“But, when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security.” — Ten-Point Program, Black Panther Party for Self-Defense.
“Black Panther” (2018) is sumptuous. “Black Panther” is stunning. “Black Panther” is a testament to the beauty that springs from the wells of the African diaspora; it comments on, visualizes and re-imagines the (white) world’s vision of black folks, while affirming that which we have always known about ourselves: We are ineffably wonderful. We feel immediate admiration for the Dora Milaje, a squad of loyal, buzz-cut, all-women warriors, led by Okoye (Danai Gurira). We are shown the cool confidence and strength of Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) and her indefatigable desire to help others. We are in awe of the blistering, omnipresent brilliance of Shuri (Letitia Wright) and the wisdom of her mother, the Queen Mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett). Wakanda, the people therein and the filmic world they inhabit calls forth the dream of a black utopia, immediately propelling itself above the low cultural bar for productions depicting blackness in any form. Upon this metric, the film necessitates a five-star rating from this reviewer — it has handled the concept of blackness more beautifully and lavishly than any other film since “Moonlight” (2016). It also necessitates a statement of ideological clarity: This review, like all of this author’s reviews, is not about stars or assessing the quality of a film. This is about engaging critically with the world “Black Panther” creates while keeping in mind the world it inhabits, struggling with its name, its heritage and its ability to live up to the hype around it.
Ryan Coogler’s epic 18th installment of Marvel’s attempt at world domination, focuses on the duality of two men, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) and Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), and their relationship to vibranium — an extraterrestrial metal said to be the strongest in the universe. That is to say, “Black Panther” situates itself between two black men on disparate ends of a diaspora and explores their relationship to power, a power that is imaginative in its supernaturality and illuminating in its cultural transcendence (and lack thereof).
Wakanda sits atop a literal mountain of vibranium, and as a result, has, for generations, chosen to obscure the true nature of its power from the rest of the world. Wakanda’s isolation reflects questions of American isolationism, as many critics have noted, but it also reflects the truth of how the white world, for centuries, has colonized, pillaged and villainized the African continent for perpetual access to its resources. Wakanda’s decision makes sense, which is why the struggle underneath the struggle between the continental T’Challa and the expatriate Killmonger feels so potent — the world, even in this re-imagination, still thirsts for that which can be stolen from Africa and its diasporic elements. So what does Wakanda do, as the white world continues to take advantage of a lack of black political, financial and military power? Does it send, as Killmonger wants, vibranium weapons to oppressed people across the globe? Or, as tradition interjects, does Wakanda ensure its own survival amongst the dystopia of the outside world?
The film rejects the dichotomy for something more centrist. By the end of the film, T’Challa announces (in front of the United Nations) that Wakanda is willing to spread its knowledge and resources to the rest of the world. For Wakanda, that means setting up a global chain of “outreach” centers, focused on sharing knowledge and technology to make the world a better place. For the rest of the world, that means disbelieving its own superiority complex as it pertains to black folks. In many ways, T’Challa and his allies’ defeat of Killmonger (and, in turn, his ideology) is a return to the status quo, both within the logic of the film and its relation to the real world.
“Black Panther” invokes the image of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, which sought the wholesale eradication of white supremacy, both in the United States and globally. White supremacy, over and over, has proven to be a powerful system that will not give up its reign without demands, struggle and violence. That violence can come in many forms, from the strategic nonviolence that elicited violent white backlash during the Civil Rights Movement to Nelson Mandela blowing up railways in apartheid South Africa. If this film is to be an invocation of those sentiments for commercial ends, the film fails to live up to the ideology of the liberatory politics of the Black Panther Party.
Vibranium works as a literal substance and as a metaphor, for the resource(s) in and underneath the soil in the African continent, but also as a switchpoint for people power, for the collective ability to self-determine in a world that has fought for centuries to determine your destiny for you. “Black Panther” allows itself to fall into the white supremacist trap of appeasement — how palatable would a film be for mass audiences if, instead of a defeat, Killmonger and T’Challa work together, using vibranium to both spread knowledge and technology across the globe and protect black and oppressed people? Vibranium is a pivot point upon which the film stumbles, associating the name “Black Panther” with a centrist conception of progress, capitalizing upon the name “Black Panther” without espousing consistent politics.