For those who enjoy action movies or the Marvel comic heroes, Black Panther will likely dazzle you. The movie was well enough made and entertaining, but full disclosure: I am not much for movies centered on comic book heroes.
However, Black Panther can dazzle for other reasons. The movie upends…storylines, location, and cast. Instead of Africa being the dark, backwater continent, it contains a utopian, well-run country. Instead of blacks being portrayed as drug addicts or criminals, they are upstanding, intelligent, strong role models. Instead of blacks being a supporting character or two, they are the majority of the cast. (Two white standouts are a CIA agent and a master criminal.)
Everything was flipped on its head, which was both refreshing and confusing. The blurring of lines was not just white as good and black as bad flipped to be white as bad and black as good, but because the cast was almost entirely black, most characters were good, some were bad.
The storyline blurred this line further. The bad guy was actually fighting for good. The good guy had to be brought around to fight the same fight that the bad guy was fighting. So wait, that black guy good? That black guy bad? It was interesting to notice my internal confusion over who to root for mixed up with implicit societal judgements and views.
Throughout the movie, characters made statements obliquely or directly referring to historical or societal racism. Slavery was referenced. Helping black brethren around the globe stand up to oppression was the raison d’etre for the master criminal. (How could you really not take his side when he was fighting against historical and current oppression of black people?)
The movie causes just enough uncomfortableness but not enough to turn off white movie goers. The master criminal seeking to help his fellow blacks was angry but not enough to scare whites. (His foil was the black hero who came around to help fellow blacks worldwide without attacking or scaring whites in the world.)
The Black Panther was the prince and then king of a country in Africa, seemingly impoverished but actually a rich vibrant country hidden from the rest of the world. Due to a particular mineral abundant in Wakanda, they were quite advanced technologically, medically, and societally. Wakanda kept to themselves rather than help the rest of the world.
The king of Wakanda died in a bomb explosion and his son, the Black Panther, became the king in a ritual ceremony that brought various tribes together. In theory, anyone could physically challenge him for the kingship but no one did.
Until his previously unknown cousin showed up. His cousin was a product of a Wakandan (the Black Panther’s uncle) and an American. The uncle was killed for smuggling the secret Wakandan mineral out of Wakanda; his reasons were noble: to help the rest of the world. For that he was killed. For that his son—the Black Panther’s cousin—grew up bitter, preparing his whole life to return to Wakanda to fight for the kingship and then arm blacks globally with the technology from Wakanda so that they could rise up and destroy their oppressors. (This is where the uncomfortableness comes in…as a white woman, I share the skin color of the oppressors and those being targeted for destruction.)
As a comic book hero movie, there is lots of whiz-bang fighting. Of course, the hero wins the day. Besides the racial themes in the movie, there was a slight coming-into-one’s-own theme. In a ritual hallucination, the Black Panther ingests a special liquid, which allows him to visit his dead father. On the first visit, he is full of love and reverence, seeking reassurances about ruling without his father. On the second visit, he still loves his father but tells him he was wrong to keep Wakanda isolated and to refuse to help other blacks in the world. In his own journey, the Black Panther has discovered himself and separated from his father. He has truly become a king.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the costumes, some of which were rather stunning. I also was smitten by the strong female roles in the movie—the Black Panther’s mother, sister, love of his life, and the elite female guards that served to protect the throne and country. It was refreshing to see the strong roles given to women and blacks…and the themes that perhaps made some movie goers stop and think about history, society, and race relations.