Telling It Like It is
Lets start off with facts. Black Panther was a comic created by Stan Lee, a white man. So the moments where the film felt utterly stereotypical is not accidental, and perhaps most evident when W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) rides on a rhinosorous during battle—depicting the continent as imagined in the minds of the ignorant—a land where man and beast live side-by-side.
What is interesting about Sam Lee and other whites like him, is that they engender projects that illustrate what they perceive as “problems” within blackness, cast the product as entertainment, yet fail to see their own authoritative illustration of a collective that is not their own, as a problem.
Lee embodies what blacks humorously call whites in the film, “colonizers.” Notably, Lee makes a cameo in the movie, an appearance acknowledged by the audience with an applause that functioned to put the black cast in the periphery of the central white gaze. Ironically, Lee’s cameo features him collecting all the chips from a gambling table, which is exactly what he does in seizing control over the black narrative.
Lee’s presence in the movie, and as the creative architect in this supposed feature of black talent, casts him as a contemporary Otto Preminger (Carmen, 1954)—a creator of black “art” in a time of racial tension. Authoring a page in the black narrative, Stan Lee seemingly inserts blackness as shaped by him— a white man—into history, but in actuality personifies black objectification in deeming the (fictive) black narrative “his” story.
Thus, as much as many tried to depict the film a portrait of black excellence, it is a product of white privilege–exposing Black Panther as not indigenously “black,” but a canvass for the white imaginary.
The Nationalist v. The Revolutionary
On the surface, Black Panther delineates a son’s battle to avenge his father’s murder, but the film allegorically represents the battle between the nationalist and the revolutionary.
The film’s fictive setting of Wakanda is clearly symbolic of Africa, the mother continent, or what it could be sans white influence.
Wakanda is advanced, bearing the technology to heal the wounds of those ripped from the continent’s womb centuries prior—but only accessible to those born into her majesty. Yet their interest remains not in pan-africanism, but preserving “their” own. Their nationalistic perspective prompts them to label solely those born and raised in Wakanda as “their own.” The people of Wakanda are overtly cultural but covertly nationalistic, illustrating their status as colonized in the dissonance to which they hold their kinfolk and perfection of the English language.
Admittedly, I did not anticipate the accents that dominated the film. The accents though,
were not present for cosmetic reasons, but functioned as a line of demarcation between the nationalists and the revolutionaries. Erik (Michal B. Jordan), who is aligned with the white “American” characters, does not have a ‘Wakanda” accent like his kinfolk—illustrating the very exclusion his father warned him about. Wakanda, though seemingly maintaining an antithetical relationship to who they call “the colonizers,” regard their ‘black nation’ as a colony. However, their speaking of English illustrates that they too have suffered the scars of colonization.
The nationalistic perspective, is perhaps best illustrated in the act that actors the film. After King T’Chaka (John Kani), discovers his brother, N’Jobu (Sterling K. Brown) has “betrayed” Wakanda nationalism in providing resources to its abducted brethren, he murders N’Jobu while N’Jobu’s son Erik plays outside. Erik Killmonger, brilliantly portrayed by Michael B. Jordan, discovers his dad’s body, devotes his life seeking to fulfill his father’s mission of Pan-Africanism—or as depicted in the movie, providing Wakanda weaponry to blacks throughout the diaspora. Though perceived as a “traitor” by his nationalistic
The brother relationship between N’Jobu and T’Chaka is reminiscent of the brother relationships centralized in many of James Baldwin’s texts. Namely, Baldwin’s short story “Sonny’s Blues” features two brothers who choose very different paths but find unity in music, a common vessel used to materialize the pain of oppressed people. In Black Panther, it is not music that joins the two brothers, but an understanding that arises in Erik’s act to take what was not willfully given.
