Showcasing black characters is hardly compliment-worthy so much as it is a fair representation of America.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe prefers a comfortable blueprint, one many Americans have come to expect and begrudgingly enjoy as a weekend get-out-of-the-house activity. The formula goes as such: an awkward or socially inept boy becomes a hero; hero meets girl; hero meets villain (who's not only threatening said love interest but the entire world). The stakes are always the same, the love interest always the hostage, and the world is always oblivious to the intergalactic battle between good and evil until something is posted on social media or on Marvel's version of CNN. We get it. It's fun. Take our money. "Thor Ragnarok" and "Spider-Man: Homecoming," recent additions to the comic-book canon have, let's say, heightened expectations for Marvel films: If you're going to tell a superhero story, these days, your masked hero will have guts, charisma, and a past or, as the critics call it, old-fashioned character development. His girl, cool gadgets, and facetious one-liners will simply embellish the Marvel sundae.
"Black Panther" is a Marvel film, make no mistake; this is a blockbuster, get-your-wallets-out-now movie, but you'll be surprised to know it subverts the comic-book paradigm in myriad ways. T'Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and his team of allies, sister and tech genius Shuri (Letitia Wright), love interest and undercover spy Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o) and his general Okoye (Danai Gurira), head of an all-female special forces unit, are a dream team. Ramonda, T'Challa's mother, is played by a regal Angela Bassett, and Forest Whitaker as Zuri plays T'Challa's mentor. The women in T'Challa's life are strong and capable, equal to men in power and courage. There are no damsels in "Black Panther"; this is a female-driven film with black women at the fore.
Black Panther's adversary Killmonger (ladies' man Michael B. Jordan)—reuniting with Ryan Coogler a third time after the critically acclaimed "Fruitvale Station" and "Creed"—shares Wakandan blood and is a possible heir to the throne, but he lives in Oakland, CA. Growing up in political strife, watching the American hardships of his community—police brutality, incarceration, oppression, and poverty—Killmonger's determination to rage war against his oppressors seems like a noble cause countering T'Challa's stubborn isolationism. Think of Killmonger as a swaggering Malcolm X, or better yet, a beefed-up, grown Huey Freeman ("The Boondocks").
It's rare to find characters this enriched in action movies. Their motivations are tied to real-world sentiments and their values ingrained in human pathology; these are flawed people in armor, and the result is a timely rebuttal, subtle and loud when necessary, in response to Trump's dividing rhetoric. (Jack Kirby would be proud. Stan Lee is pouring a 40 for him.)
On the surface, "Black Panther" is the familiar tale of a warrior learning the ropes of leadership and civil responsibility; as a Ryan Coogler film, "Black Panther" is kinetic Afrofuturism paired with a soundtrack curated by Kendrick Lamar. (If you're expecting Black Panther and his kin to perform an African ritual dance to Lamar's "Alright," think again. "Black Panther's" soundtrack is a beautiful trifecta of tribal drums, hip-hop beats, and African chants that adorn the futuristic splendor of Wakanda and its peoples.)
The story goes that Wakanda, a fictional nation in Africa, has a natural surplus of vibranium—the same glowing element Captain America's shield is made out of, for reference—used by the royal family to enhance their weapons, technology, and bodies; Wakanda, as a result, is wealthy and a leading world power, tasked with either keeping their abundant resources within their homeland or sharing their wealth with poorer nations, a classic self-preservation versus humanitarianism dilemma.
T'Challa follows in the footsteps of his father (killed in a terrorist attack in "Captain America: Civil War"), assiduously honoring tradition over globalism, but he quickly learns in order to progress, Wakandan values (and comfort zones) must evolve. Like any historical revolution, there are some casualties, and in Wakanda, you are only as good as the last spear you threw. When T'Challa discovers a polarizing truth about his father, his ideals are shattered, and the nation succumbs to civil war.
"Black Panther" is opulent and a dazzling experience and one of the better Marvel releases in recent years. Why then, do I find myself questioning the monumental buzz centering this film? At its best, "Black Panther" is a fully-formed blockbuster with coherent plot arcs, characters, and action sequences. It is a decent superhero film heralded, by critics, as a revolutionary film supporting the ethos of #BlackGirlMagic and #BlackLivesMatter all in one. Yes, this film features nearly an all-black cast and it channels current political and social dialogues, but perhaps, let's not pat ourselves on the back, just yet. White liberals are very quick to scream "revolutionary" and "imaginative" when art simply references the black experience. Commercializing an entire demographic's social pangs and packaging them as a kid-friendly, box-office release doesn't qualify it as art in lineage with other black revolutionaries. Let us not forget, this is a Marvel franchise, only popular and esteemed as long as it's profitable.
Showcasing black characters is hardly compliment-worthy so much as it is a fair representation of America. "Black Panther" wants to reimagine black excellence by making light of imperialism, imposing an origin story where Africans benefit from a meteorite hit. Hurray vibranium!
Killmonger is an African descendent reclaiming his heritage; the funny thing, however, is his own people are better off without him: In other words, an African-American becomes a spear-throwing imperialist in the vain of attacking those who have oppressed him. It's an inversion of slavery, oppressing the original colonizer, something the film subliminally gestures to, before basking in Killmonger's ultimate defeat.
Black Americans don't have the luxury of reclaiming their ancestral roots in Africa on account of slavery; films like "Black Panther" only reiterate the erasure of black identities. The resurgence of Afrocentrism in media, the countless dashikis, braids, and West African music in pop culture are an exercise in sentimentalism, reminding black Americans of the motherland without historical, regional, and anthropological accuracy. Again, "Black Panther" isn't really concerned about appropriation, or whether its fictitious nation is properly discussed in history classes to Oakland's youth. Here's to hoping extensive research went into the costume design and makeup.
These are things to consider when watching black movies about black communities in non-black contexts, a.k.a. the Marvel Industrial Complex. The hype is liberal confetti surrounding a blockbuster that finally features more than one black actor. "Black Panther" is good for a Marvel flick, I'll admit, but more of a step than a leap in the direction of revolutionary content.
POP⚡ DUST Score: ⚡⚡⚡⚡⚡
Shaun Harris is a poet, freelance writer, and editor published in avant-garde, feminist journals. Lover of warm-toned makeup palettes, psych-rock, and Hilton Als. Her work has allowed her to copyedit and curate content for various poetry organizations in the NYC area.
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