Comic Review Written and Drawn by David Yoder
Black Panther: The Price of Privilege
Written Review by David Carter
What do you stand for?
Are you a activist? What are your city plans for?
Are you a accident? Are you just in the way?
Your native tongue contradictin’ what your body language say
Are you a king or you jokin’? Are you a king or you posin’?
Are you a king or you smokin’ bud rocks to keep you open?
Because the king don’t cry, king don’t die
King don’t lie, king give heart, king get by, king don’t fall
Kingdom come, when I come, you know why
King, king, king, king
-Kendrick Lamar, “Black Panther”
I Am T’Challa
I think privilege is something people in most walks of life in contemporary society have to contend with. There obviously exists a hierarchy of privilege in which rich, old, able-bodied, cisgender white men sit comfortably on top, but I’m talking the privilege and power structures that exist in communities that don’t have to contend with such a factor. Like, imagine the make up of a society in which there existed only one race of people. Where at a glance, it looked as if the standard of living for all people was incredibly high and gender dynamics seemed to have women on equal footing. What would the privilege and power dynamics look like in a society that’s utopian by most other cultures standards? What would the responsibilities of a leader in that society look like when they had their own internal politics to contend with along with the knowledge that an entire world of their descendants didn’t have anywhere near the same privileges as even the lowliest member of their society?
What if that leader was considered conservative by those very people even though they were trying to do what seemed right for their nation?
It came as a shock to me as I sat in a nearly full theater on a Saturday morning that a Disney movie, based off a character created by two Jewish men for children’s enjoyment, was daring to not only ask these questions but to delve into them with a depth and nuance I personally hadn’t seen since watching Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing for the first time over 15 years ago.
I was not shocked, however, that the movie was guided so deftly by the hand that made the tense but empathetic Fruitvale Station and operatic and socially relevant Creed. Ryan Coogler seems to inherently possess the type of craft-focused, thoughtful, yet commercially surface level filmmaking we associate with giants like Spielberg or Scorsese. And like those two filmmakers he’s already knocking it out of the park playing in the big leagues at such a young age (he’s 31 right now and that thought alone is enough to send me into an existential shame spiral) and keeping his voice intact in a way that’s rare for emerging filmmakers to do in this increasingly producer and I.P. driven film industry. If you were to pinpoint one of two meta-narratives* within this film you would see that Coogler is probably feeling the weight of shouldering the responsibility of putting the first major (i.e. scale, size, and impact) work of Afrofuturism on the screen with a predominantly black cast. “Heavy is the head the wears the crown” as they say, but not only is Coogler able carry that weight, he flexes and has the movie be unabashedly about the effects of colonialism and American imperialism on the diaspora and the responsibility of the privileged (be it black or white) to not only combat those influences but to tear up the toxicity that has entwined itself into the roots. What could the story of a movie this bold be in the first place?
Black Panther is the 18th Marvel movie, but outside of the prerequisite tie-ins to the Universe at large, it functions like the beginning of its own glorious epic franchise. The story is about prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman, reprising a role he seemed destined to play) of the isolationist but secretly centuries advanced nation of Wakanda, becoming king T’Challa after the passing of his father T’Chaka in Captain America: Civil War. The initial conflict of the film is bringing to justice one of the only men to see Wakanda for what it really was, Ulysses Klaue (a sentient honey baked ham taking the shape of actor Andy Serkis) who robbed Wakanda of a portion of its Vibranium. Wakanda’s miracle resource in which a large portion of its technology is developed from (for the nerds out there it’s stronger than Adamantium and serves a hell of lot more purposes than just “strong” and “sharp”), but that conflict is a trojan horse for the real villain of the film. The sexy, sweet and savage Michael B. Jordan struts in with his future Best Supporting Actor nominated Erik “Killmonger” Stevens. This character is the beating heart of Black Panther but I’ll give him his due later. Suffice it to say the movie becomes a battle about idea’s between Killmonger, T’Challa, and the people of Wakanda. Those very ideas forever changing the shape of Wakanda and the world at large.
The ideas that this movie is presenting aren’t something as simple or wrongly reductive as the perceived ideals of “The Black Revolutionary” vs. “The Black Pacifist.” It’s tackling an issue bigger than that. One that starts at the doorstep of the tradition that T’Challa is simultaneously burdened with upholding and somehow expanding.
