By Marina Brafa
Black Panther is one of the hottest movie tickets around. But let’s be honest. Black Panther is a fairly conventional superhero film in the Marvel Universe. The plot mixes a bit of everything to please the crowds: romance, action, politics and moral lessons. However, in contrast to other Marvel movies, Black Panther puts stronger emphasis on political and social issues than its predecessors. Sure, there is still the hint of a love story and exciting car chases through the streets of Seoul, but these scenes are the weaker ones in a generally good film. They seem to be relics of a time when superhero movies still had to stick to strict patterns with regards to content and aesthetics.
The movie opens with visually stunning views of the East African nation of “Wakanda,” a high-tech society still connected to its ancient tribal roots and folkloric culture. One of the characters calls it “El Dorado,” alluding to the hidden kingdom sought out for its gold reserves by foreign adventurers. And Wakanda is one hell of a gem: a blend of modernity and unspoiled beauty, tucked away from other parts of the world with a precious horde of “vibranium.” This extremely valuable material, when used for good, can fuel, heal and power practically everything and is therefore of huge interest to others.
Here is where the problems start for Wakanda. The country pretends to be poor and “less developed.” However, the obligatory greedy villain of the plot (Andy Serkis) knows about the “vibranium” and tries to get his share of it to use for evil purposes, of course.
That’s not the only challenge Wakanda faces. Internal turmoil threatens to tear apart the allied tribes after the death of Wakanda’s king T’Chaka. His son and new king T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) starts to question his beloved father when he discovers a dark secret T’Chaka has kept for decades. The secret (no spoilers, promise) almost destroys Wakanda and raises questions of morality. What makes a “good king”? Were all decisions made by the old king “good”? It is up to T’Challa to find out the answers.
T’Challa’s journey is therefore one of reflection and self-discovery, with the action often taking place elsewhere, making Black Panther different from other action heroes. The impenetrable black suit conceals a sensitive kitten rather than a fierce panther. This is why T’Challa heavily depends on the support of four female characters on his quest: his mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett), his sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), and two women, Okoye (Danai Gurira) and Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o), who fight for him in Wakanda’s special armed forces, the Dorja Milaje.
We are well into the review and yet I have not touched upon the one thing everyone has been talking about when it comes to Black Panther: its nearly all-black cast. This is an important element of the movie and the main reason it sparks such enthusiasm worldwide among critics and viewers. Is this Marvel film a story of the Black Panthers, or just one Black Panther? Does it have the ability to empower black communities?
Yes and no. For sure it was a long overdue step to shoot such a big-budget action film in which almost the entire cast consists of actors of color. But Black Panther does more than just star black actors, the film tries to show a diverse range of black communities. However, the representation of these communities - the plural is important here - is more complex than many viewers might want to acknowledge. The movie was shot on locations in the U.S., Argentina and South Korea, the director and screenwriter Ryan Coogler and his co-writer Joe Robert Cole are African-Americans and the lead actors were raised in the U.S., England or Africa. This, in a way, reflects far more diversity of black or African communities than audiences are used to. Yet, paradoxically, Black Panther still focuses on U.S. American Black culture and represents African Black culture from this point of view.
Beyond the cast and settings, the plot opens up a binary division between African and African-American cultures. Representing the latter is Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), a Wakandan by birth who lost ties to his ancestors’ origins and has instead been formed by the place where he grew up: Oakland, California. Logically, he was influenced by Black American culture. The division between the two continents is represented by the characters’ outfits and by the music that accompanies their screen time. The Wakandan characters wear tribal clothes with designs that derive from several African groups (readers, please excuse my lack of knowledge here), Killmonger sports what one might call blipster or hip hop clothing. Wakanda and its characters are supported by a drum-based score, Killmonger is prefigured by a catchy soundtrack curated by none other than Kendrick Lamar. Language equally serves as a dividing cultural marker. Members of the Wakandan tribes speak English with various African accents whereas Killmonger clearly speaks Black American vernacular.
A closer look at the female characters in particular reveals another binary in the film world: old-fashioned gender roles. Women appear strong in certain settings, most of them traditionally female-gendered. They are clever and can fight, no doubt. But in the end, their task is to support T’Challa. Nakia and Okoye literally stand next to him to protect him, or behind him in front of the United Nations. T’Challa is surrounded by gifted women all along but still remains the center. Pretty conservative, I would say. Do not get me wrong, Black Panther is a step in the right direction, especially since it introduces questions of race into mainstream cinema. But for now, the panther is still a kitten waiting to grow to its full size (and potential). To be continued for sure.