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Rights + Justice
Gender + Sexuality

‘Black Panther’ Is a Hopeful Story of Radical Change

With no shortage of sexy suits and plenty of kicky punchy.

By Dorothy Woodend 21 Feb 2018 |

Dorothy Woodend writes about film and culture for The Tyee. Find her previous articles here.

When I was in Grade 4, our school principal was Satan. Not actually the Devil himself, but close enough to terrify a class of a nine-year-olds into catatonic levels of fear and submission. You never knew what would bring on a sudden violent outburst. It could be anything, a random comment, or a missed assignment, and BOOM! Some scrawny little body was being slammed against the chalkboard while the rest of the class watched in horror, glad that it wasn’t us, for the moment.

At night I would spin elaborate fantasy sequences, derived from episodes of The Incredible Hulk and comic books, where Principal Satan would push me too far, and I would transform into a black panther, kill the evil overlord of our elementary school and liberate all of the kids. Peace and happiness would reign for evermore.

So, yes, I was primed and ready to see the latest edition in the Marvel movie universe — Black Panther.

First the good news! Evil tyrants, racist demagogues and horrible school principals beware, there is a new hero in town, and he is fueled by noble ideals and a skintight sexy suit, complete with claws and fangs. He cuts a fine figure, even without a lashing black tail.

Now, the bad news: Black Panther is still a comic book movie, with everything that entails. All the accoutrements of the genre are accounted for — bad guys, good guys, lots of kicky punchy, cool gizmos, and, of course, a cameo from Stan Lee.

Now, the intermediate news: it still works. In spite of everything, the more radical elements in the film pop out and endure long after the narrative gets ropey and confused. For this, director Ryan Coogler must be given his proper due.

At the tender age of 31, Coogler is being touted as the new Steven Spielberg, but Coogler’s vision is distinctly different than soppy old Spielberg. With Black Panther, this young filmmaker has taken a genre format and reinvested it with intelligence and deep political roots. The result is a movie that slinks into heart and mind and slashes open a new worldview. It is a sneaky little panther, padding in on velvet paws, making you think about things like globalization, identity politics and race.

Before you squeal and pout, “But I want kicky punchy!” rest assured there is plenty of that stuff as well.

The film has been attended by solid word of mouth, as well as many thoughtful essays and think pieces. It is currently on track to make a bazillion dollars. All of that is great and well deserved, but the more interesting aspect is whether something more will come from it. Whispers of revolution, of change carried in the joy that attends screenings, of representation and equality, and finally, a sense that there is a different way to resolve conflict — all are present. This is a superhero movie with adults in it: people who are dealing with complex and intractable issues, things that require thought, wisdom and collaboration.

But before we get to the heavy stuff, bring on the armoured war rhinos, glowing blue gunk (vibranium), the flying whatnots, and the men and women in sexy suits.

The film’s backstory is provided in a brief animated sequence that illustrates the rise of Wakanda, a fictional African county that was the recipient of a celestial visitation many millennia ago. When a meteor containing vibranium, the strongest metal in the universe, landed in the middle of the county, it changed everything. Cut off from outside world, Wakandan society evolved along a different path from the rest of the African continent, helped in large part by the otherworldly properties of vibranium. Wakandan cultural life is a prelapsarian vision of Africa, as if colonization, slavery and genocide had never happened. This in itself is a fascinating place to start, but the film goes on to build a world in which tradition is observed, men and women like and respect each other, and gender roles are a non-issue. A spectacularly smart and sassy teenage girl oversees the country’s tech sector, and the military is under the command of a powerhouse woman warrior. The environment appears whole and robust. People get along. How radical is that?

For those of you who are keeping track, this is not the first introduction to the Black Panther. The character was originally written by Stan Lee in 1966 and supposedly predates the formation of the actual Black Panther Party later that same year. The original character fought the KKK, while his father fought the Nazis. This latest iteration of the Panther popped up in Captain America: Civil War, waved a paw and stole all the attention away from the Our Gang Avengers, Spanky, Alfalfa, Buckwheat and Froggy. I’ll let you assign names to whomever you think would best suit.

Like most of the Marvel films that preceded it (The Avengers et. al) plot is the least interesting thing that happens on screen. But the stakes must be laid out and all the cool cats introduced. Here is where we properly meet King T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), a young man who has assumed the throne of Wakanda after the death of his father. A little ritual combat later and the new Wakandan king takes up his mantle and is immediately beset by intricate political maneuvering of the different tribal factions, as well as the increasing pressure of global issues (refugees, resource extraction, and so on.)

