Marvel’s Black Panther film means so much to so many people. The film is a lightning rod of representation, in a time where black people feel so belittled and not paid attention to. Despite all that, director Ryan Coogler and his class-A cast have rallied together to create a film that is every bit as moving, political and combative as the party it shares its title with.
There has been much ado made about the politics in Black Panther. Many people were startled that there were any discussions of political matters revolving around black folks in the movie in general, that Marvel would even allow Coogler to discuss such a heavy topic that could easily be turned into leverage and criticism against the film. I mean, there are heavy discussions had here about colonialism, imperialism, colorism, police brutality and African vs. African-American culture, in a mainstream comic-book movie. So to some extent, you have to give Coogler the credit for going there, and apparently for pulling it off (in its opening weekend alone, the film raked in over $400 million worldwide).
Black Panther tells the story of T’Challa, played by Chadwick Boseman, returning to Wakanda to assume the mantle of king after his father T’Chaka’s tragic death in Captain America: Civil War. Before long, he runs into conflicts from several angles. World-weary, eccentric villain Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) has been going around the world stealing vibranium to power his new super-arm, which allows him the ability to shoot vibranium blasts. And what’s more, he’s being aided by U.S. army turncoat and professional murderer Erik Killmonger, portrayed beautifully here by Michael B. Jordan.
Killmonger believes that the Wakandans, who have a super-powered society of weapons and technology made with vibranium, are cowards. He says they’re “sitting up here comfortable”, while millions of black people around the world are left with an inability to defend themselves against white supremacy. Police brutality, mass incarceration and poverty riddle the black community – yet the Wakandans have done nothing to help, despite all the resources they have. They could’ve made a change. But for thousands of years, they have chosen to remain hidden, keeping the vibranium for themselves.
Many people have argued Killmonger was right. And certainly, he had his points. It’s true – Wakanda could and should have helped American black folks and black folks all around the world combat racism (more on this in just a moment). However, it’s his execution of these beliefs, and the way he goes about it, that makes him wrong. Killmonger was, quite literally, a “warmonger”. Each of the scars on his skin were people he has killed. He was a killing machine, literally refusing to stop until every last person associated with white supremacy was dead. He acted more on anger than drive, thoughtfulness, care, and personality, like Nakia.
Nakia, played by Lupita Nyong’o, has a similar mindset to Killmonger. She believes Wakanda has the tools to liberate black people all around the world. But rather than going into those places guns blazing, Nakia has chosen to take the more salient route. In the beginning of the film, she liberates a squadron of girls taken by, presumably, sex traffickers in Nigeria. She is a spy all around the world, going on missions in places like South Korea and even America to check on the well-being of black folks in those regions. “Other countries do it,” argues Nakia hotly at one point. “We could do it better.” And she is absolutely right – Wakanda could, and should do it.
Nakia has some more political gems in the film. During a scene where T’Challa is roughing up Klaue, she pulls him aside. “The world is watching,” she remarks, as people stand by with cameras and video phones. This is a metaphor for how black people cannot be angry in certain circles, for they will be seen a certain way. Moreso, she is the only one to pocket a helping of the magic herb after Killmonger burns it all to the ground. She, truly, should be queen; she’s the smartest among them.
Nakia realizes Killmonger’s ideology much more completely and in a way that makes sense. Not only that, she is free of the toxicity that plagues his every move (need I remind you how callously he treats Black women in the film, killing his girlfriend in cold blood and not hesitating to choke up an elderly tribal chief?) I can assume, since his activism clearly does not include Black women, that it wouldn’t include Black LGBT+ folks like me either. Which makes him not only a flawed villain but a hotep, in every sense of the word.
There have been some arguments that Killmonger’s portrayal is problematic because it presents the angry, rebellious black man as a threat to society. And while there’s some truth to that, it also must be called to recollection that Killmonger was a threat to society. He certainly wasn’t doing what he was doing for all black folks, and his plan was carelessly executed and not thought out. He ended up getting himself killed, rather than actually achieving anything in the long run. Tell me: if you are not a straight, cisgender black man, would you have marched with Killmonger?
