That took you long enough: thoughts on Black Panther

I love how it took a panel to make me break my “eh I’ll wait for Netflix” self-promise but yes I have finally watched Black Panther. Now to be clear…

  • Yes I loved it from the start and followed the hype like everyone else. This is not a case of me being contrarian.
  • No I do not think the movie is a ‘sell out’ of Afrofuturism or that making Afrofuturism more mainstream is a bad thing. I was really happy it was being made, really happy it was so overtly marketed as ‘Afrofuturistic’ (even my white friends got into it! 😄).
  • OK so I am a bit meh on superhero movies in general but that’s not why I didn’t watch it in the cinemas.

Honestly? It was a mix of timing, me living on my overdraft and also… well, it didn’t need my help. It broke box office record after box office record so. Yeah. It was doing just fine.

But then I got invited to a panel on AfroFuturism in a post-Black Panther world at the Nine Worlds 2018 convention and thought… yeah I should actually watch it. And what I saw, well, it genuinely surprised me.

I think I was mostly surprised by the emotional impact it had on me. From all the reviews and the feedback I’ve heard from friends and folks I respect the most, I was expecting something rousing and fun and obviously very cool but to be honest, not much more than that. Which is fine, by the way – it’s a superhero movie and I’m a cynical cow.

As it turned out, part of the emotional impact was the frustration I felt that the Marvel superhero movie structure meant the movie couldn’t fully be the Acheban tragedy it clearly is.

But before I get into that.

The positives.

As a superhero movie, it’s totally fine. It seemed to balance humour, action and pathos quite well. I loved the set design, the costume design and the CGI done for the landscapes. Some really beautiful stuff there which communicated the cultural and geographic diversity of Wakanda.

As well as balancing humour with story, pacing is a major problem I have with the Marvel movies I’ve seen so far. This is probably exacerbated by the fact I haven’t watched them in order and with no real context, a fact that explains why the Ant-Man movie was a genuinely odd success with me, even though the character for me is definitely on the C-list of superheroes and much of the story is pretty standard in its narrative beats.

This wasn’t too much of an issue for me this time. The film managed to have a genuine sense of completion by maintaining a certain tone and pace throughout the movie. For example the final scene of T’Challa and Shuri in Oakland perfectly balanced the movies opening where we’re introduced to the story of Wakanda. The development of a Wakandan outreach centre felt grounded in the history we were introduced to, like the next chapter in the story of Wakanda which would be told to Shuri’s descendants. Was it in the subtle mirroring between the kids running towards the aircraft against the backdrop of urban Oakland, and the movement of figures against the Wakandan landscape in the prologue? See what you think from the screen caps:

The acting was good all around. It was so fascinating watching T’Challa’s development from a prince to a King and Chadwick Boseman demonstrated real subtlety in his depiction of a maturing monarch.

One thing that did surprise me, considering a lot of the think pieces that have been focussed on how great it was to see an African – albeit science fiction – nation that had never been colonised was… just how colonised Wakanda seemed to be! The intense desire for self protection and the way it was done, to the point where one of the original tribes was essentially cut off from the main trunk of Wakandan society, was a greater theme than I realised. Almost every line about Wakandan culture had a reference to keeping away from the wider world, visually communicated in the prologue where we see figures being led away in chains as the narrator tells us why Wakanda hid itself from the world. This, for me, did not depict a non-colonised nation. On the contrary, the underlying insecurity showed it to be a prisoner of its perhaps legitimate fears. It was… an unexpected complexity.

On the other hand…

I found the accents distracting (the Nigerian accents were painful and as someone who spends the majority of her spare time watching K-Drama, even I could tell the market lady was not a native South Korean speaker) and some of the acting a bit on the nose.

Also, Ramonda should have been Queen. No really, in many African royal traditions (as in some ancient middle eastern traditions apparently), the King’s mother is the Queen, not the King’s wife.

And let’s be real. Who wouldn’t want to see Angela Basset as AfroFuturist Queen?

So.

Why the frustration?

Before I get into that, I want to step back to a student struggling with depression in a Manchester flat sometime in 2010. A massive anime fan, she decided to finally check out a series that kept getting shout outs on io9 and The Mary Sue, in spite of her misgivings about American anime – especially that targeted at children – in general.

