By now, you’ll have to have been living under a rock to have escaped the buzz surrounding the latest Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) film, the much-anticipated Black Panther. The new Black Panther, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), must take up the mantle, as well as his father’s seat on the throne, after T’Chaka (John Kani) is assassinated in Captain America: Civil War. From the moment Black Panther was first announced, I knew this film would be monumental for both the MCU and Black audiences worldwide based on its aesthetic alone. Every photo set, every trailer, and every cast interview featured wall-to-wall melanin, pride, and ingenuity on the behalf of cast and crew. While there are many elements of Black Panther which were refreshing and satisfying to see and hear, the cons outweighed the pros for me. I’ll start with the negatives so that we can end on a positive note.
I’ve sat with this movie for over a week now. My initial feelings, though mildly euphoric from the amount of heavily-saturated, unambiguously Black representation that the film provided, were tainted by the way that the story came together, and it took me a while to be able to fully articulate why, but I think I’ve cracked it. The flaws are in the details. Specifically, the characters, both major and minor, how they are portrayed, how they develop, and the choices they make. Since I cannot explain my issues with the film without examining the characters, I’m going to jump into a dissection of the film via 10 key players. In no particular order, I’ll be discussing: T’Challa, N’Jadaka/Erik “Killmonger” Stevens, Nakia, Everett K. Ross, W’Kabi, Shuri, M’Baku, Zuri, Ulysses Klaue, and N’Jobu. If you have prior obligations, I suggest bookmarking this link and coming back at a later time. We’re gonna be here a while.
Black Panther is largely set in, and T’Challa is the new king of, the sovereign African nation of Wakanda. Wakanda has kept its sovereignty by masquerading for centuries as a small nation with almost no viable resources, a “third world country”/developing nation. In this way, they could protect themselves from the invasion and countless exploitations that have ravaged and continue to ravage the rest of the African continent. Best yet, in portraying themselves as completely unremarkable in every way, Wakanda was able to guard their ample supply of vibranium (a metal which the country is rich in, due to a meteorite crashing there several millennia ago), without having to go to war. Wakandans were able to be very affluent, without having to sacrifice their peaceful way of life to guard their wealth. Pretty sweet deal, huh? Granted, the rest of Africa was and still is having its people stolen, raped, and placed into lifetime bondage, and the continent looted for everything it has, including people, but as long as Wakanda is safe…
Now, don’t misunderstand me: I understand Wakanda’s fear of getting involved, and getting themselves placed into the trigger hairs of the Arab invaders and European colonizers and settlers who came after that; those people are scary as fuck. But because we know what these groups have done and continue to do both to the diaspora and continental Africans to this very day, I cannot in good conscience portray Killmonger as a thug or an unambiguous villain. He wanted to arm Black people across the globe to rise up from under oppression, and while the ends doesn’t always justify the means, it’s intellectually dishonest to point out the flaws in his character without discussing T’Challa’s numerous flaws as well.
Killmonger was violent, several times unnecessarily so, he wasn’t open to dialogue, and (perhaps more importantly), everything he knew about revolution was a bastardization of the concept that he had learned at the oppressor’s feet, as a Navy SEAL. One who has learned savagery from their oppressor and admittedly participated in the murders of their own people at the oppressor’s command simply isn’t fit to lead. The master’s tools cannot dismantle the master’s house, and anyone who sees Black lives as disposable, especially in service to the murderous, imperialist United States army, is not pro-Black. Killmonger had such lofty dreams, but none of them including listening to other Black people, reaching out to them, learning from them, or even truly liberating them. He only wanted to become their new master.
By that same token, T’Challa is devoted to the people of Wakanda, but his devotion begins and ends there. He is ultimately compelled via the death of Killmonger to heed Nakia’s words on foreign outreach and aide but how does he go about doing this? By collaborating with the United Nations (UN), the very entity which is responsible for the poverty of so many nations and the exploitation of Black people around the world. To reiterate: T’Challa’s idea of aide is to volunteer his resources to the very enemy of Black people, the same oppressors that his country was so afraid of that they allowed them to parasitically exploit the rest of the world rather than fight them. When he could have simply taken medical resources and/or tech directly to people and nations who needed it, T’Challa instead chose to go to the oppressor to give them knowledge and acquire approval. The sad part is, despite Wakanda’s isolation, the people are not unaware of what is having in the outside world. T’Challa has access to newspapers and televisions. More importantly, he has Wakandan spies, War Dogs, in countries all over the world who are telling him what is happening around the globe. And yet he still chooses to put himself on a lease.