Then there are the actual contents of his plan, which could be a whole other discussion in and of itself. To keep it simple, here I will simply say that it’s foolhardy and flawed. Simply giving weapons to oppressed people will not work if said people have no direction or plan. The weapons would likely be confiscated and turned into the US army, where they would be sold off or used to kill even more Africans, thereby serving imperialism in the end.
Nakia’s ideas were much more thought out and coherent. The only reason she isn’t being given the same spotlight as Killmonger is because she’s a woman. Period.
Onto yet another hot topic of discussion: the film’s third act. CIA agent Everett K Ross, played by Martin Freeman, is an old friend of T’Challa’s in the comics who has covered for him and protected his secret for a long time. In a fight when Killmonger breaks Klaue free, Ross takes a bullet for Nakia and is on his deathbed, and T’Challa uses Wakandan tech to heal him. They bring him back to Wakanda (giving Shuri some beautiful gems of lines; “Don’t scare me like that, colonizer!” is something I want tattooed at this point) and he assists in the final battle, shooting down ships that would’ve taken Wakandan weapons to cities all over the world. Those weapons would’ve then been shared with the Wakandan spies in those regions, and Killmonger’s plan would’ve been realized.
People have called out the film for giving Agent Ross so much to do, saying that the white savior trope rears its ugly head. While there is some legitimacy to other criticisms of the film, I strongly disagree with this one. Agent Ross is already a pilot, so he knows how to fly – it isn’t like he magically swoops in and saves the day with no knowledge or capability to do so. Also, for much of the scene Shuri is directing him and telling him what to do. He doesn’t get in the way of anything else; he’s a background character, and he’s simply there to be the “token white man” of the film.
People have said it’s callous that the Wakandans would trust a CIA agent, a white one in particular, to shoot down and kill other Wakandans, but wouldn’t Shuri be doing the same thing if she’d stayed behind? Or any other Wakandan, for that matter? Okoye? W’Kabi? The plan is to stop the weapons from getting out of the border and potentially doing more harm than help – and in that moment, Agent Ross is the only one available. That’s not to say I like or care for his character – but I don’t agree he was a white savior.
And finally, the film’s ending scene. After Killmonger’s emotional death (he finally gets to see the sunsets, and has a beautiful line about the ancestors and bondage), T’Challa decides that the Wakandans have been doing things the wrong way. Who are they to sit there, comfortable, while the rest of the world suffers and starves? So he decides he’s going to do something to help: build a Wakandan outreach program, wherein Nakia will be stationed to help impoverished kids from Killmonger’s old hometown of Oakland learn more about Wakanda, learn how to create Wakandan technology, and more.
People have said that T’Challa’s plan at the end of the film made no sense, but I think it makes perfect sense. It’s not a “when they go low, we go high” at all; it’s simply providing opportunities for black folks when the white world will not. T’Challa is a wealthy billionaire, with the resources to bring food and clothes to impoverished black kids. He can help those with some money by providing scholarships. Maybe black kids can study abroad in Wakanda and learn more about African culture? And the use of the science and technology portions of the outreach program headed up by Shuri, can be used for her to spread her genius and have more black kids aspiring to things like math and science. In the long run, T’Challa’s plan will have much more of a benefit.
Sure, it doesn’t totally obliterate white supremacy, capitalism, and imperialism. But would Killmonger have done that, either? Both men have flawed ideas about what Wakanda “helping” black people truly means, but both also have good ideas. And T’Challa is certainly on the right path when the film ends.
And Wakanda itself. Wow. If the country truly existed, there would be no more living anywhere else for me. I think a lot of black folks can agree. If Wakanda was real – an African city that thrives technologically, totally free of capitalism, colonialism and white supremacy, where Black women, LGBTQ+ folks, disabled folks and more can not only be accepted, but survive and thrive – I would move there in a heartbeat, and never look back. Simply opening Wakandan borders to black folks around the world is a tremendous middle finger to the white supremacist system in and of itself – one Shuri would be proud of.
“We are home,” Okoye remarks softly as T’Challa’s hovercraft moves through the Wakandan forcefields. And truly, those three words could not be more accurate. Black Panther beckons to a blackness that is stronger than any of the systems fighting hard to oppress it.