Perhaps the pop-cultural event of 2018, Marvel’s Black Panther depicts an insular African paradise that has become a moral limbo simply trying to stave off the murderous, colonialist purgatory of the world around it. Insofar as it is aware of these paradoxes, of the contradictory nation of Wakanda – indeed, the paradoxes of colonialism, the contradictions of modernity, and the ambiguities of the world – Ryan Coogler’s film is pop culture par excellence, inquisitive and exquisite in equal measure, enveloped in a brashness of spirit and mind that animates it. But Black Panther is equally enveloped in its own hubris, and finally, its own containment, its own conscription to a vision of modernity (to paraphrase David Scott) that it pretends to dismantle or, at least, disrupt. By film’s conclusion, it seems that the very paradoxes which infect Wakanda – its simultaneity of liberation and domestication, liquefying emancipation and stiffening respectability – also contaminate the film itself. The film’s elegance is both its grandest achievement and its central problematic, the encrypting idiom for a film which is hugely and depressingly invested in laundering its rebellious core in an aura of self-righteous reputability.
The real question, then, is whether the film truly thinks it is an act of revolution or whether it knows exactly where its moderate heart lies, but in either case, Black Panther is a 250 million dollar sheep in wolf’s clothing, if you’re genuinely committed to worldwide liberation, and a sheep in wolf’s clothing if you support the film’s hopelessly liberal political viewpoint. Which is actually more cinematically depressing than its political limits: the fact that the film neither stakes out a clear viewpoint nor argues with itself in a productive or truly challenging way. While the film’s sense of respectability is fine as a perspective or a counterpoint in a cinematic debate, the most important filmic quandaries and disagreements are always those internal to a given film, the ones which palpably infuse a cinematic project not only with a self-critical attitude but with a vexing personal ambivalence about its own mission, a sense of internal rupture and disruption that cascades through the film, if not threatening to topple it completely at least shrouding its achievements with awareness of their tenuousness. A truly great Black Panther would be committed not to pretending to explore its warring premises in service of superficially patting itself on its back but to admitting their unreconciled nature and excruciatingly reconciling them to the detriment of its own clarity.
Which is perhaps asking too much, but Black Panther also invites the criticism not simply because it entertains self-skepticism and dares step into complex issues (before back-peddling) but because of its ridiculously self-congratulatory conclusion which dampens what little iota of political ambivalence the film was carrying until that point. Having put the cart before the horse though, we’ll leave the ending for later. Until that point, Black Panther trades on the history of dialectical Afro-diasporic tensions in its central pas de deux between T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) leader of the fictitious African nation of Wakanda and African-American Eric Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), furious at Wakanda’s hermetic and self-enclosed status as the clandestine-wealthiest nation in the world. While Wakanda cloaks itself under a veneer of African poverty, Killmonger wishes to use Wakanda’s weapons to arm the Afro-diasporic population the world over and inaugurate a worldwide liberation that, viewed negatively, would amount to a reverse-colonialization of sorts.
A reverse-colonization which, frankly, frightens Black Panther, its Marvel and Disney corporate overseers, and T’Challa alike. Even though the film’s protagonist eventually sympathizes with Killmonger’s skepticism about an insular Wakanda, the film’s attitude toward reconnecting what it perceives as a historical sever between African and the Afro-diasporic population is less ambivalent than specious. Or rather, the film seems not fractiously tortured by its own tensions and aporias, but merely mildly curious about them, all while pursuing its real path toward an unerring commitment to a liberal worldview in which Wakanda paternalistically “helps” African-Americans, whom the film perceives as “deluded”. What the film perceives in other words is a history by way of the scholarship of E Franklin Frazier, who argued in the mid-century that the Afro-diasporic population was hopelessly disconnected from its classical African roots, or better yet the Moynihan report, which argued that slavery was all-corrupting and had degraded the diasporic population of any sense of positive self.
Let alone a rebellious self, or a social-critical tradition, features of the Afro-diasporic community which were not retentions from some classical Africa but productions and transformations over time of a shifting, hybridized population reacting to their ever-mediated physical, psychic, and philosophical conditions. Rather than seriously consider this self, Black Panther’s vision of black nobility is exclusively tethered to a mythological African past, a conservative and essentialist notion of a once-imperious grandness lost over time, as though the only goal of the diasporic population should be recovery of a fixed past rather than creative expression in the present, with the past, and for the future. But Black Panther is strangely terrified of a hypothetical African-American revenge, couching an admirable anxiety about African-Americans being taught by and schooled through US military institutions in a general respect for US liberalism’s respectability politics and binary view of black people as heroic or delusory, ultimately resolved in a synthesis which inevitably necessitates the former destroying the latter, incorporating those elements of the latter which it views as “safe”. In the film’s view, the former is “flawed” while the latter is truly reprehensible.
