Why “Black Panther” is the movie Hollywood—and America—needs

Chadwick Boseman, Image c/o Disney/Marvel

I grew up enthralled with the fantasy worlds depicted in the “Star Wars”and “Lord of the Rings”films. But there was always something missing. Virtually no one looked like me. The people of color that did exist in those films either stood as caricatures or floated in post-racial space. How can one imagine a future in which black people exist in various roles while simultaneously not erasing the legacy of racism?

“Black Panther”powerfully fills this void. The film is set in Wakanda, a fictional African nation that possesses vibranium, the strongest metal on earth. To the rest of the world, Wakanda is a third-world country, but it is an isolated nation that, thanks to vibranium, has secretly become the world’s most technologically advanced society.

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The film opens in 1992 with a young T’Chaka (Atandwa Kani), who is the chief of Wakanda and T’Challa’s father, interrogating his brother N’Jobu (Sterling K. Brown), who is stationed in Oakland, Calif., as a Wakandan spy. N’Jobu has been radicalized and betrays Wakanda by selling vibranium to villain Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis). Ultimately, T’Chaka kills his brother but leaves his nephew behind. N’Jobu’s son N’Jadaka grows up to become Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan). The story then pivots around Killmonger’s retributive rage and confrontation with his cousin T’Challa.

Part of what sets “Black Panther” apart from other superhero films is its Afrofuturism.

Killmonger is on a quest to return to Wakanda and take the throne from T’Challa, who has assumed the throne and become Black Panther and the chief of the Wakandan tribes following T’Chaka’s death. He wants to arm oppressed black people around the world with vibranium so that they can invert colonial power. In this quest, Killmonger exposes the moral tensions within Wakanda’s isolationist politics and the crisis confronting T’Challa’s leadership. The line between heroes and villains is compellingly blurred.

Part of what sets “Black Panther” apart from other superhero films is its Afrofuturism. This genre is an intersectional, nonlinear way of looking at possible futures and alternate realities through a black cultural lens; it blends the future, the past and the present. This film is decidedly Afrofuturist in its aesthetic, music and multiple layers of meaning. Like the writing of Octavia Butler, it creates a fantasy world that powerfully speaks to the realities of our present and ongoing history. Black characters are able to move and breathe in this world, as opposed to the way some black characters are woefully utilized in the futuristic world of the latest, more diversified “Star Wars.”

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Lupita Nyong'o, Letitia Wright, Image c/o Disney/Marvel Studios

Not taking a backseat to the men, the women of Wakanda make the film truly shine. T’Challa’s little sister and Wakanda’s lead scientist Shuri (Letitia Wright) is arguably the most charming character in “Black Panther.” T’Challa often becomes a rather weak protagonist, dependent on women like the vigilant and mature General Okoye (Danai Gurira). When Killmonger overthrows T’Challa, apparently killing him, the fate of the nation depends on Wakandan spy Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o).

From its depiction of African cultural influences and African cosmologies to its wrestling with diasporic black identity, “Black Panther” possesses rich layers of meaning. In interviews, Ryan Coogler has noted that he is strongly interested in issues of identity. Perhaps that is why some of the movie’s major scenes—Killmonger claiming the throne and a final scene with T’Challa in Oakland—are punctuated by the question, “who are you?”

The film also complicates the personal morality of its characters and highlights larger political tensions at work. Nothing is black and white. The “good guy,” T’Challa, is blinded by his own privilege and distance from global black suffering. The “bad guy,” Killmonger, is often right about what is happening in the world and about Wakanda’s hypocrisy. Even General Okoye is caught between her loyalty to the throne and her conviction that Killmonger is not fit to be king.

One character that remains flat is white CIA agent Everett Ross (Martin Freeman). The critique that he is a one-dimensional ally is a legitimate one, but Ryan Coogler is extending a dynamic already present in the comic books. He actually accomplishes something remarkable by reducing Ross to a token role and quickly dispensing with the more interesting white villain, Klaue. The film features these two white characters, but it never centers on them; it makes them revolve around the story and agency of black characters.

“Black Panther” complicates the personal morality of its characters and highlights larger political tensions at work.

Political tensions run deep in the narrative. On a cursory level, it is clear that Wakanda’s isolationism is pitted against Killmonger’s fundamentalist internationalism. But it is wrong to conclude that the movie presents viewers with a simple either/or choice. Both options come out looking bad.

Wakanda’s isolationism leaves it out of touch with the world and causes it to lack solidarity with the suffering of others. On the other hand, Killmonger’s character shows what happens when righteous anger and trauma are tied to a purely retributive approach. He is the literal embodiment of the “burn it all down” mentality, as symbolized by his burning of the royal garden containing the heart-shaped herb, the plant which gives Black Panther his powers, after he has taken the throne from T’Challa. In his zealotry, sharpened by his military training, Killmonger is willing to turn anyone or anything into rubble in his path to remake the world. In W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), Killmonger finds a sympathizer eager to flip the conquerors/conquered equation, with Wakanda in charge of a new global empire.

So is there a third option? When Killmonger dies, it seems as though T’Challa, who survived Killmonger’s attack, has already partially absorbed his critique. In his next move, T’Challa establishes a Wakandan outreach center in Oakland, where he places Nakia and Shuri. A post-credits scene showing T’Challa speaking to the United Nations confirms that T’Challa is charting a new political course for Wakanda.

