The Real World and Wakanda (and Why It Matters)

What follows are some thoughts about Black Panther and cultural context. These are, by default, outsider’s thoughts in many regards. I acknowledge this in advance.

Reality influences fiction. As much as we might want to separate art from the moment, especially pop art that is meant to be mostly enjoyed, we can’t really do that. Nothing exists in a vacuum, and while I’m not interested in limiting or censoring creative output (even “vacuous” output that is as much product as art), I think it’s good–important even–to discuss how our popular media relates to the world around us.

It is impossible to talk about Black Panther in any interesting way without broaching the subjects of Blackness in America, African Cultures (yes, turns out a whole continent has more than one culture), International Politics, Technological Utopian Ideals vs Technological Fears, Colonialism, Representation, Diversity, Feminism, and probably a dozen other topics I’m forgetting in this moment. Black Panther is a tentpole superhero blockbuster produced by a multi-billion dollar corporate entity to further its globalist capitalist agenda and sell toys and T-shirts AND also a huge moment in cultural history. One that can’t simply be dismissed because of the blockbuster part.

That doesn’t render Black Panther immune to criticism. I still wish that they’d done something more interesting with Klaw (I’m spelling it comic book style) and while I enjoyed the action, I didn’t find it as creative or as engaging as Civil War, Ant-Man, or Doctor Strange. All very subjective complaints, of course, but I stand by them. I enjoyed Killmonger as a villain, though I didn’t find him particularly compelling. (Then again, why would I? His character isn’t meant to speak to me, and I’m cool with that.)

The truth though is that Black Panther could’ve just been okay, and it still would be an amazing moment in time. Its significance isn’t really up for debate, and a big part of that is this moment in time. In another twenty or thirty years, a film like Black Panther, with its non-white cast and very obvious global outlook, might be the norm, not the exception. Perhaps future generations might view Black Panther the same way many people view the Lord of the Rings films: Hasn’t this all been done before?

Yes, but this was the first time.

It’s not that we haven’t had other black superheroes, but all of those were visions of the American experience. From Meteor Man to Blank Man to Blade, all of these stories have explored the idea of what it’s like to be an underdog. Meteor Man is just a normal man who gains amazing powers. Blank Man is a comedic take on  budget Batman. Blade is an outlaw, working underground.

T’Challa is a king.

T’Challa isn’t a reluctant hero.

T’Challa is here to make the world a better place and has no doubts about that. He’s not perfect, but he’s an ideal and one that eschews most expectations. The closets parallel in recent films is, without irony, Captain America. Like Cap, Black Panther is physically powerful, enabled by technological improvements, and devoted to doing the right thing. More importantly, both characters are emotionally open, avoiding the stoic badass that defined many of these characters in ages past. Heck, in Civil War, T’Challa exhibits emotional maturity that eludes Tony Stark. And just like The Winter Soldier, Black Panther is willing to forgive and even sympathize with his enemy.

Both Black Panther and Captain America embody an unapologetic virtue that somehow manages to have depth and intelligence.

There is, however, one huge difference between the two:

Cap is white, and while it’s generally unfashionable to have such a good guy be our hero in this day and age, the MCU is full of good white guys. Most more flawed than Cap, sure, but still good guys overall. The running joke that good-looking blond guys named Chris inhabit the MCU is relevant. T’Challa might have a lot in common with Cap, but he has at least one amazing difference.

In the context of their universes, that difference might seem negligible. No one in the MCU has so far demonstrated a noteworthy element of racism. Tony Stark might be flawed, but he’s not racist. Very few people comment on race in the MCU, and outside of the Black Panther film, there’s little comment about the expectations of race. No one’s uncomfortable working with War Machine or the Falcon.

There’s Hydra, of course. But even in the original Cap movie, they moved away from the Nazi’s racism to a more generic “World Conquerors” agenda. And even in comics, Hydra’s exact level of racist motivation varies immensely, depending on the writer and whether or not the Red Skull is running it or not.

It would’ve been so easy to have the bad guys in Black Panther to be some version of white supremacists who were offended by the mere existence of Wakanda. Given the people working on the film, it probably would’ve worked too. But instead of electing for a simple: Racism is bad, m’kay theme, the creators went with a more nuanced, Race is Complicated.  Instead, the story revolves around a villain who represents abandonment and rage and the failings of Wakanda’s isolationist policies (and by extension, America’s own failings).

This won’t stop some people from accusing the film of being a power fantasy and, even more absurdly, anti-white. But such people aren’t worthy of any more discussion than the rest of this sentence.

Yet the film doesn’t ever go with an easy answer. Killmonger is a bad guy, yes, but he’s also got a point. Wakanda is a thriving country, but it isn’t perfect. T’challa’s father was a good king, but not a perfect man. Technology is a good thing, but not a perfect thing. Tradition matters, but so does looking forward. Our ancestors weren’t flawless. Neither are we. This is a film that manages to be a crowdpleaser while daring to say, “Life is complicated” and good for everyone involved for having the courage to do that.

And all of that is great, but the truth is that it could just be okay and it’d still be amazing.

I keep repeating that because it’s true.

Like Wonder Woman before it, the film’s mere existence in the space it occupies is enough to mean something big.

On the other end, Bruce Willis’s new version of Death Wish feels weirdly wrong-headed and confusing at this moment. Even watching the trailer, I felt a sense of unease at the notion of a successful, wronged man unleashing righteous violence against the criminal scourge of society. I watched hundreds of movies like this in the 80’s and at the time, it seemed like good, harmless fun. And then I realized how ubiquitous the image became and how so many people absorbed it without question.

This is not me advocating for the censorship of Death Wish. But it’s good to talk about it outside of “It’s just a movie”. Even silly stories say something, and for my generation, watching a white guy blow away criminals (often played by minorities) was a steady bath of social programming.

Heck, I used to love Revenge of the Nerds, which time has proven to be a film about one sex crime after another, culminating in rape through deception that is played off as a joke. And you bet that this perception is something that troubles me because of the fact that I didn’t even notice it before.

Seeing crowds of people on social media cheer on the Black Panther in a way that they’ve been clearly waiting for is not something to be dismissed. It matters because of the culture we live in, and to try to remove that in an effort to achieve some kind of artistic distance is like trying to read mythology without understanding the culture behind it. And whether we like it or not, we’re living in a culture with its own myths, most of which we don’t even question. And along comes Black Panther to question it.

And we, and our culture, will be better for it.

Keelah Se’lai

Wakanda Forever

Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,


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