On an unseasonably warm Saturday morning in early February, my wife suggested that I take a break to go see the new Black Panther movie on our way back from a local Chinese New Year parade. We were having a very good day after an exhausting, impossible week. At the time, I did not know that this pattern would repeat itself over the following four months. We had a great breakfast at one of our favorite local spots (Zoi’s, which makes terrific breakfast sandwiches) and I successfully convinced my son that the colorful dragons marching in the parade were fun and not frightening (“See? They’re not real dragons, they’re just costumes!” <man under dragon costume gives a friendly wave to skeptical son>).
We discussed the Black Panther phenomenon while we munched hash browns and sipped coffee – it had premiered a few days earlier and was already a giant success at the box office and in the culture. I was curious and she was ambivalent – while the concept and creative folk involved piqued her interest, she mostly checked out on Marvel movies after the underwhelming Avengers film in 2010. When she made her offer later that morning, I thought about declining until I realized that if I didn’t accept, I probably wouldn’t see Black Panther until it arrived on Netflix (or whatever over the top digital service Disney comes up with). So I accepted her offer and was surprised by how excited I felt.
I found an amazing seat at our local theater (a spot that made up for its lack of modern features with decent screens and pleasant staff). I was surrounded by a representative sample of New Haven – earnest college students from a wide variety of backgrounds, excited African Americans from the local community and pleasant Yale/Yale New Haven Hospital retirees. There was a lot of conversation in the room that died down when the trailers and commercials and PSAs ended. Everyone focused their attention on a dark screen and heard a boy ask his father to tell him a story.
A few hours later, another curious boy asked a man who he was, and the screen faded to black. There were two more scenes tucked in a seemingly endless scroll of credits, but they felt like post-film trailers for future Marvel movies, a reminder that Black Panther takes place in a larger (and quite lucrative) narrative and a suggestion that the cinematic Wakanda will play a much more prominent role in the Marvel movie universe than its comic book counterpart. Some stayed for the scenes, and others did not, but it was clear that the boy’s question was the end of the story that Ryan Coogler spent 200 million dollars to tell. Some people were energized, others were talking about their favorite scene or which one of the many attractive actors in the film was the most stunning. I saw a few people with tears in their eyes, a few repeating Michael B. Jordan’s last line in the film.
Black Panther is an excellent film, possibly the first Marvel movie that feels completely engaged with our world. Coogler sustains an emotional resonance throughout the entire film that can only be found in isolated sequences in other Marvel films – a glance from Jeff Daniels, a provocative question asked by Cate Blanchett, a moment of intimacy between Chris Evans and Sebastian Stan. These genuine, emotionally honest moments are as important to the Marvel Studios storytelling formula as all of the third acts filled with expensive digital effect sequences and schematic plots. Black Panther departs from this formula by grounding these moments in a personal story with meaningful stakes. The stakes of the story matter because all of the artists involved in the movie – from the director, writers and cast to the costume designer, the makeup and hair people and the experts who helped with dialects – worked to make all the characters feel fully realized, with hopes, dreams and flaws independent from our hero and his journey. We care about the fate of Wakanda because we care about the characters who inhabit it – and T’Challa’s family turmoil matters because the love, joy and resentment expressed by the family members feels real.
Coogler reminds us that the desire for representation in the African American community isn’t just about seeing black faces on a screen. We want to be taken seriously, to feel like our gaze is as valid and important as the white gaze that we are accustomed to seeing in Hollywood films. We want to see a dramatization of the kinds of debates and tensions that exist within the black community without an explainer for everyone else. We want movies where dark skinned people are properly lit and stories that aren’t mediated by the perspective of outsiders (even the very well meaning ones).
Coogler uses a familiar hero’s journey framework to tell a story about community, societal boundaries and black liberation. Black Panther dramatizes the discourse within the black community about identity and freedom in mythic, larger than life terms without sacrificing the black perspective. He invites the audience to view in-group conversations without translating anything for them. It’s a mainstream movie about black lives that cheerfully ignores the urge to reassure or defy the “little white man deep inside all of us” who wants to limit our freedom to imagine and create fictional worlds.
Coogler trusts his audience. He trusts them to tease out the distinctions between and within the liberal and radical visions for black liberation presented in the scenes and layers the narrative with allusions to events and ideas relevant to the African American experience.
There are limits to the scope of ideas explored in Black Panther. The film is set in Africa and is filled with images and items that we associate with Africa, but its narrative is driven by the concerns, dreams and dilemmas of the members of the African diaspora who were brought to America hundreds of years ago. In one sense, there aren’t many African American characters in Black Panther, but in another, we are everywhere. We are asked to reflect on the obligations that a privileged black community owes to less privileged black communities and while the characters do reference the struggle against white supremacy (not named, but you know…) in global terms, the visual reminders of oppression and that struggle are all tied to America, and the African American civil rights movement (in the early nineties) serves as the catalyst for the story.
