Vibrant, African-inspired outfits. Technological ‘magic.’ Soundtracks infused with the union of coast-to-coast authentic African beats and contemporary hip-hop and R&B. The affirming representation of native African cultures and languages, pitted against the vivid backdrop of present day African American neighbourhoods. These are only some of the things that make Black Panther such a ground-breaking film.
With Black Panther swiftly climbing the ladder, becoming the highest-grossing film in North America and the highest-grossing film ever made by a black director, there’s a reason why people are seeing it over and over again. Not only is it the first of its kind to play on the big screen, or even just a great superhero movie, it’s also a powerful social commentary on the black perspective and the tense ethnic divides among black people.
At the very beginning of the film, Black Panther addresses an issue that many of us had forgotten about. When the film was released in Canada on February 16th, more than one hundred of the Nigerian schoolgirls abducted by Boko Haram still hadn’t been returned to their homes. Black Panther made a bold first step by showing that #BringBackOurGirls was still important, even if news outlets had long forgotten about them.
Not only does Black Panther bring awareness to the plight of young women overseas in Nigeria, it also touches on issues concerning women in film. It portrays its key female characters in an empowering light, rather than as oversexualized fighters in miniskirts – something uncommon for Hollywood blockbusters. There’s Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), the activist who refuses to settle on the throne as T’Challa’s Queen until she can help people in need outside of Wakanda, and T’Challa’s younger sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright), whose tech-savvy intelligence keeps the complex systems of Wakanda running, and who designs the gadgets used in combat. These women, and other female cast members like Okoye (Danai Gurira) and Ramonda, T’Challa’s mother (Angela Basset), are the powerhouses of the film.
When it comes to race, Black Panther is packed with so many hidden references, you might miss them if you don’t look closely enough. One of the first overt messages about race that Black Panther presents regards the mistrust and criminalization of black men, which we see during the museum scene. As Killmonger (Michael. B. Jordan) looks at some of the West African artifacts in the museum and is approached by a white museum guide who answers the questions he already has the answers to, it’s clear what’s going on. Before she dies from being poisoned by Killmonger, he tells her, “You got all the security in here watching me ever since I walked in, but you ain’t checking for what you put in your body.” For a lot of black men, this scene hits close to home. Racial profiling in North America is entrenched in the experiences of young black men, and knowing this, the creators of the film highlight this issue by having Killmonger use an expected form of prejudice to his advantage.
“Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from ships, ’cause they knew death was better than bondage.” — Erik Killmonger
Another theme that seems to be a constant backdrop in the film is the divide between native Africans and African Americans/other members of the black diaspora. Represented intricately through T’Challa and Killmonger, the question of whether or not native Africans have a responsibility to reach out and support members of the African diaspora – separated forcefully through slavery – is present throughout the entire film. Killmonger represents a black population removed from their homes, heritage, and culture, dealing with the pain of rejection not only from their native land, but from a Western society that sees them as both “less-than” and “other.”
This is sharply juxtaposed with the story of T’Challa. Although cousins, T’Challa was privileged to live an entirely different life from that of Killmonger. T’Challa is not only a king but enveloped in the life and ways of his culture. He understands his native tongue and is rooted in his identity as an African. Simply put, he belongs. Both characters’ histories are intrinsically tied to how they believe Wakanda should help the rest of the world. Although marred by the pain of his past, Killmonger’s intentions come from a place of truth. In the scene where he meets T’Challa face-to-face in Wakanda, he speaks a sharp truth that many Africans today still reject: “Ya’ll sitting up here comfortable. Must feel good. It’s about two billion people all over the world that look like us, but their lives are a lot harder.” To this, T’Challa responds that it is not his or his nation’s duty to help people who are not their own. The scene begs several questions. Do African nations today or in the past even have the resources to help those of the African diaspora? Do Africans see others in the black diaspora as ones of their own, or as “others”?
Throughout the film, Killmonger and T’Challa also represent another issue that is still fervent in the black community: the two sides of the civil rights movement in America. It’s absolutely no coincidence that Killmonger grew up in Oakland, California, which was also the birthplace of the Black Panther Party. Formed after the assassination of prominent black nationalist Malcolm X, the Black Panther Party stood for black pride, self-defence, and demanded the civil rights of African Americans. Seen by the police and often portrayed in media as the more violent side of the civil rights movement, it’s easy to see Killmonger as a symbol of Malcolm X and the party that arose after his death, and T’Challa as the more popular, politically neutral symbol that was Martin Luther King Jr. Both activists were driven by their desire to see their people succeed but had different visions of how that should happen.
Not only does Black Panther work to address issues pertaining to politics and history, but also those concerning the home. With black homes in America often portrayed as broken and lacking a fatherly presence, Black Panther changes the narrative by showcasing the importance of fathers in the family structure, especially in black families. It’s both interesting and moving to see how, according to Wakandan tradition, before one can become King, they have to visit their ancestral plane. For both T’Challa and Killmonger, this means communing with their fathers. When T’Challa sees his father, he kneels as a sign of honour and respect, but his father lifts him up and tells him to stand because he is now a King. The scene shows how important it is for a man to have a father as a guiding role model – not only to provide emotional or financial support, but to pass on the “crown,” so to speak, and ensure that one’s son is ready to take on the role of protector and provider.
Unlike any other Marvel film made before, Black Panther manages to captivate us in the magic of a fictional world we all wish was real, while awakening us to the harsh realities of race that are still present in the communities around us. This film is not only an entertainment masterpiece, but also a tool for enlightening us about the complexities of blackness.