Black Panther Engages with Decades of Black Liberatory Theory—And Is Also a Great Movie

The film, in no uncertain terms, considers the possibility and necessity of revolution for Black people across the world.

Nate Marshall February 16, 2018

Erik Killmonger (left), played by frequent Ryan Coogler collaborator Michael B. Jordan speaks to King T’Challa, played by Chadwick Boseman. (PHOTO COURTESY DISNEY/MARVEL)

The first words uttered in direc­tor Ryan Coogler’s Black Pan­ther are, Tell me a sto­ry, the sto­ry of home.” From that phrase the film opens, not in the fic­tion­al African nation of Wakan­da, but rather, in ear­ly 1990s Oak­land, Calif.

Two Black men are plot­ting some type of caper in a small apart­ment. The film doesn’t clar­i­fy if it’s a rob­bery or the gen­e­sis of a rev­o­lu­tion. But a tele­vi­sion in the back­ground broad­casts scenes of Los Ange­les on fire dur­ing the 1992 riots after the arrest and beat­ing of Rod­ney King. Out­side the apart­ment, young Black boys shoot hoops to the sound­track of Oakland’s own Too $hort.

When the co-con­spir­a­tors fear the police are about to burst in, they con­ceal their armory in walls decked out with African print and a Pub­lic Ene­my album poster (the apt­ly titled, It Takes a Nation of Mil­lions To Hold Us Back).

The philo­soph­i­cal debate about Black free­dom in the Unit­ed States has often been reduced to a bina­ry choice between inte­gra­tion and sep­a­ratism: W. E. B. Du Bois’ imme­di­ate equal­i­ty or Book­er T. Wash­ing­ton’s indus­tri­al edu­ca­tion. Mar­tin Luther King, Jr.’s South­ern move­ment against Jim Crow or Mal­colm X’s cru­sade for Black awakening.

In Black Pan­ther, those con­ver­sa­tions are turned on their head. This is a film that fun­da­men­tal­ly ques­tions the nature of pow­er, free­dom and respon­si­bil­i­ty. It’s unlike any oth­er film Mar­vel has released thus far.

The char­ac­ter of Black Pan­ther first appeared in the July 1966 issue of the Fan­tas­tic Four series, which was the pres­tige Mar­vel title at the time. Cre­at­ed by Jack Kir­by and Stan Lee, the char­ac­ter debuted dur­ing the Civ­il Rights Move­ment and was the first Black super­hero in main­stream Amer­i­can comics. Only a few months lat­er, in Octo­ber 1966, the Black Pan­ther Par­ty would be found­ed in Oak­land. The over­lap­ping names were a coin­ci­dence, but a fit­ting one.

In that first issue, the Fan­tas­tic Four met King T’Challa, regent of the mys­te­ri­ous African coun­try of Wakan­da. T’Challa dons the man­tle of the Black Pan­ther to pro­tect his kingdom’s peo­ple and its tech­no­log­i­cal advance­ments, which far out­strip the out­side world’s, from those who would exploit them. The con­ceit is one of sym­pa­thy with the plight of Black peo­ple (even if it was spurred by Mar­vel real­iz­ing a busi­ness oppor­tu­ni­ty in Black readers).

Black Pan­ther has since become an impor­tant char­ac­ter with­in the Mar­vel Uni­verse, often used to intro­duce sto­ry­lines that deal with race. In one of his ear­li­est appear­ances, T’Challa uses his Black Pan­ther per­sona to fight the Ku Klux Klan in the Amer­i­can South. In recent years, writ­ers like Ta-Nehisi Coates, Rox­ane Gay and Yona Har­vey have exam­ined the pol­i­tics of Wakanda’s rul­ing monar­chy and the con­flict between T’Challa’s desire to be a super­hero and his respon­si­bil­i­ties as king.

And now Black Pan­ther is the first Black-led film released with­in the Mar­vel Cin­e­mat­ic Uni­verse, which is cur­rent­ly cel­e­brat­ing its 10-year anniversary.

Cen­tral to the new film are ques­tions of pow­er and respon­si­bil­i­ty regard­ing Wakan­da, the tech­no­log­i­cal­ly advanced coun­try of mys­ti­cal­ly pow­er­ful Black peo­ple. Should the fic­tion­al Afro­fu­tur­is­tic land stay free by con­tin­u­ing an iso­la­tion­ist view that pro­tects its resources from pos­si­ble out­side exploita­tion? Or should Wakan­da, the most advanced nation on Earth in the Mar­vel Cin­e­mat­ic Uni­verse, take the helm of a glob­al Black uprising?

It is telling that this sto­ry roots itself in Oak­land, the birth­place of both the Black Pan­ther Par­ty and Coogler. Almost imme­di­ate­ly, the film stares down the dif­fi­cult impli­ca­tions of an Afro­fu­tur­ist oasis like Wakan­da exist­ing along­side the his­tor­i­cal oppres­sion of African dias­poric peo­ples. The film, in no uncer­tain terms, con­sid­ers the pos­si­bil­i­ty and neces­si­ty of rev­o­lu­tion for Black peo­ple across the world.

