Movie Review: BLACK PANTHER, Wakonda Forever!

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Everett Ross: Is this Wakonda?
Shuri: No, it’s Kansas

Set in the mythical African utopia of Wakonda, the superhero action/adventure of Black Panther abates temporarily for this seemingly trivial, if amusing, banter between Everett Ross (Martin Freeman), a displaced middle-aged white CIA Agent, and Shuri (Letitia Wright), the young, black feisty Wakondan science minister. It’s not, however, trivial at all. This apparently slight moment is part of a larger design that forms the inner spirit of this year’s big screen spectacular, to which there is more than meets the eye.

Full disclosure: I don’t like superhero movies as a rule and might not have seen Black Panther for years if I hadn’t been bored during a flight to Seattle. Thus, I am late to the parade of journalists and academics offering their opinions about it, but I hope not too late to ask you to join me in a march to a somewhat different drummer, as I comment on the subtext of this movie devised by Joe Robert Cole, writer, and Ryan Coogler, writer/director.

black panther poster horiontal

Distilled in Shuri’s answer to Ross’s question when he gets his first glimpse of the eye popping technology of Wakonda, an obvious (amusing) allusion to Dorothy’s reaction when she first glimpses Oz in the 1939 classic, is an inversion of a bedrock image of the white American homeland/heartland. The inversion subtly gives black culture a new centrality, with wit and without rancor. Black Panther is a banquet of such allusions that serve up this black written and directed movie firmly within the cannon of the American mass media, while the movie claims a chair at the high table for black characters and culture without demonizing/trivializing the Western culture that previously demonized/trivialized them–and that has many ramifications.

HAVEN’T WE SEEN THIS BEFORE?

Cole and Coogler engage a great deal of action/adventure movie history as they allude time and again to the major blockbuster franchises. There are echoes of Star Wars in the way they devise their air combat dog fights; of Spiderman when the movie’s hero T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), King of Wakonda and also superhero Black Panther, leaps and crouches; and of the Bond movies when Shuri, T’Challa’s younger sister, acquaints him with her latest scientific inventions.

They further engage movie history by connecting us to David Lynch’s Dune in the design of the Wakonda wonderland and in the scenes in which T’Challa drinks a magic hallucinogen that gives him the wisdom to rule. There are also reminders of The X-Files as ordinary America meets Wakondan wizardry; to The Wire, in the portrayal of black neighborhoods in the United States; and, most unexpectedly, to the Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan films from 1934-1942. Like those movies, Panther sports a documentary glimpse of African vistas, tribal regalia and traditions, and the fiction of sacred, hidden sites. Familiar? Yes, but also defamiliarized.

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The way Black Panther engages all of this media history makes the familiar new in an expansive and inclusive manner. By blending the cultures, it transmutes the oppositional, unalloyed fear mongering, and combative, Zero-Sum analogy that underlies almost all super-hero films; a genre Mark Bowden, in a recent New York Times essay described as “manichean.” This ancient belief in a world divided into unalloyed oppositions of darkness and light is the essence of the typical superhero story, but I prefer the Zero-Sum analogy in discussing Panther, because while the manichean world divides the world along moral lines, Panther envisions the economic divide Zero-Sum invokes. I agree with Bowden that in general superhero movies are moralistically dualistic, but Black Panther is really about economic dualism. Let’s explore this distinction.

THE STORY

But first. The inventiveness of Black Panther is mostly independent of its story, which is generally pure formula, but story is the platform that carries the nuance so for the benefit of super-herophobes—like me—who haven’t yet seen this blockbuster, I will summarize briefly. T’ Chaka (John Kani), the king of Wakonda, a secret kingdom in Africa that has intentionally isolated itself from all other cultures, dies. His son, “T’Challa, ascends the throne, only to discover that his father was not the all-wise, all good-man he imagined. His task is to redeem his father’s legacy to save his people. The paternal sin is that T’Chaka had his brother, N’Jobu (Sterling K. Brown), who was working as an official spy in America, killed for going rogue and joining forces with a notorious international thief and plunderer, Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis). N’Jobu gave Klaue access to vibranium, the miracle substance found only in Wakonda that has made possible its extraordinary secret technology, the source of Wakonda’s idyllic prosperity.

Did N’ Jobu, therefore, deserve to die? Well……. N’Jobu went rogue because he profoundly believed that Wakonda’s policy of isolationism left oppressed people of color all over the world in despair when Wakondan technology could be weaponized to liberate them. We get the sense early in the film that even if N’Jobu’s desire to wage war against white colonizers only prolongs historical cycles of hatred and injustice, there is some point to his rebellion. Radical cultural separation has resulted in ugly protective measures. To hold to his nation’s principles of prosperity through isolation, T’Chaka has committed fratricide, and also abandoned his nephew, N’Jobu’s son N’Jadaka (Michael B. Jordan) to a life of misery in America, where he is known as Erik Killmonger. Even the formulaic plot contains a few touches of balance. Light and darkness are intermingled here.

black panthr group 2

They are intermingled in Erik too. Erik has made it his life’s work to get revenge for his father by finding his way to Wakonda and making himself the dictator of the country that wronged them. But he is also Hell bent on using vibranium technology to liberate oppressed people of color. As might be expected, by the time hate-driven Erik (apparently) takes the Wakondan throne from T’Challa, he is so steeped in blood that his means of gaining power fatally contaminates his liberational motives. But not his ideal, and that’s where the formula breaks interestingly.