You’re not so “bad” after all
Though Erik is conveyed as the caricatured “angry black man” in a series of witty lines, Erik is layered, seeking to take the means to liberate oppressed people beyond Wakanda. Erik symbolically embodies the revolutionary spirit seen in Nat Turner, Malcom X, George L. Jackson, Huey Newton—black men who saw an issue and did not wait for justice, but made their own. The revolutionary is not angry, but ambitious— a deliberate mistake made far too often in the historical remembrance of our most beloved and successful leaders. Thus, Erik’s portrayal is just as he would be remembered in history—embittered and violent, portraying writer Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole as embedding the twoness articulated by late and great scholar W.E.B. Dubous in The Souls of Black Folks.
I will say that the Wakanda nationalists are villainized in the critical interpretation of the film, but I will return to this point later.
It’s a Man’s World?
I would be remiss if I did not point out the film is anchored in sexism. All women have a noticeable attachment to the male characters, allowing men to dominate the film
This is mirrored in conception and content, as black female representation is largely absent behind the scenes as well. Nevertheless, though the female presence is quite strong on screen, all female characters are noticeably underdeveloped. Nakia (Lupita Nyon’o), T’Challa’s love interest, is certainly a revolutionary spirit that mirrors the contributions of Assata Shakur in her independence and commitment to righting the wrongs in government regardless of the cost—but details of her past and desires beyond her love for T’Challa is largely absent, as is Ramonda (Angela Basset), T’Challa’s mother.
Ramonda fades into the background, as her purpose following her husband’s death has dwindled. Ramanda was the someone T’Chaka loved in live, and given her minimal screen time, it seems she ceased to be someone after he died. Similarly, Nakia exists so that T’Challa has someone to love. After Black Pather’s defeat at the hands of Erik, Nakia takes it upon herself to separate from the system that allowed his de-throning, illustrating that masculinity continues to motivate black femininity posthumously. Even Okoyo (Danai Gurira), a supporting character that steals every scene she’s in, is largely defined by the male ruler. Viewers watched as Okoyo transitions from guarding T’Challa to guarding Erik in a blink of an eye—depicting the gorgeous amazon as a fair-weather friend, loyal to the land, not man.
Okoyo is also overtly masculinized, not by her role as general, but in her espousal to a phallic object. While she deems guns “primitive,” Okoyo’s spear is always by her side, acting as a supplementary phallus to a gorgeous being of black female form. To most, the spear is merely an extension of Okoyo’s strength, but to the conscious gaze, it is yet another depiction of the black female as a gender hybrid—not quite man and not quite woman.
The loyalty to the land is a trait common in all the Wakanda peoples not anchored in their personal affiliation to T’Challa. This portrayal offers a new perception of “romanticizing Africa” as it is not those stolen from the shores romanticizing the motherland, but those never ripped from their mother’s womb—a disturbing but contemplative read on the nationalist’s ideology.
In acknowledging difference, it is worth mentioning the difference in T’Challa and Erick’s visit with their deceased fathers. Though T’Challa is crowned king in the beginning of the movie following his father’s death, after a bloody battle with his first cousin, T’Challa is usurped and Erik is crowned king. Upon both of their crownings, both experience a psychological “passing of the torch” from their fathers through a dream.
T’Challa, the nationalist, tells his father that “he is not ready to live without him,” to which the father replied by stating that the “role of a man is to prepare his children for his death.” Upon visiting his father, Erik does not cry—as it seems that though young at the time of his father’s murder, he had been enduring loss, or at the very least, bracing himself for loss, his entire life. The revolutionary, as seen in Nat Turner and Malcolm X, acquired a literacy of loss and seemingly accepts death as the price for their courage it takes to spare their people loss via injustice.
Black Love with a Side of White Savior
What is a black film without a white savior?
Black Panther acquires its white savior, Everett (Martin Fraiser) in a battle against white adversaries. Everett jumps in front of Nakia in combat, nearly dying. So, though T’Challa’s love interest, it is a white man who risks his life for the black woman. This depiction paints Black Panther in the same image as Avatar, where the white man is portrayed as more deserving of the “othered” woman than the “othered” man. A subtle plug for interracial relationship–this mawkish feature paints the white man in Jack Pearson (NBC, This is Us) like fashion, suggesting the white man’s “sacrifice” yields the possibility of black love (on the series a black man raised by a white family proves a great father and husband) .
