What I'm Watching: Black Panther
Whenever I heard someone say how excited they were for “Black Panther” because it looked cool, I was quick to reply with “I’m excited about this movie because of how important it is,” which usually got a perplexed look in response. Now, I will not claim to have read the comic books but basic knowledge of the character, his world, and the time he was introduced in the Marvel Universe meant I knew without having picked up a single issue that the Black Panther was revolutionary. A black African warrior royal from the most technologically advanced country in the world came into being in the 1960s – hence his moniker – presenting a much different picture of the continent than was known at that time and arguably still imagined by even those who sit in the highest seats of government today. It was the age of the Civil Rights Movement in America and the age of apartheid in countries like South Africa. In terms of the film itself, this is a major motion picture with a huge studio budget written by, directed by, and staring black talent hailing from several countries across the globe. That in and of itself is unprecedented. The Black Panther was important then for how groundbreaking he was and he’s important now. Maybe more so than I anticipated before I sat down to watch this film.
Blank Panther starts with a flashback to 1992 in Oakland, California to discover Wakanda has spies, wardogs, living in all parts of the world to monitor the state of civilization outside their homeland and that sometimes, they don’t always follow the rules of secrecy. Jump to a week after the events of Captain America: Civil War, providing the audience with a reminder that T’Chaka, T’Challa’s (Chadwick Boseman) father and king of Wakanda, was a victim of the attack on the United Nations summit for the Sakovia Accords. It also reminds us of how Wakanda is seen by the world stage at this point: an isolationist third-world country of farmers. When we pass through the protective shield built around the nation’s capital city, that is clearly not the case. Because a virbranium meteor crashed into the heart of Africa where Wakanda now stands, the tribes of the nation were able to use their resources for advancement in technology, medicine, and weaponry. We learn that traditions are also upheld when T’Challa must face a challenger from another tribe in order to secure the crown of his father and that along with the precious metal that runs through the earth beneath them, T’Challa also has access to the heart-shaped herb that grants him increased strength and accelerated healing abilities. All that is well and good but let’s get to the heart of the story.
T’Challa’s ascension to the throne after his father’s death provides the people of Wakanda the choice of maintaining their way of life as they have always led it apart from everyone else reserving their wealth of resources as well as their wealth of knowledge for themselves lest the outside world seek to take it from them, or serve as an example of progress for the rest of the world by providing aid to those in need. The old ways of their parents and the others on the ancestral plane protected them for centuries while war raged on beyond their borders but as the rest of the world is catching up, it may be in their best interest to lead the way as argued by some of T’Challa’s closest friends and advisors. But there are those who seek to maintain tradition and among them is T’Chaka’s memory living in T’Challa’s mind and in his heart. But there’s no such thing as a perfect man or the perfect role model, not even for a hero like the Black Panther.
T’Challa recognizes a ring that Erik (Michael B. Jordan) wears around his neck as identical to his late father’s ring when they encounter each other in Busan and discovers the truth of his uncle’s betrayal – and of his own father’s shame. N’Jobu (Sterling K. Brown), a native of Wakanda and brother to T’Chaka , had been swayed from his traditional Wakandan practices of noninvolvement after falling in love with an American woman and witnessing for years the struggles of the less fortunate in the United States, particularly African Americans while possessing the knowledge that the people of his own nation could very easily help to ease their suffering and overthrow their oppressors. When N’Jobu makes the mistake of pulling a gun on one of his fellow countrymen, T’Chaka kills his own brother and leaves behind his young nephew, N’Jadaka (Erik), to grow up alone in the society his father sought to change. When Erik makes it to Wakanda using Klaue as his entry visa at border control, he exercises his right as a member of the royal family to challenge T’Challa for the throne. He wins. And he seeks to carry out his father’s plan of overthrowing the “colonizers” to the extreme before having to face T’Challa again among infighting between the nation’s tribes.
When we know that Black Panther is the titular hero, it’s easy to say that Erik Killmonger is the villain, and on a surface level, you’d be right. But what I took from Black Panther is that it’s not so much a battle between Good and Evil so much as it is about which is the best way to find balance in our own personal worlds and the world at large. T’Challa grew up idolizing his father, believing that he was a fair and just king to his people and Erik believed his own father to be a man seeking equality and justice for all. Both young men have, in a sense, had their fathers stolen from them and in that loss, they seek to step into their respective shoes and become even greater versions of them but their methods are what put them on opposite sides of the spectrum and their methods are shaped by their experiences. Coincidentally, on the way to the theater, I was having a discussion with my friend Brandon on the justifications of the Japanese for their actions during World War II. Many believed that in occupying the countries of Asia and Oceania, they were aiding the peoples native to those lands in throwing off the yoke up European and American subjugation and exploitation; bringing all peoples of Asian origin back into the fold so to speak. Instead, the Japanese themselves became the oppressors forcing the people of their conquered lands into slave labor, concentration camps, and into their graves. They were in fact, no better than the white men they hated so much and were arguably far worse. A similar point is made to Erik when he proposes using the Wakandan spies already in place armed with vibranium weapons to start a revolution to free the two billion people around the world from their circumstances. He knows how the “colonizers” operate, but in fighting like them, he becomes like them. T’Challa and the elders of Wakanda, to me, can be likened to the United States and their isolationist policy during both the beginning of World War I and World War II. It wasn’t their problem until it was at their doorstep. Both parties can learn from each other and in the end, it can be said that they do since it is after his initial battle with Erik that T’Challa finally decides the kind of man and the kind of king he wants to be for himself, for his country, and for the world.
So why is this so important now? It is 2018 and the racial and social divide that motivates N’Jobu and later his son Erik is invisible only to those who chose not to see it even in the most “developed” countries all over the world. And the same argument of how to go about seeking balance and equality remains as it has for centuries. The movie presents us with three choices:
Use your resources to take power from others like King N’Jadaka.
Keep your resources to yourself to benefit and protect your own like King T’Chaka.
Share your resources to build a better world one for everyone like King T’Challa.
In this argument, I don’t define resources as only that which can have a quantitative value. It also means knowledge, time, and compassion. As Erik so rightly points out, life began in Africa, and as T’Challa preaches, we have more in common than we have differences. We’re all essentially, from the same human tribe. Maybe it’s time we started acting like it. What kind of king (or queen) are you going to be?