After all our waiting and hope, Black Panther delivers.
SPOILERS! SPOILERS SPOILERS!
THE SIZE OF GIANT WELL-TRAINED BATTLE RHINOS AHEAD!
YOU BEEN WARNED!
So unless you’ve been trapped under a rock in Latveria, you know that a movie about Wakanda’s favorite son has taken over theaters. From New York to Brazil to Puerto Rico to Accra and Nairobi, Black Panther showed up and Black folks showed out. I don’t think I’ve seen a Diaspora cultural moment like this in a long while. And it was damn beautiful.
So, I’m not going to make this long. Because after all, everybody’s got their reviews and think pieces and what not. Just going to say a few points, and let you go on your way.
Rating: A Gotdamn A!
Before Black Panther came out, there was nervous and anxious excitement. It’s a creative endeavor after all. And even a good story line can FLOP. Need I remind you of the horror and travesty that was The Last Airbender? (AVERT YOUR EYES!) On twitter I saw someone voice our greatest fears: “What if the movie’s terrible?” The stoic answer was, “Then we fake it family. We fake it.” But we don’t have to fake it. With Ryan Coogler at the helm and an all-star cast out of Black dreams, the movie did its job. It did everything it needed to and then some. It did everything it should do, and more. It. just. delivered. Period.
Some of us been waiting to see Wakanda on the screen for decades. When Avengers 2 had its brief moment in Africa, folk were so desperate some were wondering Wakanda? Those in the know were like, naaah. We know what Wakanda look like. We got our first glimpse at the end of Captain America: Civil War. A damn tease! But mouth-watering. This time we got to see it in full: a Wakanda spread out before us in all its Afrofuturist glory. Not only was it designed like the futurist city we’d expect it to be, it came with a distinct African aesthetic. This wasn’t something out of a western motif with some kente or mudcloth slapped on it. If you paid close attention, there were hints of African-geometric designs and architecture everywhere, both ancient and modern. As designers Hannah Beachler and Ruth Carter put it: “We started digging deeper and grabbing textures from Timbuktu scaffolding and Mali pyramids…The city also has a district called Steptown, where the hipsters wear clothes with, Carter says, “an Afro-Punk feel.” The unique nature of it all–down to ships that looked and moved like locusts–was refreshingly original. Wakanda, as I’d hoped, doesn’t look all clean and white like a Macbook. It doesn’t look like something out of Star Wars or Blade Runner either. It looks, like it should.
How to make a comic book movie that isn’t just another origin story that no one wants to sit through? You tell a classic tale of an inexperienced ruler doubtful of his power while forces threaten his kingdom. And you make him earn that throne. The back story of Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) and his attempt to bring down T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) was that classic–but told against the setting of the African Diaspora, and the legacies of slavery, colonialism, estrangement, and race. The narrtive made sure it kept going. Not at breakneck speeds, but at a decent clip to keep your interest. And it ends with the satisfying feeling you get when a storyteller does their job well. It’s been said there was a FOUR hour version of this film, before it was edited. Hey Marvel Studios: release the 4 hour version. We’ll watch it. We’ll even go back to the theater. Make it happen.
Trust Black Women
It’s been said by many, but Black Panther has done more for women in the super hero genre than probably any other movie with superheroes. Yes, even Wonder Woman. Sorry, DC. From Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) to the genius scientist and inventor Shuri (Letitia Wright) to OF COURSE, everyone’s favorite warriors the Dora Milaje, (invented in 1998 by writer Christopher Priest and modeled after Black supermodels Tyra Banks and Naomi Campbell), women were a prime force in this film. They weren’t just the power behind the throne. They pushed, pulled, lifted and held up the hero. They were like endless Hermiones, but who could also fight and whoop ass. I mean Okoye (Danai Gurira) was beating folk down with her wig and Nakia wrecked shop in some heels! Shuri was like the inventor dude for 007. But younger. And with better tech. And great one-liners. What made Black Panther so thrilling was that it emphasized the group, the village, the community, of which these women were central. The film might be named after the hero, but without these Black women around him he’d (literally) be dead.
An African Grab-Bag
Someone I know from Nigeria said watching BP was like watching an African grab-bag. There was stuff from multiple cultures. The clothing was a mishmash of various fabrics and styles. The actors all had different accents divided by countries and regions. There were ethnic groups blended together. The Dora Miljae alone were a cross between the “Amazons” of Dahomey and Massai warriors. She called it “dizzying” to her senses. And of course it was. Black Panther, despite its origins by two white guys (Stan Lee and Jack Kirby) in 1966, has gone on to take a life of its own in the Black imagination. It was picked up by Black writers like Christopher Priest and Reginald Hudlin, who imbued it with Afrocentric, anti-colonial, Black meaning. It’s long been infused with more meaning from fans, and by other writers from Ta-Nehisi Coates to Roxanne Gay. Like the Pan-Africanism that defines it (whose modern origins trace to figures like the Trinidadian Henry Sylvester-Williams) the idea of Wakanda is a thing born in the West, by descendants of Africa ripped from their natal homeland and put on slave ships bound for distant, unknown shores. It is part Countee Cullen’s Heritage asking, “What is Africa to me?” and the syncretism of Candomble in Brazil or Vodun in Haiti. It is Fela’s Afrobeat reaching out from the continent to touch the many Black musical/cultural styles of the Diaspora, to bring them back home to create something new. It’s why my Grenadian wife is in love with Afro-Soca. So yeah. It’s a hodgepodge. It’s a grab-bag. And that’s what makes it so beautiful.
