“A man who has not prepared his own children to be without him has failed as a father.”
T’Chaka in The Black Panther (2018)
(Warning: A Lot of Damn Spoilers!)
First of all, any assessment of Marvel’s Black Panther that doesn’t start with these two boys pretending to be an 8-foot man and trying to get into a showing is suspect. This was hilariously too damn much and lets you know just how hungry folk are for this movie (especially Black folks)—even if Disney walks away with the proceeds from our desperate need to be represented humanely.T’Challa/Black Panther back in the 1990s. Although he ended up having to make Blade due to not having the right support team, I had never heard anyone else talk about doing a live-action film before him. And regardless of the status of special effects at the time, I’m sure he would’ve done the character as much justice as he did Blade. (*Special props to Djimon Honsou, Keith David, and Jeffrey D. Sams who played T’Challa in the animated shows and films.)
First, recognize that T’Challa, the Black Panther himself, was Disney’s first (and only) Black prince for Black boys. Having taken my 12-year old son to the movie, I didn’t realize how few Black princes there were until I saw his excitement at seeing a hero that looked like him. Despite the myriad of female princesses, Disney has never proffered a Black prince before…even when they made the famed Princess and the Frog (2009).
They even went so far as to bring Brazilian actor Bruno Campos to play “Prince Naveen,” a prince of a fictional land, denying millions of Black boys from seeing themselves as worthy princes of Black princesses’ affections. (At the time, I remember seeing Black girls dancing around in princess dresses. Strange how no one cared that there should be adequate representations for Black boys in The Princess and the Frog but with Black Panther there needed to be ample “strongBlackwomen”…but let me not get ahead of myself). Seeing Black boys centered garners accusations of rampant sexism, yet centering Black girls is just “right.” Hence, in Princess, the primary Black male presence, aside from a brief glimpse at Tiana’s father, was Keith David’s menacing Dr. Facilier—a voodoo witch doctor. Yes. You read that right.
And the unspoken nod to Katrina in this film only presented Black men as a problem because…well, you know…we weren’t really affected by Katrina so we didn’t really need any affirming representation…right?
And based on the excitement for Black Panther, I hope Black boys will no longer tolerate seeing themselves as heroes that are glorified sidekicks like Iron Man’s Don Cheadle as “Rhodey/War Machine,” Anthony Mackie’s “Sam Wilson/Falcon,” or janitors like Star Wars’ John Boyega’s “Finn.” Come on. In 2018? Hopefully not. Look, I’ve collected comics for 38 years and am one of millions who likely never thought we’d ever see a Black Panther live-action film, but then again I never thought I’d see a Black president or a film on Nat Turner either. All came with disappointing repercussions though, as Obama was often dismissed by racists as incompetent and Nate Parker was…well…a trial run for a #MeToo campaign that almost unnecessarily eliminated his career.
T’Challa was created in 1966 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, and like Spawn, Luke Cage, Falcon, and Blade (and many others), they were the product of white men’s imaginations about Black male heroes. Panther, in fact, was mainly disinterested in associating with the politics of African Americans and distanced himself. For white male creators, any politics that made white men uncomfortable were made non-existent, while Black male heroes’ powers were usually negligible and easily dismissed in combat, and their historical outspokenness erased. In fact, most are virtually unaware that Black males were purposefully blocked by the Comics Code Authority. That said, there was a generations-long battle since the inception of All-Negro Comics in 1947 by Orrin Cromwell Evans to develop Black male superhero characters. Cromwell’s venture only lasted one issue because he was blocked from access to the paper he needed to print it. Similarly, distribution would be another barrier whites used to prevent Black productions from seeing the light of day (from comics to music and film).
With all due respect to Lee and Kirby, having white men develop them helped, but didn’t/couldn’t allow for the nuance (or politics) of what Black male writers themselves would do to make characters more authentic to the African American experience. And this is what makes them popular now. Writers such as Christopher Priest and Reginald Hudlin fought to bring to Panther what people love most about him now: the culture of an unconquered African nation, vibranium, the Dora Milaje, and the marriage with X-Men’s Storm. And to be clear, vibranium, materially, symbolized the resource that African Americans did not have that others did: whites colonized the globe, Arabs had oil, Jews were merchantman and built a stake in media production, etc. And each could also sell their culture in America in ways African Americans couldn’t (from Italian pizzas to Irish leprechauns). African Americans had little of this, and had no home country to go back to. Thus, Black writers and readers used comics like Black Panther to imagine having the support we actually never had.
