When history and myth converge in “Black Panther”

Michael B. Jordan (at left) and Chadwick Boseman in “Black Panther”

How does one even begin to talk about “Black Panther”? The question has been turning over in my head since I saw the movie in a packed theatre last week. Writing about a Marvel or DC film in an age where superhero blockbusters dominate the commercial film conversation is already a task in itself, but “Black Panther” poses a more complex issue in discussion. The film, significant for its representation of black superheroes, has been hailed as many things. And in the wake of its behemoth success, smashing box-office record after record, it has become a symbol of many different things to many different people. This is, of course, the inevitable result of popularity. “Black Panther” has cast a long shadow, and with that long shadow has come a level of scrutiny that seems almost unusual for superhero films, which often (erroneously) are met with ambivalent dismissiveness from cultural critics.

With only a few weeks since its release, the conversation about “Black Panther” already feels too wide to scale. Conversations about films, especially conversations about tent-pole films, very easily and quickly become hyperbolic. So, in the past week, the range of focus for “Black Panther” has varied from it being the most important “black film” of the century to a hypocritical film that serves to disempower black audiences. The gamut is wide, to say the least. And it’s the dichotomy of that divide that I find immediately fascinating because as a film “Black Panther” is concerned with dichotomies, formally and narratively.

No matter how much we read it as metaphor, allegory, synecdoche or hyperbole, we must start with “Black Panther” as it is. It is about a chosen one who must battle for his place at the top. It’s a familiar narrative hook of fantasy fiction and, easily, the film’s weakest narrative strand. This is an essential part of fantasy as a genre. Whether wizards, or witches, or vampire slayers, or superheroes, to be a protagonist in a fantasy film means to be special. The chosen one as a symbol of the specialness in each of us is key. The everyman trope cannot quite work in fantasy, for even everymen who become superheroes (Peter Parker being the best example) maintain a dual life as both everyman and chosen one, and ultimately the latter comes to eclipse the former. I’ve grappled with my own feelings on the trope. It’s not ideal, but it’s not intrinsically problematic. In assessing the response to “Black Panther,” though, I realised how the already troublesome chosen-one trope becomes particularly fallible when distilled through a merging of myth and history from which a film like “Black Panther” finds its ultimate value.

Sometime in the film’s specious present we are introduced to the country of Wakanda. On its surface, it presents as a struggling third-world country in Africa. However, in reality it is home to a wealth of vibranium, a powerful metal that has been mined and used to develop the country’s advanced technology. But this secret is compromised when a betrayal by one of the country’s own, three decades earlier, threatens its peaceful equilibrium. In the present, as Wakanda’s new king T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) prepares to ascend to the throne, things come to a head as chickens created from sins of the past come home to roost.

It is especially difficult to separate “Black Panther” the film from “Black Panther” the symbol. I cannot write about the film as text without considering the response to it. Around the world, and in Guyana too, hordes of black fans have turned out in traditional or fantastical garb. It’s not the first time that fans of a film, or even black fans of a film, have cosplayed. But the tenor is different here, with an entire film pitched exclusively for a black cast. “Black Panther” is not the first black superhero film, or even the second. But, “Black Panther” seemed different. There are many reasons, but two key elements are the focus on continental Africans and its representation of wealth and status on screen. Something as innocuous as cosplaying seemed to precipitate a wealth of discussion. First came the backlash and then the backlash to the backlash and then noise from varying planes. On one hand, “let black fans express them.” On the other hand, “it is problematic that black fans are so robbed for their history they look to a commercial film for identity.” On the other hand, “nothing is wrong with cosplaying.” On the other hand, “this cosplaying is purely superficial and will be forgotten soon.” At first, I was baffled at this emphatic criticism and anti-criticism of something that’s hardly unusual but “Black Panther” is not like any superhero film. It is not the first film to grapple with history but “Black Panther” cannot be read without its real world implications, and it cannot be appreciated without consideration of Wakanda’s futuristic world and its relationship to real injustices of colonialism, of anti-black hatred, of the scourge of black slavery and of the history of third world countries in and out Africa and the role the West has played in creating that state of affairs. That’s a lot for any film to confront. That’s a lot for any fantasy to confront. That’s a whole lot for any fantasy film within an entire franchise to confront. The very best thing about “Black Panther” is its willingness to try. It is testimony to the sheer ambition of director and co-writer Ryan Coogler and his team.

Any major comic film is besieged by its role as part of a corporation. They will always be products before they are art, but good art does not depend on not being a product. Art and all its nuances depend on the possibility of context and gradations. It’s why fantasy films, especially superhero ones, depend on the pull of their villains. And so “Black Panther” is compelling but, oddly, too easy until we are confronted with the film’s real villain a little over half way into the film. From that moment on, a film that was good becomes better. It is suddenly and deliriously pulsating and ambitious and moving and messy and overwhelming. I say messy not as a pejorative. It’s a feature of my favourite movies. Messy speaks of something willing to be beyond conventional, to reflect the messiness of human life and of human interaction. It’s that messiness that the film must confront in its central crisis when Erik Stevens, also known as ‘Killmonger’ (played by Michael B. Jordan), arrives with vengeance in his heart to wreak havoc on Wakanda for turning its back on African descendants elsewhere. It’s the sort of messiness of human life that pits Killmonger against T’Challa in a battle for Wakanda’s future. And it’s that messiness that has seen the film become interrogated by multiple black scholars for its representations of race-relations, revolution and black representation.

It is not surprising that the film’s villain has been read as the true hero of the film for many academics, scholars and even fans, who see in him the essential role that black activists must play to upend centuries of justices. It’s testament to the film’s own power. Still, the questions about the film’s role as a Hollywood tool to argue against black revolution seem facile in a way that irks me. There is a conversation to be had about the film’s politics. Yet, what has been key in so many discussions about the rightness of Killmonger’s liberation plot via brute strength is that so many have positioned him as the only character within the film interested in having Wakanda play a more central  role in the lives of non-Wakandan black people. For me, “Black Panther” is key for its portrayal of female characters, who easily trounce the men on screen in both construction and delivery. T’Challa’s love interest, Nakia (played by Lupita Nyong’o), leaves the idyllic Wakanda before the film even begins to help refugees. She too seeks a revolution in the Wakandan way of life, just differently. Positioning Killmonger as the film’s sole arbiter of revolution is troubling both for its erasure of the female perspective, and for the way it demands easy answers and either/or positions.

“Black Panther” does not have the answers to the questions of slavery, colonialism and anti-blackness but beyond its inability to answer those questions it should be cheered for not just allowing but encouraging the sort of muddled, disconcerted feeling that comes with grappling with large issues. “Black Panther” comes armed with significance and value that few superhero films can manage. It faces that question that is essential for many – How should a black hero be? There are, indeed, other questions to consider. Like the way the film considers wealth where the heroes are not just black but black and rich. And the way Wakanda as a homeland perhaps problematizes the issue of blackness and otherness for black persons outside of Africa. By mixing its myth with history the film immediately harnesses a profundity. And with that profundity comes complexity and problems. The film cannot answer all the questions of our history. Myth can only do so much. Coogler and company use it well. They lionize it for emphasis and good effect, leaving you asking questions when it ends. And isn’t that we want from our art?

“Black Panther” is currently playing at cinemas in Guyana

 

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