Confession: I am not a fan of the endless barrage of Marvel/Disney superhero movies. More specifically, I’ve always thought that the Avengers movies were a long, arduous CGI fest containing a few over-the-top political metaphors mixed in with all of the explosions. There is also the concern that Disney owns so much of the mainstream film/entertainment industry, including Marvel Studios, Lucas Films, and now 20th Century Fox, which gives them the rights to the X-men films.
With all of that said, I went to see Black Panther this weekend, especially after the stream of editorials that hailed it as a cultural moment. My initial response to the movie is that it very much felt like any other Marvel superhero movie, with lots of fighting and lots of CGI, especially during the last 30 minutes/final battle. (Those rhinos!).
However, over the weekend, I kept thinking about the film, something I’ve never done with any other Marvel movie. I found myself starting to agree with some of the editorials, namely that director Ryan Coogler makes us seriously think about the effects of colonialism and what Africa could have been like without the slave trade and white, European conquerors.
The film is primarily set in the fictional country of Wakanda, an African nation that is technologically advanced, well beyond any first world country, but veils itself from the outside world and generally keeps outsiders at bay. Its true identity is threatened when Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), defeats the Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and ascends to the throne. Unlike the rest of the nation, Killmonger wants to make Wakanda known to the rest of the world. More specifically, the Oakland-born villain wants to use Wankanda’s technology to arm the oppressed and encourage them to overthrow their rulers. Killmonger is the most nuanced Marvel villain I’ve ever seen on the screen, and his politics are not paper thin or simplistic. His views formed after watching his father get killed by the Black Panther’s father/King of Wakanda. Killmonger also questions why Wakanda keeps itself a secret when so many are suffering. He says at one point to the Black Panther that anyone who descended from Africa are all one people and their struggle should be Wakanda’s struggle. It is also no mistake that he was born in the city that was the birthplace of the Black Panthers.
Unlike the Black Panther, however, Killmonger is quick to resort to violence and immediately kills a few of the kingdom’s female warriors and threatens violence against anyone who opposes him. However, by the film’s conclusion, the Black Panther and his counsel, mostly women, and badass women at that, take some of what Killmonger has to say to heart, deciding to reach out to the rest of the world, including the Oakland neighborhood where Killmonger was raised and watched his father die. They are determined to open outreach centers and use Wakanda’s technology to help the suffering.
The Black Panther poses a lot of questions, first and foremost, what would Africa have been like without the oppression of colonial powers? There are a lot of reasons the film probably resonates with audiences, but it’s really the first time we’ve seen an African country on the big screen far, far more advanced than any other country. It also deals with issues of identity and what W.E.B. labeled as double-consciousness.
For a far more nuanced analysis of the way the film deals with colonialism and African history, check out Jelani Cobb’s article in The New Yorker.