In fact, considering the real Black Panther Party for Self-Defense’s history with the FBI and the CIA, you would think the only CIA agent in Coogler’s film would have at least been treated with suspicion if not outright contempt, but that was not the case.
So let’s get this out of the way: The Black Panther was highly entertaining. I loved the casting, the color schemes, the technology, the way they filmed Black skin hues, the fashion, and even the hair (or lack thereof)…and dammit if Angela Bassett still ain’t fine at 60!! Eh hem. Excuse me. Anyway, these things are not always done well for Black actors in major white-funded ventures so it bears acknowledgement.
But Coogler goes further. The father/son dynamics between T’Chaka/T’Challa and even N’Jobu/N’Jadaka (Eric “Killmonger” Stevens) are endearing, and the compassion shown between them was inspiring to say the least.
Fathers instill discipline, and the capacity to achieve. They teach by instilling their voice into you until you mature enough to make that voice your own and can drive yourself to achieve, giving you the capacity to instill it in another youth upon maturity. In essence, fathers, as a whole, contribute conditional love by enforcing boundaries. During childhood, while mothers instill a child with unconditional love—the much needed understanding that they will be loved no matter what—fathers help young adults understand that respect must be earned, and despite loving you, fathers won’t pay you respect until you earn it. The relationships demonstrated in Panther and Creed lament the absence of that father presence, and send Creed’s Donny on a path for self-respect he can’t get directly from his slain father but does get through his surrogate father Rocky.
Similarly, Eric’s (Killmonger) quest for the reckoning of his father’s death and dismissal from Wakandan memory is partially about retribution, and we see how much this means to him when he sees his father in the ancestral realm, and can’t help but cry despite suggesting that he can’t because “everybody dies.” Furthermore, his quest to have his past experience acknowledged and paid for symbolizes the ignored African American experience by Africans who see little connection with African Americans, a dynamic that still breeds tension today.
Coogler’s nod to blackness is also prevalent. From sibling rivalry to the use of capoeira and Sanuces Ryu Jiu-Jitsu, this brother acknowledges black traditions. Hence, Avery Brook’s Deep Space Nine aside, Black men being great fathers may be empirically documented but it’s still rarely seen in popular media. Even the subtle act of silencing white men with power on soil that your people control was awe-inspiring and likely overlooked by mainstream society. In essence, the silencing of empowered white men in power is more than a joke or a fanciful wish. It’s the aspiration of those with no power.
The problem here is the absence of African American context. There were no African American families, culture, histories, or presence within the course of the story except Killmonger. And no, Wakandans can’t stand in for that because after all, they’re not Black. They sidestepped the process when the rest of the world was plunged into the discourse on race through violence and enslavement. That said, their perceived relationship with other Africans let alone African Americans is filtered through an experience of self-imposed alienation. Even the scenes where men of African descent are affectionate with their sons (and vice-versa) read differently because these men were never marked as “Black,” and thus never had to grapple with race as a negative brand…never had to be marked as “men-nots,” and never had to be considered caricatures of human beings incapable of rational thought. A brand that marked you as less than human. It is therefore not surprising that the Wakandans don’t see a link to African Americans. What is surprising is that they kill anyone from their own country who do. That made this film very dangerous for me…
Because of the absence of the African American experience, Eric’s statement about those without power who never had the means to win is REAL TALK, and I even got misty-eyed thinking about how much of a difference it would’ve made for Black resistance movements since slavery to have had access to a country’s army, wealth, and technology…how many battles we fought with no support or adequate means. Essentially begging (or pressuring) whites for just treatment. Much of which fell on deaf ears. In that moment, I felt more for Killmonger than I’m sure I was supposed to.
