The Cognitive Dissonance of Black Panther

“If you’re starving, and somebody gave you a cracker, you are gonna be like, “goddamn, that’s the best cracker I’ve ever ate in my life!” – Eddie Murphy, “Raw”

I decided that I was going to wait a week to attend and view Marvel Entertainment’s Black Panther feature film.  I told myself that it would be best consumed after the hype died down.  As it turned out, the hype did not fade, but I kept to schedule.  I caught an afternoon matinee a week after the movie opened.

Hype or not, I walked in with all the anticipation of a child going to Disneyland. Two and a half hours later, I felt like the guy in the tale who was compelled to yell, “the emperor has no clothes!”

If only the film were 10 minutes longer…

Don’t get me wrong.  I enjoyed the movie as a work of art and entertainment.  I have read and collected comic books since the age of 10.  (My first comic books were the old “Classics” comic books – those were to only titles that my parents would tolerate.)  Black Panther is the most complete, sophisticated, well-acted, and perfectly paced movie that Marvel Studios has produced to date.  On a cinematic level, everyone associated with the picture should be very proud and satisfied with what they created.  It will probably be nominated for some awards when that time of year rolls around again.

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Coming in for a landing in Wakanda

Yet, it is the sublime excellence of this movie that makes it so dangerous.

“Dangerous” is a word that I never expected to associate with a superhero movie, let alone Black Panther.  It would be disingenuous of me at this point to claim this opinion as a totally original thought.  Friends of mine, Dr. Gregory Diggs and Rebekah Henderson produce a bi-weekly podcast entitled, Off Color Podcast. I would recommend giving them a listen. This past week, they had a guest on their show, Hasira Ashemu, who (within the first minutes of the show) described the messaging of the film as dangerous.

The podcast episode was full of spoilers.  So, I did not listen to the entire thing. However, I thought that the points they made (please listen to the podcast so Ashemu and the others can speak for themselves) were legitimate. So, I cannot say that I did not walk into the movie without their criticisms (and a few blogs that I read during the previous week) in the back of my mind. Nevertheless, I was also open to the possibility that looking at the movie through the lens of socio-economic politics and real-life race relations was total inappropriate and extreme.

After-all, it is only a movie.  Right?

In 1915, D.W. Griffith wrote, produced, and directed the infamous movie, The Birth of a Nation (TBOAN). Now, before you roll your eyes and check out of this blog, I only bring BirthOfNationthis piece of racist propaganda up because at the time of its release it was “only a movie.” Admittedly, it’s messaging was much more ham-handed and overt than what is contained in Black Panther. I mention it because after the release of TBOAN, the membership of the Klu Klux Klan exploded to the point that 50,000 members participated in a march on Washington, D.C. ten years later.  In 1973, there was a dramatic increase in membership in the Catholic church and the number of people seeking psychiatric help for demonic possession after the release of The Exorcist. My point is that cinema can set a tone for how a society behaves and the way people interact with institutions.

Like a relationship that is codependent, toxic, yet thoroughly enjoyable, Black Panther is complicated.  Ultimately, it is a film about capitalism, colonialism, patriarchy and class. The insidious thing is that the movie subliminally champions those concepts while pretending like it is challenging them.

Many have written columns already, which can be easily Googled, that advocate for Erik Killmonger and praise his mission to emancipate the underclass in the diaspora. If it is of interest to you, I suggest that you read Brooke Obie’s piece, “In Defense of Erik Killmonger And The Forgotten Children of Wakanda.”  Here, I want to emphasize that Killmonger never spoke of race during his challenge to T’Challa and capture of Wakanda.  He spoke of class.  He spoke of “us” against “them.” He stood for the people thrown away because they were seen as too inconvenient to save.

He was also the bad guy, the irredeemable villain.

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Serkis as Ulysses Klaue

(I will break here to nominate Michael B. Jordan and Andy Serkis for Best SupportingActor awards.  Serkis is always superlative in the most thankless roles in blockbuster movies.  Marvel owed it to Jordan to give him a decent role after casting him in the shamefully terrible Fantastic Four reboot.)

