Black Panther Spoilers Ahead!
I would be ashamed to say that I had only just began to learn about the Black Panther within the past six years, but given that I have already spent about 2,500 words on my history with black superheroes, this should not come as a surprise. In fact, I had only discovered the existence of Black Panther when Wizard magazine announced his marriage to
bae Storm in the 90’s. As with Luke Cage, I immediately detested the character; he struck me as yet another stereotype—black Tarzan with a code name adopted from the Black Panther Party to generate lasing appeal among a black audience. The marriage of the two most notable black characters in the Marvel Universe who also just-so-happen to be (of) African (descent) was too convenient for me to accept, and bordering on irresponsible treatment of those characters, as it requires more than being members of the same race to make a relationship last.
I write these words with a chuckle, fully realizing the irony of my own prejudice against black characters, only to spend ten years of my life intensely studying them in various fiction and non-fiction. For the longest time, I thought BET an anathema through the transmission of black culture sullied by the simultaneous commodification of it. Well, BET did the world and me a solid in 2011 by airing an animated series based upon writer Reginald Hudlin’s run in the comics. Watching Black Panther knock the socks off Captain America after he wandered into Wakanda in the 1940s was therapeutic to my soul.
It was within this rediscovery, and re-imagination of the character, that I became a fan at once. I discovered that the modern Black Panther that we know and love is indebted to writer Christopher Priest’s run in the late 90’s. Wakanda being an enviable paradise, the technology, the vibranium suit, the Dora Milaje, the heart-shaped herb, are all of Priest’s concepts. When one speaks the name of Black Panther, they are discussing a character who makes Tony Stark’s creations appear to be little more than the Stone Age inventions; Batman’s legendary “prep time” is second what some would describe as Black Panther’s precognition. One of my all-time favorite events includes when T’Challa decks the devil himself with a single punch, and defeats him in hell by selling his own soul to be absorbed, which is bound to all of his ancestors, overwhelming his sinister foe. In other words, he outsmarts one of the most dangerous adversaries in the entire Marvel Universe so that he can be subdued! And that is just in the first Priest arc!
So when news came of Black Panther appearing in Captain America: Civil War, I do not remember anticipating a movie more than I did before its release. Knowing of his capabilities, I was appeased by how he handled Bucky, but not satisfied. In fact, comics Black Panther would have discerned Baron Zemo’s scheme before the big brawl started, but…that would not have made for a grand finale, and the disbandment of the Avengers (besides, in the comics version of Civil War, Wakanda does not get directly involved).
The sum total of this piece leads up to this moment, the discussion of the actual Black Panther film. I tend not to give into hype, but I found myself hoping that Black Panther would succeed for reasons besides being a great film. I confess that my hopes came true. Though it is the only film I have ever paid money to see in the theater twice, I like it, but I do not love it. Our writer Tyrone Barnes describes in great detail the merits of the film, and on that point we are of one accord: the supporting cast, particularly the women, exude excellence to such a degree, that Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa is the weakest character in his own film. Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger is the MCU villian that fans have been begging for, and he is so compelling that some found themselves cheering for him! Additionally, Hollywood has been conditioned to use CGI even when it is not needed; the final fight scene in the vibranium mountain reminded me of the stiffness of ReBoot. Harsh? Yes, well, that is why Tryone reviewed it instead of me; I mentally scored the movie as an 8.
While Tyrone and I are of one accord in terms of his criticism of Black Panther as a film, he and I could not be further apart in terms of our exegesis of its social commentary. The accusation that some people have mistaken Wakanda as an actual place strikes me as something I have read from a Twitter bot, or the dark places of Reddit, rather than any actual person. Equating the budget of Blade ($45 million) and Hancock ($150 million) with Black Panther ($200 million), while ignoring its relevance in the grand scheme of the MCU strikes me as intentionally myopic. Terms such as “volatile Afro-centric pride,” “arguably racist undertone,” and “retrogressive vengeance” leap from the text as the kind of mis-reading that makes me wonder if we watched the same film even though the evidence is clear that we have.
I am almost 100% positive that this clip is not in the theatrical cut, but only in promotional materials. I pray that the general public is granted access to as much of the original four-hour run as possible.
