One Single Tribe: A Review of Black Panther

I have to admit that I’m not at all what one would call a superhero movie enthusiast. The only film from that genre that ever really sparked my interest was Guardians of the Galaxy and that was mostly due to its soundtrack and humor. I really like that one, including its sequel, but for the most part, Marvel and DC movies just don’t appeal much to me. I absolutely love film and I like to explore various genres and it’s not that I don’t enjoy adventure or action movies at all (I mean, Star Wars, hello?!). Usually though, I tend to prefer movies that deal with “real world issues”, as elitist as this sounds (I’m cringing a little on the inside). But it is how it is, drama is my favorite genre and anything that deals with questions of identity, justice, guilt, tragedy, stuff like that, generally catches my eye. And this is probably why Black Panther was so mind-blowing to me.

Two or three months ago, I had the pleasure of meeting a UA professor who teaches both in the department of Gender and Race Studies and in African American Studies. We were chatting about the upcoming weekend with a couple other students and she told us that she would go see Black Panther for the third time that night. She and the other students agreed that it’s a brilliant movie and told me I have to see it. I had already heard before that that the movie is an important step in the development towards a more diverse film industry, so all of that combined made me decide to give it a try. A week later my friends and I finally got to see the film at the theatre. I know I’m super late with my review as Black Panther was released three months ago but life happened and I only got around to publish this now. I was debating just deleting all of this now but the movie impressed me so much that I still want to share my thoughts.

Let me tell you up front, Black Panther didn’t exactly change my attitude towards superhero movies… BUT, there is a number of aspects that I’d like to talk about here because I think they are significant and make me appreciate the film on a higher level, more or less detached from genre or plot. I don’t think that – with having seen the film only once a while ago and still wrapping my mind around all the interesting aspects of it – I can actually do the film justice, and maybe I’ll also make mistakes in my analysis. I would absolutely love to discuss the film further, though, so please leave me a comment and start a conversation if you feel like sharing your thoughts!

If you were to break down Black Panther into its definitive essence, you would find that one notion permeates the whole film: empowerment. It is a celebration of all the brilliant, passionate, dedicated people of color involved: the actors, the writers, the director, and everyone else. Finally, we have a movie about superheroes that doesn’t feature an all-white cast and basically tells the world that anyone can indeed be great as long as they look caucasian. Here’s Black Panther – a superhero movie that, if you exclude extras, only has two white actors in it (Martin Freeman and Andy Serkis, who both did an awesome job) but a whole range of excellent black actors.

Here’s a movie that shows children and anyone else watching that everyone can be a superhero. The color of your skin, your gender, your heritage – non of these matter when it comes to your inherent abilities and potential to do great things. What matters is your determination, your passion, your strength, your focus. Black Panther shows all of this by portraying characters that are strong, smart, thoughtful, protective of what they love but also open for change if that means doing what is right.

But Black Panther does not merely employ black actors. Instead, the reality of being black is negotiated throughout the whole movie. Even though the plot relies heavily on fantastic elements and is set in a fictional kingdom, Black Panther still portrays contemporary, ‘real world’ issues connected to racial identity and the marginalization of minorities, particularly African Americans.

The kingdom of Wakanda, where most of the plot takes place, is located somewhere in Africa and serves as a playground for a discussion about the roots of African Americans. The film explores the complex concept of being American vs. being African American as well as the unity/separateness of Africans and African Americans. A lot of the questions that were raised in the film reminded me of the poets of the Harlem Renaissance. African Americans writers in the 1920s often thought about Africa, seeing it as their long lost motherland they were taken from and need to return to even though they themselves were born in the US. While many African Americans today consider themselves American, detached from their African ancestors, Black Panther sees Africans and people of African descent around the world as one people. In one scene we learn that [slight spoiler-alert] the main character’s uncle N’Jobu stole some of Wakanda’s mysterious powerful resource vibranium to help his people. He says:

I observed for as long as I could. Their leaders have been assassinated. Communities flooded with drugs and weapons. They are overly policed and incarcerated. All over the planet, our people suffer because they don’t have the tools to fight back. With vibranium weapons they can overthrow all countries, and Wakanda can rule them all, the right way!

Although there’s definitely something problematic about this statement – one country ruling over all other countries – there is also something very important in here. In addition to him including the interesting notion of ‘our people’, N’Jobu also openly criticizes police brutality against African Americans and the disproportionate incarceration of black American citizens. He seeks the empowerment of his people and wants them to be able to fight back. In a later scene, we witness the film’s antagonist Erik, also called the Killmonger, talking to N’Jobu, his dead father, in an afterlife-like situation. They are back in their small apartment in Oakland, California, a city that has had an exceptionally high crime and homicide rate since the 1960s (although both have fortunately declined to a certain extent since 2012). Erik and N’Jobu have a conversation about Erik going back to Wakanda and the exchange goes like this:

N’Jobu: But I fear you still may not be welcome.

