It is fitting that the new Black Panther movie opens and closes in Oakland, California for three reasons. First, Oakland is the birthplace of the Black Panther party, founded in 1966 largely as a response to police brutality in black communities. Second, it was at the Fruitvale train station in Oakland that Oscar Grant III was murdered by the police in 2009. Third, Black Panther director Ryan Coogler was born in Oakland and the first film he wrote and directed was Fruitvale Station. Intriguingly, the actor who played Oscar Grant in Coogler’s film is Michael B Jordan, who plays N’Jadaka (Killmonger) in Panther. Be assured that Black Panther is a movie with a lot on its mind. In this review, I want to explore some of the big ideas that animate this movie. These ideas stem from internal debates within black traditions, both national and international. I will be placing the names of these traditions in bold – and I encourage you to read more about each of them.
Let’s talk about Wakanda, the fictionalized African nation at the center of the film. One of the greatest gifts the movie gives us is the opportunity to imagine an African nation that isn’t colonized by Europe, whose resources aren’t stolen, whose people aren’t enslaved, whose culture isn’t systematically eradicated. This imaginative exercise is important because it simultaneously gives us a noble ideal to stir our aspirations while also underscoring how truly horrific the actual history is. Nevertheless, Wakanda is not above reproach. Throughout the film, Wakanda is criticized for isolating itself and not helping Africans in Diaspora, e.g., black Americans subjugated and suffering in White America. In some ways, “Africa” is a European construct that persists in the white mind in the same racist, homogenizing way that “the Orient” construct simplified and reduced nations like China, Japan, Korea, etc in the 20th century. The Pan-Africanism movement asks us to subvert the white construct, to accept the ideal of a unified “Africa” bonded together in solidarity to confront and overcome the injustices perpetrated by Europe and America. Initially, Wakanda expresses black nationalism, with an emphasis on preserving its own safety, culture, and way of life. Most of the central conflicts in the film – between T’Challa and Killmonger, T’Challa and Nakia, and T’Challa and W’Kabi – can be parsed as nuanced disagreements along a spectrum with black nationalism and pan-africanism as the poles.
It isn’t just the idea of Wakanda that is important: the visuals, particularly the costume design by Ruth Carter, are central to its meaningfulness. As explained in Essence magazine: “the heroes and heroines of the Black Panther movie, brimming in high-neck chokers, haloed hats, sleek patterned suits lined with metal accents, decorative scars and stunning hairstyles, transform classic statements of quintessential African style into symbols of invincibility and marvel, articulating Afrofuturism through African aesthetics.” Black Panther gives us a film brimming with black representation – including displaying our dark-skin sisters who are normally passed over for central roles but here are invited to shine in strength, in intelligence, and in beauty. The film also goes above and beyond to honor historic African cultures while creatively suggesting through the Afrofuturism genre that these cultures might have relevance to black Americans struggling to feel empowered today.
The character in Black Panther who feels most displaced and disempowered is the villain Erik Killmonger. I think there are two black theorists whose work illuminates the psyche of this character, both writers in the tradition of black existentialism. W. E. B. Du Bois, in his 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk, helped us recognize that as black people in America, we have a double-consciousness. In effect, we are always being pressured to see ourselves through the lens of the dominant white culture and its media. (There are important parallels here to the language of the “male gaze” that the best of our feminists decry so fiercely, and you’ll note that none of the women of Black Panther are subservient to male eyes.) Killmonger is an African-American who does not feel at home in either America or Wakanda (Africa). The acute rage that Killmonger feels is thus not just ideological, it’s also personal, stemming from this feeling of alienation. The other theorist I was reminded of was James Baldwin, who once wrote that “to be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.” Killmonger has seen the oppression of African-Americans firsthand, and like Moses in the Book of Exodus, his response to the suffering of his people is righteous anger. Of course, as with Moses whose anger led him to murder, we should question the ways Killmonger expresses his anger. Indeed, one of the more villainous aspects of Killmonger’s ideology is the black supremacy impulses which lead him to want to dominate the world, not just aid suffering Africans as in the pan-africanism movement. Nevertheless, we would be foolish to dismiss Killmonger entirely: his rage taps into a tradition of black power that includes luminaries like Malcom X and MLK.
Black Panther closes in Oakland, and in its ending, it subtly suggests another form of black power: namely, combatting white-driven gentrification by investing black resources in black communities. While the film allows ample room for various traditions of black thought to be considered, the ending seems to foreground the importance of culture. This also seems fitting to me, perfectly embodying the ethos of a film that is itself one of the most culturally-important films ever produced by and for the black community.
Sources: Vox, Essence magazine, The Nation