Black Panther – a superhero movie complete with all the typical superhero movie tropes, and yet a series of complex metaphors addressing a series of complex real world issues. A film, and a loud and clear political statement.
2018 is the year of political statements because 2018 politics are, for lack of a better term, unprecedented. Race, guns, women, Russia, healthcare, a whole lot of Republicans and a whole lot of – shall we say – really Republican Republicans, etc., etc., etc. I did not watch this movie for entertainment. Frankly, I have no interest in superheroes. Rather, I watched it because I felt a cultural and political obligation to do so, and spent the two hours or so searching for every metaphor, message, and criticism of society that I could find.
I had one glaring question right off the bat: what is the connection between the Black Panther political party and the title of this movie? I later did some googling and discovered that the Black Panther Party and Black Panther comic were born the very same year – 1966. Coincidence? I think not.
The Black Panther political party was founded in October, 1966. Originating in Oakland, California, the fundamental idea behind the movement was to challenge police brutality against the African American community. In 1969, the FBI deemed the Black Panthers communist and an enemy of the US government. Then FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover, called the Black Panthers “one of the greatest threats to the nation’s internal security” (history.com). The FBI supposedly “worked to weaken the Panthers by exploiting existing rivalries between black nationalist groups.” The Party officially dissolved in 1982 – it was short-lived.
Given that background, Black Panther fans can easily identify how the politics are intricately woven into the art. Erik Killmonger, the “villain” of the film, is a character of Wakandan descent (the fictional, futuristic African nation where the film primarily takes place) living in modern day Oakland, CA (Black Panther Party connection alert.) As someone who has experienced oppression in various forms, he harbors a fierce anger toward Wakanda for its isolationist policies, leaving oppressed black people all over the world behind. He has to explain to Wakandan royalty that in America, things are different. In America, people who “look like us” get shot and are overly incarcerated. In this sense, his character gives voice to the Black Panthers’ concerns. Killmonger is an intriguing villain because the word “villain” does not do his complex character justice. In fact, he is a broken man struggling to reconcile two drastically different worlds that are both an inevitable part of him.
1) A “villain” does not serve as a definition for a character. Qualities of villainous archetypes are often born out of hardship and experiences of oppression. No characters or human beings are absolutely bad or absolutely good. That’s not how it works.
2) Wakanda is a stunning example of a nation that was never colonized and little to no inequalities are evident in Wakandan society. Wakanda is a remarkably advanced, thriving nation, and represents what may have occurred without colonization. There is clearly no notion of racial hierarchy and little to no evidence of gender inequality in this fictitious nation.
3) Seeing and engaging with art created by and with people who are not identical to you is rewarding and essential in order to gain an understanding of different experiences and perspectives.
Racism was and will always be woven in the fabric of American society, and there is no escaping history and its prevalent stains on the present. As writer of the Black Panther series for Marvel Comics, Ta-Nehisi Coates says in his book, Between the World and Me, “race is the child of racism.” Race is a social construct because the idea that humans have different internal qualities due to the color of their skin is ludicrous and false. Race only exists because people believed and believe this to be true in order to affirm their own fake sense of superiority. While it is impossible to erase arguably the ugliest part of our country’s identity, art is a crucial mechanism of social change and it is a small but significant means of approaching the ideal, 100% equitable society.
Here is an intensely wise and philosophical quote from the movie for you to ponder.
T’Challa (Black Panther and King of Wakanda): “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 don’t know…if the wise don’t build barriers, I don’t think they build border walls.