The politics of Black Panther aren’t what you would expect from a movie that has been praised to the high heavens for “diverse” ethnic representation, and its worship by leftist ideologues.
Heavy spoilers follow.
In contrast to claims that the movie is only intended for an African American audience, the movie stands among one of the best films in Marvel’s movie franchise. It’s right up there with Iron Man and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and for good reason—the world of Wakanda is fleshed out, its characters have diverse personalities, and there’s an actual villain that’s more human than any of the other movies in the franchise.
Beyond that, its actors play their roles wholeheartedly and without any reservations. Director Ryan Coogler really has something to be proud of with Black Panther.
If it wasn’t for the superpowers and science fiction landscape, you’d almost forget you were watching a superhero movie. While there’s enough of the otherworldly to draw you in, it’s the characters at the heart of Black Panther who drive the two-hour ride.
Set a short while after the events of Civil War, Wakanda finds itself without a ruler (its king, T’Chaka, died in the terrorist attack at the United Nations) and Prince T’Challa (played by Chadwick Boseman) finds himself next in line—his impending coronation seemingly uncontested.
Following a bit of backstory about T’Challa’s uncle, who turned traitor to Wakanda some decades ago, his first challenge is to defeat an opponent—M’Baku (Winston Duke), the Man-Ape and one of the comic’s major villains—in one-on-one combat after he is given challenge during his rite to ascension as Wakanda’s ruler.
More than just mindless fodder for the Black Panther’s fists, M’Baku has a bone to pick with T’Challa and his cohorts whose lofty, technologically-driven lives have left Wakanda’s fifth tribe, the White Gorilla Cult, in a near-primitive state. Their crime was to reject the Wakandan monarchy, forcing them to live in isolation from the rest of Wakandan society.
These are the first cracks we, as the audience, see in the seemingly utopian nation—and T’Challa’s victory against M’Baku sets the prince-now crowned King—on the path to becoming a real leader.
As it’s explained, Wakanda managed to become a hidden superpower by remaining cloistered away from the rest of history while Europeans colonized the continent of Africa. Masquerading as simple herders on the outside, the Wakandans built themselves a small, but technologically-superior civilization with the use of Vibranium, described as the “strongest metal in the universe.” Its properties extend well beyond simple density, and offer all manner of technological benefits allowing the Wakandans to power their high-tech weapons, stealth jets, and of course the Black Panther suit.
However, their isolationism and refusal to engage with the outside world isn’t without its detractors on the inside. Some, like T’Challa’s love interest and ex-girlfriend, Nakia (played by Lupita Nyong’o), believe that Wakanda could be doing a lot more to help its African neighbors.
In fact, Black Panther begins with T’Challa and his bodyguard, Okoye (Danai Gurira), assisting Nakia in killing what appears to be a convoy of Boko Haram terrorists as they transport a group of kidnapped girls in his attempt to invite her to his coronation. Nakia’s the most worldly member of the crew, and it’s suggested that her previous falling out with T’Challa rests within their political views. She wants Wakanda to do more for the world, while T’Challa, following in the footsteps of his father, prefers to keep Wakanda isolated from global politics.
T’Challa’s worldview falls apart when he discovers that his father went so far as to kill his own brother (in defense of Zuri, played by Forrest Whitaker) and abandon his brother’s son to be raised as an orphan in the mean streets of Oakland. It’s all to defend the secret of Wakanda and shield it from the outside world, even to a boy of mixed Wakandan and African American heritage, whom he (presumably) deems unworthy of living among other Wakandans.
When T’Challa challenges his father in a supernatural dream sequence, he condemns the man for his closed-minded callousness.
It’s just one of the many examples of the movie’s interesting politics and its critique on the Wakandan ethnostate. A mixed-race child is neglected and abandoned to the world because he doesn’t fit into Wakandan society.
Naturally, the boy grows up and seeks to reclaim his heritage. Not your typical Wakandan, the boy, now Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), makes it his sole mission in life to reclaim his rightful place in Wakanda and hones himself into a killing machine, spending years as a Black Ops operator in the CIA for years, as he seeks out Wakandan artifacts throughout the globe and makes his way home.