That anime was Avatar: The Last Airbender and what blew me away was how it handled an ending that I had been dreading as much as I had been anticipating it. Because generally… Americans are terrible at endings. They’re either irritatingly bleak or laden with a forced positivity. Either way, there’s often something that’s forced where the story isn’t allowed to end on its own terms. After such a long journey with characters who had grown and developed in maturity and ability, what ending could possibly do such a series justice?

But the Last Airbender blew me away with an ending that honoured the needs of the story, the needs of western narrative tradition, and the needs of the characters. Aang, by not killing the Fire Lord Ozai, finds a way of reconciling his faith and his duty in spite of what many well intentioned associates (and past lives!) might have advised. It showed an unexpected maturity that has deeply impacted me since, not least because it showed what was possible with story endings.

I also think it has at least subconsciously inspired (or given confidence to) the approach of animations like Steven Universe where kindness are compassion are shown to be constantly balanced with justice and firm, sometimes militant action. Both these shows demonstrate what is possible from a narrative standpoint, if creators are allowed to respect both the demands of narrative and the needs of their characters.

Where am I going with this?

Well, as I said, the story of Killmonger and T’Challa is a tragedy of the likes Achebe would write (no really, go read ‘No Longer at Ease‘). The story of Killmonger is that of a young man effectively abandoned by his family who grows warped by bitterness to become a killer and ultimately a tyrant. I wince when I read comparisons to Malcolm X, or the jubilant shout outs to his ‘militant’ stance. For me, Killmonger is nothing like a militant or an activist but more reminds me of the young men who use big academic and activist rhetoric to mask deep pits of despair. His final line I guess is kind of rousing until you realise… he wasn’t being asked to accept enslavement. Literally, all that was going to happen was that he no longer got to be King anymore and oh no, punished for his crimes. It’s like he’s just mouthing off impressive statements to avoid the depths of feeling he occasionally reveals, (but usually at the point of extreme pain and suffering), when his self control slips. He’s simply an angry boy. Well read, but a boy nonetheless.

And in a time when we’re discussing what a 21st century pan-Africanism looks like, the ending frustrated me because it didn’t feel like an organic end for either character: neither for T’Challa, who has grown to accept the call of the ‘narrow path’ as seen from the way he critiques and challenges his father’s actions but not allowed to fulfil, unlike Aang in the Last Airbender; nor Killmonger who through his time in Wakanda and by the end of the fight had just about been stripped of all machismo and forced to a spiritual and psychological place where learning might have been able to happen.

Nor even for the demands of the story. On that latter point, aside from Wakanda opening its doors to the world, the other story need relies more on the sociological context in which the movie was produced i.e. the need for another kind of black centred narrative. But both story needs (“Wakanda opens up to the world and gets over its weird ass xenophobic self” and “Black people need interesting and complex narratives that don’t focus on gang life and war lords and famines”) are either wholly sacrificed or undermined by the movie’s choice to have Killmonger die.

At least there is nothing triumphant in T’Challa when he and Shuri arrive in Oakland. The tragedy of Killmonger is acknowledged. Here was a boy whose dreams did come true (he got to see Wakanda!) and yet we as the audience know was never really made fully aware of the truth behind his fathers death. There is not even a real sense that Wakanda has learned its lessons (not that I am black working class but I grew up in areas of Wandsworth that looked a bit like Oakland and earnestly wanted to slap Shuri at her intensely arrogant judgement. The African Union are not going to look on Wakanda too kindly, I suspect) and it was frustrating that T’Challa was not allowed to fulfil the calling of the ‘narrow way’ which he was beginning to espouse as King. It was frustrating that when much of Africa is still finding ways of healing from civil wars, sectarianism and tribalism, (yes initially inflamed by colonialism but with ripples through to the present day), when black diasporan communities are still having difficulty communicating our oppressive experiences in white majority countries to each other, that in spite of the AfroFuturist trappings, we are in a way given what is a basic and tiresome stereotypical resolution. Machismo posturing, fighting and death.

Overall, I thought Black Panther is important as a phenomenon and a pretty good movie. As a superhero movie, it couldn’t be the tragedy it was clearly meant to be but unfortunately (for me) that also resulted in not giving T’Challa’s arc the appropriate emotional resolution.

But that’s what it is. I left Wakanda sad and slightly empty. Still, knowing me, I will be no doubt watching this many times over on Netflix when it comes out!

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