Perhaps one of the greatest things this film did was recast some of the problematic features of the earlier Black Panther comic books–something black writers been doing since Christopher Priest. Case in point, the supervillain Man-Ape who first appeared in Avengers #62 (March 1969), the creation of Marvel writers Roy Thomas and John Buscema. Man-Ape, whose name is M’Baku, is a rival to T’Challa. He gained his superpowers after killing a scared white gorilla and bathing in his blood. He aso leads a society that practices strange exotic rituals, and whose ultimate aim is to conquer Wakanda and return it to state of “primitivism.” Yeah. Suffice it to say, Man-Ape comes with lots of problems. It’s almost as if, with Africa as a backdrop, Marvel couldn’t help going all Joseph Conrad Heart of Darkness meets noble savage trope. Given the long derogatory association of Black people with other primates, it was always wince-worthy. It seems Ryan Coogler and the writers thought the same, and wasn’t having any of it. They actually managed to give M’Baku a new life. He’s still a rival. The association with the gorilla is still there, though no one calls him Man-Ape. Thank the gods. And he’s no noble savage. He even makes a joke at a white character’s expense threatening cannibalism, only to point out that he and his people are actually vegetarians. Actor Winston Duke brings a sense of gravitas to M’Baku and humanity that’s long been missing. In the end, he even shows up like some Eagles in Middle Earth to save the day–and is granted a place in Wakanda. A reminder that sometimes all you need is someone with a different perspective to set some problems right.
I probably like Black Panther in part just because of all the Black Joy it was bringing. All the dashikis and waxprint headwraps and put-together digs. All the excitement. You seen these kids dancing when they found out they were going to see the film? And this dude that came as King Jaffe Joffer from Coming to America? Look at these young Dora Miljae! Gah! How can you see that and not be happy to be Black and alive in these Black times? It was a global Black celebration, and all you needed for the invite was the skin you were born in. Yes, yes. Everyone else is welcome too. (Wakanda is accepting 3-day visas. Just don’t touch nothing). But this was something special for Black folks. And Coogler knew it, because there were some Diaspora level Black jokes interspersed throughout. From Killmonger’s “Hey Auntie” to Nakia’s “Don’t scare me like that, colonizer!” You might get them jokes if you ain’t Black. But they really spoke to who this movie thought was its most important audience.
One of the most frustrating things about liking a new Black star in Hollywood, has often been the fear you’d never see them again. Case in point, ever wondered what became of Tyrin Turner? Not familiar? He played Caine in the 1993 film Menace II Society. Acted his ass off. Everyone was sure he’d be destined for great things. And then nothing happened. Read that sad story here. Honestly, even Larenz Tate didn’t become the super megastar we expected. Meanwhile, Brendon Fraser is invited back for The Mummy in Space. That’s whiteness and political economy 101. Black Panther had lots of big established names like Angela Bassett and Forrest Whitaker. It also had names of folks who are doing well right now, from Chadwick Boseman to Lupita Nyong’o to Michael B. Jordan. But there were also some new names, among them Winston Duke (M’Baku, who has fueled 100 erotic Twitter threads) and the lesser known Letitia Wright (Nakia). Hoping that we get to see more of their faces in more things going forward. Make them the breakout stars they deserve to be.
The usual man-children were crying that Black Panther wasn’t diverse. Forget that there were two prominent white characters in the film, because there was lots of other diversity. Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Angela Bassett, Forrest Whitaker and others in the cast were African-American. Letitia Wright is from Guyana. Winston Duke is from Trinidad and Tobago. Dani Gurira’s parents are from Zimbabwe. Lupita Nyong’o is Kenyan-Mexican (yup. look it up). Daniel Kaluuya is a British actor from Uganda. Florence Kusumba (Captain Ayo) is a German actress from Uganda. Atandwa Kani (who plays T’Challa’s father’s younger self) is South African. Another of the Dora Miljae, Sydelle Noel, is from Grenada. And I’ll stop, but there’s more. That’s four continents and two Caribbean islands. Pretty damn diverse if you ask me. Next.
Killmonger was Wrong. AS HELL.