T’Challa is a calm and measured man, a statesman of the first order, thoughtful, compassionate and yes, noble, in speech and action. He is a good man, but as the film states: “It is hard to be a good man and a king.”

Luckily, he has the support of some smart and ferocious women, including his genius younger sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), his powerful mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett), super spy and former girlfriend Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) and the scariest babe to ever rock a breastplate and spear ensemble, General Okoye (Danai Gurira), who runs the all-female honour guard the Dora Milaje.

The rest of the cast — High Priest Zuri (Forest Whitaker), best friend W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) and rival tribal leader M’Baku (Winston Duke) take up their positions, behind the women, who are really running the show.

And we’re off.

First to South Korea to apprehend a villainous one-armed South African arms dealer named Ulysses Klaue (played by a beefed-up Andy Serkis). Klaue has stolen a shipment of vibranium and is helped in his efforts by a mysterious young man affectionately known as Killmonger, a.k.a. Erik Stevens (Michael B. Jordan).

Long-buried secrets have a habit of clawing their way out of shallow graves and coming to the surface. So, it is here as well, with little Killmonger come home at last. Raised in the mean streets of Oakland and trained to kill by the CIA, Killmonger has earned his reputation and his scars in the charnel pits of Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. He is a monster but a very recognizable one — armoured by plates of muscle, bristling with guns and gold teeth, but with the eyes of a lost child.

Coogler’s earlier works Fruitvale Station and Creed both featured Jordan, who in Black Panther almost succeeds in putting the film in his back pocket and sauntering out the door with it. It’s been a very long time since a villain has worked as powerfully as Mr. Killmonger. One is reminded of the sympathy for the devil invoked in Milton’s Paradise Lost, another fallen angel if you will.

Like Milton’s Satan before him, Killmonger’s rage, defiance and pain give the film its unexpected emotional weight. It is to him that the penultimate moment is given. It might not be quite as hefty as Satan’s, “O then at last relent: is there no place/ Left for repentance, none for pardon left?/ None left but by submission; and that word/ Disdain forbids me...”

But it speaks to something far more relevant at the moment, which is what responsibility do we humans owe to each other? Or as Atlantic writer Vann R. Newkirk II aptly stated in his essay on the film: “...Killmonger’s question seems as pointed through the fourth wall toward them as it is to Wakanda: What will they do with the power they do have to make the world livable for those without it?”

In Killmonger’s worldview Wakanda has the power to help oppressed people around the globe rise up and overthrow the system that would subjugate them. It is a revolutionary ethos akin to that offered by the original Black Panther Party. This stands in stark contrast to T’Challa’s more mediated and diplomatic approach. But the film blends both into something that is truly radical.

This is where Black Panther sneaks up on you, and stakes out a seriously adult series of choices — responsibility, loyalty and morality. Some of this debate takes place not between the male leads, but rather between women in the film, as they argue about what constitutes the higher moral good — loyalty to country or to genuine justice. In the guise of an action movie, Black Panther looks at the choices we make as a people and offers another way, to help each other, to build bridges instead of walls, and to move from a place of compassion, generosity and, damn it, love...

Really, it couldn’t come at a better time.

It is hard not to look around at the moment and think if furious high school kids, angry and determined women and pissed off people of colour from all corners of this messed up world can come together at the same time, then maybe, something will finally, finally, finally change.

I have to admit that it is rare to feel any kind of genuine emotion in a superhero film, but Black Panther achieves that very thing. Sure, it’s hemmed in by the confines of the genre. But in the teeth of this it posits something truly different, a vision of a world that could be better, kinder and infinitely more inclusive than the one that we currently endure.

It’s an idea that folks are craving. It is a hunger that propels people to buy tickets for other people, to tell friends, family and random acquaintances to go and see the movie. Like Wonder Woman that preceded it, the weight of desire and need is so great that it threatens to subsume the very vehicle upon which it is heaped. Wonder Woman was not a great film, Black Panther is better, but perhaps that doesn’t matter so much when it is the right film at the right time.

Rage, fear and powerlessness make a potent combination. It reminds me of trying to explain to my mother what was happening inside the walls of my Grade 4 classroom, where a monster and a bully could terrorize a group of children so profoundly that fantasies of violent ripping revenge were the only way to deal with it. There is something of that in Black Panther as well. But if change can come bounding out of the movie theatre, overthrow passivity, demand that things be different, that kids don’t die in their school classrooms, that young men of colour aren’t shot and killed without repercussions, that women are free from sexual violence, it could very well be a powerful spark to add to the bonfire.

I know that is a lot to ask from a film. But let the teenage girls and the panthers lead the way.  [Tyee]

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