The Rise of Black Panther

~ an essay on the Black Panther film

Black Panther: T’Challa, Warrior / King / Philosopher; master fighter and tactician, enhanced with mystical powers and a time-honored purpose; genius-level intellect; the wealthiest man on the planet; fierce, but wise; independent operator and defender of his homeland and techno-kingdom of Wakanda; an integral player in the wider spaces of geopolitical / intergalactic Avenger-level conflicts // Black Panther: the first superhero of African descent, created in 1966 by writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby. A supremely important character to the realm of comic books and incredibly influential in the legacy of black representation and empowerment in fiction.

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For many, Black Panther has been a long time coming. It features a mostly black cast of talented men and women more than ready for the spotlight. The film had a $200M blockbuster budget, a rather confident and timely investment for Marvel and Disney to make. Its creative direction couldn’t have ended up in better hands, those of the young and gifted director Ryan Coogler, known for the films Fruitvale Station (2013) and Creed (2015). The official album for the film has been produced by Kendrick Lamar, the best in the game right now, and features collaborations from a variety of artists empowered by the opportunity to be part of the film.

It’s important to note, despite all its momentum and groundbreaking stature — this is still a comic book film, another superhero flick, another installment in the Marvel mega-franchise machine. One which audiences might be growing tired of, but continue heading to the box office to bear witness to, perhaps beholden to the continuity. Despite its context in the Marvel tapestry of a ‘cinematic universe’ of 17 films prior, it is clear this movie is different. At a glance, this is the first film, a true blockbuster, featuring a black superhero protagonist (exception and shout out to Blade), a cadre of powerful female characters and performances, and a more nuanced, politically charged, and effective villain than most of what the MCU has had to offer. These aspects make Black Panther appointment viewing, and lend a greater sense of weighty expectation to its wider reception by audiences. I don’t think I am speaking only for myself, when I say that I want this film to succeed more than I want most films to succeed. I personally have been a fan of Black Panther, Marvel, and comic books in general for years now, and was excited for how they would tell T’Challa’s and Wakanda’s story in this solo film. Now after seeing it, it is spectacularly clear — this excellent movie has a style and sense of purpose all its own.

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The premise of Black Panther begins and ends with Wakanda: the mythical, futurism-laced megacity hidden in the heart of the African continent, within the Marvel Universe. At the jump of the film, we get a primer on the history and reason for Wakanda’s singular position in the world — from a voiceover of a father explaining its storied history to his son (didn’t realize while watching, but I have since learned this is not T’Chaka speaking to young T’Challa but instead N’Jobu speaking to young Erik 😭). Wakanda provides the backdrop for the narrative from start to finish; its deep threads within Africa, in America and throughout the world, introduce us to its considerable influence and serve to drive the storyline to come. The nation is hidden, obscured by the sustained efforts of the Wakandans to preserve their land from outsiders. To the rest of the world, Wakanda is hardly noteworthy — a “third-world country — textiles, shepherds, cool outfits.” The real Wakanda is a techno-laden, shining metropolis, a seeming utopia filled with an abundance of the material and artistic variety. The ideal Wakanda presents is a land of unique natural resources (the indestructible vibranium of near limitless utility), cycling through millennias of rich cultural development and technological advancement unimpeded by foreign intervention, colonialism, and the slave trade.

From inception, Wakanda is an alternative timeline, one of Afrofuturistic sci-fi and mystical origins, but one in which there is a component of Africa that is sovereign, comparatively peaceful, and free to realize the promised potential which was elsewhere undercut by invaders. This historical tapestry of experience builds Wakanda up to be a beacon of hope for the rest of the world — in a manner of thought experimentation, we can pull back a curtain and see what human beings are truly capable of, given a sense of purpose, strong community, and complete sovereignty over long periods of time (“this never gets old.” ~ that first view of Wakanda 🙌) Concurrently, the technological advancement provided by vibranium means the control of Wakanda is also a sword, with the potential of being picked up and wielded by madmen, or those imbued with a passionate sense of geopolitical vengeance. Given the right philosophy and drive for it, in short order, the Sun could truly never set on the Wakandan empire. The questions asked in Black Panther are at their core meditations on international politics, the moral intention of intervention, personal responsibility and the duty those with influence have in the wider world. They delve into the choices power presents one with — and these choices matter deeply to each of the characters in the film; as a result, they also matter deeply to us.

