Spoiler Alert: There are many spoilers in this article
When I watched Marvel’s Black Panther for the first time, I was overwhelmed by the vividness of the creation and imagination brought forth by the wonderful cast and even more wonderful director Ryan Coogler.
Coupled with striking images and long (and overdue) conversation on representation and diversity, the film comes with a lot of questions and concerns over the politics of today’s worlds and over Black liberation (within the continent and in the diaspora).
One thing for sure though is that the narrative goes beyond the good vs evil, right vs wrong, which could be perfectly attributed to the characters and the actors playing them.
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Upon the death of the Wakandan King, T’Chaka at a conference in Geneva, his son T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is set to take over the throne and role as Black Panther. However, as tradition, he has to fight his challenger(s) to the throne, and he faces Mbaku (Winston Duke), the leader of the Jabari tribe.
As he takes over the throne, he’s set to complete the one mission his father failed: kill Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), who stole vibranium from Wakanda leading to the death of many citizens and destruction in the city.
At the same time, he hopes to recapture the love of Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) who he takes on a mission to find Klaue (and the vibranium) together with his army general Okoye (Danai Gurira).
However, before we get into all these, we are taken back to an apartment in Oakland, California. A younger T’Chaka (Atandwa Kani) is confronting his brother N’jobu (), who has betrayed Wakanda by giving Vibranium to foreigners.
Well, for me, this was the defining moment in the film.
Sins of the father
It is the action (or inaction) of T’Chaka and N’jobu that set their sons on their path of life. The question of right or wrong in T’Challa and his cousin Erik Killmonger (Michael B Jordan) is a simplification of the complex narrative of what Black Panther wanted to interrogate.
The subtle contrast between the two parties (T’Chaka and T’Challa on one hand and N’jobu and Killmonger on the other) is a metaphor of the isolationist and inclusion politics that has marred the reality of Wakanda.
Wakanda is really not an inclusive society, this was proven by the dialogue between Tchalla and W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya),
“You let the refugees in, they bring their problems with them and then Wakanda is like everywhere else,” says W’kabi.
Killmonger, already marred by the reality in America where he grew up and by military missions across the world. He identifies the need to step up, as a country with the most advanced technology, to help people like Wakandans in the world.
While he opts for a violent revolution (fuelled by years of anger), Nakia opts for a ‘softer approach’. She wants a global outreach program where Wakanda provides support and help to the ‘outside world’.
Whichever method is better is a question for another day.
On the Shoulders of Women
The one thing that stood out for me in this film is the representation of women. In a lot of movies, the women are usually in the periphery and when they are in a pivotal role, they are usually one-dimensional stock characters.
The Black Panther does well to avoid this trap. The film gives the female characters the range and depth, even better than that of the men. It is refreshing to see women who are given whole rounded capacities that makes them even more relatable to the average viewer.
Additionally, they do not exist only in relation to the main character’s benefit as seen in many action films. Nakia, the king’s love, is a spy on a mission; Shuri (Letitia Wright) is a techie with a funny bone, and Okoye takes her mission as the protector of her nation seriously without letting the ego of her lover cloud her objectives.
They carry the king on their shoulders, by saving his hide in different scenarios.
Important to note is that their existence and the easy relationship they have with T’Challa is heavily contrasted with how Killmonger relates to the women in his life. And maybe that’s his downfall, he underestimates the resourcefulness of women in Wakanda and it comes back to bite him.
But even this portrayal is not perfect, the hands of patriarchy were still long enough to feature in the film. We see it where T’Challa sabotages Nakia’s rescue mission to ask her to join in at his coronation and when in the end, the women had to step back for the King to shine and uphold the royal legacy.
Where are the Wakandans?
Inasmuch as the film is about the glory and civilisation of this hidden village, the story remains the ruling class story. We do not see the everyday Wakanda in their element but are limited to the conversations and decisions at the highest level.
How are the Wakandans using the rich technology they have besides creating weapons and giving the Black Panther his strength?
The only time we see active Wakandans during the royal challenge, where they can challenge the throne’s candidate. Otherwise, there seems to be an easy acceptance of their fate and a passive existence to the reality of the day.
This further enhances the isolation aspect, where we see everything from the royal family’s perspective.
While I look at Black Panther as a metaphor for the geopolitical tussles between Africa and the Diaspora, it is deeper than that. It is an interrogation of the aspects of identity, of Black liberation, of freedom and of inclusion in a world where the black body is almost a battlefield.
The film’s strength lies in the main characters portrayed as both hero and villain. It calls for the interrogation of the motives behind the action than the actions and results on their own.
However, one huge question that plagues my mind is the inclusion of the CIA agent Everett Ross (Martin Freeman) and his juxtaposition as the saviour against Killmonger as the evil revolutionist.