Film Forward

‘Black Panther’s’ Power Is An Ability To Be Unapologetically Black While Transcending Race

Subverting both superhero and “Black movie” narratives.

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Title: Black Panther
Director: Ryan Coogler 👨🏾🇺🇸
Writers: Screenplay by Ryan Coogler 👨🏾🇺🇸 and Joe Robert Cole 👨🏾🇺🇸, based on characters by Stan Lee 👨🏼🇺🇸 and Jack Kirby 👨🏼🇺🇸

Reviewed by Monique 👩🏾🇺🇸


Technical: 5/5

I nearly cried at multiple times during this film. That should say all you need to know, but to clarify, Black Panther is an experience unlike any other you'll have at the theater this year. It's certainly an experience you wouldn't expect from a Marvel movie.

Black Panther's success comes from three things. First, it's the film's attention to detail, representing so many different types of African cultures beautifully and respectfully. Second, it's the film's refusal to use the same stale Marvel method of moviemaking. Gone are the character beats you've come to expect from a standard comic book film. Even the soundtrack is devoid of the Marvel trope of illustrating bombast without purpose. There is a much more thoughtful approach to character, conflict, and motivations, ranking this film up with Oscar-worthy works that question racial and cultural identity like In the Heat of the Night (1967), A Raisin in the Sun (1961), or the more recent Lion (2016). Third, the film's emotional resonance is both uniquely specific to audience members of the African diaspora yet universal in its appeal towards empathy for all people.

The film's main conflict comes from Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), whose longing for a homeland manifests into violence. The character's conflict with T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) represents a conversation that has never been showcased in the mainstream consciousness until now: how can Africa and its diaspora (African Americans in particular) heal each other and come together, ending the psychological pain inflicted on parties? How can we learn to see each other as members of the same family, torn apart by hatred? These questions stick with you long after the film is over, and it's exciting to see how this film is driving real-world discussions about closing the wedge between African peoples around the globe.

Speaking as an African American who has never seen herself on screen in this magnitude, Black Panther's effect is truly hard to describe without me either wanting to scream out in joy or to ugly cry. Director Ryan Coogler and the cast had a true vision of showcasing an Africa that had the potential to unify, heal, and inspire. Incredibly, the film ticks all of these boxes and then some.

Yes, the buzzword around Black Panther for several critics will be "representation." But Black Panther's messages go beyond just entertainment. For decades, there have been several schools of thought within the Black community about methods for allocating and redistributing wealth to create an independent black economy; how to organize a powerful Black political machine; and how to reconnect with the traditions that slavery stripped away from us. Black Panther weaves together socio-political, global, philosophical, and even economic discussions of Black independence and agency in a way that ensures that we'll be talking about this film, and its impact, for years to come.

Gender: 5/5
Does it pass the Bechdel Test: YES

Black Panther is the first Marvel film that goes beyond merely passing the Bechdel test; it also passes the racial Bechdel test (a film that features two women of color conversing about something other than a White person) and the Ava DuVernay test (a film that features non-White female characters with fully realized lives and aren't in service to White narratives).

Every female character in Black Panther has her own path, and their directions in life aren't defined by men. Rather, the men respect female independence and see it as a boon for the country, not something to be afraid of. T'Challa, for instance, is surrounded by strong women, from the Dora Milaje warriors to his mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett) and sister Shuri (Letitia Wright). Instead of viewing their feminine power in an antagonistic light, his masculinity is fortified by it. Indeed, T'Challa presents as a rare leading man who isn't defined by toxic masculinity.

I must also point out Coogler's own lack of toxic masculinity as well. Not only did he showcase the women of Black Panther as well-rounded, multifaceted human beings who are defined without stereotype, but like T'Challa, he also regularly uses the consult of women on his films. Set designer Hannah Beachler and Oscar-nominated cinematographer Rachel Morrison have been a part of Coogler's Fruitvale Station (2013) team. He's worked with Beachler even more, utilizing her expertise on Creed (2015) as well before the two embarked on Black Panther. Costume designer Ruth E. Carter, who has worked on Malcolm X (1992), Do the Right Thing (1989), Amistad (1997), and Selma (2014), was nervous during her interview with Coogler, despite her long career. But, she said to The Ringer, after Coogler talked about how much her work in Malcolm X meant to him, she realized "[t]his guy really wants me to be here in this room; I belong here."

Beachler and Morrison also state how Coogler's belief and complete faith in their talents bolstered them. Coogler fought for his team; when Marvel considered meeting Beachler after Coogler's recommendation, Coogler said, "You can't meet me and not hire her." According to Beachler, Marvel President Kevin Feige told her to her face they weren't planning on hiring her, but her talent blew them away. Similarly, Morrison said, "I have no doubt that Ryan had to go to bat for me with Marvel."