Let me say my piece on this whole Killmonger thing. There’s been an argument made that Killmonger, in his revolutionary politics, “was right.” There were some who saw Killmonger’s attempt to start the Black revolution on a global scale and said, “what’s the problem?” He’s picking up arms to fight against the oppressor, instead of sitting back chilling in Wakanda. How is that wrong? As someone said, “Let me find out there’s some N-words hiding under a magic sheet while the rest of us out here catching hell…see what happens! ” (sorry, can’t remember who. but family, that’s hilarious!). I empathize with the sentiment. It’s a new version of Magneto was Right. There was even a decent critique I thought of how Killmonger’s failure in the end fits the age-old Hollywood trope of silencing Black radicalism. And that it diminishes African-American male characters by portraying Killmonger as a “thug” who tattoos up his body with each kill. Check it out here.
I see your argument. But I’mma have to respectfully disagree. And here’s why.
Killmonger was a Monster. He wasn’t (as that article insinuates) supposed to be a product of the American streets. He was a product of American militarism–like Al Simmons or, worse, Chapel. He was trained to destabilize governments. He used African scarifications to show off all the people around the world, some his “own brothers and sisters” he’d killed as a tool of western imperialism. And he would bring those same horrors, along with his personal demons, to Wakanda. Killmonger talked a good game of revolution, but he was also ready to kill the very folk he claimed to want to save who didn’t go along. He’d kill a million Wakandans if it meant it would further his ends. Hell, he brutalized more Black women alone. That’s not revolutionary. That’s megalomania and toxic masculinity masquerading as radicalism. Killmonger wasn’t Huey P. Newton (early Huey); he was more Idi Amin: using anti-colonial and Pan-African rhetoric to rule with an iron fist. What would be the point of replacing one oppressor with another? In fact, a good friend of mine (a Pan-Africanist to his core) and I were chopping this up and he made a great point. Killmonger’s character wasn’t the diminishing of Black radical politics; it was the diminishing of the idea that this kind of toxic radicalism is the only way to be radical. Instead of Killmonger in the fashion of Idi Amin, or the unfortunate legacies of too many postcolonial states, what if the radical was Amílcar Cabral, or Joseph Nyerere or Patrece Lumumba or Wangari Maathai? And the film gave us someone like that–Nakia.
Nakia, like Killmonger, wanted to help the wider world. She went out and did missions to save oppressed people. She had her own radical politics. But she didn’t need mass murder, or to stage a coup, to do it. Maybe it says something that we so easily see the brash, hyper-masculine, loud, and charismatic radical politics of someone like Killmonger–but not the quiet, but no less determined, radicalism in a woman like Nakia.
And that’s all I gotta say about that. But the fact that we are having this deeper convo over a comic book, is dope AF.
No film is perfect. And while I don’t have many critiques, I got some.
(1) The use of the word tribe was prevalent throughout the film. Since the 1970s, there’s been a hope to move away from the term as a colonial relic–because, there’s really no such thing. To quote John Reader: “The idea of tribes was brought to Africa for several reasons…. It was easier to place people into categories based on perceived divisions of ethnicity than it was to try to understand the multi-layered, fluid identities that prevailed…. colonial authorities found that placing people into “tribes” with “chiefs” was an effective way of creating a political order.” I wrote about this whole thing back in 2013, in a post called “Against the Word Tribe.” The reality is though, this is a movement mostly among Africanists and African intellectuals in academia or in social activism. The moratorium on “tribe” hasn’t filtered into the public consciousness, not in the West or within African popular culture–or, at least, there’s no consensus on it. Would have been great though, if the film imagining a futurist version of Africa could have let go of that colonial vestige.
(2) Killmonger is a complex villain, and being so, he has his problematics. Even after saying all I did above, I did squirm at the optics: that the Black American guy raised in the West and outside the light of Wakanda was the monster. Yes, the movie gave itself an out in the fact that he was U.S. military-trained. That he was a product of Western imperialism and its toxicity. Still, was that out enough to take that nagging feeling away in the back of my head? Nah. Still there. Still nagging. But this is a larger problem with the concept of Wakanda that’s long existed. To have this futurist and near unspoiled Black Eden, you need its opposite: to depict the nations of our real-life Africa as utterly broken by colonialism; to create Blacks in the West who are the descendants of slaves as “deaf, dumb, and blind.” Our real-life stories are a lot more complicated than that of course. That’s what sites like Everyday Africa are trying to work against. And we in the West, whose ancestors endured the Middle Passage, have thrived as well as survived. I hope Wakanda’s new outreach takes this into account, otherwise they might end up just being new-age missionaries.
(3) Last, I wanted to see MORE of Wakanda! We ended up mostly in the throne room, or in the vibranium mines, got a few glimpses at the street life, and were treated to some great panoramas. But really wanted to see the ins-and-outs of the city. All its parts. How it works. Where regular folk live. Hell, it’s sewer systems. What kinda plumbing they got in Wakanda? What’s the local sports scene like? Ah well, maybe next time.
So those are my few random thoughts. Did I say it was gonna be short? Hey, I tried. In the meantime, if you ain’t seen Black Panther yet–go do it! If you seen it already, go do it again! And I’ll leave you with this thought that’ll give you shivers–SPIN OFFS!