And here is where I found my footing. Both T’Challa and Eric went too far for me. For T’Challa, creating learning centers in ghettoes was like throwing pocket change to displaced Africans who’ve been struggling with poverty and oppression for centuries. That doesn’t even address the unclear relationship Wakanda develops with other countries via the U.N. and the desire to “share their technology.” And to make the CIA heroic while the comic book version of a 2018 Tupac/Huey P. Newton figure (yes, more Pac the Newton) is the villain? Naaaaa. This is what made this film The Spook Who Sat By the Door meets The Lion King (1994). But, as most never likely saw Spook, they relegated Jordan’s Killmonger to just a thug that hated Black women, and not a revolutionary that put liberation ahead of everything, including his own life. Thus, Eric Killmonger Stevens is in fact Dan Freeman, a self-styled revolutionary who uses Uncle Sam’s dime to perfect his war against his own government. Though underestimated, he is as dangerous intellectually as he is physically.
As for Eric, his desire to conquer and colonize Europe, Asia, and America was never in our interest. Revolution was about being liberated from historical and contemporary enslavement and underdevelopment, either to develop our own country or to dramatically improve our stock while here in this country, but colonizing the West has never been one of our goals. Fictionally, “vibranium” would’ve been a useful means for liberation, but historically African Americans have always lacked a strong relationship with any outside country. This alone has contributed to our diminished status in the US. and we don’t need a fictional mineral to see what the absence of such international relationships has done to us.
Still the tensions between continental Africans and what Yvette Carnell refers to as “Native Black/Descendants of Slaves” (NBDOS) was palpable, and is felt when I see online posts that say “#TeamKillmonger.” That’s real talk, and that helped me appreciate complex characters, good storytelling, and intriguing character development where few are completely innocent or completely guilty. Beyond that, it was problematic that NBDOS were the villains in the film, and that their liberation should be squelched in lieu of hobnobbing with historically colonial countries. Seeing a global liberation would’ve been an interesting development that could’ve trickled down to Black folk in the Marvel universe as a whole, but more importantly, could’ve inspired real Black folk to imagine what freedom could look like in real life. And that’s the worst thing about this film, it kills the idea of revolution altogether.
And this bears further reflection: despite how many generations have fought against systemic oppression on the grounds of race, gender, and class, what does liberation actually look like? What does redemption, healing, and much-needed material wealth look like for people who’ve historically lacked it? It’s the same question I asked at the end of disparate films such as The Spook Who Sat By the Door (1973) where the film ends in a seemingly endless revolution, or in The Da Vinci Code (2003), where the truth about Christ’s non-divine historical existence is suppressed for…what…no real reason!? In essence, WHY CAN’T WE IMAGINE WHAT HAVING TRUTH, FREEDOM, AND WEALTH LOOKS LIKE FOR A PEOPLE WHO’VE LACKED IT? But the answer is simple: because doing so is dangerous to the status quo. Films that teach us to acquiesce and accept our lot is the name of the game, not films that motivate us to radically change society. And why should we expect anything different from Disney?
Appropriately, Antonio Moore and Yvette Carnell have been calling for a Black Realist re-assessment as it pertains to wealth, politics, and the aspirationalism that many Black folk entertain beyond their material capabilities. As a media analyst, I agree, albeit with a slight caveat. I don’t dismiss fiction and media as mere fanciful thinking or escapism. I think it can have incredible impact as far as propaganda goes, and has greatly contributed to the detriment of people of African descent, especially in the Western hemisphere as descendants of slaves. I agree wholeheartedly, however, that we often hyper-prioritize media entertainment while dismissing a real political focus, thus being satisfied with glitz with no substance, exchanging a Black face in a movie for a substantive message. Yet we must grapple with propaganda because America spends billions producing it, and ignoring it is not an adequate means of dispelling it. It must be met head on, and we must give Black folk information to confront these images so that we may properly contextualize these narratives with historical accuracy and empirical data.
I agree that such media investments reflect powerlessness… People’s interest in seeing a positive representation of us harkens back to the days of us listening to radios to hear whether Joe Louis beat a white fighter because it meant something to the race (as what happened in the scene from Malcolm X when he worked on the train and they listened to Louis’ success while serving sandwiches to whites). And materially, our situation is worse than it was in the 1940s and 1950s. So yes, such fiction shouldn’t stand in for serious politics (or revolution), but much of the time it does until there’s a credible movement to act as a vehicle for Black progress (especially movements that profit from Black male deaths while telling them to shut up and follow). Many societies have media that complements their culture and their politics, so it does have its place. And we must recognize that people need to have heroes that succeed—especially when those people have not been allowed to do so actually. Black folks have had their heroes determined for us by white elites, government, and corporations for so long it’s stymied our imagination.
