A critical look at the expectations and unfortunate realities that Marvel’s Black Panther Film has forced us to grapple with.
By: Niki Igbaroola
Having seen the much anticipated, much loved, box-office record-shattering Black Panther, three times, it is only right that I finally sit down and engage in a critical discourse on themes that cropped up in this movie. The first viewing was too clouded by anticipation to have inspired a coherent review. The shock of initially visiting Wakanda for the first time is too magical to truly be comprehended. The second watch whilst still magical is less overwhelming to the senses, I was able to notice the little details; the costuming, the comedic timing, the symbolism of certain character engagements. By the third watch, I was able to pay attention very minutia of this movie, like how music is used when there is a change of leadership.
If you notice, the dominantly, Afrocentric sounds in the background of all Wakandan scenes and engagements is interrupted by a hip-hop inspired tone when Killmonger ascends the throne. These are the kind of details that multiple screenings had me enjoying, adding further love and admiration for this movie and the work that went into its creation.
Our first cinematic introduction to T’Challa is in the 2016 Captain America: Civil War as Black Panther, looking to avenge the murder of his father and as such, it was with great anticipation two years later, I walked into the cinema ready to discover his world and home. Conceptually, Black Panther is breathtaking. Director Ryan Coogler and team created a world in Wakanda that was beyond all expectation. Opulence, African art, symbolism, and futurism all melded together beautifully to create the imagined African utopia of the Marvel universe.
Despite being an inharmonious cacophony, I must commend all actors in the movie for attempting a dialectic accent reminiscent of their imagined Africa. It wasn’t that the accents were bad, it’s just that there was a lack of cohesion with all the actors borrowing from differing tribes. The stand out accent characterization was Winston Duke’s M’Baku which distinctly borrowed from the Igbo tribe of Nigeria. He was commanding, funny and memorable in every scene. Additionally, the learning of Xhosa; a Nguni Bantu language originating in South Africa, particularly by Chadwick Boseman, Sterling K. Brown and Danai Gurira to represent the official language of Wakanda was a wonderful added touch in creating an authentic new world.
The movie follows T’Challa, taking over the throne from his father T’Chaka and learning what it is to lead a country especially in the modern age. Wakanda is special as the truth about its capabilities is known only to its citizens. It is an example of what technological advancement could look like outside of the Western framework. The possibility that, unregulated by Western bodies and given free reign to our own resources, African nations could develop technologically, beyond the scope of existing frameworks is a nice idea. The problem with this belief is the assumption that all countries in Africa would have leadership that is not governed by personal greed should colonisation have never happened and given my current personal exasperation with Nigerian leadership, I cannot say that I share that belief. It, however, is nice to dream.
The succession of his father comes with inheriting his father’s mistakes and demons, both of which manifest themselves in Killmonger; cousin and equal heir apparent to the throne of Wakanda. In both men are different worldviews when it comes to the conversation on global responsibility. Oxford-educated, T’Challa is Wakandian born, bred and traditional to the core where Killmonger, raised, poor in Oakland is a product of America’s constant cycles of violence against Black bodies.
The two men meet as T’Challa begins to consider Wakanda’s duty to the rest of the world. This conversation is inspired by his former lover Nakia (Lupita Nyongo), who works as a spy across African countries, bringing down criminal organisations and movements without compromising Wakanda’s secrecy. The movie opens with T’Challa interrupting her mission in Northern Nigeria, where she has infiltrated a group kidnapped by what is assumed to be Boko Haram, to ask that she attend his father’s burial. Nakia’s work exists from personal passion rather than state mandate but we get the sense that Wakanda’s resources are behind her – whether this is down to Wakanda’s belief in her mission or T’Challa’s love showing itself through close protection is not clear.
Many who have watched this movie are either team Black Panther or team Killmonger. There are a few who empathise with Killmonger but do not support his ideologies on attaining global black reparations and these varying positions are part of the beauty of the movie, Black Panther. No one is truly in the right or wrong, except, of course, Princess Shuri whose intelligence is undoubtedly miles ahead of everyone else in Wakanda. Every character comes up against moral issues that force them to make difficult choices and that humanity, given to all characters, contributes greatly to the success of Black Panther.
This idea of global responsibility, pointedly “Black” global responsibility has elicited some very interesting conversations online. The idea that Wakanda is at fault for not being the single saving grace for every black body across the world seems to stem from conversations about the Atlantic slave trade and whether or not Wakanda’s involvement could have stopped this from happening. My problem with this is it assumes discord across the African continent started with white invasion. Issues like language and tribalism meant that war and slave trading occurred on the continent amongst its inhabitants much in the same way it happened on every continent in the world.
Wakanda’s decision to hide from the world, especially at a time when bodies across the African continent were being stolen, sold and enslaved can be seen as retreating; a war tactic. Give how exploitive colonizers were of bodies and resources, hiding to protect the world’s most valuable resource: vibranium and learning its malleability and function must be commended as a smart choice by Wakanda. The level of development and understanding of vibranium we see in modern day Wakanda is down to the years they have been allowed free, uninterrupted and unregulated by a white gaze to do so.
The Wakanda so sought after, and idealised as the saving grace for black bodies across the world did not happen in a day. The weaponry Killmonger is adamant needs to be in the hands of black bodies and allies across the world took years of development and enhancement that came from a freedom of outside influences. Admittedly, it was clear that the Wakanda we got to see had been highly technologically developed for a while but the problem of how to distribute their knowledge and weaponry remained.
For Killmonger, growing up in a society where fire with fire is the commonplace form of protection, sending out vibranium laced weaponry to disenfranchised, angry communities made sense. This is highly problematic as he was sending out weapons to trained and untrained allies alike, much in the same way America over arms its police force with army grade weaponry they have little to no training to operate.
Continued cycles of racialised power with black people potentially gaining the upper hand was the end goal. I cannot agree with this owing to a belief that “an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.” Should, Killmonger and his allies have been successful, what was being advocated for was WW3 on an uncontrollable scale. The casualties on all sides would have been staggering. We must also question what building a new world on the corpses of the masses would look and function like, especially from a moral perspective.
This was an excellent movie not just in the casting but in the complexity. I am intrigued by people who are able to be so black and white in their positions on the movie’s themes where a myriad of positions and perspectives were laid out in the narrative. The discussions this movie has brought up should not be open and shut and I hope anyone having watched it or still going to watch it can recognise this.
Niki Igbaroolas a Journalist and Marketeer with a voracious appetite for Literature. She is passionate about black female representation in all walks of life and believes ensuring global educational access is the key to attaining this.
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