Marvel’s Black Panther lives up to the hype
by Robin Browne
Marvel’s hotly anticipated Black Panther opened this week to rave reviews from critics and adoring fans. (Full disclosure: I am one of the latter.) Many reviews have been written about how great the movie is, the records it has broken and how it stars Black folks in front and behind the camera. So, for this review, I wanted to focus on things that got less attention.
One of the main things absent from every Black Panther review I read was an acknowledgement that the movie is one of a series of recent examples of positive Blacktivity over the last 18 months or so. From Moonlight winning last year’s Oscar, to the people of Zimbabwe finally getting freedom fighter-turned-dictator, Robert Mugabe, to resign, to Justin Trudeau’s Jan. 30 announcement of Canada’s acknowledgement of the UN Decade of People of African descent, the movie is part of a tsunami of great things being done by Black folks globally, in Canada and here in Ottawa. In Canada, Justin Trudeau’s announcement came after the National Summit of Black Canadians, Dec. 4-6 in Toronto put on by the Michaelle Jean Foundation. A group of 800 diverse Black folks gathered to talk about our issues and launch the national Federation of Black Canadians. Here in Ottawa, groups have followed up on the work at the Summit focused on mental health, the criminal justice system and education. Like Black Panther, one of the main messages at the Summit was the importance of unity and people clearly took the message to heart.
It’s easy to see unity among Black folks as a radical idea but it’s just one of the radical ideas in Black Panther. Another is showing a world where Black folks doing amazing stuff is the norm. It clearly critiques, even makes fun of, white supremacy and some of the key techniques and ideas that have been used to maintain it. At one point a senior CIA official, commenting on one of their operatives threatening Wakanda’s king, calmly admits that he’s just following his CIA training in how to destabilize and overthrow governments. There is also a poke at the old stereotype of Africans as cannibals that is one of the best lines in the movie. The head of Wakanda’s security forces calls guns used by some white thugs “primitive” in comparison to the weapons Wakanda has developed – but used to defend itself instead of conquering of colonizing others.
The movie also tackles the “angry young black man” stereotype head on by showing that the anger of many young Black men in the US, is rooted in their experience of growing up in places with lots of violence and little hope (one boy living in the inner city says, “Everyone dies here”). The movie also shows how the US military is happy to train these angry, young men and send them off to kill brown people in other countries.
One thing that got no coverage that I saw was how the movie clearly highlights the importance of having strong institutions and people dedicated to maintaining them. Faced with a possible hostile takeover of Wakanda’s king, the head of the country’s security forces says, “I am dedicated to protecting Wakanda’s thrown, whoever is sitting in it.” Despite their differences with each other, almost everyone shares this loyalty to the throne and the country. This cannot be underestimated given the current situation in the US where faith in the foundational institutions of democracy – the presidency, the judiciary, the electoral process and the media – have been seriously damaged.
The movie also makes two other clear statements. First, that nations that use their technology for good, advance way further than those that use it to colonize others. Second, that being a really smart Black woman is cool (similar to last year’s Hidden Figures based on the real Black women scientists who helped the US put a man on the moon). The second point is personified by the character, Shuri, who is like a Black female version of the tech saavy character Q from James Bond.
The second point is particularly interesting given the comparison between Black Panther and last year’s super hero blockbuster, Wonder Woman. Wonder Woman was called ground-breaking for having a female butt-kicking lead, a female director and thus promoting women’s empowerment. Black Panther is being called ground-breaking for having a black butt-kicking lead, a Black director and promoting women’s empowerment through showing butt-kicking women in positions of power. However, there are key differences between the two movies that show how truly game changing Black Panther is.
In Wonder Woman, the war she fails to stop is rationalized as being caused by “human nature” instead of an evil war god who makes people do evil things. The implication is that all people are flawed and waging wars is just something they do. That glosses over the real aim of most wars and all colonization: to protect and/or expand economic and political power. In contrast, Black Panther clearly shows bad guys, and some “good guys”, do really bad things to get or maintain economic power. That means they’re perfectly willing to kill people and/or invade their countries to get what they want, including Wakanda’s precious vibranium metal.
Like Wonder Woman, Black Panther has some great humour but unlike Wonder Woman, only Black people will fully get some of the jokes. I don’t want to blow the jokes but I’ll give one hint: one involves a wig.
Was the movie perfect? No. Folks from the African continent told me the accents were all over the place and questioned why they couldn’t have cast more African actors – currently working in Africa instead of Hollywood. Also, big questions are left unanswered like:
- In such an interdependent world where most historical wealth was built on exploiting others, how exactly did Wakanda get so advanced on its own?
- How could Wakanda let tragedies like slavery and wars happen without intervening when they had the power to stop them?
- Why is the CIA shown as both the good guys and those who actively aided colonization?
Perhaps these questions will be answered by the franchise some time in the future. There’s no rush though because Black Panther’s franchise will clearly be around a very long time. It seems it’s true what they say, “Wakanda forever!”
About the writer
Robin Browne is an African-Canadian communications professional and father of two boys. He lives in Ottawa.