But I get ahead of myself again. As mentioned, Black Panther takes place in the secluded African nation of Wakanda which shrouds its indomitable wealth, the result of a stash of metal known as Vibranium which powers untold reservoirs of technology, in a shield of chimerical poverty. It brandishes stereotypes of Africa as an illusion to keep the world from investigating, and stealing, their wealth, which admittedly bears striking and thoughtful valences with the history of masking, racial performativity, and doubled identity construction in the diaspora, where slaves and freed blacks alike externally performed one countenance while surreptitiously embodying another. More specifically, though, Black Panther is the story of Wakanda’s king T’Challa, who also moonlights as Black Panther, the most recent in a long line of mythical protectors of Wakanda wearing a Vibranium suit that enhances speed and strength and, thanks to the scientific genius of his sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), is capable of storing received-energy and reflecting it back outward in concussive bursts. Not content with a myopic single-character focus, Coogler’s film also fully characterizes Wakanda’s all-female royal guard, primarily their leader and T’Challa’s confidant Okoye (Danai Gurira) and T’Challa’s ex-lover Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o). In a sense, this sets the stage for a polyphonic and multi-vocal story of black allegiance, disagreement, and camaraderie, hostility, and debate.
But the core of the tale is the tension between African and Afro-diasporic communities and the brutal but potentially eye-opening double-consciousness of Du Boisian roots, as if embodying old tensions between liberal accomodationist and revolutionary moorings, not to mention between early Du Boisian liberalism and the later Pan-Africanist internationalism. If the former is embodied in T’Challa, the latter is animated in Killmonger, who the film pretends to reinterpret and shade as a negative mirror of T’Challa but who cannot escape the moral-mapping of villainy the film saddles him with.
Still, at its most thoughtful, the film sometimes lets Killmonger breathe and radiate his earned frustration, effusing centuries of trauma and disturbance in Jordan’s truly wonderful performance, bruised but burnished by his people’s history and wearing his outsider status with a menacing smirk and a curious compassion alike. (It helps that he alone is uncoupled from the dictum of bodily rigidity which many of the Wakandans seem subject to, even if, in his own much more complicated and ambivalent way, Killmonger is equally cognizant of the gazes cast on him at all times). And as an entertainment, Black Panther is often inspired, especially as an incandescent canvas for a Marvel unleashed by the potential of Afro-futurist art. Hannah Beacher’s production design and Ruth Carter’s costuming are truly scintillating, and Rachel Morrison’s cinematography animates a black imagination-scape that feels genuinely introspective and inquisitive, not simply a lateral expanse of beauty but a deep portal into the hopes and dreams of a people(s).
Which is to say: Black Panther explores Afro-futurist imagery with the kind of Hollywood budget that cannot but signify admission into a kind of populist cinematic canon. But in doing so Black Panther also rips this beauty slightly out of Afro-futurism’s historical context, and worse, denies its more confrontational valences, begging questions about what kind of canon Black Panther wishes to be admitted into, and what the consequences of assimilation are. Or rather, while I am thrilled that the film is so invested in the political quotient and visual potential of black imagination, I am equally curious about what future Black Panther actually does imagine. Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole’s screenplay certainly entertains tensions in the Afro-diasporic community, but its interest in these tensions increasingly feel like a mirage.
While Killmonger plays on the screen as the most complicated Marvel villain yet, I suspect Killmonger on the page flattens under the weight of the screenplay’s moral mapping, thriving only because of Michael B. Jordan’s combustible concoction of leisurely self-confidence and remarkable hesitation, invoking internal conflict that the screenplay frequently shuttles through relatively rote narrative beats for the sake lionizing T’Challa’s dignified nobility. Kilmonger is a potentially wonderful character saddled with having to shade T’Challa and teach him a lesson, relegating Killmonger’s perspective on Wakanda’s non-intervention to a counterpoint to T’Challa’s noble self-determination. Comparatively, Killmonger could be an imaginative conduit to a more revolutionary future, but the film’s bifurcated perspective on blackness inevitably posits that the flipside of heroic, restrained, considered grace is a desire for revolution that cannot but curdle into an inevitable, foreclosed miasma of violent revenge, the callous and deluded dream of what it perceives as an animalistic and undisciplined African-American population. Rather than evoking the radical valences of a current of revolutionary insurgency and international solidarity, the film demonizes and pathologizes these would-be revolutionaries, even ghettoizing them. For the most part, Black Panther’s version of Afro-futurism is reductively moored to a nationalist conservatism, not only gilding a semblance of classical African beauty that is implicitly degraded and defiled by the diaspora but evoking a vision of slavery that, clarified in one of the final lines, permanently disabled the culture of Afro-America. This is Afro-futurism where the only future is found in a lost past, not in any productive present-tense possibility. And these are African-Americans which the film can only suggest kill when they are unsupervised.
Ostensibly the height of its moral ambivalence, the climax of the film – Killmonger and T’Challa decked out in similar Panther outfits, duking it out – is instead nothing more than the logical extension of dozens of prior superhero duels that doctor up trite action scenes in philosophical airs. While the film obviously rhymes with certain thematic registers in African-American history here – the double-sided coin of opportunity, a Du Boisian double consciousness, the way in which many notable early African-American thinkers themselves combined the hybridity of their existence, of being both African and American, with a Victorian sense of doubles and split-selves – the film ultimately welcomes these considerations in service of implying that the respectable half of the warring conscience must devour the more unruly half, incorporating a small dose of it and mollifying it, in order to fully legitimize itself and satiate its own consciousness. The film hardly seems to be disturbing the peace.
