For those unfamiliar, The “I Got Five on It” series consists of posts where I give my five thoughts–right or wrong—on a book, graphic novel/comic, film, or TV show. This is a very off the dome, stream of consciousness type of analysis and NOT a review. At its worst, it can be categorized as a Hot Take, but it’s really just a collection of the things I bang with–and don’t bang with–about a media property that is of import to me and the culture.
(also, and I can’t believe I never actually said this, “I Got Five On It” is both the title of this series and a twenty something year old rap song from West Coast rap duo Luniz. It’s probably their most well known cut.)
What a time to be a Wakandan. Marvel’s Black Panther, the eighteenth film set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is probably the most widely anticipated movie of the last decade.
From the very first image of the very first teaser trailer, black people all over the world (well, almost all of them) rejoiced. And shoutout to all of those black moviegoers (including those in my city and around the world) for making Black Panther both a critical and box office juggernaut. No matter what you or I think about the film’s messaging or content, that there is a win for all of us.
And as always, this isn’t a criticism free space. Though Black Panther is heavy with cultural significance, and is honestly a damn good superhero film, it’s not perfect. It was too packed with plot to treat all of its characters lovingly. Wakanda–which, despite its white boy beginnings is planted firmly within the black imagination now–is still the home of a lot of problematic ideas about the African continent. Unfortunately, the film didn’t escape some of that. The film really drops the ball by not featuring any of the recent stories of queer characters from the comics. And I thought that some of the CGI effects for T’challa were a little too rubbery. All that said, though:
Also, SPOILERS ABOUND HERE.
You know what it is. Let’s go.
This Was The Perfect Moment in Black History for a Black Panther Film.
Black Panther is a great superhero film on basically every level–even the effects weren’t that bad.
Which is why I’m convinced that a Black Panther film of this scope and quality could not have been made before this point in time and space. No disrespect to brothers Snipes and Hudlin.
This film, and the people making it, needed every single event and moment leading up to this point in order to be this good. The story that Ryan Coogler chose for these times and this current culture, which examines isolationism, the diversity of black experiences, the burdens and traumas that can come to the fore when the children of the African diaspora search for their history and identity, and so much more, could only have happened with the combined weight of a history that has affected black people globally, and could only have this much cultural significance given the complexity of the conversations that black people are having amongst themselves and with the rest of the world.
Much of the popular groundswell that has made this movie so successful happened on social media, and specifically, on Black Twitter–the same medium that constantly criticizes the white supremacist systems that dominate Hollywood’s productions. Those searches for identity and longing for justice could have only come about after years of an entire planet of Black people searching for meaning in their lives and connection to a larger global family. Our eyes were primed for the Pan-African aesthetic of this film by the now-intense global gaze on Africa’s cultural and artistic contributions throughout history: Sapeurs. Gwara Gwara. Highlife and Afrobeat. And yes, Afrofuturism (more on that later).
Black people are using our various platforms and public spaces to speak up on injustices, organize our communities, fight against damaging narratives, investigate our place in and effect on the world, and create media campaigns to celebrate ourselves despite all of the myriad ways we are disenfranchised, devalued, and disrespected. Black people are sick of everybody’s shit, and this film captures all of that frustration and joy and complexity in a slick two hour and fifteen minute package that gave most of us a reason to step away from our struggles for a little while and enjoy seeing ourselves on screen in all of our glory and humanity.
Black Panther is indeed an afrofuturistic film…but it’s deeper than that.
Is it later enough yet?
In the first linked article, buried among the rants I lay out the central thrust of what I’ve discovered about afrofuturism, which is that it’s more than simply “black sci-fi” or an “aesthetic” or even the combination of these things. Afrofuturism is a political ideology and framework designed to orient black people in a world bent on their destruction through reckoning with time, history, visionary narrative, technology, and culture through a futurist lens that is primarily concerned with the sustainability of black life and the eventual flourishing of the black body and spirit. So, a piece of Black science fiction that imagines an alternative future for black people and considers technology, society, and the future in its projection can be considered afrofuturism (this is sometimes termed “visionary fiction” by some afrofuturist practitioners, though the term has other applications). However, by this definition of black-focused-futurism, housing law, community organizing, and even industrial mining, as Shuri shows us, can be considered afrofuturistic.