The thing about tradition and isolationism is that these are inherently conservative ideas. They both literally conserve and hermetically seal the makeup of a culture so that it can’t be influenced (for better or for worse) by other cultures or ideals. When conservatism gets brought up within the black community (or perhaps more accurately, the televised depiction of the black community) it always becomes a conversation about respectability politics or as beautifully illustrated by Key and Peele, jokes about…well see for yourself
T’Challa stands as a poster child for conservatism, but he’s not ignorant of the world. He knows that things should be done to help others outside of Wakanda, but he’s beholden to the elders of Wakanda, people who sit above him in the hierarchy of privilege. He, can’t afford to take risks and part of him doesn’t see a need to take risks. His people seem happy and he feels like he’s honoring his ancestors before him, but this way of thinking is slightly delusional. Those around him (mostly those coming from a much younger generation than the elders) feel differently about how Wakanda should proceed forward with its new future. His security advisor and best friend W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya, who even in this movie, gives the best side-eye in cinematic history) thinks they should be using their military might to resolve the ever-increasing number of refugees and civil wars that encroach their borders by intervening in those conflicts. Nakia (played by Lupita Nyongo in a refreshingly high profile live action role) who is a spy and former lover of T’Challa thinks that Wakanda is strong enough to protect its heritage and lend a helping hand to those in need outside of their sphere. She even walks the walk by taking insanely dangerous missions to help liberate human trafficked women and children who aren’t Wakandan citizens. Then there’s the wonderful and magnetic princess Shuri (Letitia Wright who should be running the table in Hollywood in a few years, if there’s any justice), who has never bought into Wakada’s isolationist attitudes and enjoys/assimilates the gifts that black diasporic culture has to offer into her own incredible inventions. She’s pop culturally savvy in a way makes her on guard for the dangers of colonialism, but celebratory of its joy. Her mere presence and ribbing of T’Challa for being so old-fashioned is enough to illustrate what the future could look like if they opened up as a nation.
T’Challa is a benevolent king and he sees and hears these possible ways to move forward with kind thoughtfulness but has the privilege to divert attention to what he sees as more pressing concerns: finding and bring Klaue to justice.
That’s until Erik “Killmonger” Stevens cracks and shatters the mantle of T’Challa’s world.
Fuck integrity, fuck your pedigree, fuck your feelin’s, fuck your culture
Fuck your moral, fuck your family, fuck your tribe
Fuck your land, fuck your children, fuck your wives
Who am I? Not your father, not your brother
Not your reason, not your future
Not your comfort, not your reverence, not your glory
Not your heaven, not your angel, not your spirit
Not your message, not your freedom
Not your people, not your neighbor
Not your baby, not your equal
Not the title y’all want me under
-Kendrick Lamar, “Kings Dead”
All Hail King Killmonger
There’s a recurring motif in Black Panther where after whoever attains the title of Black Panther through ritualistic combat, must undergo a ceremony where they are granted enhanced strength, speed, agility, and senses by imbibing a plant called “The Heart Shaped Herb.” The plant itself not only grants these gifts but also sends the imbiber on an ayahuasca like vision quest to commune with their ancestors. For T’Challa, he is granted a vision of all the previous Black Panthers including his father T’Chaka, all on a very Daughters of the Dust styled African savannah. T’Challa is able to talk to and take counsel with his father concerning whether he is doing the right thing as king. T’Challa has strong roots to his heritage and an even stronger foundation with his father for whom he thinks is a man who could do no wrong. It’s a touching scene. One that comes full circle when he once again speaks to his father after finding out that T’Chaka was no saint, and had to make tough and ultimately damaging choices for the good of his kingdom.
However, when we see Killmonger go on his journey it’s a scene so many black youths and adults in the audience recognized. A small apartment in an urban landscape (here, it’s Oakland) adorned with all the makeup of his youth intact. The ethereal shimmer of the savannah still present but outside the window, looking as if it was a million miles away. This is his heritage. The only world he has a connection to, one that is small and as boxed-in as he feels in the world. His roots are lost to the effects of a western world that has practiced divide and conquer with overwhelming success.
There sitting in front of him is his father N’Jobu (played by future Oscar winner Sterling K. Brown). A man that he had so little time with but learned so much from. He learned about the inequality of the world and the struggle to change it. He learned about his heritage and how he descends from royalty and that there exists a place that’s as whimsical and farfetched sounding as a magic kingdom headlined by a talking mouse. The film cuts from Killmonger as a man filled with nothing but rage to him becoming a child again as he listens to his father speak. It’s a visual rhyme with Coogler’s other work Creed, in which we see young Adonis Creed unclench his balled up fist when someone shows him a bit of compassion and guidance. This, to be personal, is the part of the movie that struck the loudest chord for me. I would hear the same sentiments from my father growing up. He would constantly say “you have the blood of kings and queens running through your veins” and much like Killmonger, all I could take that statement as was a fairytale. I lived in midwest America, the closest thing to black royalty I knew growing up was Michael Jackson, Oprah, and Michael Jordan. I couldn’t grasp at that age or with so much societal conditioning that he was trying to tell me about a heritage that was filled with success, grace, power, and ownership. But, I grew up in good circumstances. Killmonger and thousands of other kids like him did not, and that fairytale burned and turned to ashes in their mouths when they saw how the world at large treats people like themselves. So they lash out and start to find their own path to making that power they think is a myth into a reality, but all they know are the exact same tools as those who put them and their people in this place. They think they’re just playing the game. That’s exactly what Killmonger does.
It’s why Martin Freeman’s Everett K. Ross character is so important to the overall thematic content of the film. He is the token white guy there to realize why he should help the Wakandans protect their way of life and the world at large, but he’s also the stand-in for American Imperialism. He knows the playbook Killmonger is playing out of, so he can explain that to those not in the know. He also has to stand and watch in horror what that playbook looks like in action. Most people like Ross can only intellectualize this stuff, it’s different when your own empathy comes into play. Your point of view shifts dramatically.
Killmonger knows a version of Disney World exists and he has the intelligence and tools to strip it bare for his own means and replace that big dumb mouse with himself (this metaphor might be getting away from me). He’s the antithesis of everything T’Challa stands for. Right down to the sentiment of what using your for a greater good means. This is where the ill thought out MLK/Malcolm X reads of the movie come into play, but the movie is striving for something way more nuanced than “preservation of values” vs “kill whitey”/”Killmonger was right.” It’s about pulling those infected roots from the soil and laying a new foundation completely.
I am T’challa. I am Killmonger. One World. One God. One Family
I brought up Do the Right Thing earlier for a very specific reason. The reason being how people tend to miss the point of the film completely when it comes to the actions of the lead character Mookie (played by Spike Lee himself). He’s been told by Da Mayor to “always do the right thing” in a super tossed-off manner (Da Mayor is an alcoholic and is probably a little drunk at this point) but they are the wisest words delivered in the movie (I mean, look at the title). But, this isn’t a morality tale for Mookie (he’s as complicated of character as you could ask) it’s kind of one for the audience. When the melting pot turned pressure cooker of a microcosm that is this Brooklyn neighborhood finally explodes, we see Mookie make a decision to essentially pour gasoline on an already raging fire by tossing a trash can through a window. However, we also see this righteous fire snuffed out only a few minutes later when two of the cops on the scene decide to make their own decision: to take the life of someone in the neighborhood when they posed little to no threat. I’m being vague for people who haven’t seen this incredible film (you should honestly stop reading and go put it on now) but what I’m trying to say is that those two decisions were generally met with one question from a lot of viewers: “why did Mookie throw that trash can?” but almost never do they ask “why did the cops take a life?” If you watch the movie or are even vaguely conscious of the world around, you know exactly why Mookie threw the trash can. It’s much harder to ask yourself why would somebody with that type of power take a life that they didn’t have to take. It’s about looking at the power structures and institutions set in place and questioning the very foundation they are built on, and if the foundation is faulty: you build a new foundation.
T’Challa effectively starts asking the right questions
Yes, Killmonger was right. The diaspora is in peril and it has been for a long time. The powers need to be tipped steeply back in its favor. We effectively know why he throws his metaphorical trash can and he is more than justified in throwing it. His only flaw was playing a game that was badly designed to begin with. One that almost left a mighty nation and his heritage in ruins. The movie also isn’t letting the (white) audience off the hook by having a worldwide uprising be halted with the help of a reformed white man (this is grossly reductive thinking). T’Challa is not the hero of the film, Killmonger is. Because Killmonger forces T’Challa to gaze into the ugly void of subjugation and makes him move to real action. You can only imagine how shook T’Challa would be after hearing a man’s final dying words be, “Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from ships, ’cause they knew death was better than bondage.” He decides to start putting his resources into places where they’re needed. Not rescuing one black child at a time, but a whole generation of them. This isn’t about creating another isolated community of black folks either. This is about effectively changing the entire game that’s been played for centuries and he’s writing the rules.
It’s why the final scene of the movie takes place at the United Nations. T’Challa sees what good he could do for the world. When the cynical UN rep asks what Wakanda can possibly offer the world, T’Challa smirks. Not just because of the irony of the statement but because he not only is holding all the cards. He’s completely redesigning the deck.
*I couldn’t find a way to fit this into the piece organically, but this movie serves as a meta Rocky 3 riff. It pretty much has all the same beats and structure as that film. The protagonist starts the movie off as the golden boy to lose it all when someone who has lived a truly intense life (rightfully) takes the championship, after taking the life of the protagonist’s mentor. Not to mention the racial subtext between protagonist and antagonist (in Black Panther, T’Challa is both Rocky and Apollo). The protagonist has to then go on a journey both spiritual and physical to become the people’s champ once again. The meta part of the equation comes to play out within the audience. T’Challa is our people’s champ going into the movie simply by existing. He steals much of Captain America: Civil War sure, but even in that movie he doesn’t have a traditional arc. He’s pretty much a fully formed character at the point we meet him. My take anyway.