Black Panther is nothing short of a rock-solid Marvel movie. It tells an interesting story with interesting characters, it is fun, and it is deeper than it seems to deserve (a-la Captain America: The Winter Soldier). The performances are great (with Michael B. Jordan and Andy Serkis absolutely stealing the show), the action is thrilling, and the plot is as airtight as Marvel blockbuster fare can be. Is it the best Marvel movie yet? Not in my opinion. Is it damn good? Without a doubt.
With that out of the way, I want to dive into the politics of the film.
Some spoilers ahead.
Many of us have seen, or are aware of, the socio-political firestorm that erupted in certain corners of the internet after the release of Black Panther. Many reviewers and individuals online brand it as one of three things: 1) a scathing indictment of colonialism in Africa and around the world that tells of an African society that should have been, 2) a pseudo-blasphemous, anti-Trump, anti-white dumpster fire of the most epic proportions, or 3) a ringing endorsement of the current popular nationalist political movements that have built up a hearty head of steam in the latter 20-teens.
The truth, of course, lies somewhere in the middle. But first, there is one group of people in particular who need to be educated.
The Black Panther (alter ego: T’Challa, King of Wakanda) is a political character at his core. He was invented by two ethnic Jews in 1966, in the pages of one of the most successful comics of the time, Fantastic Four. He was a black African and super-genius kicking absolute ass next to the lily-white “First Family of Comics.” He was a political statement as much as the X-Men were (and they really, really were).
With that in mind, we should not be surprised when Marvel and the production team stay true to the political roots of the character. Those of you who say that “politics don’t belong in Marvel movies” or “that’s not what these characters are about,” you couldn’t be more wrong.
Now that we all understand the context of the Black Panther character, what politics are actually in this movie? Well, all of them that are relevant. The film ignores nothing, including fatherlessness in black communities, neo-colonialism around the world, resource extraction and exploitation, and, most interestingly, nationalism and ethno-nationalism.
The former few are all pretty surface-level in the film and aren’t really addressed beyond the first half-or-so of the movie, but the latter... Oh god, the latter.
Diving right in, T’Challa comes from an ultra-nationalist tradition in Wakanda. If you saw Captain America: Civil War, you know that his father, T’Chaka, was killed while at the UN, planning to open up relations between Wakanda and the rest of the world. T’Challa chooses to continue this work by the end of the film, indicating that the politics of the movie are anti-nationalist at their core. In fact, the mid-credits sequence has T’Challa stating that “We are all one tribe.” T’Challa is no nationalist, is no racial supremacist, and he is no “Wakanda First” politician.
The villain is, for all intents and purposes, an ethno-nationalist. Erik Killmonger, the cousin of T’Challa, wants to distribute Wakandan weapons technology to socially-downtrodden, black communities around the world in the hopes that it will trigger an uprising (ostensibly, a race war), and the world will be reshaped with those of African decent at the top of the social hierarchy. I’ll say again, this is the villain's plan.
The distinction between T’Challa and his cousin seems to have been lost on a broad swath of the viewing public, regardless of political stripe. Some right-wing (American-style) voices proclaim that T’Challa is a Trump-like nationalist who wants to maintain Wakanda’s closed borders and hostility to the notion of internationalism. Some left-wing (again, American-style) adherents see Killmonger’s plan as a brilliant, albeit caricatured, ploy in service of Social Justice and racial equity.
Both of these views are not only wrong, they are indicative of a drastic and dangerous problem with the current political discourse:
No. One. F*cking. Listens.
This movie is not Inception. You cannot, and were not meant to, take from it whatever meaning you wanted. For better or worse, agree or disagree, this movie had a very clear and salient political message. Nationalism is bad, ethno-nationalism is bad, and the only way forward is together.
T’Challa, our hero, abandoned the hard-line nationalism of his forebears in favor of international dialogue and outreach to black communities. Erik Killmonger’s idea of social equity was contingent on stamping out those who he perceived as having greater social capital (let’s not kid ourselves, he wanted to kill white people), and he was the goddamned bad guy.
I have seen, in recent days, the hashtag #WakandaForever next to vitriolic hate and despicable messages of ethno-nationalism in equal measure. I have seen the hashtag #BlackPanther followed immediately by Trumpian messages of semi-militant nationalism and political ignorance, again, in equal measure. This has saddened me greatly.
However, I have also seen both of these used with a real understanding of what they actually mean. #WakandaForever is not a symbol of division, but one of awareness and respect for all peoples and of pride in who you are. #BlackPanther does not represent some foolish notion of national superiority but instead, like the character, it represents the good that can be done when people put aside their differences and move forward with compassion and understanding, a single wave of raw human potential.
These beautiful people understand the moral compass of our hero and the driving force of the film. The goal is not to divide, but to bring all of mankind together as one tribe. Nations be damned, governments be damned, and the fascistic aims of militant ethno-nationalists be very, very damned.
And did I mention the movie was damn good?