The Political Subtlety of "Black Panther"

 /  Feb. 26, 2018, 4:50 p.m.

"Black Panther" director Ryan Coogler discusses his superhero blockbuster.

This review contains significant spoilers.

Marvel’s Black Panther emerges as a necessary commentary on the black experience in a Eurocentric world. Improbably infusing criticisms of slavery and oppression into a superhero story, the film gives a black director and cast control over a $200 million presentation of the black community’s continued battle to address its past with respect to European colonization.

While the central conflict in the film’s plot is a power struggle for the Wakandan throne, this conflict only arises from the desire to use the throne’s power to obliterate black oppression by waging war against white supremacy. In Black Panther, the African nation of Wakanda has relied on a supernatural metal, vibranium, to create a society far more technologically advanced than the rest of the world. They have chosen to remain hidden in Africa and pose as a third world country to the rest of the world, believing vibranium’s power too strong to risk falling into the wrong hands. The story’s villain, Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), disagrees with Wakanda’s decision to hide and stand idly by during the slave trade when vibranium technology could have defeated their oppressors. He now seeks to rectify the past with modern war. Stevens’s royal bloodline gives him the opportunity to battle his cousin T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman)—the direct descendent of the previous king—for the throne and supernatural powers of the Black Panther.

The plot asks viewers to consider whether oppression can be corrected with violence and invokes principles reminiscent of the Black Panther Party (BPP) movement in its resolution. Although the release of the Black Panther as a comic character predates the BPP’s founding and is considered untied to the movement, the Black Panther has always acted as force against white supremacy. The comic book character fought against the Ku Klux Klan in 1976 and South African authorities during Apartheid in 1988. The Black Panther acts as a moderating force, mirroring the BPP’s mission as they patrolled the actions of the Oakland Police Department. The film pays homage to the BPP in its opening by framing Stevens’s father as a black man in Oakland circa 1992 who is angered by the social prejudices and economic hardships black people in his community face.

Predictably, T’Challa does not agree with Stevens’s nuclear option to wage war against the world, but it’s easy to ask whether his solution oversimplifies the complexity of black oppression and allows Marvel to avoid coming to any controversial conclusions on the matter. Stepping away from an isolationist approach, T’Challa ventures to open Wakanda’s resources to the world. Easily alleviating the problem at hand by gratifying the clichéd message that working together is more beneficial than not, Marvel leaves much to be desired in providing a satisfactory conclusion. As commentary on black oppression, this solution may disappoint black activists for equality, suggesting that the road to equality comes by earning respect through sharing resources, intellectual or material, that are highly valued by the rest of the world.

The film succeeds in creating a villain whom viewers often find it difficult to side against. Stevens’s villainy originates from his response to black oppression. When I watched Black Panther, Stevens’s main monologue describing his quest to use vibranium as a demonstration of black power received audible support with claps and affirming remarks. It seems rare for a villain to receive praise from the audience during a film, and this serves as a testament to the film’s ability to build up crucially relatable tension. Perhaps Stevens’s final lines best describe his purpose: he asks to be thrown into the sea like his ancestors who jumped off slave ships knowing it was better to be dead than oppressed.

In Wakanda, the film imagines a nation that maintains tribal traditions despite being more technologically advanced than the rest of the world. As many films focus their conceptions of the future on traditionally Western architecture and design, Black Panther resists, signalling a recognition of African traditions as not just a part of African history, but a part of their existing culture. Film portrayals of African tribal culture too often pose unfair dichotomies with Western culture, which create a stigma suggesting tribal traditions and peoples are uncivilized. Black Panther works to eliminate such comparisons, showing that tribal culture certainly differs from Western culture, but that its differences do not qualify one as superior to the other. Wakanda offers an alternate universe, perhaps even a hypothesis about what African societies might have become without European colonization.

The focus on African rather than specifically African-American culture further exemplifies the film’s focus on the black community’s roots. Rather than framing black culture as a subset of American culture, the film depicts a unique and vibrant culture that is often marginalized or distorted in Hollywood films. This translates throughout the film, particularly in costume and set design. As a futuristic city it would have been easy for designers to fill the capital of Wakanda with skyscrapers and modern architecture, but the film resists Western ideals of the future and presents stone buildings, crowded market alleys, and open farmland in addition to futuristic high speed trains, aircrafts, and pocket hologram projectors. The advanced laboratories in Wakanda retain African flair with bright, bold wall artwork, and Wakandans wear linen kaftans or tribal garments throughout the film. The excitement among people of African descent in response to the significant attention African culture receives in the film was apparent during my viewing in Chicago. Locals wore traditional African garb and gathered for pictures after the film.

Although the movie considers important subtleties and critiques on traditional western perceptions of the black experience, the cultural significance of a black superhero cannot be overstated. As the film came to a close, three black high school boys sitting next to me began discussing which of them was most like T’Challa, the Black Panther and Wakandan king. I walked out of the theater thinking about the trivialities of such a conversation, but had to return to the theater when I realized I left my hat on the seat. The boys, still discussing the character traits of a Wakandan king, had noticed I left my hat. One of them handed me the hat and said to his friends, “See, this is why I’m T’Challa. Wakandan kings are nice, they don’t steal.” He was obviously making a joke, but his identification with the Black Panther and his virtues is a powerful example of the film’s potential influence. Never before have black boys been given a center-stage superhero who looks like them. Black Panther, which had the highest grossing first-week of any Marvel Cinematic Universe film, will receive a viewership far larger than most if not all movies with a black cast, and the role superheros play in global popular culture gives the film a wide reaching impact.

As much as the film does to represent the black community and black experience, it does not provide substantial suggestions for eliminating injustices against black people—aside from its “better together” assertion—but it acknowledges one purported solution as wrong by framing violence as ineffective and divisive. Despite shortcomings in its resolution, the film’s success as a social statement does not depend on its plot. It is the platform of a Marvel movie given to the black community as an opportunity to share their struggles, their victories, and their culture with the rest of the world as well as the empowerment it provides to its own members that result in the film’s success as a popular culture phenomenon and political thought piece.

The image featured in this article is used under the Creative Commons license. The original can be found here.

Emma Dyer

Emma Dyer is a first-year Biology and Political Science major. Last summer she interned for Centro Desarollo Integral in Costa Rica as a support group leader and English teacher for women formerly or currently involved in prostitution. On campus Emma runs for the varsity Cross Country and Track teams. She enjoys photography and always starts the day with coffee and the Times.