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Writer/Director Ryan Coogler on Africa & the origins of Wakanda (source):

“The narrative about the continent that we know is actually a fairly recent narrative, if you think about human history. It’s a narrative that was born out of what happened when the countries of Africa were conquered. But the truth is that some of those places that people might refer to as backwaters — were the cradle of civilization. They were the first places to do anything that we would consider to be civilized. All the structures that we built in Wakanda, they’re taller structures of what you’ll find in Africa. Some of them we switched up — instead of mud we used [the fictional supermetal] vibranium — but those are buildings that you’ll really find in Mali, in Ethiopia, in Nigeria. I spent about three weeks in Africa [doing research for “Black Panther”] and I truly felt that seeing it for myself was necessary for my growth as a human being. That experience made me not only capable [of writing] this film, but it made me whole as a person.”

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The Black Panther’s / T’Challa’s story is told through this Wakandan lense, of being raised within and bred through the traditions of culturally rich and powerful Wakanda. The “Black Panther” is not his alter ego, but his earned title as king and protector of Wakanda. Imbued with enhanced speed and strength, the Black Panther is an agent for the prime directive of protecting his or her kingdom’s interests — namely, those of its true secret origins and powers. Erik Killmonger is the prime antagonist in Black Panther, played wonderfully by an absolutely yoked Michael B. Jordan (my favorite character in the film). His story is told through an inversion of T’Challa’s — being born into struggle half a world away from his apparent homeland, while still being aware of its promised grandeur from afar. T’Challa is born into security and promised a throne, while Killmonger must survive on the streets and carve his own perilous path back to Wakanda.

The conflict between T’Challa and Killmonger is central to this film’s gravitas — tragic counterparts from across the globe, cousins, mirror images of one another. T’Challa is empathic, wise, of royal blood and expectation, an honorer of the traditions which built the kingdom he loves and now must rule; he pays respect to what came before, yet ultimately is someone who is isolated, preserved like his homeland of Wakanda, and altogether untested // Erik Killmonger, on the other hand, is wild, violent, driven by instinct and rage, borne of harsh circumstances and with everything to prove. He was raised on the streets of Oakland, choosing to train and fight as a special operative in wars he didn’t agree with but used to hone his skills for a singular aim. Yet Erik is someone ultimately misguided in his radical, authoritarian approach to seeking the change he wants to see in the world. In the final battle, when T’Challa tells him, in effect — he has become what he hates — I think Erik knows T’Challa is right in his heart of hearts. But he’s too convicted upon the path of blood, and too angry, to turn away from it.

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Various perspectives on Wakanda, as an actor in the world, make up the conflict of the tale Black Panther weaves. There is an internal battle for what Wakanda’s role in the world ought to be. These perspectives are brought to the forefront of those regarding it from within and without, envisioning what a change in its role could affect en masse. The technological advancements of vibranium, devised by wunderkind and Princess Shuri, shared benevolently with the world, could improve the fields of medicine, transportation, robotics, infrastructure. Such tech could very well provide the tentpoles for new levels of human flourishing on an unseen scale. The material also carries the with it the attributes of protection, capable of restoring oppressed communities with the necessary weapons to overthrow their oppressors in various corners of the globe, as N’Jobu, Erik’s father, believed and staked his life upon.

In the historical context, characters like Nakia and Killmonger consider what might’ve been done, what lives could’ve been changed and saved given a more active course of action in the world for the secretive nation. Now going into the future, new king T’Challa is faced with a choice — the world as it exists, is still rife with oppression and geopolitical conflicts continue, escalating seemingly without end. “You are a good man, with a good heart. And it’s hard for a good man to be king.” Everyone knows — especially T’Challa — how influential Wakanda, with the Black Panther as its agent and king, could be within these wider conflicts. They could do some real good, affect permanent changes in the locales of their choice. For T’Challa, the struggle comes within the territory of tradition and his desire to be a great king like his father before him, the father he feels he still needs to prove himself to. T’Challa plans to carry forward his father T’Chaka’s legacy for Wakanda, embracing the hands-off approach to global encounters: “It is not our way” // it’s too dangerous to reveal ourselves and potentially lose everything we have built // the world isn’t ready and neither are we. T’Challa’s isolationist view, while perhaps pessimistic, is the same ideal which has carried the nation of Wakanda so fruitfully into a future in which it has been granted the opportunity to flourish on its own. To change course at this point holds the legitimate threat of bringing ruin.

