I’ve been away from the Kinoreal blog for a while, and I’ve missed writing it. Movies are the way I make sense of life, how I endeavour to understand the complex issues that affect me daily. Maybe I haven’t been motivated enough by any of the recent movies to add to the discussion. Black Panther has changed that. Although not a revolutionary film, elements of it speak to me profoundly. What are those elements? How does Black Panther interact with other films depicting the experience of African descent?
A Little Background
The character of Black Panther was created in 1966 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, two legendary creators of superhero comics. Stan Lee is one of the architects of the Marvel Universe, and collaborated on the creation of superheroes including Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four and the X-Men. We can see Stan Lee’s affinity for marginalized characters in the X-Men. Doctor Doom from the Fantastic Four and Namor the Sub-Mariner are examples of the isolationist view that Wakanda adopts in the film. Black Panthers physical stature is attributable to Jack Kirby and his distinctive visual style, often used to represent figures of power, as in the DC Comics series New Gods.
Writer Christopher Priest
Black Panther came into his own when African-American writers working for Marvel appropriated the character. Christopher Priest’s Black Panther series, under the adult imprint Marvel Knights, introduced Everett K. Ross to the Black Panther mythos, a character that has a prominent role in the movie, for better or worse. Priest has said the creation of character Ross contributed heavily to his decision to write Black Panther, declaring in 2002 during an interview:
“I realized I could use Ross to bridge the gap between the African culture that Black Panthers mythos is steeped in and the predominantly White readership that Marvel sells to.”
Priest’s comic book run also puts centre stage elements that will become integral parts of T’Challa’s story: international intrigue (translated: international interference in Wakandan affairs), the fighting prowess of the Dora Milaje; and T’Challa’s duties as king of Wakanda. Most of these themes are present in the movie to some degree.
Writer Reginald Hudlin’s take on the character explores the link between the kingdom of Wakanda and his ruler. Hudlin builds the myth of a historically strong Wakanda, resisting outside conquerors for centuries. He also maintains the mystery of T’Challa, a virtuous ruler whose legacy reaches back generations, and his link to the fictional African country. The Who Is the Black Panther? storyline is an exploration: T’Challa is a very human character, destined to lead his people as a chieftain of the Wakandan Panther Clan. His position is a lonely one, creating distance between him and his loved ones. Hudlin’s introduction of the character Shuri and TChalla’s interactions with the royal family are important as they alleviate T’Challa’s loneliness, if only slightly.
This is the character director Ryan Coogler decides to tackle when he accepts to direct a live-action adaptation of Black Panther.
A clash of values
If Wakanda exists, why have they never involved themselves in issues like slavery, segregation, apartheid, or the killing of African-Americans by agents of the US state? The question is an obvious one and the movie’s prologue sets up its explanation: Wakanda is an isolationist country and its inhabitants don’t feel they belong to a broader community, whether people of African descent or the human race. There are reasons for that: as writer Reginald Hudlin sets up in Who Is the Black Panther?, this view stems from historical intrusions into Wakanda. The movie doesn’t portray it the same way—Ulysses Klaue’s intrusion is mentioned, but don’t feel that Wakanda has been constantly attacked by outsiders, although it’s possible that these intrusions are merely not mentioned.
The Wakandans adopt conservatism as a philosophy since they have much to lose. The central tenets of conservatism include tradition, hierarchy and authority, emphasizing social stability and continuity. The Wakandans aren’t prepared to lose all of the advantages the vibranium metal brings to their society, even if it means turning a blind eye to atrocities outside their borders, atrocities like Rwanda or Congo. This is the policy Nakia reacts to when she is introduced: she aims to be part of a larger tribe, challenging the notion that prosperity is worth anyone else’s suffering. Initially, T’Challa is resistant to her position because as the ruler of the Wakandan, he’s an agent of the established order. T’Challa’s responsibility is to enforce the present system, ensuring Wakandan prosperity by building on the tradition that his father and his ancestors have built, the tradition that Zuri the shaman represents, a tradition that Okoye is sworn to protect. T’Challa’s authority sits on tradition: the only way for him to be a legitimate ruler is through the traditional challenge pitting him against contenders to the throne.
Very early, we see that T’Challa is uneasy with his role as a ruler, probably because his values tend toward those of Nakia, and not those of his father and the tribe elders. He believes in a larger tribe but isn’t ready to break away from the weighty expectations of his family, his people and the ghost of his father. This is a constant theme is Senegalese director Ousmane Sembenes films: in his Moolaadé (2004), a girl hides at a neighbour’s house to guard against her excision. The event confronts the village with the cruelty of that tradition. Evolving away from the conservatism position will be T’Challa’s journey throughout Black Panther, and he will need to be confronted to Killmonger to get there.
