I just got home from seeing Black Panther a second time and finally have the energy to write about it because I keep turning the questions it poses over and over in my mind. Honestly, and this is going to sound hyperbolic but I think it’s true, I’ve never seen a movie that asks its audience to ponder questions as large as the ones Black Panther does. I get the feeling Ryan Coogler was also wrestling with these questions during the writing of the film. I wonder if he’s any closer to discovering the answers. I haven’t been wrestling with them as long as him, but I know I’m not.
I was worried Black Panther would lose a lot of its sheen after the first viewing and the film wouldn’t hold my attention the second time around. In actuality, the opposite happened. Because I had already experienced the glory of seeing a movie screen full of people who look like me portrayed in a regal and respectful manner, I was free to focus on the film’s dialogue and the questions Coogler is posing to those of us who are members of the African diaspora.
Before I discuss Black Panther further, I want to mention The Black Panther Effect again. If you missed the first time I discussed this, head over to this post for The Effect’s definition: The Black Panther Effect/Annihilation Review (Contains Spoilers). Among the trailers I saw this evening before the film began was the Deadpool 2 trailer. I saw one Black supporting character. This just isn’t enough for me anymore. There can’t be two supporting Black characters or characters of color? Or, God forbid, THREE Black supporting characters?! I also saw the trailer for the next Mission Impossible movie, which despite my desire to see more Black people, especially women, on screen, I’ll probably go see (I’m…just being honest (André 3000 voice), I love the whole concept of an impossible mission), and I thought, Ethan Hunt always has a beautiful woman help him complete his mission. Just once, can’t that woman be Black?
Then, the film began, and I was once again transported to Wakanda. That first shot of the incredibly technologically advanced nation still took my breath away. It’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen in a film.
What struck me on a deeper level this time than it did the first time I saw Black Panther is how much the film is about the particular difficulty of being African-American. That difficulty being always trying to reconcile the two halves of yourself: your African ancestry and your American present, manner of thinking and way of being.
When Erik Killmonger arrives in Wakanda, he has a cutting rebuke for them: there are millions of people who look like us all over the world who live in poverty and are oppressed and you have done nothing to help them. White supremacy and colonialism have placed their feet on the neck of every Black person outside of Wakanda and Killmonger asks them where they were as this happened.
My initial thought when I heard this question was, Is it the job of Wakanda to liberate Black people all over the world? I mean, if I was in sole possession of a metal as powerful and versatile as vibranium, I’d be tempted to keep it to myself as well. As T’Challa says early in the film, he’s the king of Wakanda, not the entire world. Therefore, his responsibility is to the people of Wakanda, not the entire world.
Killmonger challenges T’Challa’s right to the throne and initially, defeats him. Killmonger takes the throne and shows himself to be a brutish leader. I’ve read a couple of articles attributing Killmonger’s cruel nature to his exposure to white supremacy, colonialism and imperialism. Yes, Erik’s desire to grow the Wakandan Empire is a response to being exposed to imperialism. Yes, his lack of respect for women is likely due to his exposure to white patriarchy. But attributing the rest of his character completely to exposure to white supremacy and colonialism is taking the easy way out.
Erik is mad at the world because his father was killed and he was left to live in poverty while every Wakandan lived in splendor. King T’Chaka, a Wakandan, did that to him. When T’Challa ascends to the stunning ancestral plane, he asks his father why he chose to leave Erik in America instead of bringing him back to Wakanda. His father responds by saying something to the effect of that was the truth I chose to tell. I think the real reason T’Chaka left Erik in America is he didn’t want to be reminded of Wakanda’s choice not to help impoverished Black people in the rest of the world every time he looked at him. He simply didn’t want to share the country’s wealth.
Furthermore, even if Erik had grown up in Wakanda, he’d likely still be T’Challa’s rival. T’Chaka was older than N’Jobu, so T’Challa would most likely have been the heir to the throne when he died. Erik likely would’ve envied that and probably would’ve challenged him for the throne.
In my eyes, and I think in the eyes of Ryan Coogler, T’Challa represents being African/Africa and Erik Killmonger represents being African-American/America. The battle between them represents the battle going on inside of every African-American every day. T’Challa ultimately wins the battle against Killmonger, yet offers him mercy, a chance to live. But Killmonger rejects the offer and chooses to die. His only wish is to be buried in the ocean with his (our) ancestors because they knew “death was better than living in bondage.”
What is Coogler saying here? That we should symbolically “kill” the American part of ourselves and go back to Africa? Or just that we should visit our original homeland and learn more about the culture, language and way of life of our ancestors? It seems clear that Coogler believes in Pan-Africanism: a political ideology that aims to encourage and strengthen bonds of solidarity between all people of African descent. He reinforces this idea in the film by using the colors of the Pan-African flag several times: in scenes involving Nakia, Okoye and T’Challa, Nakia is often wearing green, Okoye is often wearing red and T’Challa is often wearing black.