In a different way, Killmonger honors his father’s legacy as well. He fully embraces the external empowerment of communities of African descent well outside the confines of Wakanda. Utilizing the vibranium as a force for revolutionary change in places like America, he holds a rather clear vision for how the world could be given the right allocation of resources and might. Control of Wakanda is the crux of his thesis for the new world he wants to create. Erik Killmonger, former U.S. black operative, has trained his entire life to find weaknesses in power structures, destabilize oppressive rulers, topple kingdoms, and assassinate kings; he earned his moniker as a reflection of the efficiency of his lethality in combat. His skillset presents an exacting nemesis for the Black Panther. Killmonger bleeds with passion. Despite his ruthlessness, you can’t help but relate to the drive of his mission. “Nah I’m just feelin’ it” // “I want the throne!…I want your secrets, your weapons. I’m gonna burn it all!”” // “Nice move…” This film succeeds in imbuing its villain with enough personality, principle and past as to make him feel like the hero of his own story. Killmonger’s machinations also service to transform T’Challa’s arc into a more robust and meaningful one, the best indication of a great antagonist. I think this makes him the most effective and affecting villain in the MCU thus far.

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Killmonger’s style and swagger present another harsh reflection against the royal, patient, less compulsive, and less decisive T’Challa. His actions are so dependent on what he knows of his past, that while seemingly righteous, T’Challa is vaguely unaware if his actions are even his own. T’Challa quietly questions everything he needs to do as king, fearing his potential actions and inactions as surveyor of an entire people; Killmonger stirs with purposeful rage, wishing loudly for destruction and rebirth within his own capable hands. T’Challa thinks while Killmonger acts and that is in part why he is defeated initially. T’Challa wrestles with the morality of his father’s actions as king and his own continuation of that agenda for Wakanda; Killmonger comes to the conclusion that his murdered father didn’t go far enough. Given the revelations, T’Challa second guesses what is best for his kingdom, while Killmonger knows exactly what he wants and he gets it. One of the best moments in the film occurs when Killmonger ventures to his personalized astral plane. After we have already seen T’Challa walking along a majestic African landscape to seek his father’s counsel, we witness Erik return to his old room in the Oakland high rise where he discovered his slain father. Here he is able to share a few words with N’Jobu, one last time, and it is tragic. These two scenes are illustrative of the disparate origins to the starkly contrasting world views of these two characters.

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Chadwick Boseman on T’Challa and Killmonger (source):

“What [Killmonger and T’Challa] don’t realize is that the greatest conflict you will ever face will be the conflict with yourself. For me, they are two sides of the same coin — African and African-American. As an African-American, if you’re disconnected from your ancestry and your past, you have this conflict that comes and so there is a healing experience that is possible because of that.”

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In the film’s finale, T’Challa must vision quest once more to the astral plane, now at dawn and near death, facing his father with questions, defiance and revelation. From there, he is imbued with his own purpose — to do better than those that came before him — and his own vision for Wakanda’s role in the world — there is a duty for a kingdom with such power to do good. It isn’t until their convictions are equalized, (“All of you are wrong!” // Erik and people like him deserve a better fate // “I need to right this wrong.”) that T’Challa is able to overcome Killmonger and retake Wakanda. Perhaps the best character moments for each of them occurs in their final moments together — T’Challa mindfully carrying the mortally injured Killmonger to the balcony of a mountain, to watch a Wakandan sunset his father promised him to be the most beautiful in the world. At the end, T’Challa offers his fierce adversary solace, survival, solidarity — and Killmonger chooses to release himself into an honorable death rather than exist ‘in bondage.’ By the time T’Challa takes center stage at MCU’s version of the United Nations, announcing Wakanda’s new role in the world and what it has to offer, and when T’Challa reveals to Shuri his plans to build outreach centers on the streets of Oakland — both characters’ arcs, and those of their fathers, have melded in a way, completed. ~

“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.”
~ T’Challa’s declaration to the world.