I have painstakingly demonstrated that Black Panther does not feature the first black protagonist in superhero movies, and yet, I would still argue that it is the first of its kind. Tyrone makes it clear in his closing statement that he has no connection to Africa any more than a Portugese-American does in Russia, and he seemingly does not desire one, with the inference that others should consider falling in line. I would say that this friction is addressed in the film through the alienation of N’Jobu, who, because he and his son are alienated from Wakanda via rejection, he and his son are not properly buried, and thus, will never be with the ancestors in the astral plane; this is why Killmonger must meet him in Oakland during his “baptism” as the (usurper) Black Panther when he drinks from the heart-shaped herb. They are representative of those who were born in, immigrated to, or otherwise have taken asylum in the United States and abroad. We encompass the African Diaspora. Within this space is a constant struggle at the boundaries of belonging and otherness, a tension that the film teases in various ways.
So yes, Wakanda does represent a sort of sans-colonized postcoloniality (though Ethiopians would proudly proclaim that the conquerors tried, but failed). It is, after all, a utopia. As the Seminole tribe declares “UNCONQUERED,” Wakanda presents the possibility of a virgin place, uncorrupted by false benevolence turned to opportunity and greed. One must pause to reflect on the weight of “agent” within Agent Ross, a component of his name that signifies his representation as a member of the hegemonic repressive state, and therefore indeed culpable in imperialist enterprises in the name of freedom; he is, after all, the man looking to purchase vibranium from Ulysses Klaue, who is likewise interested in Wakanda’s resources, but not Wakanda itself. Because this is so, “colonizer” is appropriate, in an unspoken allusion to D.E.B. DuBois’ “The Rape of Africa,” detailing how colonizers partitioned the continent for their own benefit. On the contrary, “another broken white boy” is the actual throw-away line, but those who stay for the post-credits scene will recognize its application.
Of course, with the idea of an UNCONQUERED Africa comes risks. At the stake of an isolationist sovereign nation is nationalism and xenophobia—ideology contributing to the disavowal of N’Jobu as tainted, or the idea that one must erect walls to keep the other out. But heeding the wisdom of both Killmonger (readers can read the “Killmonger was right” commentary elsewhere) and Nakia, T’Challa announces that the wise “build bridges, while fools build barriers.”
For many, Black Panther is a bridge to things that may never exist, yet is longed for among billions of people (the continent of Africa represents one billion on its own; good luck accounting for all in the African Diaspora). My family went to the theater wearing dashiki for the first time, because prior to this event, we had little reason to do so. I have done the 23 and Me genetic test, and while I am 72% West African, that is as much as I know. My Nigerian, Senegalese, Congolese, Kenyan, Tanzanian and South African brothers and sisters in Christ hope that one day, I’ll discover the missing link, and I can find my other home, and talk some mad trash about how much better my plantains and jollof are than theirs (to this, they laugh, because no two nationalities cook them the same).
We were not alone, and the receipts can be found on Instagram. With the celebration of Black Panther, did not detect volatility, but unity. In my predominately-white theater in Ann Arbor, MI, the roared with laughter or cheers when Shuri dropped the lines that offended Tyrone, lines; likewise, this celebration was met with applause when T’Challa dropped his final words at the podium, right before he is asked what a nation of farmers can contribute to the world. It is a question that we should be asking ourselves beyond Black Panther.
I have my criticisms of Ta-Nehisi Coates, but he is the writer for the third canonical run of the Black Panther comic. As he is the latest, the film heavily borrows from his interpretation of the character and lore. Coates also published “The Case for Reparations” in The Atlantic (republished in the book, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy). I mention this because what I detect from the apotheosis of Black Panther is not evidence of retrogressive vengeance, as that is clearly refuted on-screen through the suppression of Killmonger’s quest to burn down the world and rebuild it with “people who look like us on top.” In reality, what is really desired is the ability to claim a history beyond “our history begins in chains.” Or in a noose. Or behind bars. What black people abroad have managed to create from Phillis Wheatley’s poetry to Run DMC’s rhymes as a hybrid of continental drift, the transatlantic transition is admirable, and our style of music and clothes and linguistic accouterments in circulation has been a boon to the world (with tongue-in-cheek, appropriation is a one-word way of saying that imitation is a form of flattery), but what did we accomplish before that? What are our traditions? Who are our ancestors?
With Black Panther currently looking to hit $1 billion in about four weeks, perhaps that restorative work can begin, ideally beyond the pages or scenes of fiction.