Upon his arrival, Killmonger challenges T’Challa for the throne not merely as an act of revenge for his father’s death, but for social justice.
Yes, that’s right. He’s a social justice warrior who believes in righting the oppression of African peoples throughout history by becoming the oppressor of what the movie’s characters refer to as “colonizers”—white people, in other words. But he’s more than just a cardboard cutout.
An ideologue true and true, Killmonger doesn’t hesitate to kill anyone who gets in the way of his ideals, including his own girlfriend (the Bonnie to his Clyde, as Claw states), whom he dispatches in a heartbeat after she’s grabbed as a human shield by Claw (Andy Serkis), the mercenary whose death facilitates his entry into Wakanda.
As it turns out, he’s been playing the long con with Claw, who previously worked with his father, and killed many Wakandans while smuggling out Vibranium. This satisfies W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) after T’Challa is unable to capture Claw, and Killmonger finds himself an ally in Wakandan high society.
Much like Killmonger, W’Kabi has his own motivations. Seeking justice for his family’s death at the hands of Claw, W’Kabi is willing to cast T’Challa aside for someone who can actually get the job done. And much like Nakia, he doesn’t believe Wakanda should just sit back and do nothing while the rest of the world goes to hell.
Killmonger challenges T’Challa for the crown and wins after pushing him down a waterfall, thereby becoming Wakanda’s new ruler. Much like T’Challa’s previous fight with M’Baku, it’s a scene reminiscent of the battles in Assassin’s Creed: Origins.
In other words, it’s pretty damn entertaining.
Whereas Nakia wants to intervene in world politics through diplomacy and outreach, W’Kabi believes in global conquest. Naturally, his views are in line with Killmonger’s social justice views and the two set out to deliver Wakandan firepower to resistance forces across the globe, facilitated by the nation’s spies and any oppressed person sympathetic to the concept of social revolution.
Despite being an ideologue, it’s easy to see where Killmonger’s worldviews come from. He was undoubtedly shaped by his rough upbringing as an orphan in Oakland, followed by years of intense military training and experience as a modern-day warrior in some of the world’s most oppressive shitholes.
I might even sympathize with him, if he didn’t forsake his humanity for his ideals.
Although assumed dead, T’Challa is instead rescued by his former rival, M’Baku, and he sets out to prevent Killmonger from carrying out his plans.
Naturally, Killmonger and the Black Panther face off in battle as Wakandan’s elite forces have something of an impromptu civil war that’s everything the big battle in the third Captain America movie should’ve been, and then some.
Killmonger’s plans to export the weapons are cut short when CIA agent Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman) has a Top Gun moment with a high-tech drone provided by T’Challa’s sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright), and downs the supply planes before they leave Wakandan airspace.
It’s an interesting moment to consider, as a white man and CIA agent plays his part in saving the world from the brink of global revolution, and the Wakandans depend on his skill as a former Air Force pilot to pull it off. Did I mention that they decide to save his life (or possible paralysis) after he takes a bullet in the spine to save Nakia earlier on in the film? There’s no racism here.
The last 30 minutes of the film are an exciting rollercoaster filled with large-scale hand-to-hand combat in the field (where M’Baku even shows up to kick some ass), and a one-on-one between Black Panther and Killmonger fully geared up in an underground mine with levitating trains running through.
Of course, even though T’Challa wins the fight, I couldn’t help but feel sympathetic toward Killmonger, who refuses to have his wound treated and opts for death. He says he doesn’t want to spend the rest of his life in shackles, much like his (non-Wakandan) ancestors, and asks to be buried at sea. It’s a poignant moment as he remains true to his ideals, however misguided.
At the end, T’Challa, learning from his experience, realizes that Wakanda’s old ways of staying apart from the world were what led to the conflict in the first place. After all, while isolationism might’ve worked for Wakanda for centuries, it’s unconscionable to remain aloof while the rest of the world goes to hell with global terrorism and interstellar (and interdimensional) alien invaders. However, despite his pledge to help the world, he remains the king of Wakanda, first and foremost.
The Black Panther states simply that “we are all one tribe.” And in the face of real-world suffering, we certainly are. Strife doesn’t give a damn about identity politics.
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