A list of four things about Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther that stuck with me in the months following my first viewing (I am not good at listicles).
The first post in this series (and most of those that follow) are focused on the story and themes of Black Panther – the narrative beats, dialogue, the individual performances. All of those are important, but the element of the movie that had the most powerful impact on me from the start were the images and colors.
The Wakanda we see in Black Panther is inspired by the traditions of nations and peoples across Africa, but the production designers and costumers made it feel like a single nation with multiple subcultures. We saw different elements of culture from across the African diaspora presented with pride, from the lip plates common to the Mun (Mursi), Surma, Sara, Lobi and Makonde people (among others) to locs inspired by the Himba people and Basotho blankets.
The skyscrapers and marketplaces we see in the Golden City (Wakanda’s capital) blend references to nature, traditional and modern African architecture with futurist design. They suggest an imagined history for an East African nation that is the most advanced society in the world. We don’t meet anyone outside of the Wakandan power elite in Black Panther, but the vibrant world we see in the film makes it easy to envision a fully realized and inhabited Wakandan society.
The trailers suggested a Wakanda that would realize the afrofuturist visual potential of the comic book, but we received something else, an appealing vision of a sci-fi world that felt futurist without appearing too soulless and uniform. There were the sleek skyscrapers that we’ve become accustomed to seeing in science fiction movies in the decades since Blade Runner, but there are design elements that evoke Malian design (both modern and ancient) and what Westerners would consider ‘traditional’ African culture. We see glimpses of communities that feel constructed by their inhabitants, not planned by a team of futurist engineers. There are more pedestrians than cars in the city streets and an urban planner’s fantasy version of a maglev train winds through the neighborhoods.
In the weeks after I saw the movie, I started to second guess my initial response. I wondered if the cityscapes were too familiar. The gleaming skyscrapers in the Golden City felt like a signifier of a very Western form of modernity, as did the mag lev trains. Even though I never doubted the intentions behind the effort to create a textured visual Wakandan culture, blending the elements of different cultures – the adornments, the architecture, the clothing and other assorted symbols – without any in-film reference to their origin or context can reduce their power. There’s some risk that audiences will view culturally significant items like a lip plate, neck rings inspired by the Ndebele or a Basotho blanket as decorations. I worried that despite the best efforts of all of the talent behind this movie to share their process and talk about their sources of inspiration, Black Panther would unintentionally contribute to the unfortunate tradition of lumping culture and art from diverse communities and cultures spread across a vast continent into a single box labeled ‘Africa’. Were we just getting a Western take on futurism with an African gloss? Wouldn’t an advanced country that hid itself from the world for centuries look more unfamiliar?
On the other hand, it’s extremely easy for any interested viewer to access information that would help them unpack the meaning of any of the images or sequences in Black Panther. A Google search will uncover a wealth of interviews, explainers and essays that unpack and explain every single element of the movie. Disney’s Marvel movies have also trained viewers to search for hidden meaning in their films, from unannounced post-credit sequences to easter eggs buried in the text to allusions to storylines from other Marvel movies and comic books. It’s also important to remember that Black Panther is fundamentally an action-adventure movie. I’m not entirely sure that the movie could do a deep dive into Wakandan culture without completely abandoning the action adventure genre. I might find this kind of movie interesting, but it would probably make just a tiny bit less than the billion plus dollars the movie has earned so far. Black Panther is also part of a sprawling, vast narrative, and the story of Black Panther and Wakanda can (and probably will) be fleshed out in other movies and related projects.
My reservations about Black Panther’s approach to incorporating African artifacts and culture in the film are easier to forget when I reflect on the experience of watching the film. It’s not just the sense of awe that comes with watching a fictional world I read about as a kid translated into a big budget motion picture. It’s not just the feeling of pride that comes from watching culture from African communities presented in a beautiful and respectful manner on a big screen. It’s seeing Basotho blankets, tribal tattoos and women with otijze in their hair treated as common features of society, not as alluring pieces of African exotica. It’s the experience of watching a mainstream movie portray a fictional African culture as ‘normal’ and aspirational.
I grew up in a world where pride in black culture and African roots was combined with ambivalence towards actual African immigrants and African culture that didn’t come from Egypt. There’s something genuinely thrilling about a film that celebrates cultural practices that made earlier generations feel embarrassed or uncomfortable, especially in a theater filled with a number of young black people. The moments with the elder from the River tribe (who had an amazing lip plate that was perfectly coordinated with his suit and his more traditional attire) were as powerful as any that featured the Black Panther in action or cool tech created by Shuri.