Something that gets lost in a lot of the analyses on afrofuturism is that the framework by necessity places the black mind in the space of ultimate designer of the black future. A piece of technology cannot be considered afrofuturist if a black person whose focus is the liberation and sustained survival of other black people was not behind its creation and design, unless they work to repurpose that piece of technology to work as part of a larger afrofuturistic strategy. I think that’s an important distinction–especially when we think about Wakanda as afrofuturist–because Wakanda is a society led by the best and brightest black thinkers who leverage their technology and culture to assure their sustained existence–even unto the collapse of other societies.
Shuri as head scientist researching, developing, and fabricating new tech and systems on the fly? Afrofuturistic. The fact that Wakanda is literally a sort of utopia for black people–even if those black people are mostly Wakandans? Afrofuturistic. Wakanda’s head of state making the decision to share its resources and wealth primarily with other black people across the globe in order to increase their odds of survival? Afrofuturistic. An all-black society with what looks like a healthy workforce, universal public transit, deep stores of natural resources, and a culture-based political system that reckons heavily with their past and ancestors? Definitely afrofuturistic.
Was the application perfect? Of course not. But the label and the afrofuturistic framework is imperfect as well. Black Panther, though, gives viewers a stellar depiction of one version of the afrofuturistic ideal.
“We Gotta Talk About Killmonger.”
I’m 100% unsurprised that a lot of Black Americans–especially Black American men–walked out of the theater after seeing Black Panther with their “KILLMONGER WAS RIGHT” flags flying high. It’s attractive, i get it, to see a black male character unapologetically work his way toward what looks like a plan for global black liberation on behalf of all the black people on earth.
Examine Killmonger’s character and his plan closely, though, and you’ll see the cracks in both. Killmonger–N’djaka–has a worldview influenced by the massive amount of trauma that he’s experienced as a child and young man. This trauma, starting with the death of his father and spiraling from there, is apparent. He wears it in the scars on his skin, and it manifests in his penchant for wanton destruction and his devaluing of human life. He shoots both Not-Nightshade (true to life, it seems riskiest for black women to support brothas) and Ulysses Klaue with almost no remorse when they get in the way of his plans. His orders injure several Wakandans and his plans for liberation will lead to many more injured and dead, and would have trained the eyes and guns of several global superpowers on Wakanda.
Listen. All of those moves were great villain moves. They weren’t the moves of someone whose goal is to liberate black people. No one says that revolutions have to be bloodless, but Killmonger’s desire to topple both Wakanda and other global powers was rooted in his own personal demons, not his desire to get us all free. Were those personal demons rooted in large part by the discrimination he’s experienced, the discrimination he’s seen other black people experience, and his own struggles with identity? Almost certainly. And there is definitely space to critique Black Panther’s using the thuggish, Hip-Hop signaling Black American disconnected from his noble African culture as the villainous invader.
Killmonger is a damn good villain. He’s problematic, and misogynoiristic, and violent, and corny sometimes (his final line was straight cornball, y’all) but we also have a lot of sympathy for him. He’s the product of all the bullshit that he’s had to go through, and by extension, that so many black people in the USA have had to go through, and no one comes out of all that unscarred.
Erik is supposed to be a vehicle to examine this stuff. We’re supposed to use him to see what happens if we let our righteous rage toxify us and our vision of a just world. We’re supposed to use him to see how the USA’s military industrial complex recruits and trains young black boys to be agents of chaos in black and brown countries. This was his purpose, in addition to being a good villain.
Killmonger was never supposed to be a revolutionary. Nor was he right. But we’re not fucked up for relating to him. His fundamental story is the story of so many Black Americans chewed up by this unforgiving system.