Another thing that strikes me about Black Panther is how incredibly feminist it is. Someone on Facebook said her friend said it didn’t pass the Bechdel Test. If you’re so inclined to click on the above link, you’ll see the site lists Black Panther as passing the test. Upon my second viewing, I was sure to look out for this and there are two conversations in the film that, in my opinion, pass the test: the conversation between Okoye and Nakia shortly after Killmonger defeats T’Challa in battle and the conversation between Nakia and the Queen Mother (Ramonda) on the mountain on their way to speak to M’Baku.
In both of these conversations, men are referenced (it’s only a passing reference in Nakia’s conversation with the Queen Mother), so for the sticklers out there, this movie may not have passed the Test. Even if that’s true for you, this movie is so feminist in so many other ways, it shouldn’t really matter.
Firstly, all of the women in this film are intelligent, capable of independent thinking, strong and have a clear sense of who they are. Nakia is a spy who believes it is her mission to protect the vulnerable and oppressed people of the world. She’s also a brilliant fighter and will use whatever is at her disposal to defeat her opponent. In the fight scene in the casino, she uses her heel to hit the man she’s fighting. In breaking down this scene, Ryan Coogler referred to this as Nakia using her femininity as a weapon. I mean, what’s more feminist than that?
Earlier in the film, she prevents T’Challa from killing a child soldier. This reinforces one of the most feminist aspects of the film: women can physically protect others.
The King’s guard is composed entirely of women. I’ve never seen that in a movie. The Dora Milaje have bald heads and are dressed appropriately for battle at all times. I couldn’t help thinking if Black Panther had been directed by a white man, they most likely wouldn’t have worn pants and would’ve had long hair. The general of Wakanda’s entire armed forces is a woman, Okoye. In fact, Okoye is called “General” more times in the film than her name. Just to hear a woman referred to by such a powerful title is incredibly feminist.
Speaking of Okoye, for me, she’s the best part of the film. And she couldn’t be more feminist if she tried. When she, Nakia and T’Challa return to Wakanda, she says, “Sister Nakia, my prince, we are home.” This stuck out to me because I would’ve thought T’Challa, being a member of the royal family, would’ve been addressed first.
When Killmonger takes the throne, Nakia wants Okoye to leave with her, the Queen Mother and Shuri, but Okoye refuses. She says she pledged loyalty to the throne, regardless of who sits on it. This is important because it demonstrates her loyalty is not to a man, but to Wakanda’s ruler. Okoye saves the life of a man no less than three times in this film. This is impactful because in big-budget movies like Black Panther, women are often being saved instead of doing the saving, i.e. women in these types of films often lack real agency.
When W’Kabi, Okoye’s love, asks her if she would kill him, she says, “For Wakanda? Without question.” In case you missed that, Okoye would not hesitate to kill her lover if that’s what was best for her country. She loves her man, but that love pales in comparison to her love for Wakanda. Again, this is so refreshing because we’re constantly watching women give up everything they believe in for men in movies and on TV. Okoye reminded me to never compromise my belief system for a man again.
But the feminism doesn’t end with Okoye and Nakia. Shuri, T’Challa’s younger sister, is Wakanda’s head of technology. It’s amazing to see a Black woman portrayed as a technological genius because so often in America, this is a title reserved only for young white men. Shuri’s lab and the tools she creates for the Black Panther make the labs in Batman and Bond films look like child’s play. Shuri’s creations are used throughout the film to get T’Challa out of trouble and save the life of Agent Ross.
Let me talk about Agent Ross for a second, then I’ll get back to the feminist badasses in this movie. It’s glorious to watch a white man be so unaware and useless on screen, as characters of color are so often portrayed. He didn’t know the truth about Wakanda, he thought Shuri healed him with “magic” instead of technology and even though she customized the virtual spaceship he flew so it would be easy for an American to use, she still had to help him fly it while she was fighting in a battle! I mean, does it get any better than that?
One of the most feminist things about Shuri is her irreverence, another quality often reserved in films and television for young white people. She gives her brother the finger, in what may be the greatest line of the film, she calls Agent Ross a colonizer to his face, and when she, her mother and Nakia go to M’Baku for help, she tells him not to rub their noses in her brother’s death. She speaks her mind, no matter the situation.
At the end of the film, T’Challa decides Erik is right and it is Wakanda’s duty to help the impoverished and oppressed of the world. At the UN summit, he tells the other world leaders everyone in the world should act as though we’re all members of the same tribe. Is this the right decision? Yes. If T’Challa had decided vibranium should remain Wakanda’s secret, he would have been no better than rich, white men who want all of the world’s wealth for themselves and are more than happy to watch poor people suffer and starve.
But I just realized why I can’t get 100% behind this decison. The people of Wakanda are good and pure and virtuous. Under T’Challa’s leadership, they will come to see helping people in the rest of the world is the right thing to do. But many people outside of Wakanda are not virtuous. Once they see what vibranium can do, they will want all of it for themselves. People will never stop trying to invade Wakanda to get it. Now I believe the Dora Milaje and the tribes of Wakanda can protect the country, but they’ll have to fight outsiders constantly. The tranquility of their lives will end.
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the people of the world will follow King T’Challa’s example and seek to live in harmony with one another. But I wouldn’t bet a Kimoyo bead on it.