The writers could have easily omitted Everett’s role in the film altogether, as there are countless films, like Titanic where there are absolutely no black people. Or, they could have depicted T’Challa as taking a bullet for his beloved Nakia, illustrating the black female body as an irreplaceable asset to the black individual and black collective. So while it warmed my heart to see T’Challa and Nakia, two beautiful black people, kiss—this image of the white savior sullied what could have been a perfect portrayal of black love. A common but disappointing cost paid in attempting to depict black love on the Hollywood plantation.
Okoyo, a strong supporting actress has a scene where she wears a straight wig to a party.
The wig fails to frame her perfect black features, a point she made clear when she tosses it from her head when combat calls. This was powerful moment in the film as it illustrates a black female form completely literate to the extent of her beauty. This scene combats what the hair industry has generated millions of dollars in manufacturing– a beauty mastered by the black female form.
After rising from the “death” of temperate defeat, Black Panther ultimately defeats Erik in a second battle for the throne. Although T’Challa offers to revive Erik, he refuses and says possibly the greatest line ever uttered in a mainstream movie:
“ Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from ships because they knew death was better than bondage.”
Here, Erik embodies the true soul of a revolutionary—revolutionaries live to die for what they believe in. For the true revolutionary it is not about a
happily every after, or acquiescing to life on their knees just to eschew death, but to die on their feet, or in Erik’s case, on the heels of an image painted by the man who shaped your life. Before his untimely death, Erik’s father N’Jobu (Sterling K. Brown), spoke of the Wakanda sunset as the most beautiful sight. So in addition to avenging his father’s death, Erik ends his mortal life in consummating the journey “back to Africa” with a Pan-Africanist perspective.
Erik’s actions mirror the actions of the late revolutionary Nat Turner, an enslaved man who staged an uprising and in its aftermath chose death over bondage. The irony is of course that the creation of the characters by a white man, is also a form of bondage, and death in which the black narrative becomes reduced to a paradoxical fantasy. Nevertheless, Erik’s death is predictable and necessary, as both reality and fantastical portrays of fantasy demand the revolutionary’s exclusion to maintain the stagnancy of dominant rule.
T’Challa, like his father, must now go through life with blood on his hands. But unlike his
father, T’Challa allows the seed planted in him through a murdered Erik to grow and birth change. Particularly, Erik inspires T’Challa to open up an outreach center in the same location that staged the murder that engendered Erik’s “rage” or what T’Challa called “a monster of their own creation.”
Erik is of course not a monster, and his sentiments are not “created” by his estranged family, but the wrath of the colonizers. Though referenced as “Colonizers,” the film places an undeserving emphasis on black behavior and not the reason for said behavior. While seemingly treading the line between blame and responsibility, this feature makes the film accessible to whites–as depicted in the dissonant phrase ‘black on black crime,’ whites love blaming blacks for actions induced by centuries of white tyranny. Thus, the feud that anchors the film places brothers T’Chaka and N’Jobu, and cousins T’Challa and Erik, in a “Battle Royal” (Ralph Ellison 1952) like stance, fighting with one another for white entertainment.
So, is this film the reparations blacks have been deserving of for four hundred years? Absolutely not. The film, though similar in name, is not to be confused with the black panther movement—it is not revolutionary, or even reactionary. The celebration surrounding the film is actually a sign that most will overlook the allegory and succumb to the ethereal portrayal of black faces. Black Panther functions as 2018’s Get Out, a film with a veiled intellectual message diluted by actors who are black in color and not in mind, and audiences seeking to bask in a caricatured blackness for two hours before returning their interests pursuing a colorblind society.
Support a brilliant black director Ryan Coogler and the black actors and actresses, but take it for what it is— a movie, not a movement.
Black Power ❤
*The author notes that (black) nationalism, need not be mutually exclusive with revolutionary or a pan-africanist status–a merging seen in leaders like Malcolm X. The disparate use of these terms functions to reflect the film’s depiction and not my understanding or stance on the concepts themselves.
Thank you for reading.