Black Panther's Lessons On Racism, Elite Apathy, Feminism, And More Create Space For Important Conversations
This is beyond fiction
In the coliseum of the film, Marvel’s Black Panther has become the reigning gladiator-triumphant. It’s shattered a host of records, earned half-a-billion dollars worldwide, and became the most successful movie debut of an African-American director in history. There are weightier conquests as well. It’s disintegrated the long-held Hollywood belief that movies with Black casts are undesired. Moreover, our progeny now have the representation that we lacked. Twenty short years ago, when I was a child, every superhero was white. We could only be the subservient sidekick, not the leader holding the zenith of power. Black Panther changes the zeitgeist. Now, our children, in the depths of their imagination and creative fancy, can be the hero who saves the day. It’s a vision which impacts the way they see their life and worth because, after all, seeing is believing. Black Panther director Ryan Coogler, known for highlighting white supremacy, systemic inequity, racism, and poverty in his work (see Fruitvale Station), goes further here. He raises lesser-discussed themes such as the apathetic wealthy Black elite, Pan-African relations, the nonviolent approach to liberation, feminism, and mental illness in Black America with éclat and wisdom.
All great heroes require a great villain, and Black Panther’s first great theme lies in its fascinating madman, Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan). He’s less a villain and more an apex-antihero, representing an ideology that, at the surface, has as much merit as the ideology of the hero, T'Challa the Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman). They are two black men who arrive at a fork in the road and choose opposite paths which make all the difference. T’Challa is King of Wakanda, an elite, wealthy, technologically-advanced African nation. They are the sole source of Wakandan vibranium, a rare metal with technological applications and mystical power-giving abilities. Yet, this land has become apathetic to the plight of the billions of other black people suffering globally. While the Wakandans could end oppression instantly, they instead do nothing, hiding their wealth and power. It was Killmonger, not T’Challa, who rose up to agitate the Wakandan system after he survived the economic, educational, and social inequities of the ghetto. Were it not for Killmonger, T’Challa was quite content to continue the apathetic and cowardly course of his people.
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It reminds us of some of the elite black leaders and public figures who, too, are apathetic. The celebrities, athletes, artists, politicians, corporate executives, leaders-in-field, and entertainers with huge net worth and global platforms who exist in their mahogany towers. We see the athletes, singers, and rappers ballin’ on Instagram, posting their new cars, homes, jewelry, and club receipts, but giving nothing to the cause. We see the corporate leaders and politicians standing on the pedestals of power, but withholding their might from the movement. We see the leaders-in-field giving inspirational talks then retreating to their new gated communities. They could create a global partnership, using their wealth, platforms, and connections to empower the movement to end oppression. Yet many fail to do so. They fear losing their seat at the table. Even some of the “woke” ones are often only pantomiming the work by co-opting legitimate social movements for their own gain; posting socially-conscious messages, but doing the least to truly create change. Wakanda becomes the vehicle by which Coogler calls out the successful black elite who have the money, power, and reach that the grassroots activists and changers lack. I hope that the black elite who watch this film will learn T’Challa’s lesson. Yes, white supremacy and racism are at the core of our problems and no, the black elite are not to blame for it. Yet, they have the power, the resources, and the platform to empower activism. The days of "PR wokeness" must come to an end.
Coogler’s next theme lies in the recognition of mental illness which is pervasive in the Black community. We’ve long dismissed treatment of mental illness; ignoring it, soldiering on, rejecting professional help, and hoping to pray it away. Yet, the trauma is in our DNA; it’s cellular. The beatings, rape, murder, animal conditioning, and cattle treatment of slavery have transformed into today’s prejudice, segregation, denial of education, denial of opportunity, and economic inequity. We work twice as hard for half the prize. We grow up with Depression, Bipolar Disorder, and Schizophrenia- all which go without a diagnosis. Our communities are generally seething, exhausted, desperate, and resigned to fate. Knowing that black life is treated with no worth, many of us exist wandering aimlessly until we violently crash into each other to be extinguished like asteroids in the void. At 29, I was diagnosed with Depression, Anxiety, and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, had already suffered two nervous breakdowns, had seen many dreams crushed merely because I was a black child, and dealt with functionally-insane family members and relatives who turned to drugs to escape the pain. Mental illness is a real issue in our community.
Killmonger, too, knew this pain. Abandoned by his Wakandan family in the American ghetto, he also inherited the cycle of suffering many Black Americans endure. He was left far too damaged by his past to be effective. Revenge became his bylaw; he wanted the world to suffer not be liberated. Through Killmonger, Coogler highlighted the mental illness that many suffer silently. The message: break the cycle and repair your full self. Killmonger’s potential brilliance was lost in his misery and anger. Don’t let the same be said of you.