I’ve loved movies and comics for much of my life, but that love wasn’t always returned. There aren’t many comic books that are created by black people or which prominently feature black characters. The American film/tv industry is much better if you look at proportional on-screen representation (though there are still more films that have no black people at all than ones with proportional representation), but only slightly better when you remember that black women are also part of the black community – nearly half of the top 100 movies in 2016 featured no black women with speaking roles . When I was a child, these numbers felt much smaller. The world I saw in Hollywood movies or Marvel/DC comics bore no resemblance to any world I saw – whether it was my working class community in South Brooklyn, my great grandmother’s community in a struggling majority black neighborhood, my maternal grandparents community in a suburban Long Island community or any of the hip places in New York my parents trucked me to as a kid. It was easy to find myself and those I knew and loved in stories about people who were different, but it would have been nice to see some with more people who looked like me.
I mostly outgrew that idea when I became an adult. I was still interested in seeing people who looked like me on screen, but it was because it meant that a black actor was being given an opportunity to practice (and profit from) their craft. I understood more about how mass culture shaped opinions and appreciated the political and cultural impact of black actors in mainstream movies and television shows. I began to think more about the people who produced the culture that I enjoyed – the directors, the writers, artists and craftspeople. When I thought about representation, I thought about the folks behind the camera and on all sides of the proverbial ’line’, the creators behind the pens and keyboards and in the editorial conference rooms. I was more interested in whether people who looked like me had the same opportunities as their more advantaged peers than whether I saw someone who looked like me on a screen.
There was a moment at the beginning of Black Panther that made me remember what it felt like to be a child who wanted to see stories by and about black people in my then-favorite genre. There were no images or special effects, just the sound of a boy asking his father to tell him a story. I couldn’t place the accent, but it was a recognizably black voice from somewhere in the diaspora. The boy wasn’t just asking for exposition to introduce the story, he was evoking the question asked by generations of other black kids who wanted stories that were truly for them. For a brief moment, I felt a sense of ownership that I’ve never experienced watching a mainstream Hollywood movie.
2. Just Because Something Works Doesn’t Mean it Can’t Be Improved.
I was about twenty to thirty minutes into Black Panther when I realized that I was far more invested in the stories and decisions of the women in the film than T’Challa, the putative protagonist of the film. It took me another couple of minutes to realize that Ryan Coogler may have agreed with me. Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright and Lupita Nyongo always feel like the center of any scene in which they appear.
Nyongo is the most clever woman in the room – a worldly spy with a humane streak. During an early James Bond style espionage scene, T’Challa gets the slickly produced car chase sequence, but Nyongo’s Nakia is the cool one. She is the one who’s entirely comfortable in the high stakes environment – she’s familiar with all the players and knows exactly what move to make.
Gurira does double duty as the wisest and toughest person in the room – the general with an unwavering loyalty to the dream of Wakanda. Gurira’s Okoye has the moral certainty and tactical brilliance of the version of Batman comic readers have become familiar with over the last few decades. In a movie filled with fight sequences, hers are the ones that you want to revisit.
Wright brings the mix of intellect, charm and humor that we see from actors like Robert Downey Jr. in other Marvel movies. It’s easy to imagine a version of this story where Shuri serves as comic relief, the plucky sidekick to a heroic big brother and no arc of her own. Instead we get a woman who proves that she deserves her position in the Wakandan hierarchy and that one doesn’t need to be a soldier or spy to be a warrior.
Coogler takes these familiar ideas and character traits – all traditionally coded as masculine or associated with male protagonists – and applies them to the women in his story. It’s rare to see women in mainstream blockbusters whose passion about their chosen professions does not suggest that they are incomplete or damaged in some way. It’s even rarer to see those women casually choose duty over romance without the air of tragedy or any implied judgment from the film. When Gurira’s Okoye chose duty to the Dora Milaje and the nation of Wakanda over Daniel Kaluuya’s W’Kabi, the audience broke into cheers and applause. The three women draw your attention in every scene – whenever they leave, you want the camera to follow them. They challenge the viewer to reflect on the kinds of stories that are absent from the narratives we see on the big screen.
