Film Review: Black Panther


Don't worry this post won’t spoil the film’s plot if you haven't seen it yet. I saw the film Friday and am still mulling over my feelings and reading of it. My first instinct and the direction this post was initially going to take was to praise the production of Black Panther. And rightly so the casting and chemistry was awesome, the acting was top notch, as was the screenwriting, direction, etc, etc. It was black storytelling at its finest. BUT, there were somethings - scenes, story lines, characters, motivations, etc. - that did not sit well with me. Though, not enough that it negated from the excitement of the film.

Let me start by saying that I enjoyed the film. Want to see it again and can’t wait to own it on DVD. I found it well balanced and thought out in that it gave enough of a back story and set up the characters motivations well without losing time to get to the nitty gritty. I was also thoroughly impressed that it was able to concurrently entertain and be intellectually pressing. I had expected, from all the reports, that there would be some bad ass multifaceted black female characters but I was blindsided by the fact the film addressed subjects of race, colonialism, and diaspora identity politics and was done so well, with wit and humour. Which is why I strongly recommend the film to everyone and would encourage you to go now while everyone else is flocking to see it, the packed mixed race/gender/age audience the film is drawing in will delightfully add to the viewing experience. 

Now let’s address that “but”! 

I won’t give any scenes away, but if you’ve watched the Avenger film where Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther character is introduced you’ll already know he’s tired up in world politics. And this inevitably runs through the Black Panther story and plot. What we know of Wakanda is that it was never colonised by Europeans so it was able to develop and flourish without European intervention. We also know that the fictional country possesses advanced technological and scientific knowledge. But why they have never used this advantage to expand their kingdom or defend/support their fellow Africans from the history (and present realities) we know have occurred is very much the question this film attempts to provide an answer to. And here lies the problem. 

While I love the way the film oscillates between implicitly and explicitly addressing subjects of colonialism, slavery and black solidarity, by way of the dialogue, location's visited, and characters - especially the inclusion of white characters and their roles in the story. Disappointingly, the film ends up aligning itself with white ideas on global governance and cooperation. But also, the film is limited in its offering of what black solidarity could look like as it's envisioned only in connection with black America. Thus the Black Panther for me stumbles on the Afro-futurism claims many have predicted it to represent and instead seems to function as an African-American African savior fantasy. I ask, if Wakanda was to exist in Africa why would supporting black America be first on its agenda, why wouldn’t their African neighbours be made priority? 

The film’s American-centrist narrative isn’t uncommon for the genre. Those of us not from America are well and truly used to Hollywood action/hero/armageddon films occurring in a USA vacuum. Though, the genre has been getting better of late, I mean the second Thor film, for example, was set in London. But its not just that. The relationship between King T'Challa, Chadwick Boseman’s character, and Killmonger, Michael B. Jordan's character had me feeling quite uneasy and most disturbed by the outcome, but not fully understanding why. Then I read British political activist Lee Jasper's reaction to the film on Facebook today and it really helped me make sense of my ambivalence. His comment read as follows:
I was deeply disappointed #BlackPanther A predominately white narrative and reactionary script. Elite African royalty, sides with the CIA to destroy a ‘black revolution’ ? Its the manufactured white hope, of benign black forgiveness. The film is an historical nodding reference to #KillMonger as Malcolm and #T’Challa as Martin. It’s message is clear, rich African blacks have more in common with rich Americans, than poor Africans on the continent and the global diaspora.
Am not yet sure if I agree fully with his reading but the Malcolm/Martin references I think is spot on.
One was an advocate of black militancy and violence to counter violence, while the other was for cooperation with whites and integration within white laws, schools, and society (though many scholars are now saying that coming to the end of his life Martin was starting to move away from the idea). The latter is not how I envision a black revolution. It all goes back to the point I made earlier in that too much value was placed in Wakanda aligning itself to white ideals on global governance and cooperation. But why? Surely in this realm of fiction and futurism Wakanda, who for the last 400 years has existed outside of colonialism and capitalism, can offer the world a new and more effective economic and political model. So why would the Black Panther find it necessary to cooperate with the coloniser, knowing their track record? They don't need the coloniser, so why are they the first port of call?  

I feel these questions are reserved more for the films ending and the now eagerly awaited sequel. Though, they do also feed into what I thought was an explicit discussion, in the films plot and story, regarding the African diasporas disconnection with Africa. I was actually blown away by the sheer fact the film chose to address this at all and thought it was handled really well. But, I guess, I just can't see how this black solidarity can operate if it must exists within the confines of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy - will Wakanda buy homes for all the poor black American's or educate them all to find a job? Unlikely, ineffective and not radical enough especially since white corporate America will ultimately benefit! Much like this film, I guess, as no matter how groundbreaking or radical this film might be to the black (global) community it will make little to no impact on race relations while standing also to make some rich white men richer.

The last of my ambivalence is reserved towards the work the female characters in the film undertake. Now I loved the women in the film - Lupita Nyong'o, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright - they were bad-ass, multi-dimensional (with the exception of T'Challa's mother, played by Angela Bassett), and had really progressive and endearing platonic relationships with T'Challa - this is especially true of Lupita Nyong'o's character, Nakia, who is the Black Panthers love interest but there is more then just love between them they have a really strong friendship. My ambivalence is that the Black Panther character requires collectively the emotional, intellectual, physical and sexual support of these women to embrace his destiny and grow as a character. I think its great that at least one of the four female actresses, according to reports, shared every scene Chadwick Boseman's character was in. But without this gender specific labour the female characters provide the Black Panther wouldn't be the Black Panther.

On the other hand, I guess it's good that this gendered labour is made visible and being acknowledged since, if we refer back to Jasper's Civil Rights Movement allegory, black women's contribution to the movement were often obscured by the sexist instilling of male leaders. But then this is exactly what is occurring since the Wakanda women are supporting and fighting for the interest of their leader and King, the Black Panther, whose film it is we are talking about.

Though, all in all, the Black Panther is a refreshingly unapologetically black film that is also extremely entertaining and gives you everything you were expecting of a Marvel comic hero film. The fight scenes were creative and action packed, the romance was endearing but not over powering, and there was a lot of light relief to make you laugh. But it is not your typical Marvel film, it is better! Its funny, intellectual, the cinematography is awesome, the fashion is dapper and acting/script/delivery is brilliant! 

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