I’m not really into Marvel superhero genre movies so when the buzz about Black Panther started heating up, I thought how cool is that to have such a film that’s portrayed by an all-black cast. Other than that, I shrugged until the movie was released. But then I started hearing commentary that this wasn’t your average superhero movie. When I began to hear words like ‘colonization’ and ‘systemic injustice’ it alerted me that this was a movie I needed to pay attention to. At a minimum, I wanted to see the message being communicated especially in our current cultural milieu. My motivation to see the movie increased.
Let me tell, I was not disappointed. This was definitely more than just a fun Marvel flick. The imagery alone was spectacular, beautiful black folks not portrayed as thugs, murderers, sidekicks, or con artists. On that note, I do find the smug disdain of celebration a bit of a killjoy. Yes, it is a fictitious movie, and we should give weight to more real matters. But the fact that this movie not only portrays black people in positive ways we have not really seen before, not to mention the opportunities it’s given to all the personnel both on and behind the screen, is worth celebrating. I personally don’t get why that’s a problem. Now, I do understand that at the end of the day it is just a movie and must be kept in that perspective. But films are also reflective of cultural thought, and we can glean from them a particular mood.
On that note, what struck me most about the film’s plot was the dueling paradigms (aka worldviews) of the protagonist and the antagonist. Now, when I say worldview, I don’t mean the kind of ancestral religion that the film seems to point to. If you get hung up on that portrayal, you’ll miss the point of where I’m going with this. Rather, I mean from a more sociological perspective on what is best for a nation and their people to thrive. Because it occurred to me, the film provokes some critical questions that are deeply relevant today.
The film portrays a stunning and apparent contrast. The protagonist, King T’Challa (Black Panther) finds himself reluctantly thrust into the throne of the kingdom of Wakanda, a technologically advanced, thriving African nation, after his father’s death. The governing philosophy was isolationism to prevent marring (read ‘colonizing’) out. That in and of itself is a commentary that raises questions about the impact of colonization on African nations.
However, this paradigm is challenged by the emergence of the antagonist, Killmonger. He is technically King T’Challa’s cousin who grew up fatherless in Oakland, CA because the king, T’Challa’s father killed his own brother because he betrayed the country. He saw firsthand the devastation of disenfranchised, impoverished communities. He witnessed the degradation of life snuffed out by crime and low expectations. He was consumed with anger that Wakanda had the resources to help, but nothing was done. He was abandoned to an inferior circumstance.
Herein lies the contrast that indeed emerges from the film. T’Challa is motivated by upward progress, protection, keeping Wakanda safe. Killmonger is driven by the bitterness and revenge. T’Challa wants to build up. Killmonger wants to burn down. T’Challa’s character evolves from the status quo isolationism he inherited to transfiguring the rest of the world with Wakanda’s riches. Killmonger devolves into overtaking the rest of the world to rid it of the ones he thinks to be responsible for his problems, oppressors. T’Challa cares that people thrive. Killmonger only cares that he and the oppressed survive.
In this commentary by Dr. Joel McDurmon over on American Vision, he insightfully sees this contrast regarding present-day conflicts;
The key issue in the plot is how Wakanda relates to the rest of the world, and this is intimately tied to the Christian idea of regeneration. The story comes down to two black leaders vying for control of the throne ofWakanda. One, “Killmonger,” is a kill-whitey radical. The other, T’Challa, who is the main protagonist, is initially a moderate conservative, but transforms into something far greater.
Killmonger could be said to be analogous to the more extreme elements of #BlackLivesMatter. T’Challa, in his initial form, is like a modern American conservative. As some have noted, he is like Trump in a way (Build the wall! Don’t take in refugees!). He is, in reality, like any compromised leader: at the whim of tradition, institutions, the expectations of the masses, fear of outsiders, jealous of resources, etc. He is ruled by a whole set of fears and limitations derived mostly from the sins of the past. He cannot be forward looking.
To be fair to the impetus that drove the formation of the Black Lives Matter movement, it was primarily and initially motivated by a desire for justice. That’s a noble pursuit. But it doesn’t take too much to see how that impetus has evolved into a paradigm that paints present-day issues of injustice in terms of oppressed vs. oppressor, white supremacists vs. black victims, capitalist pillage vs. socialist solutions, love vs. hate.
Now, these are sharp contrasts for sure. But I can’t help but see that perhaps Killmonger is a prevailing mindset today, even in more subtle forms that seek to overturn the centuries of injustices perpetrated against black citizens by any means necessary. Like Killmonger, the attitude is justified because oppression demands it even if the degree of injustices has changed (i.e., slavery, Jim Crow, and legalized discrimination no longer exist). In fact, he is so consumed with the oppression narrative that when he is given the opportunity for healing from his knife wound (and the opportunity to possibly change the circumstances that consumed him), he soundly rejects it proclaiming,
“Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped off ships cuz they knew death was better than bondage.”
In his mind, he could not reconcile moving forward towards future hope and letting go of past transgressions nor could he see that the chains around his mind already put him in bondage. It’s not lost on me that perhaps many resonated with Killmonger.
This leads me to an important question I think the film is asking: what kind of black people do we want to be? More specifically, what kind of black Christians do we want to be? Dr. McDurmon frames it this in asking which vision will prevail: black revolution, black isolation, or black regeneration? Do we really want to be like Killmonger bent on revolution, which on the surface sounds noble but belies a vengeful, even destructive bent hid under the veneer of justice? That’s what Killmonger was about. Sadly, I see so much of Killmonger even in the church. There may not be overt desires for revenge or destruction, but the call of past injustices beckons a sort of reckoning for a present-day revolution echoing chants from the broader society. White brothers and sisters are labeled as oppressors and systems are urged to be overthrown. But is this the way forward?
Overwhelmingly, Black Panther nudges us towards black regeneration and why I applauded the film. Black regeneration does not overlook the sins of the past, but neither does it become so engulfed in them that productive foresight is hindered. Black regeneration seeks to thrive not at the expense of others but towards the benefit of others. Black regeneration looks forward. That, after all, is the Christian way.
Photo courtesy of Indie Wire