directed by ryan coogler, starring chadwick boseman, michael b jordan
3 to the power of 5 complications on your legacy
Note: I normally avoid things like citations because they clutter up the text and besides this ain’t exactly the NYTimes. But it seemed important to show some sources on this one. Please sweep aside any clutter you find.
‘What happens when the white community throws knives at a black hero? Everyone gets up tight, for one, and rumors flit around like hummingbirds.’ -- david saltman, the michigan daily, august 10, 1968
One saturday in oakland in 1967, just before sunrise, a police officer named john frey reached for his radio. He clicked it on, reported he was about to stop ‘a known black panther vehicle,’ and hit his lights. The car ahead, a goldish vw, pulled over. Frey got out of his cruiser.
A few minutes later another officer, herbert heanes, arrived on scene in time to see frey ‘tussling’ with a young black man. He sent a distress call out over his own radio and rushed in to help. Police backup found heanes with a gunshot to the arm and frey shot dead. The suspect turned up in a hospital a few blocks away with a bullet in his abdomen. He was arrested on charges of murder and assault. His name was huey p newton, one of the founders of the black panther party.
Newton’s trial was global news. The black panthers were known worldwide, equally loved and hated depending on whether you focused on their school outreach programs, free breakfasts for students in poverty, and fight for equality or their rejection of american capitalist values, radicalist rhetoric, and war with the oakland cops. No matter your background, young black men carrying loaded shotguns to city council meetings was bound to stir something up.
The movie black panther is less radical than its namesakes. We follow t’challa (chadwick boseman), a new king of the fabled african paradise wakanda, as he struggles with the legacy of his father and his country. Ryan coogler, the director, called t’challa ‘a black man that doesn’t exist. Colonization affected every black person who lives today, who is touched.’ T’challa and the rest of wakanda represents a sort of mythical fulfillment of africa’s aborted potential. The king’s shadow is killmonger (michael b jordan), born in oakland in the late eighties, whose own father was killed by the previous king of wakanda, i.e. t’challa’s dad killed killmonger’s dad, and these dads were brothers, i.evenmore.e. t’challa and killmonger are cousins. A fatherless black kid from an oakland ghetto—-so yeah check definitely someone seriously affected by colonization.
Cue expectations. Dash expectations. Killmonger’s story is by far the most compelling piece of the entire movie, but we only get tablescraps. The most powerful scene bar none is killmonger’s retrospective visionquest meeting with his dead father. As a child he’s stonefaced, saying, ‘around here, everyone dies.’ Seconds later, as his fullgrown, scarred self he finds the tears, seemingly crying not only for his father (killed by his own brother for radicalizing and arming the oakland black community, that is, killed by the fictional black panther for pursuing some of the actual black panther agenda), but also for a lost chance childhood. One harsh shrug is all he’ll give for his father’s murder. But pain denied is still pain felt.
The tension between t’challas’s and killmonger’s respective visions for wakanda is an unplumbed well. Although it is the anchor for t’challa’s character arc (ending a longheld policy of isolationism) and killmonger’s eventual defeat (c’mon that ain’t no spoiler, this is a comic book movie and in comic book movies the good guys always...uh...infinity war did what? Oh okay, yeah spoilers, my bad), it’s more of an undercurrent than the live, crackling voltage it should be. The movie’s lack of time on killmonger’s background makes it easy to side with t’challa even though the mercenary is the better character. And, based on coogler’s other movies (fruitvale station, creed), michael b jordan is capable of much much more than the generic angrybadguy role he’s given.
But this is marvel. Whatever coogler’s aspirations might’ve been he’s inside the machine now. The studio told him they wanted black panther to be ‘marvel’s james bond,’ hence all the fun action scenes pursuing ulysses klaue (andy serkis). Casinos and car chases, etc. It all folds into the movie’s theme of fatherhood and legacy, but it’s just a quail amuse bouche to the real turducken when killmonger shows up in wakanda dragging klaue’s corpse. Sure, t’challa’s pop couldn’t catch a cuttlefish-obsessed thief, but holy shit turns out he murdered his own brother and then left his nephew in the oakland ghetto. One of these things is more screenworthy than the other.
It’s thanks to marvel that this movie was made at all, that coogler and jordan were recruited, that it had the budget it needed to make wakanda look amazing (‘unapologetically black’ according to otie henderson over at rogerebert.com) and provide the armored rhinos moviegoers have so desperately been missing, that we have a blockbuster with a majority black cast (from all over the world, as it happens. Coogler said a lot the internationals had trouble understanding his oakland-ese.) and a slew of prominent female characters who don’t so much as know how to spell the word ‘damsel.’ But it’s also thanks to marvel that the movie has to fit inside some painful constraints. It has to line up with the other marvel movies. It has to resolve story issues from the second avengers movie without closing down story options for the third avengers movie (and beyond). It has to find itself somewhere in between what the studio wants, what the marketing people want, and what coogler wants. And it has to stand up in the face of insanely high expectations given all the quicksand contained in the word ‘race’ in this country.
There’s a temptation here to indulge in some gimme comparisons between t’challa as martin luther king and killmonger as huey newton/bobby seale. I thought a lot about trying to pull that off. But it would be cheap and tonedeaf, I think. But the contrast between them, as men and as archetypes, has an echo of some of the multifaceted face of the civil rights movement. Here and now, after police shootings and coverups grabbed the national consciousness by the throat and shook it, we have a flavor of rhetoric that spotlights equality. But we used to have another. The black panthers mixed demands like ‘we want freedom. We want the power to determine the destiny of our black community’ and ‘we want full employment’ with ‘we want all black men to be exempt from military service’ and ‘we want freedom for all black men in federal, state, county, and city prisons and jails.’ Malcolm x, early in his career, spoke openly about improving black people’s economy by appropriating land from the federal government, up to ‘several states’ worth, and a third world war, saying ‘I don’t know when Armageddon, whatever form it takes will arrive, is supposed to be. But I know the time is near when the white man will be finished.’ (Though he denied being ‘anti-white,’ correcting the interviewer that ‘we’re anti-evil, anti-lynching, anti-repression...if the present generation of whites would study their own race in light of their own true history, they would be anti-white themselves.’) Militant positions came paired with militant actions---the black panthers created essentially their own military; malcolm x was careful with his words lest they be twisted by white guys writing movie blogs but still acknowledged that ‘I think the Black man in this country, above and beyond people all over the world, will be more justified when he stands up and starts to protect himself, no matter how many necks he has to break and heads he has to crack.’ Self-defense was the sand, armed response the sandcastle. To some in the civil rights movement, it seemed equality was a romantic ideal, worthy of striving for but too far off to be taken seriously. Certainly less real than poverty, lack of education, skewed court systems, and lynchings.
And but so when is the angry, violent response justified? When, as the pushed, do you push back? Killmonger’s plan to arm black people around the world with futuristic weapons to start revolution looks at these questions, but it’s a muted, dissolute glance. If we had more time with him, we could’ve come away from the movie asking these troubling questions ourselves.
The point, which I fear I’ve strayed from, is that it’s complicated. Reviewing a movie like black panther is complicated because it’s been trumpeted as a change for the blacker in hollywood. It may set a precedent for more black directors and black actors telling stories that reflect blackness in america in some way. I hope so. But it’s still a marvel movie, and its emotional punches land like lovetaps. Ulysses klaue is fun character, and he makes for fun chase scenes, but really why bother. Killmonger’s story is all the movie needed.
But black panther is a compromise and, as we know, a good compromise leaves everyone mad.