Race: 5/5

There's no other rating I can give Black Panther other than a 5/5 for its handling of race. Even better, the film goes beyond race and shows us a complex push-and-pull between competing ethnic and cultural identities. Wakanda, for instance, is a country made up of several different tribes representing different aspects of African cultures. One of them even presents a visible culture clash as the Jabari refuse to take part in Wakanda's Vibranium-based technological advancements due to an adherence to their old, traditional ways. In that conflict alone, we see different sides to the Black identity, but even on the micro level we see individuals harbor different perspectives. Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o) tells T'Challa that she can't settle down with him as his queen while everyone else in the world is in danger. If she can help others as a spy, she'd rather do that than adhere to T'Challa's isolationism.

Killmonger and T'Challa also provide incredible contrast. While Killmonger has experienced generational trauma of growing up in a racist American society, T'Challa has grown up on the continent and is connected to himself in a way Killmonger will never be. This highlights the experiences many of the diaspora have as opposed to those who have been born in Africa. Yes, Nakia does bring up the need for unity before we ever see Killmonger, and yes, the fatal flaw in Killmonger's plan is that he has learned imperialism from his oppressors (as The Atlantic's Adam Serwer brilliantly exposes). But his raw anger is what is so identifiable to many African Americans, including me, who have a deep-seated rage at how unjust society is on a day-to-day, minute-by-minute basis.

The thing, though, is that you'd never know it by looking at me; like many other African Americans, I've grown so used to disappointment that it's become dull background noise. My desensitization to it is how I, and many like me, deal with the regular issues life brings on top of the unnecessary racial animus. But to be blunt, my people have dealt with this for so long, we've developed our own way of looking at life in America. In decades past, we've danced about it, making fun of the White man and woman in front of their faces while they thought we were simply being "dumb negroes." We've sung about it on slave ships and in the fields, planning our escape or, again, cracking jokes about our White captors, while once again, they thought we were being simple animals. Today, a lot of us (including myself) have an acerbic sense of humor about racial things; instead of crying about it, we make jokes about it. This probably gets misconstrued by White people and other non-White people as our "inner, noble strength," as if we don't feel pain. But we resort to comedy because of all the pain we feel; otherwise, we'd be weeping on a daily basis. But another reason we couch our pain is because we've learned all too often, through lynchings and burnings and whippings and assassinations, that our anger can, unfortunately, get us killed.

Killmonger has absorbed all of this, but instead, he's chosen anger above all else, and he does what many of us would like to do, which is to simply not care if people know he's angry about his life. He, like other revolutionaries who go out in blazes of glory, is ready to die for his cause. Interestingly enough, for a while, he actually succeeds in his plans, which is more than other Marvel villains can say.

Killmonger's anger is also a commentary on how the abuse from the master to the slave has transferred through the ages and manifested in a host of self-destructive tendencies, such as spousal abuse, child abuse, self-hate, etc. Killmonger doesn't care who he kills or abuses, whether it's his girlfriend, a Dora Milaje warrior, or an elderly priestess. All they are to him are roadblocks in his anger. This, along with his bent on world domination, are the reasons he is a villain. But the fact that his anger is rooted in not knowing who he is — a specific Black existential problem — is why he's such a relatable villain. It's why there are debates about whether he can even be classified as a bonafide villain since he's so complex. Perhaps we're just not used to the fact that for the first time, Marvel has created a human character, not a "human" cartoon.

The specificity of Killmonger's anger and the feelings that propel him towards his goals remind me that a film like this might not exist in such a powerful way if it wasn't in the hands of a Black director.

Would a White director, or a director of another race, write Black characters in the staid, Hollywood way we're used to? Would Black Panther be less of a cautious, caring leader and more of an African prince stereotype? Would the Dora Milaje be reduced to sexuality, or would their femininity be erased entirely, thus perpetuating the stereotype of unattractive, "manly" Black women? Would we have gotten the transcendent message of pan-African unity and spiritual healing? Who knows. All that comes to my mind is someone like Quentin Tarantino taking this project and keeping the characters to their proto-blaxploitation roots. While we might like the result, we wouldn't be moved by it. I certainly wouldn't be trying to tap into my African culinary roots because of it, or digging deeper into my Ancestry DNA results the way I am now. I would have felt as I did after watching Tarantino's Django Unchained (2012) — I'd think, "The film's got some interesting things to say," and move on.

This leads me to wonder exactly how much we as a society (especially Black society) have been short-changed of meaningful, thought-provoking characters, all because studios didn't trust Black directors, Black producers, and Black writers. Should Tarantino have ever directed Django, for example? Should he have just acted as producer and passed his idea off to a capable Black writer-director who could bring something new to the table? Should he have at least collaborated with another writer to bring an authenticity to it instead of what he feels is his own contrived "Black" perspective? How many ways could he have been inclusive with this and other projects? How many ways could other White creatives have been inclusive with their projects? Take The Help (2011), the film based on the book by white author Kathryn Stockett, which comes off as almost fanfiction as Stockett rewrites the lost chapters of her Black nanny's life (who, it should be mentioned, sued Stockett for $75,000 in damages for using her life's story without permission). How would the story have changed if the film didn't solely rely on Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer to bring humanity to characters who were sketchily drawn, at best?

