Who . . . who are you?
This question reverberates throughout the blockbuster du jour, “Black Panther,” and the answers provided by the King of Wakanda, T’Challa, are not satisfactory to me. To the contrary; they are depressingly naïve, heavy-handed, and presented in a very top-down kind of way. The early introduction of the question was also an immediate give-away that the social justice warriors had far too much sway with this script.
Before I get too involved with my criticisms, let me acknowledge that all things considered, I loved the film. But I also hated prominent aspects of it, hence the criticism below. Within the four corners of this Black Panther film, unlike what I suspect are most superhero constructs, we don’t have an individual who possesses superhuman abilities and is dedicated to applying those talents toward protecting the public.
No, no, no.
In “Black Panther” we have an entire human culture that possesses superhuman technology led by a king who possesses superhuman ability—however, both the culture and the king are desirous of protecting their culture and their culture alone.
Thus, the social-justice-warrior inspired dialectic: who are you?
Is “Black Panther” a magnificent superhero film? Yes, I think so. A trusted friend thoroughly invested in a love of both the movies and the realm of comic books believes it is one of the best films he has ever seen.
It certainly doesn’t rise to that level for me.
I’ve seen it twice and both audiences enjoyed the film, though not in a rousing way. When I asked her, my wife doesn’t see this as a superhero film and I suspect that is part of the problem for me. She loved the scenery, the costumes, the actors (and, they were an incredibly well cast: notably Michael B. Jordan as Killmonger; Lupita Nyong’o as Nakia; Danai Gurira as General Okoye; and Angela Bassett as Ramonda, among many others), and she loved the mythical kingdom.
Yeah, yeah, yeah—sure, OK. But . . . the storyline? The intellectual overlay? The oh-so-trapped-in-the-1960s mentality of it all? I found it stilted in the extreme. Not once do we see evidence of a technologically superior private sector in Wakanda. Not once do we see evidence of a technologically superior middle class. Not once do we see evidence of a technologically superior and elite university system. Hell, the Wakandans didn’t just hide spies in plain sight, they entirely hid the believability of their technological superiority from the viewing audience!
Admittedly there were indications of an elite research and development infrastructure in Wakanda but they were are all localized and run, oh by the way, by the family of the king!
Honestly, I found myself wondering how is this not a supremacist film?
The Wakandans don’t merely presume supremacy over all they encounter, they demonstrably prove it. Other Africans, Americans, Asians, Europeans . . . the Wakandans are superior to the whole damn world. So superior, in fact, they pull the ultimate privilege move to close out the film. They jet to the ’hood, show off their Bugatti of a spaceship, announce they have purchased some buildings, and will benevolently share how wonderful they are with their brothers and sisters in the ’hood.
Anyway, there were two iconic moments that captured my imagination in the film. Moments where time seemed to stand still. They may mean nothing at all to anyone else, especially younger viewers. For this Florida boy, however, I just wanted to freeze and dwell in the deliciousness of the visual moment.
The first occurred when T’Challa became king and as part of the ritual ascent into his position as monarch, he first drank some nectar from the “heart-shaped herb” that gives the Black Panther his superhuman abilities, was subsequently buried head to toe, and then entered a mystical state that allowed him to emerge on an African savanna. There, he saw a tree with multiple black panthers lounging among the branches. One of the panthers morphed into his deceased father.
It was an incredibly powerful moment for me. It still is: Father/son, black panther/black man, Africa/America; there was just so much captured by joining my imagination with that imagery, it’s practically impossible to describe.
The second moment occurred when the action switched to South Korea; Klaue, apparently an Afrikaaner (a brave choice /sarc) and highly sought after criminal to the Wakandans, along with his team of mercenaries have arranged for the sale of a prized Wakandan artifact to a CIA agent. Black Panther and his team desire to apprehend him. The three disparate groups discover one another, and all hell breaks loose, Klaue and his guys exit the place with a quickness. Okoye and Nakia give chase, leaving Black Panther behind. He then must call on Wakandan technology to join the chase. This is where he is seen prowling on top of a speeding car while the chase ensues. That was an overwhelming series of visuals for this black boy, especially because it was essentially Superhero 101 stuff.
Now, for the heavy sigh.
Did Wakanda have to be envisioned so off-the-charts advanced? Really? The presentation was not convincing at all and I think the writers missed an opportunity to make it much more believable in its “hidden” nature; in fact, the opportunity to hide it in plain sight, as with the “war dog” spies around the globe, should have been taken. Perhaps the writers and producers were trapped by a storyline generated in the 1960s featuring a people said to be East African, speaking a language that is South African, with fictionalized deities based on Northeastern African gods, and starring an American actor with West African roots. The same roots, by the way, of the language spoken by the outcast Jubari tribe.
Perhaps, but that’s still not an excuse.
I mean, is it too much for me as an American to gaze upon an American film derived from an American comic book series and raise an eyebrow while wondering why is my world-leading culture being subjugated to some worn out Pan-African foolishness?
Is it too much for me as an African American to do a slow burn as I realize African Americans – the richest black people on the planet, the most accomplished black people on the planet, and the most welcoming black people of other black cultures on the planet—are relegated to nothingness in this film? Relegated to nothing, rather, but for some kids playing basketball on a playground in freaking Oakland, California! Or, lest I forget, when being portrayed as a bitter, genocidal thug expertly trained in the art of killing by the United States government?
Who the hell signed off on this damn script?
After two viewings, all I can do is exhale while realizing this movie will be less historic for me than it obviously is for many in my circle. Indeed, as a moment in time it is somewhat reminiscent of my feelings on the two inauguration days for Barack Obama—absolutely immense pride in the actual historical moment but a deep, personal conviction that, well, how do I say it: he’s just not the right guy.
So, though “Black Panther” is objectively a good movie, this was not the right script.
Near the very end of the film, the African king and his wrongly abandoned first cousin are on a mountainous opening, looking out upon an African sunset, after T’Challa has ultimately (and surprisingly) defeated his challenge. Listening to the scripted dialogue here, I wanted to freeze things and have a private conversation with that first cousin. If I could have done so, the conversation would go something like this: my brother, you and I need to go find the writers of this damn script and beat their ever-loving ass!
Because that first cousin, the Killmonger character, was conceptualized entirely wrong but most of it could have been fairly easily fixed in the waning moments of the film.
He should not have been written as a Navy SEAL, his military lineage should have been Army Ranger / Special Forces Green Beret / Delta Force. If you’re grounded in Black American military culture, you know this. He absolutely should not have been written as a murderous thug but, even if so written, he absolutely should not have declined T’Challa’s offer at the end of the film to heal his wounds. Further, he absolutely should not have disrespected his American ancestors who made the Middle Passage and had faith in their progeny—faith strong enough to endure tremendous mental and physical predation.
Further, the script modification would have allowed these two black men, these two blood brothers fully representative of the African Diaspora, to reconcile and there would have been no need to do anything but allow that possibility to hang there.
Finally, after we beat the asses of these mistaken writers for the multiple wrongs they committed in “writing” this script, I’d tell Killmonger we need to go find your mother. Because for all of the pride and achievement on garish display in this film, it wasn’t enough that there was no redeemable African American man in the script. No, these bastards wrote a script where the African American woman who was also abandoned by Wakanda is rendered absolutely invisible. Never seen, never discussed.
Somewhere in a parallel universe, Zora Neale Hurston is doing her best Okoye imitation on these writers and fiercely lighting them up. In all of their political correctness, the textual treatment of the black American woman is exceedingly odd. I mean, who do you think you are, Black Panther?