This dynamic is not confined to the film version of Black Panther. In the late winter, I planned to (and may still) write about Black Panther and Wakanda as incomplete afrofuturist projects. Here’s the gist: Black Panther and Wakanda were created by two Jewish American comic book creators in the 1960’s, and while a number of Afro-diasporic writers and artists have helped shape our understanding of the Black Panther’s world over the years, almost all were telling stories from a perspective that was both African and American. They explored African American hopes and fears about empowerment, colonialism and intergroup conflict, but rarely incorporated the viewpoints of other members of the diaspora, particularly those who remained in Africa. I found great value in exploring the dreams and possibilities of the African American experience through a story like Black Panther (and a nation like Wakanda), but wondered if the absence of non-American perspectives (particularly African ones) blunted its potential impact. I also wondered how much sharper – and more transformative – the story would be if we were reading/watching a story that Africans were telling us about their world.
Black Panther is also a Marvel Studios movie, and cannot escape the positive and negative associations of that corporate relationship.
It shares the basic plot structure as many of their films centered around a solo hero, from the role of the two villains in the narrative (and how they are introduced) to the hero’s fall from grace and eventual triumph in a CGI fueled battle.
I wonder if that relationship contributes to the intriguing tension between the radical and conventional elements in Black Panther. The film’s visuals shake mainstream (at least in the world of blockbuster commercial Hollywood filmmaking) assumptions around beauty and power, with a diverse, nearly all-black cast presented as larger than life figures and shot in a manner that highlights the richness of their individual skin tones.
We are shown pieces of culture from all over Africa in a way that makes them feel modern and vital (and not ancient or exotic). But while the story gestures towards quasi-radical politics, it ultimately delivers a full throated defense of traditional monarchy that would’ve seemed downright reactionary in another film. The dialogue that evokes a long history of black nationalism/radicalism is delivered by a character presented as a violent faux populist tyrant. T’Challa’s plan to reengage with the world felt audacious on my first viewing, but upon reflection, it sounded pretty vague. My wife (who watched the movie with me when it was released on Blu Ray) remarked that she expected T’Challa to announce an initiative that would improve the material circumstances of the people of Oakland – a housing or education or employment program.
The Africana spread throughout Black Panther highlights this tension. The visual look of the scenes set in Wakanda is thoughtfully considered and creates a distinctly non-American context for the story. The interviews and profiles surrounding the movie make it clear that the visual aesthetic for the film is intended as a celebration of a wide range of African cultures, a rare thing for mainstream American films. This celebration is complicated by the film’s narrative, which is mostly set in a fictional isolated African nation. In this context, the blend of different African cultures in a single place without any in-text explanation becomes a reminder of our troubling habit of treating Africa as if it were a single location. A cinematic Latveria (the fictional Central European home of Fantastic Four villain Dr. Doom) that just combined elements of Greek, Czech, French and British visual and physical culture wouldn’t seem authentically ‘European’, it would feel artificial, the product of an outsider unfamiliar with the diverse cultures and societies on the continent.
The mix of conventional and radical elements make Black Panther feel less satisfying and more substantial. I would have wholeheartedly welcomed a mainstream Hollywood funded full throated meditation on dismantling white supremacy and the pain caused by colonialism, but I know that Americans – that we – have a limited appetite for blockbuster films that unnerve or threaten. I still want to see a movie that shows the non fictional black community – my community – through a non-tragic lens. Many countries in Africa still face huge challenges, but there have been a number of meaningful improvements of social and economic conditions in nations throughout the continent over the last two decades. African Americans still face a wide range of disadvantages relative to European Americans, but there has been (some) progress (particularly in the areas of education and wages). We are more than nameless youth at an urban basketball court. The scenes set in Wakanda are triumphant and transporting, but I couldn’t shake the thought that there are also happy and prosperous and successful (in the broadest definition of the word) black people who live in actual neighborhoods in real countries.
Coogler’s Black Panther is a piece of entertainment, a commodity owned by a multi billion dollar corporation that has a mixed history with black people and social justice and which is unlikely to green light a blockbuster with radical politics or that challenges viewers. It’s also a thrilling and thought provoking work of art made by a promising young African American director who has successfully infused social commentary and emotional honesty in a series of mainstream films of steadily increasing size and scope. Black Panther’s success is a win for films made by and starring black people, but it’s also a big win for Disney shareholders. It’s a story that excites by centering the perspective of African Americans (even in allegorical terms), but leaves one hungry for more that reflects the experiences of people from other parts of the diaspora.
It’s a movie that entertains and inspires, but as Yasiin Bey might say, it can’t save us. Thankfully, no one promised that it would.
Next Week: Second Take (Four Things).