“Black Panther”sparks salient conversations and raises fundamentally important issues regardless of where T’Challa politically lands in the end.

T’Challa’s politics, however, sadly conform to the status quo. Although the film acknowledges at various points the systemic nature of global racialized oppression, it settles for a cheap, neoliberal globalism that suggests oppression is best tackled with philanthropy, after-school programs and STEM education for underprivileged kids (Shuri’s task). These efforts are not bad—and they are better than nothing. But they are not nearly enough, and the recourse to them assumes a faulty framework.

Some critics have been troubled that the only representative of a more radical alternative is an African-American extremist in Killmonger. However, before Killmonger ever confronts T’Challa, Nakia offers her own political alternative. Early in the film, after a mission to stop Nigerian sex traffickers, Nakia pleads with T’Challa that their nation can do much more, including taking in refugees. She says, “Wakanda is strong enough to help others and protect itself.” Nakia’s political orientation, shaped by her own experience as a spy abroad, is much more active and comprehensive than T’Challa’s, which remains more politically conservative.

“Black Panther”sparks salient conversations and raises fundamentally important issues regardless of where T’Challa politically lands in the end. Representation is both important and limited. Maybe that is why the recent portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama sparked so much heated debate. But it is important to be able to appreciate something for what it is and what it is not.

“Black Panther”is a complex piece of art that is morally and politically profound. As such, I am excited about what it can do for the imaginations of young children of color everywhere. Ryan Coogler didn’t simply give us representation. He used the ripe ingredients of a Marvel comic to create something of substance.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Bill Niermeyer
2 months 3 weeks ago

I like what Mr. Camacho said. "I grew up enthralled with the fantasy worlds depicted in the “Star Wars”and “Lord of the Rings”films. But there was always something missing. Virtually no one looked like me. The people of color that did exist in those films either stood as caricatures or floated in post-racial space. How can one imagine a future in which black people exist in various roles while simultaneously not erasing the legacy of racism?" I have always said that for this reason separate but equal would be much better approach to equality and a lot healthier.

isabelle andrews
2 months 3 weeks ago

Been there; done that. Didn't work.

Brendan McGinley
2 months 3 weeks ago

This is a repugnant response to a nuanced critique of a movie whose vision for a mutually finer world is tempered by its willingness to ask if the problems obstructing it have solutions that satisfy all parties. I'm white and even if some parts of it got past my understanding because my experience never primed me to ask the same questions the film does, I was still inspired by the parts that speak to any human being with a heart and imagination. Art is an opinion, an experience, and a statement for others to react to; we're all better when we put that imagination and heart toward understanding others' experiences, specifically when they differ from ours. Black Panther humanized its villain in a way few Marvel movies do. Tell me, where do Americans of mixed identity fall into your noxious vision of segregation? When I go see my friends from different backgrounds, do I get a government pass to do so? Are the Irish and Italians still white, or will we have to build new churches to attend without offending the purebloods?

Since we're on a Jesuit publication site, Mr. Niermeyer, let me ask you: Who would Jesus send away from His group first?

Justin Garlitz
2 months 3 weeks ago

I was disappointed in his initial critique of Star Wars, as someone who claims to be a Star Wars fan. "The people of color that did exist in those films either stood as caricatures or floated in post-racial space. How can one imagine a future in which black people exist in various roles while simultaneously not erasing the legacy of racism?" It's not post-racial if there's nothing to be "post" of. Black Panther is on Earth while Star Wars is in a galaxy far far away. Also, it's a long time ago, so not "a future." But besides that great article. Sums up why it's a good, interesting move.

Nora Bolcon
2 months 3 weeks ago

Great article. I am looking forward more now than before in watching this film.

Ruchira Kitsiri
2 months 3 weeks ago

Daniel writes "... it settles for a cheap, Neo liberal globalism that suggests oppression is best tackled with philanthropy, ....." further adding; "These efforts are not bad—and they are better than nothing. But they are not nearly enough, and the recourse to them assumes a faulty framework."

It is refreshing to see a review that touches upon the broader context of geopolitics that goes beyond colour and gender. I however feel or like to believe that there was a third alternative hinted at the very end (in the post credit scenes) of the movie when T'Challa gives his speech at the UN. He says something to the extent that "... we must protect one another..." indicating that Wakanda would offer the world its advanced​ technology without using the military capabilities that such a technology would enable, to dominate it, which is the frame work with which the current neo liberal paradigm is advanced throughout the world. The philanthropy shown I believe is to be a mere lower scale engagement in the grand scheme of things to come.

This is a pleasant departure from the existing method of global dominance by the said imperialistic forces, very well caricatured and portrayed by non other than the popular villain Killmonger. I feel this is the most subtle and the most important message the movie offers, that transcends its other more overt messages like black and female empowerment and Afrocentricism.

This opens up a vast new arena for Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) to explore in its future movies. We will have to wait and see if it chooses to do so without falling back on the faulty framework like Daniel suggests and bold enough to take the artistic precedence of actually building such a world without oppression of people whether they are black, female or any other variety of human expression!

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