One of the film’s strengths is its por­tray­al of Black peo­ple with­in a full and var­ied world. Ear­ly on, White arms deal­er Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) seems poised to be the pri­ma­ry antag­o­nist. Klaue is inter­est­ed in the min­ing and theft of Wakanda’s vibra­ni­um” — the strongest known met­al in the Mar­vel Cin­e­mat­ic Uni­verse and the source of Wakanda’s advance­ment and wealth. Yet, in an inspired and uncom­mon­ly con­cise moment of super­hero sto­ry­telling, Klaue quick­ly takes a back­seat to Erik Kill­mon­ger, played by fre­quent Coogler col­lab­o­ra­tor Michael B. Jordan.

Kill­mon­ger, the son of a Wakan­dan prince who grew up out­side the utopi­an Wakan­da, is full of jus­ti­fi­able anger at the oppres­sion of peo­ple of African descent through­out world. And his anger is only fueled by Wakanda’s iso­la­tion­ist his­to­ry and policies.

Thus, Killmonger’s con­flict with T’Challa (Chad­wick Bose­man) goes far beyond a typ­i­cal com­ic book villain’s pur­suit of wealth or world dom­i­na­tion. Instead, the fight is philo­soph­i­cal. Do Black folks with resources, like the peo­ple of Wakan­da, have a respon­si­bil­i­ty to dom­i­nate the world as rec­om­pense for those who have been oppressed by white supremacy?

In the sub­se­quent con­flict between the two young war­riors, and the larg­er Wakan­dan king­dom, we see avatars of var­i­ous strains of Black lib­er­a­to­ry the­o­ry — rang­ing from the tra­di­tion­al hon­or soci­ety of the Jabari to the David Walk­er-esque notion of vio­lent upris­ing pre­sent­ed by Killmonger.

The film nev­er real­ly resolves this debate, and leaves it an open ques­tion. So while Kill­mon­ger wants to give oppressed peo­ple pow­er the film doesn’t delve into whether that would mean Wakan­da insti­tutes a new glob­al black suprema­cy or sim­ply leads by exam­ple to achieve a more just world.

In what could have been a heavy-hand­ed mis­fire, the gen­er­al­ly superb writ­ing of Coogler and Joe Robert Cole avoids too much pros­e­ly­tiz­ing about the strug­gle of Black peo­ple in the Unit­ed States and Africa (save for an ear­ly speech from Ster­ling K. Brown’s char­ac­ter N’Jobu). And through­out the film we see mul­ti­ple char­ac­ters wres­tle with their own def­i­n­i­tion of jus­tice with­out those strug­gles being reduced to a series of civ­il rights posi­tion summaries.

Yet per­haps the most admirable nar­ra­tive para­dox Coogler and Cole tack­le in Black Pan­ther is the com­pli­ca­tion of hav­ing a Black super­hero in a White world.

Even though it nev­er suf­fered under white rule, Wakan­da has to con­tend with a his­to­ry of white colo­nial dom­i­na­tion that has shaped the world around it. So T’Challa must deal with the microag­gres­sions of being under­mined by U.S. intel­li­gence oper­a­tive Everett K. Ross (Mar­tin Free­man), despite his sta­tus as the head of state of the most advanced inde­pen­dent nation on Earth.

These moments, even when they hap­pen at the rel­a­tive­ly small lev­el of phys­i­cal touch or a flip­pant com­ment, dis­play for the audi­ence the suprema­cist think­ing that under­writes U.S. pol­i­cy in the so-called third world and in domes­tic com­mu­ni­ties of col­or. Wakan­dans don’t shrink from those dis­re­spects, but rather smirk to them­selves with the knowl­edge of their own tech­no­log­i­cal and eco­nom­ic preeminence.

Of course, Black Pan­ther is still a Dis­ney film, and it miss­es a dis­tinct oppor­tu­ni­ty to inject a Black queer ele­ment into the sto­ry­line. In the most recent Mar­vel comics, two of the Dora Mila­je (Wakanda’s elite all-women war­rior bat­tal­ion) were roman­ti­cal­ly linked. Not so in the film. That sto­ry­line would have been an easy oppor­tu­ni­ty for a dif­fer­ent kind of rep­re­sen­ta­tion of super­hero romance than the het­ero­sex­u­al tropes marched out in seem­ing­ly every movie.

Still, Coogler and Cole have writ­ten a film that intel­li­gent­ly con­sid­ers what free­dom looks like for Black peo­ple. They devel­op a rela­tion­ship between char­ac­ters that explores the ten­sions of dias­po­ra and the unavoid­able myth­mak­ing that hap­pens in Black Amer­i­can imag­in­ings of an African homeland.

With an eye toward the his­tor­i­cal back­drops of Black life, Black Pan­ther imag­ines a fierce, lush land­scape of com­pli­cat­ed pos­si­bil­i­ty that is rare for the genre.

Nate Mar­shall is a poet, essay­ist and MC from the South Side of Chica­go. He is the author of the award-win­ning book Wild Hun­dreds and edi­tor of The Break­Beat Poets: New Amer­i­can Poet­ry in the Age of Hip-Hop. Fol­low him at @illuminatemics.
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