Black Panther is breaking records, and setting standards for the messages superhero films can share while still being popcorn entertainment. In short, Black Panther has taken Marvel storytelling to another level. If you haven’t seen it yet, you owe it to yourself to watch T’Challa’s story unfold on the big screen. If you have, I invite you to the conversation begun by my ScreenFish colleague, Chris Utley, here, which I’ll approach from a different angle now.
While the Fast & Furious franchise has done wonders for getting a multicultural cast in a big budget film, Black Panther is stunning for its African-centric storyline and the power with which the female roles are empowered. There is much to be learned, considered, and discussed about the way that Western society has lost sight of the creativity and strength of the African cultures, reflected through Wakanda as five tribes not as a homogenous mass. There is a fantastically creative dissection of the way that violence, paternalism, and racism have directed the formations of governments and societies in Africa, the United States, and around the world. But to fail to see the other angle – that the women don’t just diversify the film, they lead it – would be a disservice to T’Challa’s story, and that of Ryan Coogler’s film.
Yes, Chadwick Boseman is his normal terrific self, and Coogler’s Creed star, Michael B. Jordan as Killmonger, chews up screen time and spits it out in giant bites. (Winston Duke’s M’Baku provides a substantial chunk of the humor, and wisdom/grace, of the film in a supporting role.) But while villains in Marvel films are often given the most interesting lines, the most captivating parts, it’s the women in Wakanda who show us the power of what a nation of equality and grace could look like.
Lupita Nyong’o plays T’Challa’s love interest, but she’s more than that – she’s a slave-liberating spy who kicks butt on her own as Nakia; her ‘opposite’ in style is the Wakanda-loving bodyguard, Okoye (Danai Gurira), whose loyalty to the Wakandan throne challenges her own sense of right and wrong. These two are two-thirds of the heart of the film, joined by T’Challa’s ‘kid’ sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright), who at sixteen oversees the technological advances Wakanda has at its disposal.
But, let’s be clear, Black Panther is not a dynamic, thought-provoking film solely because it seems to jointly answer #metoo and #oscarssowhite. It’s a film that also raises several questions about the way we deal with our past, and how that impacts our future.
First, it deals with the way, way back past. Killmonger is angry, and rightfully so. He wants to know how a king could kill and then leave without cleaning up the mess made. He wants to know what will happen if the minorities around the world, if the displaced Africans who were dragged elsewhere as slaves, were armed in the way that made their oppressors tremble. This is Nat Turner’s rebellion with Wakandan military prowess, and it is necessarily violent. But it also raises questions about how there is violence between whites and blacks, and how there is black-on-black violence with a cycle going unbroken, simply swept away by the victors. Yes, there’s the formation of the Black Panther (protest, not superhero) movement in Oakland where tragedy sends Killmonger and T’Challa (by default) on different trajectories, and there are illusions to the slave trade, but this is also about personal piety and repentance. T’Challa proves to be king in his humility, and his resolve, to do better than what had been done before.
Second, it deals with the present. There is certainly a sense that in the past, the Wakandans had ‘circled the wagons,’ worried about how their society might be trampled or contaminated by outsiders. [This is a great commentary on the church, too – for fear of being watered down or distracted or (gasp!) drawn into sin – the church has avoided wading in with its resources and power to solve problematic situations and lead well.] T’Challa is given several choices in how to handle his nation’s power, and he ultimately decides that he’s blessed to be a blessing, that he’s called to serve for the good of all.
And third, Black Panther deals with the future. In one of its most dynamic scenes (ironically, the film seems to slow down for action and ramp up for dialogue and sociological examination), T’Challa offers Killmonger redemption, saying that restoration, healing even, is still possible. Of course, Killmonger refuses, choosing to die as a martyr in his own mind, alongside those he angrily attempted to stand for in his actions against Wakanda. While this does not end peacefully/happily/politely, it is a reminder that even in the midst of all of the things we face, we can still choose to extend our hand in peace to others, even if they don’t take it. [For the record, M’Baku has already nailed this, choosing to lay aside an organizational squabble to serve on the side of the ‘right,’ recognizing that good of country and ideals weighs more heavily than title.]
In the end, Black Panther throws down the gauntlet, daring filmmakers to do better, to tell better stories, to entertain and move. But it also throws its gloves down at our feet and asks us, what are you doing with the power that has been given to you? Are you clutching it tight, or letting it go so that it can return to you a thousand times more?