Erik: Why?

N’Jobu: They’ll say you are lost.

Erik: But I’m right here.

N’Jobu: [sighs] No tears for me?

Erik: Everybody dies. It’s just life around here.

Erik’s conversation with his father reflects two sad truths. First, although African Americans make up less than one-third of Oakland’s population, they are over-represented in the city’s crime statistics. Most of the homicides that still take place daily in Oakland happen in neighborhoods primarily inhabited by African Americans. For Erik and his friends, the frequent deaths of people in their immediate surroundings due to gang and drug crimes are a normal part of their everyday lives. Oakland is just one example among many other cities in the United States that are affected by this. And second, N’Jobu’s statement ‘They’ll say you are lost’ not only redirects the viewers’ attention to questions and issues connected to identity and belonging (African vs. African American) but also illustrates the marginalization of African Americans in American society. African Americans, particularly young boys, are often being ignored or dismissed and considered hopeless cases. Erik longs for other people to acknowledge him and his inherent potentials but others only view him as ‘lost’. In other words, they are victims of a widespread racism that still exists in vast parts of the US. As a result, Erik becomes radicalized. He joins the military and proudly tells everyone how many people he has killed (which is the reason behind his nickname, of course). Erik’s radicalization can be seen as a metaphor for people growing up in circumstances like his, in neighborhoods wracked by poverty, crime and violence, that later become involved in acts of crime and violence themselves. As a result, Erik’s role as the antagonist, as the evil guy, is being put into question comepletely. Can we really blame him for what he did? For all the murders he has committed – we probably can. But for trying to help his people back in California and all over the world by seizing the throne in Wakanda, definitely not.

[Major spoiler ahead] Towards the end of the movie, Erik dies after being defeated by his enemy, king T’Challa, and expresses one of the most memorable lines of the whole film.  When T’Challa offers to spare Erik’s life and heal him, Erik denies it by saying:

Why, so you can lock me up? No, just bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from ships, because they knew death was better than bondage.

Of course, this powerful statement evokes the history of the first African people being abducted from their home countries and brought to the US to become slaves. This shows once more how deeply Black Panther is concerned with African American history.

In addition to all the important criticism that Black Panther offers, the movie nevertheless also displays hope and optimism. Of course, the notion of empowerment mentioned above is one of these positive, inspirational aspects of the movie. The portrayal of Wakanda as an affluent black community is one example of the powerful scenarios that the film creates, it counters the usual association with poverty and hardship of common narratives about African and African American communities.

One more remarkable characteristic of Black Panther for me was the presence of a large number of strong female characters. Okoye, Nakia, Shuri and Ramonda all play important roles in the development of the plot, they are well-rounded characters with unique, strong personalities. My favorite among them was Okoye. I have already adored Danai Gurira as Michonne in The Walking Dead and in Black Panther she is not less of a badass. It makes me so, so happy to witness Hollywood becoming more diverse. The adequate representation of people of all genders, sexualities, nationalities, races and backgrounds in my eyes is so important in the development towards a better world.

One of my favorite parts of Black Panther was actually a scene that appears after most of the credits have been shown, a feature that Marvel movies are known for. T’Challa gives a speech in front of the United Nations:

Wakanda will no longer watch from the shadows. We can not. We must not. We will work to be an example of how we, as brothers and sisters on this earth, should treat each other. Now, more than ever, the illusions of division threaten our very existence. We all know the truth: more connects us than separates us. But in times of crisis the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers. We must find a way to look after one another, as if we were one single tribe.

I love this scene because it reminds us that, despite all the discussions about race, we are essentially all the same. We are one single tribe. I also love the not so subtle critique on current (American but also other national) politics and the foolish [who] build barriers

As a student of American culture, society and history, I cannot express how much I appreciate and admire writer/director Ryan Coogler and writer Joe Robert Cole for their ability to portray the intricate and complicated struggles of identity that permeate American, and specifically African American society. I don’t claim to understand in any way what it means or feels like to be African American today, but I feel like Black Panther has helped me reconnect to some important concepts I have come across in my studies and that I want to invest more of my time in.

Alright guys, this post has been so long in the making and I don’t feel like I have covered everything that I wanted to cover, but I had to publish it at some point. I am sure that once I’m going to watch Black Panther a second time I will notice a million other things I could have included here. BUT, done is better than perfect, right? 🙂 I really, really want to hear your thoughts on the movie! Did you interpret something in a different way than I did? What was your favorite scene/part? What do you think is the most important lesson we should take from it? Also, if you’re a Marvel fan, where does Black Panther rank in your rating of all the films? I have A LOT of questions 😀

xx Lena

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