For example, the closest thing we could imagine in mainstream cinema on the scale of Wakanda was the fictional nation of Zumunda in Coming To America (1988), a previously colonized country where African royalty are ultra-rich, play polo, have their currencies in British pounds, and wear Western tuxedos to royal events, but we can’t imagine what an independent country that supports Black people looks like?
Women, Comics, and the New Trend of Female Superiority
As far as gender goes, there’ve been a bevy of articles that highlight the gender politics of the film. Praising the film’s gender politics, articles recalling 19th century Dahomey Amazons to pieces suggesting that we should “trust Black women” are all the rage right now. What I find interesting is that the deferring to women is seen as “past due,” as if the historically rare occurrences of women armies were the norm. As if data that shows that the average male is stronger than 99% of women is somehow untrue, and in almost every movie, there now needs to be a female character who kicks men three times their weight through walls—even if she has no training or powers at all!1 In Disney’s attempt to spearhead (white) women’s political movements, they sought to prioritize bringing women into the comic space by bypassing Black men that have been fighting for space in comics since the 1940s, having been erroneously imagined as being linked with white men as “men” and downplayed. Black men’s “space” has been earmarked for others, and even when present they are apolitical, have no voice, are emasculated, and are often sexually-neutered. Seeing such acknowledgement of women in the comic universe is kind of like if the federal government recognized breast cancer in Black communities and made Black men the “face” of it. True, 2% of Black breast cancer cases are Black men, but this is a battle Black women have fought for the longest. Similarly, Black men have been fighting for comic book space for almost 80 years…and their struggle still hasn’t been regarded. Doubt me? Since Black Panther came out, which Black comic writers and artists from the past 80 years have you seen acknowledged? Don’t worry, I’ll wait. And this is not strange. When women were fighting to have dolls be made for girls of color, I didn’t once see anyone suggest that they should target young males of color to sell them to. They didn’t prioritize boys when dealing with Black Barbies or Disney princesses…but the reverse is somehow a need that needs to now be met?
Look, I’m not opposed to the showing of strong women, I just generally oppose HOW it’s done. From Hela in Thor: Ragnorok (2017) to Rey in the Star Wars saga, to Princess (goddess) Diana in Wonder Woman, to Gwen Stacy in Marvel: Spider-Man animated series, white female heroes increasingly walk in (untrained), toss a bunch of men around, never lose fights unless to other women, and then call it a day. There’s usually no effort, learning curve, or growth that has to take place. And they rival men who’ve been doing something for years in a matter of moments. Oh and they’re always STEM geniuses too. At least in Coogler’s film, the women didn’t have it that easy. They fought and had to demonstrate skill, and even then still lost at times. Strange how female heroes who are finally treated realistically had to be Black… In the American legacy of race and gender, Black women were seen as more masculine than “real” (code for White) women, so it’s interesting that they seem to be the first to be treated in a realistic fashion as it pertains to combat in movies.
Still, the Dora Milaje are not treated as women from a society that’s had little contact with the world for the last few centuries should be. For example, the Dora Milaje (similar to the bathers in Coming to America) were implied to be sexually “available” to Panther kings. They were, in fact, the wives of the king. They were trained as his “ride or die” girls, and were his personal secret service (not his entire army by the way). This was a concept that Westernized women in the comics found reprehensible (such as Storm from the X-Men). That said, why wouldn’t that be in the film? Understand, I’m not personally invested in seeing women concubines in the film as some sort of statement about what women “should be” or whatever. What I’m saying is, this is a country that’s had its own tradition for generations, and not only would they likely be doing things that Western sensibilities might be offended by, they might not care that you don’t like it! Even after being introduced to Western feminism they might still have a uniquely different view of womanhood than Western women (I experienced this once while talking to a West African woman raised in a country that practiced multiple marriages and cliterodectomies–of which she was a recipient btw, and she laughed at American women as confused and non-feminine). Here, the film veers from this and only highlights what we might find titillating about them: they have bald heads and they can fight.
