Black Heroes Matter

February 22, 2018

The success of a movie like Black Panther that is actually made from a Black perspective marks a milestone for mainstream culture, writes Amy Muldoon.

MARVEL'S BEST movie is here, and it's Black. And Proud.

It's not worried about mainstream audiences or focus groups or your racist white uncle. Black Panther is an unrepentant anthem to how much better the world is when Black people show up, really show up, as themselves.

When Queen Angela Bassett (which should just be her name on screen and off from here on in) yells, "Show him who you really are!" in an early fight, she is speaking the central theme of the movie.

Black Panther is being embraced by critics of all races as a triumph and the Marvel Cinematic Universe's first real masterpiece. After years of people clamoring about the marginal place of Black heroes in that universe, Marvel has gone from zero to 60.

Other Black heroes would have been safe bets for stand-alone movies, but Black Panther was born in controversy. Created in 1966 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the character was a direct response to the civil rights movement and introduced an African character who clearly equal--or superior--to his teammates on the Avengers.

Lupita Nyong’o (left) and Chadwick Boseman star in the film Black Panther
Lupita Nyong’o (left) and Chadwick Boseman star in the film Black Panther

Despite a racist backlash at the time, Marvel backed the character, giving him his own title in 1973. When it came to make the movie, Marvel Studios doubled down by hiring Ryan Coogler, writer and director of Fruitvale Station, a dramatization of the last day of the life of 22-year-old police brutality victim Oscar Grant, to write and direct Black Panther.

UNLIKE OTHER superheroes, the Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) doesn't have a secret identity--at least not when he's at home in Wakanda, the fictional nation where he is King T'Challa. Instead, the entire country has a secret identity, as a poverty-stricken nation of farmers and herders.

The nation is a three-dimensional thought experiment on what a self-sufficient African nation, untrammeled by imperialism, would be like. Technology is available to, but not impressed upon, the citizens of Wakanda. This is thanks to the presence of vibranium, a near magical metal only found in their mountains.

Most Wakandans continue to live as their ancestors did, embedded in ancient traditions and in harmony with the land. But their beaded bracelets are also holographic projectors--the Marvel Universe's answer to combined and uneven development.

Review: Movies

Black Panther, written and directed by Ryan Coogler, based on the comic by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, starring Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan and Lupita Nyong'o.

It's not just that (almost) everyone on screen is Black and geniuses and amazing, but Black Panther is an explicitly anti-racist movie. That Wakandans abroad must pass as less than they are is an unsubtle mirror to the daily reality of people living in racist societies.

The movie takes aim at racist perceptions about Africans: cannibals, backward farmers and savages who "don't deserve" the resources on their continent. The history of the CIA in Africa is a one-word joke at the expense of the only sympathetic white character.

America in Black Panther isn't the home of the Avengers, it's the land of Black mass incarceration, poverty and suffering. More than showing audiences a hero who looks like them, Black Panther grapples with the experiences that moviegoers have had.

The cast members have all brought their A game, and are loving every minute of it. Boseman has both gravitas and warmth--not surprising, as he's a one-actor Black History Month, having played Jackie Robinson, Thurgood Marshall and James Brown.

The usual recipe of the one exceptional woman in a world of men is inverted--T'Challa is a man in a world of exceptional women.

There's Okoye (Danai Gurira), head of the elite royal bodyguard, the Dora Milaje, who mutters "Guns, so primitive" before defeating a moving SUV with a spear; super scientist/sister to the king Shuri (Letitia Wright), who is having way too much fun designing and driving remote control Lexuses; the regal and iconic Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett), about whom no one would ever confuse compassion for weakness; and Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o), a spy for Wakanda and recent ex of T'Challa, who isn't afraid to argue with kings and generals.

And these women collaborate: socially, politically and when necessary militarily. There are no crabs in this barrel.

Embodying the essence of Western corruption, violence and greed is Andy Serkis as Ulysses Klaue, an arms dealer who has stolen vibranium. Famous for his performance off screen as CGI villains and monsters (Gollum, King Kong, Snoke), Serkis puts his often ridiculous face to good use wreaking mayhem in the streets of Busan.

T'CHALLA ISN'T troubled by his powers or his responsibilities to his people, having been raised to succeed his father as Black Panther. His struggle with the superhero cliché "with great power comes great responsibility" is about Wakanda's responsibility to the rest of the world, particularly people of African heritage.

Nakia is the voice for opening up Wakanda and sharing its resources, despite the risks this poses to their peaceful society. For Black people, whose success always feels contingent and whose gifts are always under threat of exploitation in a racist world, this is a particularly fraught dynamic.

That quandary comes knocking in the person of Erik Killmonger, played with explosive charisma by Michael B. Jordan. Jordan, who played Coogler's Oscar Grant in Fruitvale Station, is stunning, physically and emotionally.

Quite literally scarred by the path he carved to Wakanda to take the throne, he embodies a very American, very Black brand of despair and rage. The contrast between his brutal swagger and T'Challa's young-Nelson Mandela-cool expresses not only the cultural diversity within the Black diaspora, but the very distinct impacts of racism.

Killmonger brings to life the famous Baldwin quote, "The victim who can articulate the situation of the victim has ceased to be a victim: he or she has become a threat." He answers Langston Hughes' epic question about a "dream deferred"--and answers it with a degree from MIT and a machete.

Killmonger is the prototypical hero in the world of superheroes. Driven by righteous anger, he has made himself into a living weapon to avenge a very personal (getting spoilery here) past wrong. But this is Black Panther, not The Punisher, and this is a movie about racism and revolution, not just personal retribution.

Killmonger is both wholly sympathetic and a stand-in for American foreign policy, a role of no small complexity, but one that Jordan kills so absolutely dead that even a comic book can't bring it back.

Killmonger is sure to be the center of a wave of think pieces on Black Panther, written as he is by Coogler to express the rage of being locked out of a heaven you know to exist. In Black Panther, this might mean Wakanda, but it's the daily experience of every oppressed person living in the most class-divided society in the world.

Part of the power of Black Panther is how it simultaneously captures our greatest aspirations, for a society free of war and oppression, and our current reality, of a society that drives people to violence under the weight of that oppression. We might want to be like T'Challa or Nakia, but probably we are a little closer to Erik.

A LIST of what Coogler and company manage to bring into play would take many viewings to assemble, but suffice it to say that it spans everything, from how foreign interventions destabilize peaceful tribal relations, to micro-aggressions at the museum, to what a pain in the ass wearing a wig can be.

That the creative team managed to blend the politics and fantasy elements so seamlessly is remarkable. Coogler, a longtime reader of the Black Panther comic book--told Wired magazine:

I wanted to explore what it means to be African. What it means to be African American and what that means in the larger context of colonization. These are things I have been grappling with my whole life, and this was an opportunity to explore them through a film that could be different to anything else I've done.

Black Panther comes at a time when the Movement for Black Lives is struggling to directly challenge racism, but culturally, Black people are "centering" themselves. The artistic and commercial success of Get Out and now Black Panther, movies actually made from a Black perspective--one in the white world and one in the Black world--mark an important milestone for mainstream culture.

Black Panther ends the longs drought of cinematic Black superheroes who aren't sidekicks or background team members. Kids watching this movie will have a pop culture landmark that declares it is right to share the gifts of Blackness--as T'Challa says, to "build bridges," unlike the "fools who build barriers."

Wakanda forever!

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