The Open Wound
Killmonger’s inclusion in Black Panther is interesting for several reasons. First, he broadly represents the African diaspora, which supports the idea that Black Panther is a canvas of the experience of African descendants, a story made of parts of our identities. This is important because Killmongers presence is loaded with meaning: it speaks to the pillage of the African continent, the displacement of millions of Africans, and the benefits to Western countries, which are in themselves ripe subjects to explore and talk about.
More specifically, Killmonger represents the African-American experience and the anger felt by Blacks in North America on a daily basis. I often say that I didn’t know what it was to be Black before I moved to Canada. I was raised in Haiti, a country with a proud past, which has been compared to Wakanda in the wake of the film’s premiere. In 1804, Haiti is the first Black country to declare its independence, and it’s been a constant battle with international powers ever since. Coming of age there, it isn’t surprising that you develop an increased awareness for the mechanisms of post-colonialism, and how those powers routinely destroy your means of production, and indoctrinate you through their media. But, when you’re in Haiti, that external force seems more abstract, spread out, all the way over there, across oceans. You live your life aware of it but apart from it. You forget about it until you read an expose on how prominent political figures in the country are on the CIAs payroll or subsidized goods being flooded into your market. You can forget about it; you can live your life. North America is different: no one lets you forget that you’re Black. An artist at a networking event reminds you that there are grants for people like you. A colleague at work makes a remark about race. A clerk follows you around the store.
This is where Killmongers anger comes from, the anger of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (Melvin Van Peebles, 1971), the anger of Do the Right Thing (Spike Lee, 1989). Since his fathers murder at the hands of Wakandas king, this constant aggression has forged him year after year to punish those responsible: the oppressing society he was raised in, yes, but the family who left him behind and destroyed his life as well. This is what has sustained him as he worked to become an exemplary assassin. He manifests the anger, etching his kills into his body. Physical harm is limited to the body, but psychological harm is potentially infinite since it is in the mind. Killmonger represents a deep wound, open and bare, never allowed to properly heal and close. He is probably the closest representative of director Ryan Coogler in the narrative. I can attest that Killmonger is the character I identify with the most because I see through him what I have to endure every day and the emotions it arises in me.
The Wakandan mask Killmonger wears carries great meaning for me. Since its stolen African art, we can see it as a rekindling with Killmongers roots and a reminder of the slave trade. One of the purposes of a mask is to hide the wearer’s identity, and we could conclude that it’s what Killmonger wants here, but since no one knows of his existence, and the ring around his neck serves to identify him, there’s no need. The mask can also serve as a ritual, a way for Killmonger to prepare himself for his journey through the film, a way to commune with his own ancestors as Thalla does with the heart-shaped herb. But, for Killmonger, the act of wearing the mask may stem from his desire to belong to the family that has abandoned him. Although he may want to be Wakandan, and he has the right blood to integrate their highest society, he will always stay an outsider. So he makes his way back to Wakanda, not as a brother, but as a conqueror, using the country’s own traditions to seize power.
Killmonger’s position isn’t unwarranted; it is born out of T’Chakas sin, the previous Black Panther. T’Challa may have to deal with other family sins during his reign, and such is the weight of the throne. But without Killmonger’s revolutionary position, without confronting T’Challa to his father’s act, would Wakanda open to the outside world by film’s end? Killmonger’s contribution is essential. If the film was revolutionary, Killmonger would live and integrate T’Challa’s reign as an advisor, a message from the filmmakers to unite Africa and its diaspora. His flagellation is unnecessary; it makes him a more tragic character than he needs to be, wanting to belong for all his life but never able to. Killmonger is the victim of at least a couple of imperialist agendas (US and Wakanda), and his death brings home the point that, as for the worlds super-rich, there can be no great difference between world superpowers like Wakanda and the US, as they extend their influence around the world.
The Wakanda Myth
I’ve been reluctant to accept Black Panther as a shift away from the normal representations of African heritage on-screen because, in a lot of ways, it isn’t a departure from it. A good example is the character of Everett K. Ross, one of the two main Caucasian characters. In the film, he serves as an introduction character, as Wolverine did in X-Men (Bryan Singer, 2000) and Neo did in The Matrix (The Wachowski Brothers, 1999). They serve to introduce the moviegoer to the world-building elements of the movie’s creators. But there’s been a pattern of including Caucasian characters in Black narratives in Hollywood, a character “most moviegoers could identify with”. This is the case in The Last King of Scotland (Kevin Macdonald, 2006), although the Dr. Nicholas Garrigan character isn’t depicted as a saviour and is changed by his experience in Africa. In Blood Diamond (Edward Zwick, 2006) and The Power of One (John G. Avildsen, 1992), for example, the two principal characters are Caucasian saviours and we experience Africa through their efforts to save it. Black Panther doesn’t deviate from this trend as Ross is both an introduction character and a saviour for Wakanda.
