are intrinsic to who T’Challa is as a person, he embraces the technology of Wakanda but also adheres to the traditions of the country, the culture and its practice of isolationism. That is who he is and this is what separates him from M’Baku who is a strict traditionalist who detests technology and from Killmonger who wants to do away with everything and end isolationism through a rebellion.  This is why he comes to have a bit of anger at his father and even at himself.  It is why he has to open himself to the ideas and perspectives that Nakia and Killmonger espouse.  He is not an “angry black man” but a black man who gets angry because he realizes that he was in many ways he has been naively living a lie of idealism when he could have been doing more to affect change in the world.

Secondly, T’Challa is the nexus connecting the past, present, and future.  His worldview embraces the technological advancements of Wakanada while remaining rooted in traditionalism.  His character experiences in one film something that takes most of the heroes of the MCU a full trilogy to experience: growth.

Killmonger might be right, but is his methodology of utilizing the extreme tactics of the oppressors to overcome and subjugate them the best option?  This is one of many questions that T’Challa is confronted with through the latter half of the film.  Nakia posits that Wakanda can be of service to the world without a bloody rebellion but this also means T’Challa having to defy the legacy of his father.

T’Challa idealizes his father.  To become exposed to the fact that even his father, for all of his greatness, was not perfect, having made mistakes and bad decisions which come to pit T’Challa’s idealism against the ideas of Wakandan traditionalism and isolationist practices was a bold move by the creatives behind this film.  No, T’Challa is not perfect, his adherence to tradition unwittingly blinds him to the state of what is going on in much of the world and it is only when his ignorance about the actions of his Father come to light that he is pressed to make the hard choices that come with being king.

T’Challa’s story is one of having your worldview challenged and determining whether or not to make the changes required to be a good man or be a good king when both may not be possible.  T’Challa has to open his eyes to the fact that Wakanda may have been going about things the wrong way and that isolating itself from the world is not the answer.  T’Challa grows to see this flaw in himself, addressing it by the end of the movie.

CONCLUSION

T’Challa – “In times of crisis, the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers. We must find a way to look after one another as if we were one single tribe.”

Presenting an African country that thrived because they were never colonized is HUGE and would have been a monumental deal in its own right, but for the film to go further and directly confront the idea of a people with the capability to help not only their community but the world – who actively did not intervene due to their isolationist foreign relations policy is what elevates this film.  Making that the crux of the dispute that sparked the radicalism of the antagonist then binding that to the personal nature of betrayal along with the desire for revenge adds layers of depth that has been unmatched by any prior film in the genre.

Black Panther is a very well executed movie with almost no moments of fat or unnecessary scenes onscreen.  Every frame has a purpose that propels the narrative forward. There are plenty of messages in the film but it never beats the audience over the head with them, they just exist as sumptuous morsels to be devoured by those wishing to feed on something of substance.  Working on several levels, as an examination of identity and culture, as a basic superhero film, as a reflection on the nature of the influence of fathers on their sons, the movie even displays the impact that the unity of family, friendships, and community has in shaping a person’s identity.  All issues that not only black men, but people of various cultures wrestle with.

All of the above elements combine to elevate this movie from simply being about action and superheroes.  If all a person wants is a popcorn action movie – that’s there.  It can be enjoyed purely as a superhero film, true enough, or even as an adventure film with spy thriller elements.  But if you want to look deeper there is plenty of value there as well.

The film effectively balances a lot.  It has emotional heft, dramatic weight, political undertones, a knocking soundtrack, and a surprising amount or excellent comedic bits and moments.  Not to mention the righteous anger of the antagonist who you can not only sympathize with but also root for – if his methods were not so murderous.  He not only succeeds in his plan, he also still manages to enact change even if it isn’t exactly as he envisioned it.  This film even has a solid message that can unify us all if we as a society were to put in the work to make the changes required to live it.


ILLA YC
illayc@fanbros.com
Twitter: @illayc
Instagram: ycthechamp

 

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Photos:  Marvel Studios BLACK PANTHER
Credit: Kwaku Alston/�Marvel Studios 2018