The greater issue for me was that the Black Panther I’d been waiting to see since I was a child was supposed to be one of the top 10 intellects on the planet. Yet that honor was given to his younger sister Shuri. Yet again, Disney denies Black boys the fruits of an 80-year battle Black men have fought in comics in order to suit the gender politics of the moment–and I’ve already discussed how problematic that’s been. Even in the comics, girls have become the new superpower, as a Black girl is now the smartest person in the world (see image above) in Marvel Comics. Yet Black boys already see black females, the highest college enrolled demographic in the country, excelling in mostly female-taught schools quite regularly. The purpose of the Black Panther Priest and Hudlin worked on was to inspire the very boys that don’t get to see their own genius, since they graduate high school at a roughly 50% rate. Look, I’m not suggesting that Black women aren’t brilliant, I’m merely suggesting that in a space that Black males have been fighting to be more than janitors in, it would’ve been nice to see Panther be as brilliant as he was supposed to be…
Also, the aesthetic that women’s strength has to solely be defined based on how many men they dominate is tired and predictable. And this trope has become universal in film and television. Women demonstrate their “power” by claiming traditionally male spaces, yet no one seems to be pushing for basketball, football, MMA, or boxing to become “genderless.” Why? Because it would illustrate the differences between men and women in a manner inconsistent with feminist ideology (Don’t believe me? Check out recent data on military training performance by gender). Still, males are routinely presented as less intelligent, weaker, easily dominated (by women), and in need of female supervision.
For example, if you check the CW’s new show Black Lightning, females routinely kick men in the balls, outsmart them, dominate them, punch them through walls, and advise male heroes. Lightning, or Jefferson Pierce, a school principal and superhero with electricity power, routinely apologizes and blindly accepts wise counsel from his female vice-principal, his ex-wife, and his two daughters. He’s routinely corrected and “mothered” by each, and is measured as a good man based on how well he follows their suggestions—or apologizes (often) for not. Whether as hero with decades of experience or as their father, he must follow them to be “respected,” because they’re…uugghh…what…woke? Here, masculine authority is problematized and assumed to oppressively patriarchal…even when it’s sacrificial for family and community. Black Panther, instead, avoids this by parceling out the comic character’s qualities to his female co-stars.
The core issue with many of these programs (and I stress “programming” as in to shape our thinking) is that they ultimately cannot conceive of female evil. Women are only “evil” if damaged by men, but not of their own accord. In Wonder Woman (2017), the villains to be defeated by Wonder Woman were male, while the female scientist who comes up with the deadly gas and weapons walks away scot-free. She’s not arrested, hit, or even confronted in any meaningful way. There needs to be female accountability, especially in combat films. Political commentator Yvette Carnell observes this when she brilliantly states about Black Panther,
“We seem to want female equality without female agency and responsibility. That elder [attacked by Killmonger] had blood on her hands for sitting around talking tradition while people starved. And men get killed in movies all the time and no one bats an eye. Furthermore, Killmonger’s girlfriend wasn’t an innocent. She was involved with the museum heist. She knew the consequences of that life. She made her choices. And she knew it was over for her when she got taken hostage by a damn one armed man. Killmonger NEEDED that white mercenary to get into Wakanda and his girlfriend wasn’t more important than the mission. She knew it, which is why she apologized right before Killmonger shot her. So y’all please miss me with the damsel in distress misogyny nonsense. Being free and equal means you can catch a bullet too.” (Facebook, February 20, 2018)
In Black Panther, most of the women are heroic and internally pure. They are responsible for no evil, and have to clean up behind the men that make a moral mess of things. Each male is conflicted, while the women remain relatively pure. The closest thing to such fallibility as found in the men would be Danai Gurira as Okoye, who supports Killmonger’s reign because she’s duty-bound to support the throne (before she turns on him), but this is not on par with T’Chaka’s betrayal of Wakanda, or T’Challa’s denial of Eric’s claim or his dismissal of supporting the liberation of oppressed Africans around the globe, or N’Jobu’s lie to his older brother T’Chaka or his “betrayal” of Wakanda, or Zuri’s lie to T’Challa, or Eric’s murders, etc., etc. None of the women bear the weight of such misjudgments. They remain the moral compass of the film, and as I said in my review of Fences, this one-sided gendered capacity for evil is untrue, a-historical, and dishonest. The invisibility of female evil is a huge problem in our culture. It’s a feminist lie that women can’t be evil without men’s influence, despite that they’ve either been partners or have directly benefited from male sacrifices—whether altruistic or problematic. But as long as female representation is dictated by catering to a female consumer market, it will always be distorted. And this is not a status Black men have ever enjoyed.