Hollywood will never make a movie where someone with the message of Erik Killmonger can negotiate with an established power structure to achieve some equanimity for the “others.”  That would give some legitimacy to socialism, which is an anathema to the world of

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Michael B. Jordon as Erik Killmonger

billionaires (i.e. movie financiers and American politicians).  To suggest that it is wrong to hoard wealth or universalize technology – not to increase manufacturing of more wealth, but for the common good – is to ask the cosmos for a death sentence, even in the Marvel Universe.

I did enjoy the movie.  I did.  But, I could not help feeling bothered while watching it.  Let me speak to it as a comic book fan.

One thing the movie did very well develop the type of rich, mythical backstory that is so important to establish a three-dimensional hero. Considering that he is not a hero that is embedded in the soul of pop-culture like Superman, Thor, or Spiderman, the writers did an outstanding job of succinctly explaining the history of Wakanda and the evolution of the Black Panther.  As a writer who struggles with being too wordy (I’m sure you can tell), I acknowledge and admire when it is done well.  Bravo.

However…

What the writers also did is have Black Panther do things that were totally absurd, irresponsible, patriarchal, and (dare I say) racially subservient.  I understand that to create a realistic, interesting character, you must allow for flaws.  My point is that these shortcomings are portrayed as moral strengths.  This misdirection is where the audience is bamboozled.

These are just a few. I will try to take them in order:

  • T’Challa, who is about to be crowned King of Wakanda, interrupts Nakia’s mission of saving women who are being abducted and kidnapped for human trafficking. He is doing it just so she can attend the royal ceremony.  This action is supposed to be

    nakia-black-panther
    Lupita Nyong’o as Nakia
  • seen as romantic.  However, T’Challa barely acknowledges the women she was saving, and later tries to discourage Nakia from pursuing similar humanitarian missions in the future. His life and expectations are much more important that hers and the female lives she wants to save.
  • T’Challa decides to break with hundreds of years of tradition and security and bring a CIA agent back to Wakanda to save his life. While this is a very noble deed, he and his sister seemed to have no problem giving the order to shoot Wakandan ships out of the sky and killing rebelling Wakandans in order to secure their kingdom. Furthermore, the wounded CIA agent was the guy who prevented the apprehension of Ulysses Klaue, a man who not only had knowledge of Wakanda’s existence – but, he also stole from them and betrayed them.
  • After bringing the CIA agent into Wakanda, T’Challa leaves him on a table in the lab until his anesthesia wears off. Does someone have to explain to him that he could have saved his life without giving away the location of Wakanda?  Bruce Wayne takes people to the Batcave all of the time.  Does Superman leave people to wake up unattended in the Fortress of Solitude?  T’Challa leaving an intelligence officer from the United States alone in the middle of the best tech in Wakanda is the height of stupidity.  This is something that I have never seen white superhero do in the history of the genre.
  • T’Challa learns the truth about the death of his uncle (Erik Killmonger’s father) by his own father’s hand. When Killmonger shows up (oh by the way, with the body of the man that T’Challa failed to capture), rather than privately take Killmonger aside and attempt to understand his point of view, he disrespectfully dismisses him out of hand.  Therefore, setting the table for the open challenge of the throne.  Another dumb Wesley Snipesesque move.
  • Finally, after T’Challa delivers a death blow to Killmonger, he is more than willing to let him die rather than try to salvage some type of relationship with him (his PantherandMongercousin) or help his cause. T’Challa in his heart has concluded something that so many in the majority have when doling justice out to the insurrecting underclass: there is no retribution for the slighted, rebellious villain.  He has to be put down. Yes, Black Panther half-heartedly asks him (once he has almost bled out), “maybe we could heal you?”  No wonder Killmonger would rather perish.  His cousin is a sellout.

Let me leave you with this. I want you to imagine what would happen if leaders from Zambia, Sierra Leone, or Tanzania walked into the United Nations out of the blue and announced that contrary to popular belief they were the richest country in the world with the most sophisticated and deadly weapons on the planet – that their superiority had been a well-kept secret for centuries, but now they willing to share what they know with the world.  Do you think that country would be warmly welcomed into the community of nations? Or, would it be seen as major threat to the security of the G8?

If only the movie had been 10 minutes longer…

Howard Fletcher is a journalist and podcaster who lives in Silver Spring, MD.  

The Number One 2 Podcast is available on iTunes, SoundCloud, and Buzzsprout.

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