Simply put, T’Challa is too privileged to make an effective leader to people outside of Wakanda, or a valuable ally to the diaspora worldwide. The man was so desperate to hold on to that privilege of class, Wakanda’s astronomical wealth, that he collaborated with a CIA agent to gun down Wakandan soldiers who were acting on Killmonger’s orders to arm War Dogs. Again: T’Challa (and his sister, Shuri) collaborated with a colonizer to kill citizens of their own country, who were acting on the new Black Panther’s orders, all so that they could keep the status quo. In so many ways, T’Challa is a White king in Blackface, and it was truly disheartening.
Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) was another complex yet ultimately disappointing character, albeit less so than the aforementioned. In addition to being the ex that T’Challa is clearly not over, Nakia is also a War Dog, and we first encounter her as she is saving a group of women and girls in Nigeria from the terrorist group Boko Haram. Based on this scene alone, Nakia’s actions later in the film left much to be desired. Nakia doesn’t just save the girls, but a child soldier as well, and she goes on to later reject T’Challa’s pleas to stay in Wakanda with him when people around the world need her help, need Wakanda’s help. Nakia has been on missions all around the world, seen people die around her, and has never brought any of them to Wakanda’s state-of-the-art medical center, run by the brilliant Shuri, but without hesitation, she insists that T’Challa take Agent Ross (Martin Freeman) there because he shielded her from a bullet. All over the world, Black children are being shot, but a colonizer whose job description includes being shot at is deserving of Wakandan medical assistance? Girl, I guess… As Okoye said, it was his choice, and honestly, Black Panther went downhill for me pretty quickly after Ross was brought to Wakanda and saved from what should have been a fatal or at least debilitating injury. To add insult to injury (pun intended), he wouldn’t have even been shot in the first place if he hadn’t been so arrogant as to claim jurisdiction over the hostage Ulysses Klaue.
Ross is taken to Wakanda and not only is he fully mended in about 24 hours time, but Shuri (Letitia Wright), who is supposed to be the smartest person in Wakanda and the MCU at large, just can’t seem to shut the hell up when it comes to running her mouth to this colonizer about Wakanda’s resources, as well as her research and inventions. Truly, the dumbest smart person I’ve ever seen on screen. It’s almost as if the girl is so privileged and so sheltered that she doesn’t understand that threats come in many forms, including the seemingly hapless and soft-spoken. Clearly, no one’s ever had a talk with Shuri about stranger danger, and her incessant babbling to Ross like they’re besties, the assumption that she could trust him simply because she’d saved his life, was borderline infuriating.
Just as Killmonger is supposed to be the “anti-T’Challa”, Ross is portrayed as the “anti-Klaue”. Ulysses Klaue, in Boer tradition, is a nauseating pig of a man, in addition to being an illegal arms dealer and criminal of all trades. Klaue had successfully stolen vibranium from Wakanda a few decades prior, without being apprehended, and shows up once again. Klaue is crass, crude, sweaty, and has a visage that makes one’s lips curl in disgust as if they had just stepped in dog shit. Meanwhile, Ross is calm, mild-mannered, and an American law enforcement agent. He’s the obvious “good guy”. Except he isn’t. In both the comics and the film, Ross and T’Challa have what is described as an “uneasy peace”, a term which is a glaring oxymoron, as peace can never be uneasy, and unease is never peaceful. Ross is basically the living embodiment of #NotAllWhitePeople. He is the passive racist (“Can she speak English?”) to Klaue’s active racist (“They’re all savages!”). His racism is kindly and well-meaning, which, for White people, means it is nonexistent. Ross exists so that we can find the diamond in the dung heap that is colonialism, that it isn’t all bad, and actually buy the lie that White “allies” exist, that there are White people who want to both help the oppressed and hold on to the privilege that they have as a direct result of that oppression. But such a thing is impossible. Ross exists because Black Panther was written by two White men (Stan Lee and Jack Kirby) and, even in fiction, they cannot help but try to exonerate themselves in some way. One cannot love oppressed people and love the systems which oppress them. No. Period.