Hence, Sesali Bowen’s essay “Black Panther Has A Message For Black Men: Trust Black Women” is a bit disingenuous in that her assessment of Black women is “cherry-picked” to say the least. So yes, Black women voted for Hilary Clinton more than any other demographic. She ignores that Black men voted for Clinton at the second highest rates (and last I checked, Black women don’t overwhelmingly have their voting rights stripped from them as Black men do. Black men experience felony disenfranchisement to a rate of 1 of 13 African American [mostly males], yet only 1 of 56 Non-African Americans have had their right to vote taken away because of felony disenfranchisement (Dr. Patrick Leon Mason). Bowen fails to mention that they nevertheless voted for the candidate that pushed for “super-predators” to be more harshly incarcerated. And yes, due to their greater access to education they have more businesses, businesses that belie our economic reality in that the majority are one-person businesses that have no employees. And contrary to her article, Black men only make more than educated Black women when we ignore the economic cost of incarceration. And her assertion that Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I A Woman?” only spoke to Black male sexism obscures that Black men such as David Walker made similar arguments 20 years earlier (“Brothers, Aren’t We Men?” in David Walker’s Appeal to the Colored Citizen’s of the World). Lastly, she prioritizes individual women’s accounts of the Civil Rights and Black Power eras only if they affirm Black male sexism, but interviews with women that denied a widespread Black male sexism in protest movements or the development of progressive Black male organizations as outlined by Tommy J. Curry’s The Man-Not (2017) somehow gets overlooked. My point? She completely overlooks the capacity for negative female behavior, both in and out of the film.
But why does Black Panther deny a global Black revolution in film and ignore female evil? At the end of the day, it’s because both Western media and society fear Black male revolt (from Nat Turner to Rakem Balogun), this is why Black men must be hyper-policed, incarcerated, undereducated, and unemployed (even in Black Panther, in the museum they called security when Eric even mentions that the curator’s white ancestors stole African relics). Accordingly, the primary goal of a colonial education to Black males is to underdevelop and hamper the potential politicization of a militant male cadre that won’t seek redress through established legal channels. Nor will they rest on the dominant culture’s empathy for their plight by asking for handouts. The goal is to monitor and prevent such a group from revolting. This was true during the acquisition for slaves, chattel slavery itself, the forms of religion they were “allowed” to practice, and is still the case now. Obedience, silence, erasure is the point. This is why Black men are more greatly targeted on a global scale, experience higher cancer rates, were enslaved more, raped more, lynched more, and are still today killed more by police (2017 Police Killings: “223 killed, 214 Black men & 9 Black women (20 unarmed Black men killed & 1 unarmed Black woman killed).
Yet despite this, when it comes to Black men there’s one thing I think everyone forgets. That Black men have performed superheroic levels of both resistance and physicality in REAL life. They have been the most progressive groups of men because of their oppression despite being mislabeled as the most exploitive… From sports to war, Black men have routinely performed superheroic feats that can be measured against any demographics’ athletic achievements… Intellectually, we’ve seen Black genius from inventions and academic scholarship, and from politics to activism, Black men have been superheroes despite dying before they’ve even turned 40 such as Malcolm X and Dr. King. Funny how they are imagined as less so.
In fact, even behind fiction there is truth. The real Black Panther superhero and king of an unconquered African country? Haile Selassie. Don’t let the fiction fool you, #BlackMenAreHeroes. Maybe one day, media or not, we can actually experience a global Black revolution that links Black men and women in a clear, uncompromising purpose while drawing from the sacrifices of ancestors that made it possible, highlighting their stories truthfully. Until then, #TeamRevolutionDespiteDisney all day…
- “The mean effect size for these sex differences in total and upper body muscle mass and strength is about 3, which indicates less than 10% overlap between the male and female distributions, with 99.9% of females falling below the male mean,” in William D.Lassek and Steven J.C.Gaulin, “Costs And Benefits of Fat-Free Muscle Mass In Men: Relationship To Mating Success, Dietary Requirements, and Native Immunity,” Evolution and Human Behavior (Volume 30, Issue 5, September 2009), pg. 322-328.