Most offensive, though, is the post-climax, where the film collapses all of its ambiguities into a lionizing sop to liberal respectability politics in its conclusion, mediating its two warring perspectives with a compromise that isn’t. Rather than a legitimate interrogation of revolutionary fervor, the film concludes with a universalist appeal to our “better nature,” a piously liberal faint to internationalism that emphasizes directionality and supremacy over solidarity and a critical orientation toward neoliberal “self-help”. The cloistered Wakanda opens its arms to the world in a paternalistic gesture of international aid, evoking not a worldwide revolution but a liberal meliorism which inevitably filters toward inclusion at the expense of serious social criticism.
Frankly, I’m unsure of how to best frame Black Panther’s glints toward thematic depth. If the film is demonstratively committed to a dignified portrait of accomodationist liberalism, I could defend it for at least having a perspective, but it partially wishes to puncture this perspective in a way which suggests not a fascinating wrestling-match of competing opinions but a more calculated middlebrow, middle-of-the-road non-perspective. If the film’s idiom is more fragmented, it could inspire fascinating self-critique, but it’s far too conspicuously micro-managed (it is a Marvel movie, after all): crisp, clean, and finessed to actually tear itself apart at the thematic seams by exploring its own internal conflicts with an insatiable need to untangle what cannot easily be unknotted. There’s no sense of a film truly encountering itself anew or re-exposing itself to internal contradiction. The conclusion seems pre-packaged from the minute the existential conundrum drops. (And, for that matter, claims that Wakanda is a closer facsimile for the US today, and thus a commentary on Trump-era insulation and wall-building, are certainly more textured in their rambunctious will to have black characters stand-in for white people than, say, the seemingly colorblind Hamilton, but this argument also throws the opinion that Killmonger is an American-trained stooge into whack).
There’s much that I admire in Black Panther, from Wright’s gloriously spirited screwball performance to the mise-en-scene’s awareness of ritual and ceremony to the fable-like consciousness which manifests folkloric classicism in reasonably particularized individuals, creating characters who are at once people and emblems to wider notions, ideas, and concepts. Plus, at its best, the film once or twice pipes up with suggestions that these symbolic and emblematic gestures tend to signify the arbitrariness of signification – the way in which a society’s reliance on symbols and rituals suggest less a natural continuity of tradition handed down over centuries but a continuity in threat, disrupted by internal tensions, desperately attempting to reify its past and mollify any intimation of skepticism about signification with the false-clarity ritual affords. Admittedly, having already referred to masking, there is also some sense that the film is intrigued by the possibility of African heroes masking themselves in a cultural lineage to not invite more existential concerns about those ritualistic identities.
At the same time, I’m largely inclined toward a view that the film isn’t more than circumstantially compelled by the various tensions it inextricably wanders around in, and the operative mask in the film is not one any character wears or any theme it addresses but the mask of complication it wears over its somewhat hollow core. One must also be eternally skeptical that even a film which affords a multigenerational array of black actresses and actors a much-needed space to verbally, physically, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually spar, commiserate, and enjoy each other’s company seems less than self-aware that it is more invested in the moral fate of white American Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman) than Killmonger, who only truly pierces the film’s heart in his final line. It’s as though Disney and Marvel are vicariously absolving themselves of their own sins through Ross’ willingness to save “respectable” black people from disreputable, dangerous, and hostile ones.
In the final analysis, even if the film is aware of the social pageantry of societies of all eras and sizes, this aura of decorum overly calcifies the film, a work that feels less like a creative expression or explosion than a pandering ritual for Disney and Marvel. Not to mention for Ryan Coogler, so thoughtful in his first two films but who here seems slightly weary of his own perspective underneath the corporate cinematic behemoth (unless this is his perspective after all, which makes me rethink Fruitvale Station). Black Panther carries forth some of Creed’s attitude toward action, defining characters through graceful visual pirouettes and embodied motion rather than simply dialogue. Not to mention, both films are obviously anxious about intergenerational relationships, specifically concerned about the dialectics of the youth adopting and continuing the mantle of the elderly. But Black Panther is less skillful in its generational interplay and warring self than Jordan’s Creed was. Black Panther, for better and worse, raises questions about the role of race in mainstream entertainment, not to mention refracting concerns about the many black directors who have been hired to work on productions of this caliber only to back out due to “creative differences”. One imagines what their attitudes on Jordan’s character would have been, and more depressingly, what this film means for generations of young African-Americans who are taught by this film and others that they must stay in line or, at least, limit their attempts to break from the system, that they must not rebel and must wait for a mythical liberal metropolis to help them. T’Challa struggles throughout the film with reconciling the classical airs he dons while trying to become his own man. Quite depressingly, though, this film’s sense of genuine inquiry is totally defeated by the oldest rule in the book: its adherence to the hand that feeds.