Superhero movies are extremely popular these days, in part because today’s real news reports remind us, constantly, about societal dangers, even in so-called ‘safe’ communities.
Released midway through Black History Month, Black Panther is more than just a box office shattering movie. Adapted from the first black comic book superhero from 1966, Black Panther features a 90% black cast, black writers, and a black director.
Storyline (Be advised that the following presents some spoilers):
Under King T’Chaka, the nation of Wakanda uses the metal vibranium to develop highly-advanced technology while isolating themselves from the rest of the world. When T'Chaka dies, his son T'Challa returns home to serve as the country’s new leader. However, T'Challa soon finds that he is challenged for the throne from factions within his own family.
T’Challa’s cousin, “Killmonger,” is a Wakadan by blood and an American by birth. Born and raised in California, Killmonger experienced both oppression and deep racism in American society. Knowing that Wakanda is a prosperous country, he returns to challenge T’Challa for the throne, making a case that vibranium should not be kept hidden. “Two billion people all over the world who look like us, whose lives are much harder, and Wakanda has the tools to liberate them all,” he says.
As Killmonger seeks global liberation of blacks, T’Challa dawns the entity of the Black Panther to prevent a war and save his people. Ultimately, the way forward for Wakanda isn’t found in the opinions of either man, but rather the views of Nakia, a Wakandan spy and humanitarian who is aware of the impact Wakanda’s resources could have on many lives around the world.
Black Panther is more than a super hero movie and viewer don’t need to probe for its message. It is succinctly summarized in T’Challa’s closing monologue:
“Wakanda will no longer watch from the shadows. We cannot. We must not. We will work to be an example of how we, as brothers and sisters on this earth, should treat each other. Now, more than ever, the illusions of division threaten our very existence. We all know the truth: More connects us than separates us. But in times of crisis, the wise build bridges while the foolish build barriers. We must find a way to look after one another, as if we were one single tribe.”
Why has this movie generated more buzz than other Marvel films? After all, it’s just another superhero movie, isn’t it? To a young child, the answer may be “yes.” To them, superheroes are colorless; they are judged predominantly by the coolness of their costumes and the ferocity of their superpowers. That’s it; end of story. However, Black Panther is much more, and it goes beyond the pre-dominantly black casting.
The film touches on many issues, such as the struggle to reconcile one’s cultural history with the modern world. It places an emphasis on diaspora and the feeling of being isolated from one’s heritage and homeland.
In today’s racially charged America, even a superhero movie can become a flashpoint as an opportunity to reflect on the past and imagine a future inspired by Wakanda’s black utopianism. The world is becoming increasingly globalized; it is no longer possible to take a hands-off approach. The natural resources and citizens of other countries have the potential to be an ongoing asset to both the US and the world. The question is not how to build bans and barriers; T’Challa comes to see such limitations never work. We must develop international relations that are built on mutual cooperation, not fear and racism. How would we treat the Wakandans, were they to exist? Would we respond the same as we do other immigrants from places we identify as third world countries? Would we treat them as we do black Americans? Would we respect them to the extent that their technological advances are of use to us? Or would we treat them as human beings deserving of our respect with unique ideas and efforts to offer?
International relations also begs the question of how other countries view us here in America. Do they see our mistreatment of minorities and shake their heads? Do they fear us because of it? Although they themselves are a single-race country, the Wakandans don’t understand the pervasive racism of the US. As a U.S. citizen, Killmonger is able to see the issues clearly but his heritage gives him insight to what a more equal society can be.
In Black Panther, the stereotypes and limitations placed on black Americans is juxtaposed with the prosperity and capability of the Wakandans. When given the resources to succeed (in this case, vibranium), the Wakandans are able to succeed and even surpass much of the world. Shouldn’t this idea apply in real life?
Against the backdrop of President Trump's outrageous “shithole countries” comment and the general harshness of today's discourse, I encourage readers to see Black Panther and imagine what might have been – and what still can be. We can learn a lot from the film -- despite differences, despite your national origin, despite privileges or lack thereof, and despite race, gender, or culture, each of us is human; each individual should be treated equally, if we are to build a better world. Obviously, it will take much more than a Marvel superhero movie to get us where we need to be. But, we must continue to try, to destroy perceptions that people of color are, somehow, inferior, and acknowledge that equality and fair play for all, regardless of religion, race, or economic background.
Like Wakanda, America is strong enough to protect itself and help others globally get an opportunity for a better future. Isn’t that a part of what it means to be American?