***Full spoilers for Black Panther follow.***
For weeks now, journalists, internet commentators, and Twitter users have been predicting that Black Panther would be Marvel’s most important movie because of its largely black cast and because of its “timeliness.” CNN has gone so far as to say that Black Panther isn’t a just movie; it’s a “movement.”
Maybe so. But the truth is that “timeliness” is a pretty low bar to set for a film. Most movies deal in what a society is interested in, afraid of, or concerned about at the time of their release. Sci-fi movies of the 1950s mostly told stories about nuclear annihilation through their tales of alien visits. Much of sci-fi today is about our dreams of renewable energy. Mere “timeliness” is nothing new.
Black Panther is certainly topical in the sense that it deals in the social and political concerns of our time: the legacy of slavery and colonialism; the problems that plague blacks and the poor in inner cities; the difficulties associated with refugees and immigration; the responsibility that prosperous nations have in helping the world become better.In a sense, there was no way for this movie not to be overtly topical. A movie about Black Panther and Wakanda can’t help raising all sorts of questions about the world in which we live. Wakanda is an African nation that never had to endure colonialism or the ravages of the slave trade. It has benefitted from a deposit of vibranium, the rarest, strongest, and most “versatile” metal on Earth (to use Ultron’s word)––a metal whose properties have allowed Wakanda to advance in technology at a rate that makes the most advanced Western nations look primitive by comparison. In other words, Wakanda is an opportunity for those who lament the legacies of colonialism and the Atlantic slave trade to ask, “What if . . . ?”
And the results––both in the comics and on screen––are glorious. Wakanda is not a utopia, but it is one of the most beautiful fantasy civilizations I’ve seen on screen: it’s culture is vibrant, pulsating with music and life; its people are joyful and loving (but not unrealistically so; they’re still subject to human nature with all that that entails); its politics is an interesting blend of the modern and the monarchical (though of course this doesn’t get fully developed in the movie; hopefully subsequent movies will explore Wakandan politics more deeply); its major city is both futuristic and rich with the trappings of traditional African culture. It is nice to see an advanced civilization in a movie that actually has a culture—music, art, clothing, food, religion, traditions. Wakanda is more than just gizmos and gadgets, in other words.
But one danger that Black Panther was always going to have to avoid is mere wish-fulfillment. We can’t get rid of colonialism by wishing, and we can only guess at what African culture would have been like today had European powers not colonized it. More importantly, the advanced technologies of Wakanda are made possible by a substance that does not exist. So while it is a wonderful thing to imagine a fictional world that could have as great a nation as Wakanda, Black Panther has much more valuable things to offer.
For one thing, the movie manages to say something meaningful about the world in which we live by (mostly) avoiding the biggest temptations that films about race relations are subject to:
First, it is easy for movies that deal with race to give us mere platitudes and easy answers to complex questions. Black Panther rarely falls into this trap, instead embracing the complexity of the issues that it explores. The gorgeous animated opening that summarizes Wakanda’s place in world history seems to hint at the role of African traders in supplying slaves to European slavers, adding a layer of complexity to the slavery question that many people often forget or ignore. In addition, an early and rousing scene doesn’t shy away from the fact that the slave trade is alive and well in Africa today. And while the main conflict of the movie––whether or not Wakanda should remain secretive in order to protect its people and culture––would invite platitudes and a simple resolution in the hands of a lesser filmmaker, Ryan Coogler acknowledges the difficulty of that question, allowing people on both sides of the issue to advance the best arguments that can be made for their positions. At a time when America is having a similar (though certainly not identical) debate about taking in refugees and sharing our blessings with the rest of the world, it is encouraging to see a film that is willing to be truthful about how complicated things actually are.
Second, one can imagine a movie like this one embracing the raw resentment of a character like Killmonger, and instead of seeking reconciliation and healing, screaming in anger at the state of the world, casting blame and vitriol without at least hinting at solutions. In other words, Black Panther could have been a simple racial revenge fantasy. Nowhere is this more apparent than in its use of Martin Freeman’s character Everett Ross. Shuri refers to him as “white boy” and “colonizer,” and M’Baku intimidates him into silence in one of the movie’s more hilarious scenes, but while it would have been easy for the film to treat its only non-villainous white character with contempt, resentment, or condescension, Ross gets two moments to shine and to prove his honor, and he earns the respect of those around him. Twice Ross willingly risks his own life for the good of Wakanda, in a sense atoning for the sins of Ulysses Klaue, who twice viscously refers to the Wakandans as “savages.”
Of course, sometimes the film’s willingness to embrace complexity means that it raises questions that it doesn’t (or can’t) answer. One of the most important is whether or not slavery ever existed in Wakanda. As in most places of the world, slavery existed in Africa before the Atlantic slave trade, but I think that we can assume that bondage has never been part of Wakandan culture. If so, however, this is probably true only because of the advanced technology that Wakanda has had as a result of its vibranium. You can’t build a civilization like Wakanda without either advanced technology or a massive labor force.
As I have written before, one of the unsettling and paradoxical truths about history is that the conditions that have enabled humanity to recognize slavery as evil were made possible by slavery itself. In the ancient world, it was by no means obvious that slavery was evil. It is only through advances in philosophy, ethics, theology, and in other areas of learning that we came to realize that it is immoral to own another human being. But those advances in thought would not have been possible without some people having the leisure to pursue them, and that leisure was possible in large part because some people were forced into labor. None of that excuses anyone who has ever held slaves, of course. Nor does it somehow mean that slavery was ever a good thing. But it does complicate the legacy of slavery in an uncomfortable way. Wakanda is not a perfect culture, but it is better than most places in the world today. And yet its goodness is at least in part the result of a cosmic accident: without vibranium, we can assume that Wakandan culture would have developed no differently than the rest of the world. In other words, the film indirectly invites us to confront the fact that the urge to force others into labor might be deeply ingrained in human nature, and it is only through advances in technology that we were willing to give up on our tendency to exploit one another.
I said that the film mostly avoids giving in to platitudes and easy answers to complicated problems. One place where it might fail to do this is at the end when T’Challa decides to open Wakanda up to the world and use its technology to solve societal problems. When he appears to the U.N. in the mid-credits scene, T’Challa talks about building “bridges” instead of “barriers” (a not-so-subtle jab at Trump’s wall, no doubt). Even though it’s is a nice sentiment, this kind of language is badly cliched and doesn’t really answer any questions or say anything helpful. What does it mean to build “bridges” in the metaphorical sense? How does one “bridge” the gap between groups like ISIS and the rest of the world? What will it look like for Wakanda to distribute its technology to the rest of the world? And is it really possible for technology to improve humanity? (For the record, I don’t think so.) Will technology alone make Boko Haram not want to kidnap women? Theoretically, technology could completely eliminate poverty and grant a lot of leisure to people who have never known anything but hard labor, but can it make us more moral people? Can it make us stop being suspicious of each other? Stop hatred? Make people today stop being resentful for the sins of others who lived hundreds of years ago? Can it settle ideological differences?
I’m not necessarily complaining about the fact that the movie doesn’t answer these questions. It is a bold move for Marvel Studios to put Wakanda’s isolationism in the past and embrace all of the narrative challenges that are going to come with allowing an advanced civilization like Wakanda to exist in the “real” world. What I hope, though, is that future movies actually deal with what that would look like in reality.