I’ve had a million conversations about Black Panther in the months since its release, and most (from all genders) were focused on the women. Some people were in love with the different ideals of beauty represented on the screen. We still don’t see many black women with natural hair (or a shaved head) presented as beautiful in American pop culture, and I can’t think of a time when it was presented so casually, and not as some form of exotic counterculture. It’s still rare to see proper lighting used in scenes with black people on the screen, especially when they have slightly different skin tones. I spoke to women who grew up during a time when dark skin and natural hair was not considered beautiful at all, and they talked about how the loving depiction of black women on the screen left them speechless. Some used the terminology of the moment for the kind of black public achievement that fills us with pride – excellence, flawless – to describe the experience of seeing these three women dominate the film, but others just talked about how they wanted to see more of their stories.
I was struck by how few of the in-person conversations I had with people about Black Panther were focused on diversity. Once we acknowledged how cool it was to have a tentpole movie centered around blackness, the focus quickly shifted to the characters themselves and the ideas that they shared and the potential for future stories. It was a moment when we could sidestep the ‘marginalized, underrepresented group’ public narrative and treat our perspective and culture as the norm. The women in the film made this moment possible. Although the plot of Black Panther places the conflict between T’Challa and Erik at the center of the narrative, the main black female characters are the ones who ground things and make us believe in this world while we’re watching the film. The moments that featured the women in this film were the ones that stuck with me in the days and weeks and months that followed my initial viewing.
3. What I Have Done.
One of the reasons why I never took Marvel movies very seriously was that there were so few recognizable emotions or relationships. There are some exceptions (like the relationship between Chris Evans’ Captain America and Sebastian Stan’s Bucky/Winter Soldier), but even the best characters in Marvel movies tend to feel like chessboard pieces.
The scene in Black Panther that felt different was about two thirds of the way through the movie, when Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger encounters the ghost of his father N’Jobe (played by Sterling K. Brown) in a dreamtime.
The scene is a brief reminder that growing up in an oppressive environment can produce emotional scars that can’t be healed with stories of a distant homeland. It suggests Killmonger can’t allow himself to mourn his father’s death because he lives in a world where death is commonplace and black lives aren’t valued. The scene suggests that Killmonger views violence and loss as fundamental features of his world, which distinguishes him from his father or many of the other figure with radical dreams in Black Panther, all of whom view violence as a regrettable means to an end. It foreshadows the darkness at the heart of Killmonger’s radical vision and highlights the ways in which it could be distinguished from that of his father.
The parent/child relationship dynamics in this scene reminds me of the ways in which Lin Manuel Miranda explored the relationship between Alexander Hamilton and his first born son in Hamilton. Miranda shows how different formative experiences can shape two men with very similar attributes. His Alexander Hamilton is an ambitious outsider genius, a self-made man whose life was shaped by early tragedy. He was born on Saint Kitts and Nevis without title or wealth. His father abandoned him as a youth and his mother died soon afterwards. He used his intellect and writing talent to make his way to New York, where he was able to create a new life for himself. Miranda reminds the audience of Hamilton’s humble beginnings throughout the musical. Each meaningful shift in Hamilton’s life is accompanied by a refrain from Leslie Odom Jr.’s Aaron Burr in which he expressed surprise that an orphan, immigrant and son of a whore could possibly accomplish what Hamilton did in his short life. This recurring motif reminds us that Hamilton’s drive played as large a role in his success as his genius. He was not supposed to make it out of the West Indies or become a confidant of General Washington or the first Secretary of the Treasury. When Miranda introduces his son Phillip on Dear Theodosia, it is with a promise that he will blow us all away.
We don’t see a lot of Phillip Hamilton in the second half of the musical, but when we are reintroduced to him as a young man (played by Anthony Ramos), we see someone who inherited his father’s intellect and nerve, but whose ambition feels more limited and accomplishments less profound. Where Alexander’s confidence felt earned and admirable, his son’s swagger feels like the result of arrogance and entitlement. While Alexander grew up as an orphan in a remote European colony, Phillip was the son of a famous man, a political genius and the former Secretary of the Treasury. He grew up as a man of privilege who had more in common with Hamilton’s snobbish early rivals than the rough and tumble men who served as his first posse in America. Miranda presents Phillip as a person who is anxious to make his father proud but may have had some trouble escaping his shadow. If he had more time, he might have figured it out.
We don’t see much of the relationship between N’Jobu and Erik, but what we do see suggests that while both are committed to revolutionary change, their formative experiences have inspired them to follow different paths. We don’t learn anything about N’Jobu’s childhood, but the wistful nostalgia he expresses for his home suggests that it was a happy one. It’s easy to imagine how observing the gap between the society he grew up in and the one he lived in radicalized him. His son shares his radical urges, but Erik only knows Wakanda as a fairy tale contrast to a world where black life is not valued. Although N’Jobu has common cause with the more radical elements of the African American community, he is apart from them, a Wakandan in America. His son was raised as an African American in America and has enough distance from Wakanda to apply his revolutionary logic to their society. He inherited his father’s radical dreams, but lacked the experiences that fueled his father’s nostalgia. If the two of them had more time with each other, maybe Erik would’ve figured things out.
The encounter between Killmonger and N’Jobu also served as a moment when Coogler’s elaborate fantasy world brushed up against one that was far more recognizable. I am always amazed by the moments when I am reminded that my son is both very similar to and different from me in unexpected ways. There are always recognizable traits and characteristics, but there are also some that are entirely unfamiliar, if only because the circumstances of his childhood are very different from mine.
Sometimes I think about how many of my interactions with my son are informed by places he’s never been and events that happened before he was born. My approach to parenting is shaped by my experiences in a city that my son does not remember living in. New York will seem like a very different place to him, a place of mystery and excitement. All of the things that felt overly familiar and boring to a boy who grew up in 1980’s – ’90’s New York will probably feel exciting and filled with possibility for a boy growing up in New Haven during the 2010s – 20s. I grew up wanting to be somewhere else and that place was downtown Brooklyn, the most hip black place I had ever seen. When my son was born, I realized two things – I would never live in downtown Brooklyn unless I won the lottery and I wanted my son to grow up in an area with more open spaces. I have complicated feelings about my current home, but I feel like I’ve achieved something meaningful when I walk my son to school or the park.
One day he’s going to tell me that he wishes that he had a different set of experiences or lived in a different place. I hope that I’m smart enough to listen and ask questions and not explain to him why living in a calm and prosperous neighborhood feels great if you grew up in a crowded urban area, if only because his experience will be very different from mine.
I wonder how these experiences will shape my son’s view of the world. My father was born in an era when de jure segregation was still legal and the mid century civil rights movement was in full bloom. he grew up seeing a kind of racism that i didn’t experience during my childhood. i grew up in an era when the perceptions around the civil rights movement had shifted and races lived in worlds that overlapped but sometimes felt very separate. My son is growing up in a community that embraces him, but contains very few children who look like him. He’s also growing up in a city where the black and white community feel as separate as they did in 1954 Brooklyn and in a country with a president far more reactionary than the men who held office when his father and grandfather were children. I saw possibilities that my dad didn’t and he saw harsh truths that it would take me years to understand.
The brief, bittersweet interaction between N’Jobu and Erik also made me consider the unforeseen impact that my decisions will have on his life. What happens when the choices I made contribute to his unhappiness or distress? What if my son feels isolated in our neighborhood? What if he outgrows this town faster than I anticipated? What if he never outgrows it? What experience will harden him in a way that I couldn’t anticipate? What if everything goes wrong? What if his views develop in an entirely unexpected way?
The expression on N’Jobu’s face when Erik told him why he shed no tears for his death effectively communicated his sorrow, but it was his response to Erik’s anger that truly struck a chord. I could still see the sadness on Brown’s face, but there was also a sense of regret and resignation. The tears that welled in his eyes slowly streamed down his face and he paused, closing his eyes for a moment. I wondered if he realized that the cost of leaving his homeland wasn’t just a son who had been hardened to the world, but one who had grown to view his fellow countrymen as strangers. It is one of the moments when the audience fully realizes that Erik’s vision is far more radical than his father’s – one in which the power structure of the world is reset and even Wakanda itself is remade.
4. Bury Me In The Ocean
The true villains of Black Panther never make an appearance on the screen. We don’t see any of the people responsible for oppressing members of the African diaspora or maintaining white supremacy. There are no officers shooting innocents, political officials denying resources to black communities, or military officials using drones to bomb countries filled with brown-skinned people. The main white antagonist is a murderer, mercenary and smuggler who espouses some racist views, but he’s not the one who is responsible for oppressing the people Erik, N’Jobu and Nakia are so committed to freeing or the one who created (or maintained) the world that T’Challa’s forebears wanted to hide from.
The conflict in Black Panther is around the best way to disrupt the system and help people while defending the homeland. The main players have a common enemy, but have different strategies for defeating them. Erik may be responsible for some bad things (and calls himself ‘Killmonger’), but the battle between the two cousins still has more in common with Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War or Batman vs. Superman than with traditional hero vs. villain stories. The battle between the two sides in the third act is thrilling and heartbreaking, but can distract from the fact that the real enemy is not present. The nuance that Coogler, Boseman and Jordan brought to the narrative falls away and we’re left with a battle between the virtuous and misled Wakandans, one side led by a wicked pretender to the throne and the other led by their true king. Once Black Panther finally defeats his rival, there is a quiet moment in which Jordan reminds the audience of the stakes involved by invoking the memory of the millions who died during the Middle Passage. The triumph becomes bittersweet as we realize that while we have seen conflict in this film, we have not seen true evil. As I sat in the theater, I was struck by the fact that the man who came closest to naming the actual enemy was not the eponymous hero of the story.
The problem with blockbuster movies that touch upon real life themes is that they are hard to dismiss after they’ve been introduced. Black Panther deserves a lot of praise for exposing audiences to a number of competing (and complementary but distinct) afrofuturist visions, ranging from Wakanda’s status quo at the start of the film as a highly advanced and distinctly African nation to Nakia’s vision of a Wakanda that used its knowledge and technology to help oppressed people and Erik’s vision of a Wakanda that serves as a revolutionary vanguard for the world. We see a version of Shuri’s vision at the close of the film, but it felt more safe and comfortable than I expected. Although the notion of an African postindustrial superpower addressing white supremacy through diplomacy, information/technology exchange and ‘city on a hill’ symbolism is pretty radical, Jordan’s final words echoed in my mind as I watched T’Challa at the UN and opening a community center/embassy in Oakland. The conclusion felt like a half measure in light of the long, dark legacy of white supremacy – the kind of ‘clever’ third way technocratic approach to solving giant problems that’s commonly associated with modern progressive politics.
The scene still has a quiet understated power, but Jordan’s last line casts a pall that soured the joy that I wanted to feel when T’Challa announced that Wakanda was opening itself to the world. It reminded me that too many of our most popular stories tend to discourage dangerous ideas and encourage the safe ones.
The person whose ideas would be most dangerous to the existing order is usually the villain who dies at the end of the movie. In most superhero movies, the chaos agent is given some sympathetic moments that add intrigue to the hero’s journey and suggests a morally complex story in which the lines between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are murky. The villain might even say something like ‘we’re not so different you and I’ to the hero during a pivotal scene. The writers/directors might draw a link between the villain and some real world issue. Sometimes this connection is symbolic, like the civil rights allegories that have been read into Singer’s X-Men, but some references are more explicit, like the anxieties of late capitalism and the second Bush presidency expressed in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy or how the legacy of the Nazi regime and the Holocaust drive the story in Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class. The villain expresses unorthodox ideas that resonate with people who’ve experienced tragedy or feel excluded from the existing order. Superheroes are often described as power fantasies, but these villains are the real power fantasy for anyone who’s wanted to show the powerful that their control is an illusion, humiliate an evil banker, treat the thing that makes you different like a superpower to dominate others or hunt Nazi war criminals.
The illusion of ambiguity is typically dispelled by the end of the film. The scenes that make the villain appealing are inevitably followed by ones in which they do something inhumane to remind the audience that they are watching a superhero film. These scenes create distance between the character and the real world grievances that they may represent. In Black Panther, the audience sees Erik Killmonger shoot his paramour, choke an attendant and strike a member of the Dora Milaje.
These moments give us reasons why our sympathies shouldn’t lie with him, but his last line complicates things. Just as we had become accustomed to thinking of Killmonger as a villain, we were reminded that he was also a victim seeking justice for a very real crime.
It was the kind of discomfort I didn’t expect to find in a Marvel film, the sense of disquiet that I get from a truly good movie. Most of the Marvel films I’ve seen are entertaining but predictable – the identities of the heroes and villains are clear and the crowd leaves happy after the hero has vanquished their foes. In Black Panther, Killmonger and Klaw are defeated, and the crowd looked happy as it streamed out of the theater. But in the days that followed, I kept returning to that last line – the defiant anger that felt so familiar. It lingered in my mind. I saw the memes and tumblr posts quoting the line springing up over the weeks that followed. I realized that I wasn’t the only one.
Next Time: T’Challa is Not Awesome