“Black Panther” recently made history by grossing over 700 million in its second weekend at the box office. This success is obviously a huge win for Disney’s profit margins. More importantly, the film’s massive success is a sign that there is a demand for black representation in major Hollywood blockbusters.
The film, written and directed by Ryan Coogler, follows T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) and his struggle for power with Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) over kingship of Wakanda.
Wakanda, a fictional African nation purposely hidden to keep its technological marvels free from Western imperialism, is the strongest element of the film. The country feels both real and fleshed out in the film.
This is accomplished in small moments where the camera lingers on unnamed Wakandan citizens going about their day-to-day lives in the country. The viewer sees all of Wakanda’s people, commerce, clothing, and traditions come to life.
The film’s greatest victory lies in these moments, as it portrays a vision of Africa in which African people are allowed to flourish by being exempt from slavery.
However, in the universe of “Black Panther,” the rest of Africa is not spared from Western imperialism and oppression. The difference between the privilege of Wakandan citizens and the oppression of non-Wakandan black citizens across the world is the central morale debate that drives the conflict between T’Challa and Killmonger.
Alongside this conflict is the second strongest element of the film — its supposed “villain” Killmonger. Unlike T’challa, a Wakandan-born prince and the film’s protagonist, Killmonger was born in Oakland and has thus not been protected from the oppression of Western imperialism.
T’Challa believes that Wakanda and its resources should remain hidden from the world. On the other hand, Killmonger believes that Wakanda should reveal themselves to the outside world and use their resources, including the military, to liberate black people who have been oppressed by Western powers.
Jordan’s marvelous performance supports Killmonger’s ideology. In fact, Jordan is so charismatic that the audience is almost forced to root for him. He raises completely justifiable criticism to Wakanda of being complicit in oppression of black people throughout history.
In the world of “Black Panther,” Wakanda stands silently while Western slave ships abduct millions of Africans. Killmonger questions why Wakanda remains silent and thus allows the audience to question the utopia of Wakanda itself. This creates a situation where I could not help but completely side with Killmonger.
In fact, the brilliance of Killmonger is what exposes the film’s minor flaws — the most glaring one being T’Challa and his interactions with the Central Intelligence Agency. In the film, CIA agent Everett Ross (Martin Freeman) is presented as a heroic American working with T’Challa to stop Killmonger.
The problem with this portrayal of the CIA as a heroic force stems from the title of the film and T’Challa’s role as the Black Panther. It is obviously hard to separate the character Black Panther from the real world of Black Panther Party. I could spend an entire article discussing the importance and virtue of the Black Panthers, but for the purpose of brevity, I would encourage readers to look at the Black Panther’s 10-point plan.
In short, The Black Panther Party stood for the liberation of black people from the oppression of the United States. As a result, the U.S. government viewed the Black Panthers as an enemy, and many have even speculated that the FBI murdered Black Panther leader, Fred Hampton.
The U.S. government’s alleged role in the murder of Fred Hampton is what makes valorization of the CIA in the film “Black Panther” so troubling. How could a film that shares a name with the Black Panthers present the U.S. government that allegedly killed the leader of its party as heroic?
Despite this troubling reverence for the CIA, “Black Panther” remains an important film for black representation due to its depiction of an uncolonized vision for Africa and complicated portrayal of various ideologies regarding black liberation.
While “Black Panther” has minor problems with major consequences, these problems do not take away from the achievements of the film. We should celebrate “Black Panther” while still acknowledging its shortcomings.
3.5 / 5