I don’t know if anyone really cares what a white blogger has to say about Black Panther but hey, I really enjoyed it and I compulsively need you to know, and why.
Everybody acknowledges how crucial this film is, especially now, and especially for the African American community who, in the wake of Trump and his vile retrofit of the GOP, are in very real danger of being marginalised and maligned all over again. That’s a double-edged sword, especially for the virgin adaptation of a relatively unknown IP; like a lead balloon, Black Panther is almost too big to fail.
Luckily, Ryan Coogler’s Marvel debut is good irrespective of the context. Black Panther is a wonderful first showing for black film in the superhero blockbuster arena, brimming with the kind of energy we all guiltily recognise has been biding and building for decades, just waiting for the right conditions to breach and blow the competition out of the water. You need look no further than the Wakandans’ face paint and costumes to see how much time, dedication and artistry went into this royal bonanza. There is simply so much creative expression and imagination in the film that it is both a delight to watch and a shame that, if we’re being honest, racism has held these talents back for so long. In my opinion, the general audience has been ready and waiting for something like this for years, and now that we have it, we need to make sure people see it; not just because it’s culturally significant, but because it’s a fucking good film.
Black Panther is undeniably political, but never ham-fisted or clumsy. Don’t get me wrong- I have all the time in the world for frank cinema about racism, both historical and present, but I think it works to the film’s advantage that the racial component is ancillary to the personal drama of the characters, as well as the world-building and political intrigue of the fantasy state of Wakanda. Instead of labouring the point, Coogler opts to ground the narrative in the unadulterated racial context of the present day, highlighting it where appropriate, but only in service of the story. By acknowledging black reality, but not anchoring the entire film in racial politics, Coogler avoids making ‘the black superhero movie’ and instead makes a superhero movie, with black characters and quintessentially pan-African esthetics and themes. Obviously Black Panther is an explicit response to under-representation, but if we uncomplicate it, it is still, fundamentally, good. I guess what I’m saying is, in a colourless vacuum, Black Panther would still be a fantastic film; it acknowledges its cultural responsibility, but it doesn’t rely on the sour, perennial state of modern Hollywood to leave its mark- it doesn’t ride on the coattails of social justice: it puts in the work and stands on its own hind legs.
By simply presenting the reality, with no lens, undistorted and unpoliticised, Coogler is able to sell an implausible premise and make a controversial, highly pertinent and political subject fun and accessible, without pulling any punches. There are jokes- there are ‘whiteboys’, a Fear of a Black Planet poster (‘Tell ’em ’bout it’) and an explicit reference to slavery, but none of it feels heavy-handed, or forced. Black Panther is prideful, not aggrandised; a celebration looking forward, not a complaint looking back (even though black people are indisputably entitled to feeling aggrieved for the foreseeable future- slavery and segregation is not something we will ever ‘get over’, nor should we). Yes, there are flaws, in the narrative, in the logic of the story, but what gets my back up are the people thinking they can tank the entire message of a two-hundred million dollar leviathan like Black Panther with an internet comment.
Most of the criticism of the film has centred around Wakanda and how, essentially, it is an Africanised inversion of a white-nationalist utopia, with a racially homogenous population, traditionalist values and strictly closed borders. My response would be thus: Wakanda isn’t aggressively insular- it’s simply invisible. The Wakandan ethos may be vague and a little confused, but it is certainly not about racial supremacy- it is a reply to a hypothetical, where a nation, regardless of colour, have singular access to an infinite reserve of magical bloody rocks. Unlike Hungary, or the US, Wakanda didn’t develop in step with the rest of the world, so there is not the same expectation that they participate in the global community. The second major criticism is that the explanation of Wakanda is actually unflattering to African people; the Wakandans didn’t develop at an accelerated rate because of who they are, but because of the pot luck of putting down roots atop a gargantuan deposit of vibranium. Again, this says more about the critics themselves than the film. No, the Wakandans are not more advanced because they’re Wakandan, because race and nationality have nothing to do with intelligence; history is a story of chance. Wakanda is no different- the environmental conditions controlled and ultimately benefited the civilisation, not the other way around. The mindset of people making that argument tells its own story.
Either way, logic in a movie about a prince from an invisible space-age city in the middle of Africa dressing up like a panther and flying around in a UFO is unsurprisingly not important. Vibranium may be a deus ex machina, a shovel for digging Wakanda, T’Challa and his family out of problematic situation after problematic situation, but it is also a powerful metaphor for the rich cultural resources of Africa and its diaspora that have been ignored by the occident and ostracised from the cosmopolitan conversation for so long. Well now, we have Coogler and Boseman and the launchpad for a series of Afrocentric superhero movies that could overtake the Caucasian tentpoles that have dominated the screen for so long. And I couldn’t be more excited.