In the Killmonger vs. T’Challa and Klaue vs. Ross dynamics, we are thrown into the very common trope (in comics, and life in general) of seeing one as inherently good and the other as inherently evil, a dichotomy which forces us to choose a hero and ignore all their flaws, and choose a villain and ignore all of their virtues. Most people in Black Panther, and in life, exist in varying shades of grey. Two of the best examples of this grey were Zuri/James (Forest Whitaker) and T’Chaka. Close friend of T’Chaka and current keeper of the heart-shaped herb, Zuri is a former War Dog who was stationed with N’Jobu, Killmonger’s father, in Oakland, California. N’Jobu, unaware that James was a fellow Wakandan, trusted him, a trust which, in addition to assisting Klaue in stealing vibranium, led to his death. Though all prior actions might have been understandable, in abandoning Erik to fend for himself, going home and resting easy in the lie of what was done to N’Jobu without the presence of his son provoking guilt, Zuri and T’Chaka were truly heartless. The disregard that Zuri could express towards a child he knew well, and T’Chaka towards his own nephew was deeply saddening. Even T’Challa, who expresses such poignant grief towards his father in the spirit world over what was done to N’Jadaka fails to deliver such raw emotion and acceptance to his long lost cousin. Even in his rage, Killmonger addressed them as family (auntie, Uncle James, cousin, etc.) but they only ever address him as “outsider”, all the while coddling the oppressive colonizer (Ross) among them.
More grey exists in W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) and N’Jobu, characters who are portrayed as traitourous but are in actuality two of the most honourable people in the film. W’Kabi is first introduced as a close friend of T’Challa and head of security for the Border Tribe. He is friendly, loyal, and wise. But when Killmonger arrives, with the body of Klaue (the man who killed his parents), W’Kabi offers Killmonger something that no one else in Wakanda does: his ear. W’Kabi is the only person who listens to Killmonger’s story, verifies the facts, and brings him to the palace to reap his birthright. All others, so afraid of shaking up the affluent way of life they’ve cultivated from centuries of being globally useless, demean and disparage him on sight. W’Kabi is a “traitor” because the new leader, a man who had fairly fought T’Challa, had plans which didn’t align with traditional Wakandan ways, but T’Challa isn’t a traitor for choosing to tend to Ross rather than pursuing Klaue, Wakanda’s most immediate threat. Okay. The fact is, W’Kabi didn’t betray anyone. He was willing to sacrifice the only life he knew for something new and different, if it offered results. And he wasn’t willing to harm the woman he loved to do it.
N’Jobu (Sterling K. Brown) is also depicted as traitorous, for being willing to give up his own privilege to actually help the community he’s stationed in. Rather than just take notes and report back to his brother, this man wants to create real change for marginalized people. This man, a prince, who’d experienced only freedom and affluence at home, was willing to take from his own country to help exploited and oppressed people, and this led to his death. Though N’Jobu doesn’t get much screen time, his character leaves an indelible impression. In this man, we see the passion and selflessness required for someone to truly be effective in galvanizing revolutionaries. This man doesn’t want to lead, only to help those who need it most, and this is what makes his grassroots efforts, though short-lived, so commendable. N’Jobu was willing to sacrifice the privileges he’d been raised with to help the people he’d grown to love. Had Killmonger had his father’s love for Black people (true love, and not just a desire to rule) and Nakia’s compassion for the oppressed, his character might be less interesting, but easier to champion, and would also serve to greater highlight T’Challa’s failings in greater relief.
I think one of the biggest failings of all, though, was director Ryan Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole’s erasure of the lesbian relationship between Ayo (Florence Kasumba) and Okoye (Danai Gurira), as was previously written most notably in Ta-Nahisi Coates’, Yona Harvey’s, Rembert Browne’s, and Roxane Gay’s installments of World of Wakanda. Though this erasure and vividly clear evasion of LGBTQ relationships is an MCU tradition, I can’t express how heartbreaking it was that, even in the context of Afrofuturism and true Black sovereignty, same sex relationships and queer people are dismissed entirely. Instead, Okoye is paired with W’Kabi, and cishet relationships are projected as the only acceptable romantic relationships once again.
