I was afraid of writing this review because I wanted to love Black Panther just as much as everyone else did. The movie is not bad, in fact it is mostly good, and some aspects are great. But I think my anxiety about wanting to like the movie the way everyone else did is missing the point. Black Panther does not need to be the best film of all time, it just needed to be good enough. The “good” threshold is so subjective and diminishing. By “good enough,” I mean that a movie with this many eyes on it has already accomplished a major part of its goal, representing black people in a positive light to the world at large. In other words, a mainstream black superhero that doesn’t suck. My issues with the film come from my high expectations, because I hold films by people of color (for people of color) to a higher standard. But again, that’s not the point. The point of Black Panther is that it is a huge moment for black people. Black Panther is a source of strength and positive representation of and for black people like no other film before it.
The dichotomy of T’Challa and Killmonger mirrors the dichotomy of civil rights activism – nonviolent vs. “militant.” Killmonger challenges T’Challa’s rule, accusing him of not doing enough for the international black diaspora. Killmonger’s worldview is influenced by his harsh upbringing in Oakland. Killmonger wants Wakanda, with its infinite resources and strength, to do more for black people around the world. Killmonger’s ideology of “might is right” mirrors the hierarchical structure of the Black Panthers. In her book, A Taste of Power, Elaine Brown outlines the hierarchical structure of the Black Panthers and the way power was distributed, much of which was linked to masculinity e.g. might is right. This overcompensation of masculine energy was an attempt to exert power as a response to the emasculation of black men during slavery, hence the development of hyper masculinity. Killmonger inherits this idea of masculine power related to the black experience. He wants better for black people around the world “by any means necessary,” violence is a means to an end. He disrupts the existing power structure of Wakanda, of which women were integral. As Killmonger takes the crown he establishes that his rule will be dictated by him alone lessening women’s role in the power structure. This is seen when he disregards Okoye’s advice when she reminds him of Wakanda’s traditions. Nonetheless, Killmonger’s goal of helping the international black diaspora is noble. He took his rough upbringing and decided to be an agent of change, even if it was through toxic channels of masculinity. This complex is an important part of the Black Panthers as they were more “radical” than their nonviolent counterparts but they still fought for similar goals.
In contrast, T’Challa is a great warrior but does not have the same approach as Killmonger. Though, he is not completely nonviolent, T’Challa’s approach is seen as more acceptable by the end of the film, like MLK. The reason why MLK is seen as a national hero today is because there was something to weigh him against. Especially considering how his activism was seen as “radical” before the Black Panthers came into the picture. Additionally the importance of this dichotomy is seen by the film’s end, when T’Challa accepts, at least in part, the merit of Killmonger’s ideology. This theme is striking for several reasons. It presents a nuanced approach to the black experience in Wakanda and the U.S. and the ways they intersect, while simultaneously paying homage to black history. T’Challa and Killmonger are opposites in their approach yet extremely similar in their fight.
The depiction of Wakanda coupled with Killmonger’s story shows a Prometheus narrative. Similar to the world of Wonder Woman, Themyscira, Wakanda is a hidden African nation. In spite of being cut off from the world, Wakanda is a highly advanced nation. This is a subversion of the idea that African nations are seens as backwards or underdeveloped countries. Wakanda thrives because it does not interact with the world at large, in particular the west. In other words, Wakanda does not need a Western idea of modernity, for they are doing well, if not better, on their own. Nonetheless, the reclusive nation faces a culture shock as Killmonger challenges their ideology. Killmonger accuses them of not helping other black people around the world. He argues that their negligence is irresponsible. Killmonger’s ideology of social responsibility makes him noble. So much so, that it is hard to know whether or not he is even a villain. Killmonger wants to steal the Promethean flame and share it with suffering black bodies around the world. Though, his rule might be violent and, at times, harsh he still fights for the betterment of all black people. Wakanda focuses on the the mirco – the wellbeing of Wakandans – and Killmonger on the macro – the wellbeing of all black bodies.
Black Panther truly understands the importance of strong women characters. From the beginning of the film the audience understands that T’Challa’s support system consists of mostly women. Okoye, played exceptionally by Danai Gurira, is his guardian angel and bodyguard. She is a servant to the crown but has a strong allegiance to T’Challa. Okoye shows her strength and restraint during the regime change. She is noble, powerful, and fierce. Shuri, played by Letitia Wright, is T’Challa’s sister and Wakanda’s leading scientist. She is goofy, extremely smart, and eager. Nakia, Lupita Nyong’o, is T’Challa’s old flame but is so much more. She is an independent agent who does not subscribe to the older practices of Wakanda, specifically hiding from the world. On the scale of the dichotomy – T’Challa vs. Killmonger – she falls in the moderate category (something like a James Baldwin, in between MLK and Malcolm X or Huey Newton). In that, she understands why Wakanda hides but still chooses to help other black people outside Wakanda. Black Panther gives voice and agency to black women, an underrepresented group in film, especially the superhero genre.
Black Panther is one of the most important films of 2018. It wholeheartedly understands the importance of portraying black people in a nuanced way. My biggest issues comes from some of the technical aspects of the film. Some of the CGI looked clunky and obvious. The fights scenes weren’t as engaging as I would have hoped. The comedy in the film fell flat most of the time. Yes, the film has problems, but the story and writing of the film are far more important. The film’s presentation of the dichotomy between T’Challa and Killmonger are powerful. Black Panther shows the benefits of strong women characters. Marvel has had a problem with villains but Black Panther presents a captivating anatongist. Maybe Black Panther was not the greatest film of all time. But that isn’t the point. The point is that it is a huge moment for mainstream black representation.
3.5 or low 4/5