Reviews

'Black Panther' Turns Repeatedly to Women for Better Judgment

Lupita Nyong'o and Letitia Wright in Black Panther (2018) (© 2017 - Disney/Marvel Studios / IMDB)

Will it take the Black Panther world as long as it's taken every other white comic book hero world to build itself around wondrous women?

Black Panther
Ryan Coogler

Marvel Studios

15 Feb 2018

Other
"Our thoughts turn to the heroes of the civil rights movement whose courage and sacrifices have really totally inspired us all. From the pews to the picket lines, African-American civil rights champions have brought out the best in us." -- Donald Trump, on Black History Month, 2018

"It's about representation in front of and behind the camera. We need to move more and more toward our storytelling reflecting the population of the world we actually live in." -- Lupita Nyong'o

"Wakanda the Vote"

"I found my calling," says Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o), "Out there." It's early in Black Panther, and Nakia is explaining to her ex, T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman), why she's reluctant to return to Wakanda, the wondrous Afrofuturist nation where he's the king. By "out there" Nakia means here, the world of the African continent that doesn't share in Wakanda's wealth, advanced technologies, and security. Here, in a world that resembles ours, she's on a mission to save children who've been kidnapped by a warlord. Here, in a world she embraces, she defies the past and means to change the future. "There are too many in need," she says, "We need to share what we have."

At this moment, T'Challa doesn't understand. Following the death of his father, he believes his calling is to keep Wakanda hidden from the very world where Nakia lives and works. He has traditions to preserve, rituals to follow, and resources to protect. Like most comic book heroes during their origin stories, he's going to learn that his calling isn't quite what he thinks. Nakia is only the first to voice and embody the challenge to T'Challa's assumptions. It's not long before his 16-year-old sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) also makes the case: he needs to catch up with the world beyond Wakanda, to take part in it, to use his great powers to great effects.

Yet another voice chimes in, when Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) enters the film. He does this, aptly, in a scene where he appears to be appraising artifacts in a London museum. After not quite listening to the resident white lady museum director (Francesca Faridany) list tribe names and dates she associates with these artifacts, he stops her, then steals the axe he knows is made of Vibranium (the Wakandan metal alloy that powers all the super-tech). His action is brutal and deadly, assisted by the terminally pissed off Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), sporting a weaponized prosthetic arm that's powered by Vibranium. The camera swings around the sterile museum interior, underlining the cold precision of the villains' aim even as they create chaos and one-up one another.

Like Nakia, Erik has experienced the world "out there", and now rejects T'Challa's pledge to keep Wakanda secret and safe. But Erik's desire to expand Wakanda's reach takes an opposite form. He's come of age in Oakland, he's seen and committed lethal violence, trained as a US black ops soldier. As Erik and T'Challa take up their collision course, Black Panther follows a familiar trajectory. Scene by scene, each man prepares, putting together forces and weapons: while Erik connives with Klaue so that he can get inside Wakanda , T'Challa walks through Shuri's lab, as she Q-splains each gadget she's devised to help him traverse and survive the world "out there".

Chadwick Boseman and Lupita Nyong'o in Black Panther (2018)(IMDB)

What makes these particular converging paths a bit different from the usual comic book plot is that Erik is at least partly right: he wants to save the world out there, to reorder the hierarchies, to bring his community into power. Like T'Challa, he tends to view options in zero sum terms. He describes his plan this way: "The world's going to start over and this time we're on top." This means the colonizers (the system in place in the world outside Wakanda) must be driven to the bottom, destroyed and renounced. He means to "burn it all".

T'Challa can't abide this solution, of course. He's a comic book hero king, regal and thoughtful -- at least when he's not crashing cars and taking out bad guys in his new Shuri-designed Black Panther suit. Beneath that suit, though, T'Challa is a black man who's quite aware of the conditions that give rise to Erik's grievances. This makes his relationship to Erik's struggle and demands somewhat complicated. Erik's not just a madman. He's got ideas, and history to frame those ideas. He's got an allegiance to a community that looks like T'Challa's. Some of these difficulties come to the surface because of T'Challa's conversations with his dead father, T'Chaka (John Kani), staged on the ancestral plane, a mystical magical site where multiple generations and animal avatars gather and observe the present, and sometimes offer advice to visitors like T'Challa. This respect for history includes some admissions of deceits: history can be revised, and it can be wrong.

Amid some imperfect special effects and some formulaic friendships, the movie's many men -- T'Challa, T'Chaka, Erik, T'Challa's CIA agent friend Ross (Martin Freeman), and his onetime rival for the Wakanda throne, M'Kabu (Winston Duke) -- hash out their disagreements over a righteous course. But Black Panther turns repeatedly to women for better judgment, for more nuanced thinking. Nakia's insistence on the need to help the world "out there" is exactly the point. She sees it, Shuri sees it, and so too do T'Chall's mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett) and General Okoye (Danai Gurire), leader of the Dora Milaje, the women who serve as the king's bodyguards. (Their training rivals that of Erik, under US military auspices, only the women do their specialized work with super-charged spears and shields.)

While the sensational women of Wakanda have understandably earned attention from the film's viewers and critics, their brilliance in this man's story is only a first step in rethinking the genre in relation to the world out there. At least one of these has to do with a speech T'Challa makes late in the film, extolling the importance of cross-community work and vision. "The wise," he says, "build bridges while the foolish build barricades." Right. Beyond Wakanda, in the world out there, a few next steps are already in motion, including the "Wakanda the Vote" movement, for which activists mean to sign up voters for the upcoming US election.

Out there also lie any number of stories that might yet be told, remembered and invented. If the men of this film align with others in the comic book universe currently making its way to TV and movies, a universe featuring Luke Cage and Black Lightning, they also might understand that Thunder is an integral part of that universe. So too is Nakia. Late in Black Panther, Ramonda asks Nakia why she doesn't take on the superheroic powers that T'Challa has (as these are available by drinking a magical Wakanadan herb tea). The film doesn't provide her with a convincing reason for not doing so, and that leaves open questions. Will it take the Black Panther world as long as it's taken every other white comic book hero world to build itself around wondrous women? The film focuses on how this black king comes to be woke through his interactions with women (and Erik, to be sure). Might another film have focused on how Nakia came to this state, how she is able to teach the king, so in need of her counsel?

As we ask these questions, we might also make answers. It's a calling waiting to be found out there.

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