Another seed of wisdom lies in Black Panther’s exaltation of feminism and its dismissal of toxic masculinity. Some men believe that feminism (the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes) is anti-male. Gender equality requires them to sacrifice the male privilege that comes with patriarchy, and they are so accustomed to dominance that they can’t conceive of sacrificing that privilege. Yet, Wakanda is the perfect example of what feminism truly is. Okoye (Danai Gurira) is the powerful head of Dora Milaje, Wakanda’s all-female secret service comprised of its top warriors. T’Challa’s sister, 16-year old Shuri (Letitia Wright) is the most brilliant mind in the kingdom and creates the breakthroughs that make Wakanda the leader in the world of tech. T’Challa maintains a respectful relationship with his ex-girlfriend Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) an undercover spy who completes global Wakandan missions and frees enslaved women; a nod to the sex-trafficking, servitude, arranged marriages, and slavery that many women of color around the world face daily. T’Challa is not weakened or diminished by these extraordinary women. Their brilliance, light, ascension, and force are no threat to his own. This is what feminism is meant to represent, and Black Panther fearlessly shows that. It’s not a perfect representation: Wakanda still seems to have only male monarchs. Yet, at least Oyoke and Shuri have the chance to change that.
One of the film's greatest revelations is that Killmonger is not a random contestant to the throne, but T’Challa’s lost cousin. Their fathers were brothers: T’Challa’s father T’Chaka was King and Killmonger’s father Prince N’jobu (Sterling K. Brown) operated as a Wakandan spy in America. N’jobu illegally sold vibranium to black market dealers, but he did it to get money to help black Americans, after witnessing their plight with racism and inequity. T’Chaka decides to kill his own brother for trying to help their own people and abandon his nephew (Killmonger) to the streets in the process. Torn from his heritage, Killmonger becomes a child in the image of the black American. Like us he has no route to home, his ancestor was sold into death by relatives, he possesses a minuscule memory of heritage, and he's stuck in a land where his life is reduced to a game for racist hunters. The chasm between T'Challa and Killmonger resembles the relationship between Africans and black Americans. Like them, we are cousins with a strained relationship. For centuries, black Americans were taught that Africa was a disgusting place that we should be ashamed to be descendants of. We were taught that our skin color, natural hair texture, facial features, and body type were a thing to be ashamed of. These views have helped power decades of antipathetic perceptions and damaged connections and within in the Pan-African community. T’Challa desires to bridge the gap, reminding both communities of their shared heritage. The African community and the black American communities each suffered the effects of colonization. Coogler’s next theme shows that it is together, with mutual respect for our shared heritage and mutual understanding of our sufferings, that we progress.
Coogler also touches on the worth of noble standards and nonviolent strategies to liberation. Killlmonger wanted to use the power of Wakanda to overthrow all sources of oppression, and racism. The problem is that he didn’t want to stop at liberating black people. He, fundamentally, wished to become the oppressor, installing a new system in place where black people ruled the world using the same tools of oppression. Yet that, ultimately, leads to a day when we’d be the supremacists of the world, and what a sick reversal of roles that would be. It reminds me of the faction of “woke” people who blanket-demonize all white people, who advocate re-segregation or isolation, and push violent revolution. It’s easy to be petty, to treat the oppressor the way they treated us, but that reduces us and compromises our nobility on the cellular level. It’s easy to suggest isolation or re-segregation, but it was the isolationism of homogeneous societies that first caused the ignorance that led to the fear, then hate, that powers racism. We share this planet; if we separate, we will still confront each other again one day in the same violent way. It is easy to suggest violently becoming the oppressor, but that leads us down the path of revenge which ultimately leaves the whole Earth scorched. The real path is somewhere in between Killmonger and T’Challa’s ideology.
There are a few flat notes, but none are Coogler’s fault. Let me address them. First, it isn’t lost on us that a white CIA agent was the one who helped save the world. It would’ve been nice to have all the heroes be black, but perhaps the studio forced Coogler’s hand here. Next, there’s also the unrealistic way T’Challa is saved after being tossed over a watery cliff by Killmonger: his enemies in the Jabari mountain tribe magically have a change of heart and save him by putting him in snow? Really? Yet, Coogler can be forgiven here; he’s limited by the foretold Marvel storyline. My good friend, a scholar of the comic-book world, showed me that T’Challa’s fate was ultimately sealed because he must be alive for the next Marvel installment, Avengers: Infinity War. Finally, T’Challa's solution at the end of the film (building a few charity outposts in the hood and sharing Wakandan technology with the world) seems to be more like working side-by-side with white supremacy instead of dismantling it and rebuilding the world in the image of human equality. It triggers Killmonger’s shiver-inducing last words: “Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors that jumped from the ships. Because they knew death was better than bondage.” I believe Killmonger’s pointed statement against the story’s hero was Coogler’s way of acknowledging the limitations placed on him by the Marvel universe. Yet, these facts do little to detract from the humbling and thought-provoking points the film presents, or from the fact that it is just a generally impressive and enjoyable blockbuster.
As I left the movie theater, I saw a joyous young white child jumping up and down saying to his father, “Daddy, I’m the Black Panther!” and it brought tears to my eyes. While a new generation of black children see themselves as a champion, a new generation of white children are learning that no human is inferior and that we should aspire to greatness no matter the race of the champion. In grand style, Black Panther tears down the concept that blackness is inferior and undesirable, while at the same time giving us a hero whose skin is like chocolate kissed by the sun. Black Panther positively and beautifully changes our children's imaginations and perceptions.
It's a noble deed, for it is they who will inherit this Earth and it will take the shape of their beliefs.