Why Marvel’s Black Panther is detached from real Black history

Having the first Black superhero movie from a major studio, populated by Black talent in front of and behind the camera, comes with a bitter pill

Before the Marvel logo flashes across the screen in Black Panther, promising all the whiz-bang action and amiable banter that Hollywood’s most lucrative factory line does, co-writer and director Ryan Coogler takes us back to Oakland 1992. Two Black men (one of them played by This Is Us’s Sterling K. Brown) appear to be plotting a drive-by in a crucial scene that is unlike anything we’ve seen from the Marvel brand.

Coogler backtracks more than three decades to the year of the L.A. Riots, visiting his hometown. Oakland is where Bobby Seale and Huey Newton gave birth to the Black Panther party and where Oscar Grant (the subject of Coogler’s debut feature, Fruitvale Station) was violently and tragically laid to rest by police.

That personal and historical specificity is a far cry from Wakanda, the fictional Afrocentric country Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa (aka Black Panther) calls home. 

It’s also the first step in Coogler’s heartfelt and critical effort to bridge the gap between Black people and the Black superhero at the moment the connection between the two is only skin deep.

While audiences are celebrating Black Panther’s arrival with community screenings and the #WhatBlackPantherMeansToMe hashtag, Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole’s prologue instigates a heartfelt interrogation of the very superhero the movie is about.

They seem to recognize that the momentousness of having the first Black superhero movie from a major studio, populated with Black talent in front and behind the camera, comes with a bitter pill. 

T’Challa doesn’t come from Oakland, or Atlanta, or Somalia. He’s not a superhero rising up from the circumstance, discrimination and oppression that his race has widely endured. He’s arriving on the big screen in the middle of Black History month, but his character hails from an alternative history. 

His home, according to both the comic books and the movie, is a secret nation hidden from plain sight in Africa. Wakanda thrives from a near-magical mineral, “vibranium,” which fuels its futuristic technology and social progress. The country is a spectacular sight, imagining how an African culture could thrive when untouched by colonization and slavery, when it’s cocooned from the rest of the world. The place is both idealized and alien, and it’s where the comic book creators imagined the first Black superhero would rise. 

Black Panther’s power is rooted in his detachment from the Black experience. 

The movie doesn’t let that slide. (If you want to completely avoid spoilers, stop reading and come back after seeing it.)

There are characters, like Lupita Nyong’o’s Nakia, who challenge the mythology, questioning Wakanda’s insularity and its responsibility to the rest of the world, particularly during an African refugee crisis. And then there’s the character presented as an alternative to T’Challa: Erik Killmonger, played by Coogler’s regular collaborator Michael B. Jordan.

Let’s go back to that prologue, which actually comes in two parts. First there’s an animated sequence recounting the fictional history behind Wakanda. That’s T’Challa’s roots, and it bumps up against the Oakland sequence, which is Killmonger’s roots.

Between Boseman’s stoic T’Challa and Jordan’s Killmonger, the movie’s emotional investment subversively lives with the latter, and not just because Jordan infuses his character with passion, fury and a sense of fist-pumping righteousness.

Killmonger would perhaps be an ideal superhero. Like Batman, he’s motivated by trauma. But he doesn’t have Bruce Wayne’s privilege (or any kind of superhero privilege). So he takes. He takes lives and power. He’s a villain by circumstance, a villain hellbent on making Wakanda answer for its ignorance. 

In a beautiful, hallucinatory sequence, as Killmonger reaches peak villain and assumes his powers, he sees his childhood apartment transported into a multi-coloured African dreamscape. Wakanda’s glow brightens up his old room.

It’s an intimate fantasy carrying historic weight, as well as the most dramatically fraught and heart-wrenching moment in any Marvel movie.

And it dares to ask: can Oakland and Wakanda ever share the same space?

movies@nowtoronto.com | @justsayrad

See our review of Black Panther here

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