This is not to say that Black directors always get it right (hello Tyler Perry and Marlon Wayans). It also doesn't mean other directors aren't capable of producing landmark films featuring characters of a different race; Steven Spielberg brought sensitivity and nuance to The Color Purple (1985), a staple in the modern African-American lexicon. But Spielberg was also working from Alice Walker's book, and her experience as a Black woman gave her book — and the movie — the depth needed to speak honestly to a Black audience. Coogler has definitely brought something personal to Black Panther, and that lived experience is something that can't be replicated or researched.

At the very least, I think from here on out, it should be known that if you want to make a film with a definitive and specific racial point of view and you're a creative who isn't of that race, it's best to get proper feedback from people who are living the experiences you want to bring to the screen. Authenticity is key — not an exaggerated "authenticity" we have come to associate with different races from years of watching stereotypes play out onscreen, but a true authenticity that reveals the lesser known parts of racial experiences. An authenticity that can, despite its specificity, touch everyone on a universal level.

LGBTQ: -0.25

I will not lie; it hurts me to take any points away from Black Panther. But I've got to be honest, right? The pain point comes from the fact that the film has bungled a possible storyline featuring a same-sex relationship. A plus is that Ayo (Florence Kasumba) is featured in the film. In Marvel's World of Wakanda comics, Ayo is in a relationship with fellow Dora Milaje warrior, Aneka. However, Aneka isn't in the film, and there is no LGBTQ focus in Black Panther. There was supposedly a flirtatious scene featuring Ayo and Okoye (Danai Gurira), which was later cut, and instead, Okoye was paired with border guard head W'Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) — a relationship that did not exist in the comics. Meanwhile, co-writer Joe Robert Cole told ScreenCrush that there was initially an intention to include a queer love story to pay respect to the World of Wakanda storyline, but that he didn't remember the cut scene in question.

Kasumba, however, did remember the scene and addressed it with Abraham Riesman of Vulture and Jamie Broadnax of Black Girl Nerds. Kasumba said if the people behind Black Panther wanted a queer love story in the film, it would be there, but it was cut for reason unbeknownst to her. She did add, though, that the film's ultimate goal was to be edited in a way that serviced T'Challa's story.

"...[A]t this point, I personally think people have no idea who T'Challa is, who are the Wakandans, what is Wakanda, where is Wakanda, what is their culture," she said. "There are so many important things that had to be told in these two hours. So the focus was on what is so important for T'Challa. What happens after the last movie that we saw. I know all the other scenes that we have also filmed that are not in the movie. People have their reasons why not."

In any case, the lack of mention of LGBTQ relationships or characters is the only thing the film has retained from its Marvel predecessors. That is not a good thing. But with so much going right for the film, I'd be hard-pressed to judge this film in the same vein as I would, say, a Transformers movie, rife with questionable gender and sexuality politics, or even other Marvel movies, which are routinely rooted in toxic masculinity.

Black Panther is one of the rare films that isn't led by a superhero who is drenched in this toxic psyche — instead, Coogler seems more interested bringing everyone together on the basis of shared humanity. Because of this, I feel that while Black Panther doesn't have overt LGBTQ representation, neither do I think it's against it in the way other Marvel films seem to be, as we see in Captain America: Civil War (2016), which essentially uses Sharon Carter as a beard so the public won't assume the film is, in essence, a triangle between the characters who share the most camaraderie — the Captain, his best friend Bucky, and Cap's teammate Falcon.

The point still stands, though, that Black Panther could have easily showcased a line or two of dialogue featuring a same-sex couple just as easily as they showed quick romantic interactions between Okoye and W'Kabi (who also had much of their romantic backstory dropped from the film), or between T'Challa and Nakia. To refer back to Kasumba's point, here's to hoping Black Panther 2 advances characters like Ayo now that audience members have a basic understanding of what Wakanda is and how it functions.

Mediaversity Grade: A 4.92/5

Black Panther is a masterclass of excellent, multifaceted images of marginalized people, though it's a shame that its obscuring of canonical LGBTQ relationships takes the final score down a notch. When it's all said and done, Black Panther has invigorated superhero fans and casual viewers alike. 

With the amount of social outreach and activism the film has inspired, like #WakandaTheVote, which is registering moviegoers to vote at the theater, Black Panther's reach will be felt for years to come. It's a film that has successfully broken out of Marvel's formulaic narratives and has transcended into the world of high fantasy entertainment with a social consciousness, similar to the Star Trek franchise and, increasingly so in these last few years, the Star Wars movies. If Marvel decided to quit expanding the MCU and just focused on Wakanda-based films forever, I'd be more than satisfied.

The ways we watch TV and movies have evolved, and it's time for the talent in front of and behind the camera to do the same. Film Forward speaks on the initiatives to diversify the film industry and the stories it tells. New articles premiere every second Thursday of — and throughout — the month.


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