It is possible that the fanfare surrounding “Black Panther” led many people to misunderstand what the film would ultimately be.
It is possible that the reported weaving of African traditions — from the dress to the dialect — into the film led to the belief that “Black Panther” would be the story of an isolated, richly cultured African country beset with internal conflict.
But as it turns out, this was only half true.
“Black Panther” is the story of divided nation, but its brilliance is in its ability to make these divisions complement a broader, more complex, more worthwhile story. It’s a brutally political film that doesn’t make its arguments obliquely. They are central arguments, and the characters elevate them in stunning ways that cause us to ask: In a world perverted beyond control, what is “goodness,” what is “badness,” and who are the true villains?
Most of the characters in “Black Panther” — even those violently pitted against each other throughout — oppose a common enemy that rarely appears on-screen. There are impressions of a traditional protagonist-antagonist conflict, but even some of those we deem villainous aren’t quite that.
In the film, the home country of King T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), Wakanda, boasts a lion’s share of the world’s most coveted commodity, Vibranium. While harvesting this valuable resource and developing the most supremely technologized society on Earth, Wakanda feigns the look of a downtrodden country to the outside world. Historically, the nation of Wakanda employs this ruse to protect against colonialism ― the film’s true villain.
This is precisely what I long for: a movie conveying black people — all of whom on this planet are somehow shaped by the scourge of white supremacy — existing in this world and coping with its injustices, but not being wholly defined by them.
Yet rising global strife complicates this defensive, noninterventionist stance in ways that cleave Wakanda into differing factions, some of which prefer the nation take a more proactive approach to solving the ills of the world. Wakandan traditionalists believe this approach would expose the nation (and thus, its Vibranium) to hostile countries that may be interested in robbing Wakanda of its lifeblood. This is the plane upon which the story’s ideological battles are waged, and the ecosystem that brings King T’Challa, the newly crowned Black Panther, into conflict with Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan).
Through this lens, Erik Killmonger, the seeming antagonist, is no more a villain than a shipman cast ashore, violently thrashing about in torrential waves. The tale of his arrival in Wakanda and hunger for power implores viewers to observe his penchant for violence not as deviant bloodlust but as something more inspired.
We are not urged to accept his troublesome politics. He is an undeniably cruel authoritarian who embodies a literal patriarchy that ultimately must be deconstructed by a coalition of powerful black female warriors.
Yet, to the extent we can, we’re asked not to see Killmonger’s brutality as the whole of who he is.
Quite literally, the prevailing message in “Black Panther” is: this is why white people can’t have nice things. A film exploring a world in which white people don’t have nice things (or Vibranium, the nicest thing in this case) is a provocative exercise in our time, when nations around the world are gripped by a rise in white nationalist movements and the accompanying devaluation of ethnic groups.
The film’s questions about the merits of interventionism and diplomacy are profoundly interesting because they are left entirely to black people. And they are questions asked with a good faith that eludes the U.S. as we debate similar questions of intervention and aid. Our rich empire and its fruits are stolen, Wakanda’s rich empire is theirs and true. There’s a type of therapy that comes from grappling with these questions in the same way we’d blissfully imagine how we’d spend lottery winnings: How would we use that power? Who would we help?
We are called to question how vengeful we could be if given the means to equalize the world, and whether an inclination toward vengeance — given the historic experiences of people of color across the globe — makes us “bad.”
This reflection is precisely what I long for in a film with a predominantly black cast: a movie conveying black people — all of whom on this planet are somehow shaped by the scourge of white supremacy — existing in this world and coping with its injustices, but not being wholly defined by them. The story of Wakanda is that of an autonomous nation in sole possession of an ultra-valuable good, and the film examines the types of grating conversations that arise when leaders contemplate sharing this good in hostile nations abroad.
“Black Panther” wrestles with these questions, and not in a distant, futuristic world. The implicit notion is that there may well be a Wakanda whose leaders have observed the death of Trayvon Martin, the abduction of Sandra Bland, the brutality of Daniel Holtzclaw, and the rampant theft in the Ferguson Police Department, and deemed ours a nation beyond salvation.
The film is Afrofuturism in the sense that it portrays black people in an world imagined to be far more technologically advanced than ours, but that’s about the extent of the futurism. In a literal sense, “Black Panther” is not an Afrofuturist tale: It takes place in our time, and its characters — protagonists and antagonists alike — are reacting to societal pressures we’re currently creating.
There’s a surreality to watching the film and noting how the burning questions in Wakanda — how to respond to strife, when to respond, and with how much anger — play out in our personal lives.
We love Wakanda because it is foreign. We love it because it is familiar.