When T’Challa ultimately fights his way back to his rightful place by killing N’Jadaka, he also takes on N’ Jadaka’s ideal of Wakondan responsibility to people of color outside of the borders of the kingdom. And it is through that acceptance by T’Challa of his opponent’s desire to heed the cries of a world oppressed by an “us and them” dichotomy that Black Panther grants real power and meaning to the centrality of balance in black African Wakondan culture. Wakonda has seen the enemy and it is them, or the result of a tradition of xenophobia. Thus, N’Jadaka’s inclusive impulses survive him. What’s more, they blend with the perspective of the movie’s heroine, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), the wise Wakondan beauty T’Challa wishes to marry. She has been urging open borders and international cooperation throughout the film. The king becomes a better ruler through being tutored by the man who appeared to be his enemy and by a woman, two categories of character that have been subordinated, marginalized, dominated, and/or controlled by the usual operations of the formulaic Hollywood plot. I do not by any means suggest that Black Panther is a great philosophical work, or a work of art, but it is powered at deep levels by some interesting and complicated narrative energies.

A NEW TWIST

The economics of vibranium are what distinguish Wakonda from the world outside of it. Vibranium is a source of infinite energy; its abundance has made Wakonda possible as an enclave of abundance and balance in which there is enough for all unlike the outside dualistic Zero Sum world based on scarcity in which greed is justified by a sense that limited resources mean that to have what you want and need means that there will be those who won’t have what they want and need. T’Challa’s journey leads him toward becoming a righteous king who will alter the Zero Sum imbalances of the world outside Wakonda which is steeped in greed, murder, theft and the struggle to be the possessor of wealth not the dispossessed. It will also save the balance and abundance of Wakonda which has been invaded by the imbalances of Zero-Sum when the dispossessed Erik/N’Jadaka arrives “from away” to take his revenge. His arrival also brings with it the domination/submission form of order imposed by an authoritarian, in all forms of politics, upsetting the Wakondan tradition of male-female relations based on balance, not masculine domination of femininity. Politics, economics, and gender definitions are, after all, interconnected.

black panther conflict

The resolution of the struggle between T’Challa and N’Jadaka leads away not only from Zero Sum economics but also from Zero-Sum narrative, which is what I call the mandated superhero closure in which there has to be abject defeat of the villain to ensure the superhero triumph. Rather the closure of Panther includes a kind of balance between victorious T’Challa and dying N’Jadaka. As T’Challa shows his cousin the blazing Wakondan sunset N’Jadaka has always wanted to see, N’Jadaka, then impresses T’Challa with his sense of honor. Gasping for breath in the orange-gold glow of the dying day, N’Jadaka wins some respect and empathy from T’Challa and the audience by refusing T’Challa’s offer to save him medically, since that would only mean life imprisonment. N’Jadaka prefers to follow the example of the slaves who jumped into the ocean as they were being transported like cattle from Africa to America rather than live in captivity. It’s not as good as living to create a richer more inclusive world, but his choice is impressed on us as a product of the complexity of history. And N’Jadaka has a victory of his own, when T’Challa carries his ideal into the future.

Balance is also impressively demonstrated in the movie’s unapologetic, gracious owning of African culture that has previously been exhibited, at best, in Hollywood as an inferior, bizarre, or comically grotesque set of practices, for example in MGM’s early Tarzan movies from 1934 to 1942. These early movies, starring Johnny Weissmuler, used accurate documentary footage of tribal life in Africa to create the context of the sacred, hidden Escarpment within which Tarzan lives. (Tarzan’s idyllic African Escarpment is a prefiguration of idyllic African Wakonda.) The upside of the documentary footage is that it is not a racist fabrication of a Hollywood fantasy of African culture. The downside is that we see it from a xenophobic, white perspective which renders it sideshow-like entertainment. Panther displays those very same African traditions, but with a respect that does not, à la Zero-Sum, require them to trivialize Western culture in order to affirm its value. Space here forbids detailed enumeration of the cultural re-balancings in this movie. But suffice it to say that as the obligatory formulaic battles instigated by the culture outside of Wakonda play out and the screen fills with formulaic CGI spectacles of Wakondan rhinos on the battlefield, the spirit of the film glows with Wakonda’s No-Zero- Sum radiance. No culture has to be ridiculous in order for any other culture to be esteemed. At the same time, no woman has to be reduced to a second class position in order to affirm masculine value. I found the effect galvanizing and relaxing at the same time. It made the CGI palatable.

THE UPSHOT

Black Panther reaches not only beyond the limits of superhero history but imagines a perspective beyond the old limits of Hollywood’s deep-dyed colonialism. The end of Robert Ruark’s novel of Western conquest of Africa (and Richard Brooks’ 1957 movie) Something of Value, neatly defines Hollywood’s stereotypical assumption of the white colonialist’s burden. If we take their traditions away from Africans while “civilizing them,” so goes the “liberal” racist view, we must give “them” something of value in return. The end of Black Panther proclaims a very different African story as T’Challa and Nakia take their place within the circle of nations. Now a part of Western movie history as well as Western political alliances, they have much of value–social balance and vibranium abundance–to offer the white colonizers, clearly to be bestowed without rancor and with appropriate pride.

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