Black Lightning, Black Panther, Boots Riley, Chadwick Boseman, Comic Books, film, nokings, politics, Race, Random Acts of Flyness, Ryan Coogler, Salim Akil, Sorry to Bother You, superhero fiction, Terence Nance
Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa is not the kind of male protagonist that we normally see in action/adventure movies, superhero or otherwise. He is refreshingly ordinary, frequently the least capable and experienced person in the room. At first glance, T’Challa’s narrative arc looks a lot like a traditional hero’s journey. He goes on an adventure, faces an existential crisis and returns transformed, but he is not learning how to be a superhero as much as he is working through his grief and deciding what kind of man and leader he wants to become.
“You are a good man, with a good heart. And it’s hard for a good man to be a king.”
At the beginning of Black Panther, the audience is introduced to T’Challa as a man who has had a taste of a life as an adventurer in Captain America: Civil War.
In an early conversation with an advisor, it is suggested that the path of a warrior is not that of a king. T’Challa is a new king, and it’s not entirely clear that he receives the message. He pays the price for his inexperience.
One of T’Challa’s first decisions as king is to put the credibility and honor of his nation and the Black Panther symbol itself on the line in a manhunt for Ulysses Klaue (a smuggler and mercenary responsible for killing Wakandans and stealing a small amount of Vibranium, Wakanda’s most precious resource). The final decision we see him make in Black Panther is from a UN podium, as he announces a multi-tiered outreach program in civilian garb. He (and the audience) spend the moments between those two scenes learning that Wakanda needs a wise ruler more than it needs a capable warrior.
In a way, Black Panther is the journey T’Challa takes between these two moments, a story about how the path of the superhero – adventurer – warrior is not always the one that leads to the best outcome. T’Challa’s decision to pursue Klaue was followed by a decision to join the hunt for the outlaw. Why would a petty thief and killer merit the attention of the head of the world’s most advanced nation state? The economic and human cost of Klaue’s actions were meaningful, but hardly an existential threat. The answer becomes clear when one considers the damage Klaue inflicted on Wakanda’s reputation. Klaue didn’t just hurt Wakandans and steal their resources, he undermined their national sense of invincibility and invisibility. It’s no wonder that T’Challa felt the need to be personally involved in the hunt for Klaue, a decision that made him vulnerable to Erik’s successful takeover.
T’challa could have asked Okoye or another of the Dora Milaje to lead the mission or used some of Wakanda’s intelligence assets to achieve his goal. This was not necessarily a moment that called for the Black Panther. But these weren’t ordinary crimes. The stakes were deeper and more personal because they took place on his father’s watch and resulted in the deaths of his friend’s loved ones. T’Challa’s not just defending his country, he’s going about his father’s business and avenging his embarrassment.
He didn’t think about what might happen if things didn’t go as planned and he fell short of his goal. T’Challa definitely didn’t think that his chosen path would leave him vulnerable to losing his throne.
It’s worth considering what might have been – if T’Challa wasn’t personally involved in the mission, or if he had refrained from making a promise that he couldn’t keep, maybe W’Kabi would have felt less conflicted about T’Challa’s failure to capture Klaue and less receptive to Killmonger’s message. At the very least, Killmonger’s gesture – dragging the corpse of Klaue to Wakanda’s figurative doorstep – would have had less symbolic power.
Even after those decisions were made, T’Challa could have refused Erik’s demand for a ritual battle over the throne. He could have been a transparent and accountable leader and ordered an inquiry into his claim, or tried to repair the harm that was caused by offering him a place in Wakanda without adopting his plan to open the country to the world. He could have acknowledged responsibility for his predecessor’s wrongdoing and offered some kind of restitution as a gesture. T’Challa could have used the situation as an opportunity to institute systemic reforms. He could have even behaved like an autocrat and detained Erik, though that could have raised more questions about his legitimacy. Some of these choices would have been the actions of a wise ruler, others of a foolish king or tyrant, but all would have been the paths chosen by a leader.
T’Challa opted for a different path, that of a hero. He accepted Erik’s challenge and defended the honor of his family and nation in one on one combat, his reason clouded by his heroic impulses and anger at his father (for T’Chaka’s decision to murder his brother, abandon his nephew and cover both up). He lost the challenge and his country.
T’Challa was a more successful hero in the final act – he defeats his successor, thwarts his plan to destabilize countries around the world and reunifies the tribes. But even this moment – the culmination of a third act that fulfills all of the expectations that we’ve learned over decades of watching summer blockbusters and superhero movies – feels slightly bittersweet, a reminder of the costs of playing hero. There was something tragic about watching all of the characters we’ve grown to like over the preceding two hours come to blows and the broken bodies that litter the field after hostilities cease.
We see hints that T’Challa’s grown into the role of leader in the closing moments of the film, as he begins to realize that he can accomplish more by synthesizing the ideas of his allies and rivals into an achievable vision for Wakanda’s future and providing the resources needed to turn that vision into a reality. It’s not a coincidence that T’Challa is in civilian garb for the closing moments of the film or that his real triumphs were at a podium and a basketball court in Oakland.
In those moments, the film tells us that T’Challa has become the leader that Wakanda needs. I’m not entirely sure that I agree with it. Although Coogler uses Black Panther to explore and demonstrate T’Challa’s fitness for leadership, the movie does not (and isn’t designed to) explicitly ask whether the system is a good one. There is a suggestion that Wakandans have some voice in leadership via the tribal council, but it appears that the council serves as T’Challa’s advisors or something akin to a cabinet. They are not a substantive check on the power of the king. Coogler shows us a Wakandan political system that reminds us of our own, where norms and traditions play an outsized role in protecting fundamental rights and preserving a balance of power between competing tribes/interest groups. It’s a system that’s ripe for exploitation by a manipulative bastard, and there’s no suggestion that any kind of reform is in the works by the end of the movie. If I were a Wakandan citizen, I would be wondering whether one man should have all that power (do they have access to American pop culture? If so, what do they think of hip-hop?).
These concerns and questions don’t matter because Black Panther is a superhero film designed to provide a thrilling escapist experience. There are limits to the world building behind the film – it is not designed to create an illusion of reality. The audience is not expected to think about the power dynamics within that society or speculate about how their institutions function. The film is most effective when viewed as allegory or metaphor, and not as an attempt at social realism. These concerns and questions matter because Black Panther is a superhero film that is an allegory for the experience of the African American community and the African diaspora. It is in that context we should think about what it means that the most advanced society in this world is a monarchy or whether a king, even one who is ‘exceptional’, can truly be an agent of systemic change. If the two questions at the core of Black Panther are centered around the responsibility that privileged communities owe to oppressed ones and how we go about the business of dismantling white supremacy, the answers don’t lie with the decisions of an unelected elite, but with the community as a whole. Although Coogler does present the audience with a leader receptive to input from his sister, his love, his mentor and his rival in Black Panther, T’Challa is the only one in charge. He is the one tasked with charting Wakanda’s future path.
We still talk about the African American civil rights movement and many liberation movements throughout the diaspora through the lens of a Great Man theory – an unending procession of brilliant, charismatic men passing the torch down to one another through the generations. It’s a perspective that obscures the less famous men and women who fought and marched and organized and planned and risked their safety and lives for freedom and justice.
They weren’t working for someone else’s vision, they were fighting for their own – they were the ones who helped shape the course of these liberation movements. We are all responsible for charting our future path. We do not need a Martin or Malcolm or a hero or a king to decide for us and I’m not sure that Wakanda does either. Black Panther almost definitely needs Black Panther to be that leader, because it is a superhero movie produced by Marvel Studios and Black Panther is the titular hero. Coogler aimed to make an inspirational film about a black hero and Marvel is not in the business of making movies that leave the audience thinking about how societies and movements should make their decisions.
But we should. We are the ones who need to decide how to dismantle white supremacy and engage with those in our broader community who could benefit from our help. No one’s going to make that decision for us.
One of the most interesting things about Black Panther is how it’s conventional elements are in tension with it’s more radical ones, and that extends to its portrayal of the main character. T’Challa may be a fairly conventional leader but he symbolizes a kind of black masculinity that you rarely see in mainstream Hollywood fare.
Chadwick’s performance that is more internal than one might expect from a hero in an action movie. He speaks with authority, but he doesn’t try to dominate the room, and we often get a clearer sense of what he thinks through a gesture or a furrowed brow than a lengthy speech. His posture and bearing suggest confidence, but his eyes betray uncertainty.
Boseman brings an understated vulnerability to the character. He is confident, but quick to smile, to embrace, and to listen to allies and loved ones (who are almost all female). He doesn’t have the easy quips that we’ve become familiar with in other superhero and assorted action movies – he listens more than he speaks. A great post on the Hold Me Close blog that I ran across a few days after I saw Black Panther captured it perfectly – T’Challa is a ‘soft’ man in the best (and potentially most inspiring) of ways. His role is less ostentatious than Jordan’s Killmonger or Duke’s M’baku, but he is equally vital as an alternative symbol of black manhood. He is the quiet reasonable contrast to Killmonger’s charismatic, terrifying faux populist. T’Challa can be the hero in one moment, the daring warrior/adventurer in another and the Bond like cool guy in a third, but Boseman frequently signals to the audience that we are watching a character give a performance.
There are brief instances when the mask slips, when he looks uncertain or tender at an unexpected time. These moments present as distractions during action scenes, in one, he pauses to contemplate Nakia while dispatching a team of human traffickers, while in another, he is thinking about his recently departed father, and in the third, he is contemplating his father’s mixed legacy. In the context of the story, they are lapses in judgement, reminders of his inexperience and suggestions that he is more than the “Black Panther” symbol/identity. These moments are also setbacks that highlight character.
This non-traditional masculinity – the softness – that Boseman displays in Black Panther echoes the other kinds of black men I saw on screens this year that defy easy stereotypes. I see it in the way that Cress Williams (in Salim Akil’s Black Lightning) can be a bad ass vigilante throwing lightning at his enemies in one scene, a defiantly uncool high school principal in another and a middle aged dad excited to go out for a jog with his daughters in a third.
He’s the Black Lightning in Black Lightning, but he also might be the least powerful superhero in his family (and proud of it). I also see it in how Lakeith Stanfield expresses his anxiety about mattering to Tessa Thompson and resists temptations to fulfill a stereotype of the hyper virile, aggressive black man in Boots Riley’s weird, fascinating Sorry to Bother You. He is not a pacifist, but he can respond to incidents and experiences could be perceived as a threat to his manhood with calm, reason, tenderness and vulnerability without a hint of self-consciousness.
I feel it in a scene from Terence Nance’s brilliant, provocative Random Acts of Flyness when he staged a street harassment scenario in which men experience the kind of harassment that almost every woman experiences on a daily basis transforms into a heightened scene from a world where men feel comfortable with sharing encouragement and affection in public.
Coogler and Boseman satisfy an audience starved for black heroes on the big screen but suggest something more meaningful – a black man who is most interesting when he is allowed to simply be.
Fela Kuti Box Set #4, curated by Erykah Badu