Writer Christopher Priest also used Ross as an introduction character when he added him to the Black Panther mythos. The Ross character in the movie is problematic for me: he reads as a saviour-type of the Wakandan people while the main villain is Black. This is also a mainstay of Hollywood films: depicting black-on-black violence and Caucasian characters as innocent witnesses. It evokes the slavery narrative that African tribes were selling off other tribes to White traders, as if the traders barely had to exert any efforts to acquire slaves, as if they passively profited from the violence. Choosing Killmonger as a villain and Ross as a hero, the clash of these representations isn’t to the film’s advantage. Plus, Ross is a CIA agent, an organization through which the US government has constantly destabilized governments to insure their international interests. This is consistently shown in other Black films like Sembenes Xala (1975) where a shadowy figure bribes government officials. In filmmaker Raoul Pecks Lumumba (2000), the shadowy figure is indirectly responsible for Lumumba’s fate. Growing up in Haiti, it was common knowledge that the big political actors in the country were on the CIAs payroll. The Ross character is used to elicit sympathy for an organization that has destroyed entire countries. It would make more sense if the Killmonger character was a CIA asset and was sicced on Wakanda. Killing Klaw (I prefer the original spelling) halfway through the film goes against the idea of a canvas because the figure of the White Devil is important in Black narratives. It reminds us of the slave trade and how it began, but also of imperialist action since then.
Wakanda as a technologically advanced African country is a difficult concept to accept. Do we need this idealized African country (like Zamunda with guns and technology)? Does it mean that the more idealized Wakanda is, the worst African heritage countries are today? Is Wakanda what we aspire to be? The (short) aerial shots inside the country show what an African country would be like with more technological development, instead of mirroring North American or European cities. Yet, there are no shown examples of any vibrant society, no philosophy, no intellectuals, no new artistic ideas. Wakanda is a society ruled by traditions which go unchallenged, save a conqueror and a spy. To rule Wakanda is to exert physical dominance through arms and with muscle. The stronger you are, the better the protector, it seems. Although women have a prominent role, we’re never meant to believe that they can rule Wakanda, that Shuri for example can take the heart-shaped herb and become the Black Panther. Wakanda’s power stems from technological advances built around a fluke celestial event. Yet, have they developed the maturity for those technological advances and managing them? Why have they developed offensive weapons instead of defensive ones? Isn’t using a network of spies around the world a manifestation of Wakandas imperialist power? It seems to me ridiculous to think that a society’s measure of civilization is its technological and economic prowess without the maturity of intellectual thought.
Instead of seeing Wakanda as an ideal version of an African country, I choose to see it as a reflexion of African heritage, of the rich African history and the continent’s contribution to the world. It is also a reflexion of the untapped potential of people of African descent and what resources and culture they bring to their countries as well as others around the world. There is no need for us to aspire to Wakanda because all it embodies already exists and only needs to be harnessed. It builds a more positive narrative around Africa: in most Hollywood films about the continent, the consensus for its inhabitants is to leave as quickly as possible. This is the case in Blood Diamond where the main Black character desires to leave the continent for Europe. This narrative perpetuates the assumption that African countries are “shithole countries”, as the President of the United States stated. Wakanda does away with this assumption, fostering instead a movement back to African roots, as the movie Sugar Cane Alley (Euzhan Palcy, 1983) fosters from the perspective of displaced slaves.
Black Panthers discourse isn’t in its narrative or its comic book roots, but in the film’s details: the use of different African traditions; the costume and art design; the importance of music throughout. The film’s trajectory itself is revolutionary: contrary to popular belief, Black-led movies have been successful, most notably action films like Bad Boys (Michael Bay, 1995) or comedies like Coming to America (John Landis, 1988). With Black Panthers international reach and more than a billion dollars at the international box office, the movie’s revolution can come from a new openness from studio executives and moviegoers for more diversity in Hollywood filmmaking, in front and behind the camera, a diversity which can include African heritage stories told from distinct points of view.
 Sacks, Ethan: The unsung heroes: Blade & Co. help to close racial divide, March 19, 2002.