Unless you have been living under a rock this past year, you’ve likely heard about the excitement surrounding the film “Black Panther.” Even more likely, you’ve seen it.
The hype is not without merit. Hollywood is infamous for its colorblind superhero movies. The last Marvel superhero movie with a black lead was Wesley Snipes’ “Blade Trinity” (2004). DC Comics has never produced a Black-led superhero film. The last superhero movie with a Black lead was Will Smith’s “Hancock” (2008). While both movies had Black leads, no superhero film has ever had a majority-black cast until now.
Black Panther centers around Wakanda, a fictional country in Africa untouched by colonization, led by its new monarch T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), the Black Panther. For centuries, Wakanda has built an empire off Vibranium, a fictional precious resource. Wakanda represents itself to the outside world as a low-income, developing country. In reality, its Vibranium stock has allowed the country to amass immense wealth and create technology far superior to the rest of the world.
Instead of sharing its immense power and wealth with the outside world, Wakanda’s kings have practiced isolationism. During the sorrows of black people, its kings have gone through great lengths to maintain its illusion of poverty. Nelson Mandela is sent to prison: Wakanda is silent. Martin Luther King is shot in Memphis: Wakanda is silent. The crack epidemic rages: Wakanda is silent. Police officers shoot a 12-year old black child with a toy gun and then place his sister in handcuffs in a police car when she tries to help him: WAKANDA IS SILENT! T’Chaka, T’Challa’s father, even kills his brother and allows the foster system to raise his nephew, to conceal and maintain his country’s way of life.
There is actually a little Wakanda in all of us. We avert our eyes from the pain of others, speaking out only when directly affected. We tell these digestible stories about American history largely ignoring difficult ones, and go to great lengths to justify our beliefs in them. What does it take for you to break your silence? Will you have to be personally affected before you can speak out?
A lot has been made of the film’s villain, Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan). Director Ryan Coogler adds depth to Erik’s character that few Marvel antagonists outside of Magneto (“X-Men”) receive. Erik envisions liberating the black masses who suffer from racism and poverty, but his resentment towards Wakanda’s seclusion and disgust for their lack of empathy blinds him. Instead of pushing for Black Liberation or equality, Killmonger pushes for Black Imperialism with himself as King. He’s not thinking of successors, but purely of himself. Nevertheless, it is difficult to root against him. His last line “Just bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from ships, ’cause they knew death was better than bondage” cuts to the core. That’s a line you expect from “Roots” (1977) or “12 Years a Slave” (2013), not Marvel.
Killmonger’s vision, highlighted throughout the movie, is that with advanced technological weapons Black people can end white supremacy and the effects of colonization. His views do influence T’Challa to have Wakanda step out into the world, and hopefully liberate black people, bridging the gap between liberation and imperialism. The vast majority of history’s Black Liberation ideologists have never espoused anything close to Killmonger’s Black Imperialism, and it is unfortunate that this movie might cause filmgoers to conflate Killmonger’s ideology with historical context.
Coogler does an excellent job of highlighting the divide between Africans and African Americans. T’Challa, has grown up wealthy and free of the world’s problems. Killmonger was orphaned, working class, and transforms into a super-soldier. Klaue, a secondary villain, says to Killmonger: “To them, you’ll just be an outsider. You’re crazy to think that you can just walk in there.” This highlights the disconnect and distrust between Africans and African Americans.
On April 1, 2018, Black Panther became the highest grossing superhero film in the history of the U.S. box office. Currently, it’s the tenth highest grossing film of all time and continues to rise. The film’s success is a huge win for representation in mainstream America. Studios and executives can no longer deny there is an audience for Black-casted films that depict non-slavery narratives. Nor can they deny that people want new stories, new points of view, even if they are hard to digest. Wakanda pulled back the curtain, it’s time for Hollywood to do the same.
Jayson Dawkins is a first year MPP student interested in health policy and film.