Black Panther is Mainstream and Thats Okay

first_img I saw Black Panther twice over the holiday weekend and both times times I was asked by the (in one instance white) people I saw it with what I thought. The first time I took a long pause, looked off into the distance for a bit, and eventually said something like I respected how relatively radical it got away with being despite ultimately adhering to a mainstream superhero movie template. The second time, I had polished that academic thesis of a statement down to the much friendlier, “Black Panther is like Zootopia but better.”Black Panther is a fantastic, deceptively layered film that reveals itself more and more to you over time, the exact opposite of basically every other Marvel movie. And because of that thematic depth intertwined with the car chases and armored rhino brawls, there’s already been an embarrassment of riches when it comes to written criticism for the film. From our own review here on Geek.com to this nuanced take from Film Crit Hulk to the whole discourse on Black Twitter, reading about Black Panther is nearly as enjoyable and thought-provoking as watching it.But for my own take, I wanted to talk about arguably the most contentious part of the acclaimed movie, the part I’m still wrestling with myself. It’s awesome, admirable, and audacious how much revolutionary Black rhetoric the creators manage to smuggle into the Disney product that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But the final result eventually has to soften its own radicalism. For some, myself included, that’s understandably frustrating. And I also think it was ultimately a positive and worthy compromise.SPOILER WARNING!If you still don’t know the real star of Black Panther isn’t the hero himself but the nation he rules: Wakanda. Untouched by colonialism and powered by mind-blowing technology derived from supermineral Vibranium, Wakanda is an Afrofuturist utopia. What’s so brave about the movie is that, after the awe and veneration, it immediately begins deconstructing this inherently politically fraught fantasy peddled by the comics for the past fifty years. By clinging to its traditional culture of secrecy as the rest of actual Africa and its people suffered over the centuries, are the “glorious” and “advanced” Wakanda citizens not hypocrisy incarnate in the eyes of other, real Black folks displaced in the diaspora?Every character offers their own ideological response to this dilemma. Okoye remains traditional. Nakia is practical and progressive. Shuri is innovative, saying “Just because something is good doesn’t mean it can’t be improved.” M’Baku and his Jabari tribe are isolated and resentful. W’Kabi is expansionist. And King T’Challa is in the middle trying to synthesize all this into a viable, moral governing strategy. But the character that aggressively drives this issue to the forefront is the villain Erik Stevens/Killmonger/N’Jadaka/interim Black Panther. His extremist revolutionary solution, inspired by his murdered royal father, is to take over Wakanda and use its weapons to help oppressed people of color violently rise up all over the world.The film goes to great lengths to say and show that Killmonger’s plan is Bad. His name is Killmonger. He kills a bunch of people without caring, including his own girlfriend. His methods are too based on the hateful bloodthirsty Western colonial tactics he’s trying to overthrow. He teams up with white plunderers like Ulysses Klaue. But what keeps him from being an offensive strawman caricature of “both extremes being wrong” and “becoming what you hate,” a canard conservatives and liberal both use to discredit radical leftists and Black activists, is that the film also clearly understands Killmonger’s point of view. It’s too empathetic and smart to completely dismiss him.The film opens with Erik’s father telling him about their lost home in Wakanda during his early 1990s Oakland childhood, a childhood shared by the film’s director and co-writer Ryan Coogler. After Fruitvale Station, Creed, and now Black Panther, Killmonger actor Michael B. Jordan has basically become Coogler’s muse, so of course he would get a meaty emotional three-dimensional role miles away from Marvel’s usually bland villains.And despite being a movie largely set in Africa, many folks who see Black Panther (like me) will be African-Americans specifically, who have faced a different historical struggle than folks straight from the Motherland. Killmonger relatably speaks to that pain, beautifully and tragically dramatized by director and actor together. He’s even allowed to die with dignity. Killmonger’s core belief that Black lives and bodies deserve the global justice Wakanda can and should have provided is just too morally sound. Even more so than Magneto, Killmonger is “correct.” It’s valuable to see the movie go this far, because nothing else ever does on this scale, but that also makes it more disappointing when it pulls back.So the big question then among more left-leaning people (again like me) who generally love how thrilling and smart and artistic and Black Coogler’s vision of Black Panther turned out is why do we have to make Killmonger’s plan unacceptable (and it is unacceptable in its ambitions of bloody imperialism) to settle for T’Challa’s more moderate awakening and approach to retribution? Is that an unfair standard?The cynical answer is that Black Panther is still part of the global capitalist money-making product that is Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe. They’re using T’Challa to sell soup! Not only would a film that (accurately) positions white people as the villains in a global race war alienate huge lucrative swathes of the audience, it would cause plot problems for the creators behind other upcoming Marvel films. Ant-Man and the Wasp would suddenly have to be a very different movie in a world where Killmonger is king.But even if audiences unfortunately wouldn’t accept a completely radical Black Panther, the film should still be celebrated for the provocative stuff it does present to an audience of $250 million and growing worth of people, including tons of impressionable children. Shuri insults CIA goons by calling them colonizers. T’Challa, Okoye, and Nakia battle white South African arms dealers with spears while wearing the colors of the Pan-African flag and speaking Xhosa. Even just depicting a shining, advanced, Afrofuturist society (with Angela Bassett as queen!) is a rebellious act in a white supremacist culture. It’s wild this movie was even allowed to exist as it is.If softening this film’s edges was needed in order to incept it into more people’s minds than that’s worth it to me. I compared Black Panther to Zootopia because I appreciate how big a political swing that movie also took inside the huge yet restrictive canvas that is a Disney kids cartoon. Yeah the politics of “predators as minorities” get really sketchy if you interrogate them, but it’s worthwhile as the unexpected beginning of a real political thought exercise amidst the colorful dance numbers. Black Panther is also like that, but better, more mature and explicitly, coherently Politically Good. (More politically coherent and contemporary than Marvel’s own Luke Cage also)Black Panther’s double political consciousness as Black/Superhero reminded me of the lengths filmmakers would go to in order to make challenging socially relevant material in the first half of the 20th century despite the strict censorship of the Hays Code. Only now the censorship is vague and comes from what mainstream audiences (and studios) allow, not directly demanded by some governing body. Ethical consumption is impossible. Compromise is inevitable. So instead of dreaming of perfect pure art no one would see, Coogler and his team made the best progressive art they could in an imperfect system that everyone will see. For effecting positive change, which sounds more meaningful to you?Black Panther isn’t the final word on radical Black politics. Far from it. Don’t think that because you saw it that you have now have nothing to learn from James Baldwin and Angela Davis and W.E.B. Du Bois. But along with its inspirational representation, Black Panther is a triumph as an intellectual and accessible start of a conversation. It’s also a dope mainstream superhero movie.The Best Black Panther T-ShirtsLet us know what you like about Geek by taking our survey. 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