I’ve already said a mouthful, but as I said in the beginning, Black Panther wasn’t entirely disappointing for me. In fact, many aspects of it were quite enjoyable. For one, Wakanda looks how I imagine an untouched (read: uninvaded) Africa would look and function, for the most part. In short: It looks how I imagine freedom feels. The lush, intoxicating visuals of Wakanda- from the palace, to the marketplace, to the fields, to the waterfalls- are nothing short of breathtaking. The equally beautiful and dark, colourful citizens are also very easy on the eyes. The fact that the Wakandan language is isiXhosa and the cultures of 11 different African cultures are on full display throughout the movie is a nod to Coogler’s meticulous dedication to the authenticity of the film.
Another great take-away is the unapologetic Blackness with which Wakandans operate. There is no effort to minimize themselves, their intellect, and their desires to fit into certain place. Everywhere you look, there is dark skin, natural hair, colourful attire, and a deep pride in who and what they are. This is something that is so essential for Black audiences to see. Typically, movies and television shows with such a large Black cast are slave narratives, poverty porn, or trauma chronicles. To see Black people flourishing so resplendently, to see such effortless intellect pouring out of Shuri, a young Black girl, is nothing short of uplifting.
In Ramonda (Angela Bassett), T’Challa’s mother, we see someone both regal and nurturing, she and T’Chaka’s relationships with their children giving much-needed representation of Black families who respect and support one another unconditionally, with no one doling out or recovering from years of trauma at the hands of a dysfunctional family. In M’Baku (Winston Duke), we see a leader who is not just fierce, strong, and loud, but also intelligent and honest, willing to do what he feels is best for everyone rather than seize that which he desires most. When presented with the hart-shaped herb, M’Baku instead opts to help T’Challa (a beaten king that only the Jabari knew was even still alive). Where most men would have satiated their ego and grabbed power with both hands, M’Baku, who had asserted his dominance over the interloper, Agent Ross, makes the decision which ultimately turns the tide against Killmonger. Though I don’t necessarily agree or disagree with the Jabari fighting Killmonger, it cannot be argued that in not taking the herb, M’Baku showed a restraint that most leaders simply do not have.
I also respect and was deeply impressed the fact that the Jabari are “separate but equal”. Not in the way that White Americans meant during Jim Crow, but truly. They wanted to live separately and were allowed to do so without outside interference, aggression, or sabotage of their communities. They had ample and adequate food, clothing, shelter and education. The Jabari wanted for nothing; they were full Wakandan citizens and we given the rights of that citizenship. Their leaders had the right to challenge anyone else for the title of Black Panther, and they were only excluded from the rest of Wakanda by the climate and distance of the region in which they had chosen to live. This concept alone, of being given independence within a nation, is revolutionary.
As I said in the beginning, Black Panther is filled with complicated characters. If one goes into this film with clear ideas of who is right and who is wrong, then the film will me (more?) disappointing for you. The take-away for me is that Black Panther employed a Black director, a nearly all-Black cast, crew, stylists, hair and makeup artists. But this film is not a story of liberation. It is a story of how classism and class privilege are ultimately a prison. T’Challa wanted peace for his people, but just as much as he wanted this, he wanted to cling to Wakanda’s wealth. Liberation cannot be found whilst clinging to the oppressors’ ideas of success and worthiness. And because Black Panther was created by and exists within the White gaze, “compromising” and “working together” with oppressors is “righteous” because there is no room for the justifiable rage that Killmonger and oppressed people all over the world feel. The film demonizes all revolutionary action as merely reactionary, and there is no place for anger, let alone the truth that change cannot always be peaceful. The love of privilege is T’Challa’s undoing.
We are not allowed to voice the ways in which we have been wronged and demand retribution without being reduced to violent “thugs”. Only the oppressor is allowed to be violent, not the oppressed. But the choice to be calm is a privilege. Only those with no immediate threat have the luxury of holding on to the dream of a “peaceful revolution”. T’Challa feels that he can trust the UN, now that he has saved some irrelevant CIA agent, and that class can somehow help him and his people escape racism. But Wakanda, as wealthy as it is, is a Black nation, and even in fiction, a country filled with prosperous Black people is a target. T’Challa will not ever be fit to lead a revolution until the scales fall from over his eyes and he gets his Nigga Wake-up Call. Let me know if and when that happens. Until then, Black Panther is not the story of a Black superhero, but a superhero who happens to be Black.
I give this one 4.5 stars.