If you’re looking for revolution in Black Panther, as usual, look to black women. Okoye demonstrates revolutionary loyalty to Wakanda. Nakia makes a revolutionary decision to choose herself over T’challa’s desires for her. Shuri possesses a wealth of revolutionary ideas and brings them to life in her country and, now, abroad. Ramonda displays revolutionary love and devotion to her son and to her country. These should be our exemplars.
That said, I do hate that Killmonger had to die while we still have to deal with Tom Hiddleston’s pale ass face in the next three MCU films. It would have been cool to see T’challa have to reckon with the parts of Killmonger that were right about Wakanda.
The Hype Was Real.
I gotta be honest: I worried about this film. A lot. I know that the official line was that we would not talk about how much Black Panther sucked if it didn’t meet our expectations, but at least for me, it met all of my expectations and more. Kudos to Mr. Coogler and the cast and crew for holding it down.
One of the hard things about bringing comics across different mediums is the long and convoluted histories of mainstream comics narratives. Black Panther has been adventuring on the page since 1961. That’s as long as my parents have been alive, and to try and get all of that history and those stories into a 135 minute film that includes all of the necessary elements of all of that narrative while still having a film with any sort of substance is difficult, to say the least. But Black Panther delivered.
As I said in the intro, it wasn’t perfect. But honestly, the source material wasn’t perfect, and so many of the conceptual flaws of Wakanda and Wakandans in the film exist in the source material. Wakanda as a western invention that either undersells the capabilities and culture of African and Africans or places them on some unrealistic pedestal? That’s been in the comics for YEARS, and some of the black writers that have tackled the comic have interrogated that very thing. The “grab-bag” nature of Wakanda’s culture and presentation? People have deconstructed that over and over again. Wakanda as culturally and politically separate from other African nations and black people all over the world? Yep, examined in the comics, and the film at least has the Wakandans in power wrestle with the idea of non-intervention in the lives of black people around the world in the limited time that they had available to them. Was T’challa’s solution to assist the global black family as effective as it could have been, given its resources? Not for me, and I imagine not for anyone else who sees just how much black people struggle within systems designed to destroy them.
And yes, there was a lot of room for Coogler and his team to imagine T’challa being more active in his support for black people. He could have shamed the United States by virtue of their society, or instead of building bootstrap centers in the hood, made a controlled introduction of Wakandan tech or wealth management systems, or even given funding directly to the people. But make no mistake, the decision T’challa made to help black folk in Oakland was definitely in line with his character.
But like I said on Twitter, and like smarter folks than me have pointed out: this is a Hollywood movie, bankrolled by white interests and ultimately beholden to them. That means that any work produced in this system will be inherently limited in how much subversive shit it can contain. Does that mean we should dismiss that work, or think it devalued because of the systems that influence it? Of course not. The work still has value and is still worth our consumption. But that also means that we cannot–really, should not–look to this film to deliver radical revolutionary logic or display any sort of true radical praxis. But don’t despair! There are thousands of thinkers, creators, activists, and scholars who are more than willing to give you their personal ideas of what black liberation looks like, even in their art. Look to them–and to yourself–to see revolutionary ideas and revolutionary actors celebrated. You ain’t getting that from a Disney film.
Especially one based on a previous property that has never prioritized the spirit of global black liberation before. Wakanda, thematically, has always been bout itself. And that’s what we got in Black Panther.
There’s so much more I want to explore in Black Panther: T’challa as a superhero who listened to the people around him, rather than just running off to do his own “bad boy who don’t need no rules” thing like the typical Marvel white dude hero. The fact that T’challa jobbed in damn near every big fight he had. The limited role of the white men in the movie. The fact that the Dora Milaje were the actual superheroes in this piece. W’kabi and his terrible choices. Forest Whitaker and his terrible accent. And lots, lots more.
I probably have another two or three posts about Black Panther in me, because this film lived up to all of my expectations and more. But I don’t have time for that right now, so I’ll sign off with the battle cry of my president, Okoye of the Dora Milaje: