[My thoughts on the Marvel film Black Panther.]
I have to admit: I was moved by Black Panther, the film right before the final showdown in Avengers: Infinity War. So in terms of where the film fits on the story line, it was an important film, and even though I’m not sure how it fits into the larger universe, I know I will soon enough.
Why did I like the movie? I’m not sure that I can say, immediately at least. It’s something that takes time. Of course, knowing me, you know I liked it for its revolutionary elements, not even just in terms of politics and film, but also the literary qualities as well.
Black Panther certainly had a rich history to pull from. Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Frantz Fanon, James Baldwin, President Obama, Cornel West, Toni Morrison, Ta-Nehisi Coates, August Wilson, others. Black radicals and those who identify as part of the African or African American tradition, have enriched the world of literature and storytelling in a way that one cannot easily ignore. I myself am not as well-versed as I’d like to be, but I’m going to get there, because I want to understand the heritage, even if I am not directly a part of it.
What to make of the themes of revolution in the story? Well, for one thing, I find it inspiring. Revolutions are not always understood. The closest analogue that I have to revolution in my own personal worldview is the philosophical work and impact of Karl Marx. Marx himself was a revolutionary spirit, and I empathize with much of his efforts, even though it ultimately led to something like Soviet Russia, because I want to defend the poor, and fight for the exploited and marginalized.
Of course, I cannot be a part of the heritage of the Black Panthers. Honestly, some of the history is vague to me, when considering that I’ve been assimilated into American culture, even though I am from a Hispanic background, and my family grew up in poverty. I myself did not live in poverty, because my parents provided. But that doesn’t take away the history.
I am taken in by the line of Killmonger, a Malcolm X inspired villain/anti-hero/hero: He wanted to provide weapons from Wakanda to the poor and exploited, to African Americans and Africans. He didn’t want them to suffer. He wanted them to be able to fight back. I very much could empathize with Killmonger and his rage, because if you have been exploited for so long, you cultivate a subtle or less than subtle rage. It becomes a part of you. The desire to fight back. The desire to show them you’re game for violence. Even though I am a pacifist in many, many ways, I understand the point here, which is something that is missed by those with privilege, sometimes including myself: People have always used violence to get their way and control others, and that is exactly the point of white supremacy and white privilege. America is what it is because of the work of slaves and the massacre of American Indians. I don’t forget this, which is why I do my absolute best to pay attention to certain stories needing to be told, such as Black Panther.
The historical precedent, of course, would tell us that Malcolm X was wrong. He was too radical. But while I don’t think violence is the answer, force and revolution have their place in the world. I mean this, in that, we need people like Malcolm X. He is not all the revolution would ever be, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t important to the formation of black identity.
I honestly wish I understood black culture more, there are many reasons why I can relate. I have not always fit inside of a neat category, being both gay and mentally ill. Mental illness has given me a harder time than being gay, though they are both difficult. Being mentally ill is a scourge that follows you forever. You don’t easily fit in in any given situation. You are marginalized for having an atypical system of thought, for delving into something like paranoia or mania.
I mention this not for sympathy, but because I feel as though it allows me to experience certain feelings of alienation from society, that perhaps black people feel as well and have felt for a long time. This doesn’t mean that I am immediately a part of the tradition, though I have experienced similar feelings of ostracism. Indeed, I do know what it feels like, to be treated as though you are inferior, a mere second-class citizen. And for reasons like this, I see Black Panther as being important. It shines a light on various systematic troubles in our society, and it helps me to pay attention to what is going on in other cultures.
I was moved by the rage of Killmonger, and that is because I feel as though such emotions are important to acknowledge. In our society, we are expected to take what we are given, we are expected to turn the other cheek, but this is not how life operates, and this is not how those in power operate. All of these details are incredibly important to keep in mind, even if we don’t agree with them. I can imagine people might disagree with the conclusions of the movie Black Panther, but that is by no means a reflection of the truth, but rather the biases that we already have. I have learned that in art and in life, we don’t always try to understand merely what we like. We try to also understand counter perspectives. This is extremely crucial to a functioning democracy.
And what about the characterization of Black Panther himself? Well, he was the antidote to violence, even though he would fight for what he felt was right. His position is also immediately recognizable, in that he believed in peace, and that he was very much like Martin Luther King. Stuff like this is extremely important to keep in mind. There must be counterpoints to all the things that we believe, and that includes the stoicism of Black Panther himself to the violence of Killmonger.
I was really impressed at the technical achievements of the film as well, the fact that it was a well-done movie, the fact that the story line was solid, the fact that it was an important story to tell and was well-told. All of these elements, the fact that they were able to have an all-black cast, with a black director, leads to something truly revolutionary, and a story that must be told.
I agree with Chadwick Boseman: there are stories that we must tell, and we must be cognizant of when it is the right time to tell them. I have respect for these characters and these actors, because they help to shine a light on very important ideas, whether that focuses on revolution, or the way in which black children are displaced by a violent and oppressive culture.
I was really surprised at the underlying optimism of this dark story. This includes the ending, which had kids being able to experience the technology of Wakanda. The Black Panther was going to reveal the technology to society, to make the world a better place. I honestly was expecting, because of how I had seen other movies being portrayed in the MCU, this film to be very high-stakes, with a kind of built in cynicism and doubt. Maybe this is just me projecting, but regardless, the film was actually very hopeful and even optimistic, and it presented alternatives to the society that we have now, something that I find to be both beautifully done and crucially important. We do not get carried away by thinking that everything is how it is going to be, for that is the very spirit of revolution: we believe we can change the world, that society will progress, and we act on such principles, never giving up.
In summary, I would certainly say, this is an important film, even if it is perceived as being superhero fluff, so to speak. But I personally have been very moved by this film, and I think that it does a lot of what the film should do, what good storytelling should do: it should help us to see the world in a different light, to see the world from the perspective of somebody else, in this case, black America, and Africa. I know that this is hard to do, but this is why we need art. Art is able to show us what we need, and what we can have, if only we are willing to fight for it, to keep trying, to keep progressing. People are malleable, and we have to be able to inspire them to live in the world more compassionately and with more awareness, and have empathy for those who are suffering and are exploited. So I would say, this movie moved me precisely because it showed an important perspective that I don’t always see, but that I certainly want to be aware of, and that I know exists. Whether you side more with Malcolm X or Martin Luther King, is your choice, but just be aware: you are making your choice, and you can save the world.