author: shelbi glover | a&c writer
One of 2018’s most important films
It’s rare that Marvel films pose us with moral quandaries, or rather, it’s rare that Marvel films successfully pose us with moral quandaries. Supervillains are often presented with backstories just tragic enough to make their motives clear, but nothing else. It is easy to leave the theater and never wonder if the protagonist’s actions were justified. Black Panther is different, though. Even now, as I sit and ponder such an impactful, culturally-driven film, I am forced to wonder what the film’s true message was, and even now, I have yet to figure it out.
Black Panther, which holds an impressive 97 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes, has taken the media by storm. Led by Chadwick Boseman, who also starred in Get On Up and 42, Black Panther follows T’Challa, new king of the African nation Wakanda. Disguised as a third-world farming country, Wakanda has cut itself off from the rest of the world in order to protect its main resource: vibranium. Vibranium, as Marvel fans know well, is both the most valuable and rare metal within the comic universe, since it is impenetrable by bullets; Captain America’s shield and Wolverine’s skeleton are also made out of the substance, for reference.
Wakanda is also a nation built on strict tradition, and after T’Challa proves his fitness to be king after a fight to near death, his first act as king is to attempt to stop Klaue, an arms dealer who has gained access to vibranium weapons. T’Challa’s late father, T’Chaka, was unable to apprehend Klaue after over twenty years, which has obviously frustrated the Wakandans, and T’Challa is urged to bring him back dead or alive. What T’Challa doesn’t know, however, is that Klaue is not acting alone; and this is where I have to issue a massive spoiler alert for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet.
Klaue’s partner is Erik (Michael B. Jordan), otherwise known as “Killmonger,” who is not only native to Wakanda, but actually has claim to the throne. In fact, it is revealed that Erik is T’Challa’s cousin, and his father was killed by King T’Chaka himself. Erik’s father was stealing vibranium from Wakanda with Klaue, and T’Chaka killed him in his apartment only for a young Erik to find him, which we learn through flashbacks.
This is where the moral quandary comes into play. Erik, like his father, strives for a global black uprising. After growing up impoverished in Oakland, Erik obtains a degree from MIT in order to understand the technology he later uses on special ops missions for the United States government. Erik has seen the worst parts of our world, and has no love for Wakanda or its people; while he grew up in a world that did not do him any favors, his own family led a powerful, privileged life and left him on his own.
Erik’s ultimate goal? To give the oppressed access to the resources Wakanda has had available to them for centuries, and to see the toppling of white supremacy once and for all. But T’Challa, always calm and noble, clings to the traditions of his ancestors, and must himself decide if Wakanda should remain closed for the safety of his people, or if it should extend help to the oppressed in need.
Erik is, without a doubt, the most sympathetic Marvel villain to date, so sympathetic in fact, that I struggle to even call him a villain. Michael B. Jordan himself said it best in an interview with PhillyVoice,
“His motivations, in his eyes, are his people and caring about the survival of his people – and he’s willing to do whatever it takes to assure that. […] Killmonger is a symbol of African-Americans growing up in America under systemic oppression – and he’s an extreme version of that.”
And how can we begrudge him that? In a world that hates black men, how can we villainize him for hating the world right back?
Ultimately, the only true villain in Black Panther is white supremacy. Wakanda’s privacy is a direct result of the evil colonization of its surrounding countries; Wakanda, like Killmonger, did only what it had to do in order to survive, and that fear forces its people to remain hidden. Can we blame them? I mean, honestly, when we look at white peoples’ track record throughout history, is it really a crime for Wakandans not to trust the outside world with their technology, and by extension, to abandon their African brothers and sisters as they are enslaved and oppressed by white men?
That depends on how you look at it. For Killmonger and those like-minded, it’s absolutely a crime. The true evil in this world, as Killmonger points out, is not using power and privilege to the advantage of the oppressed; a lesson that T’Challa learns and, eventually, uses to reconcile both extremes into a solution that benefits everyone.
Regardless of how you feel about the politics of it all, there’s no denying the sheer cinematic beauty, which is high praise for a Marvel film. There’s also something to be said for the amazing representation of black women, who, throughout the film, are T’Challa’s closest confidants, his protectors, and his equals. T’Challa’s sister, Shuri, steals the show at every turn; at only 16, her brilliant technological advances power both the country of Wakanda and her brother’s supersuit.
When it comes down to it, Black Panther isn’t just a superhero film, and was never meant to be. With all that’s happening in our world, it’s imperative that T’Challa’s story be told, and for black children to see themselves represented and know that change is coming. Someday, the President of the United States won’t be a white supremacist anymore. Someday, they will be the ones to take his spot.
And, for the record, it was simply amazing to finally not see a superhero film that was all testosterone and white guys. Damn.