Rethinking Black Panther

I remember going to the theater to see Black Panther with a friend; both of us being African-American. There were people dressed in traditional African clothing and it was something truly beautiful. People were proud of being African or of African descent for the first time in a while. I was never so much a contrarian to think the movie was bad but there were parts that I found deeply problematic and unsettling. But with the pandemic, too much time to kill and my friend’s generous access to her family’s Disney+ account, I’ve rewatched Black Panther several times recently. This rewatch has been affected by a few things that have changed in the world and in my world since the movie’s original release in 2018; namely the death of lead actor Chadwick Boseman and the continued pressures of racism and racial violence in the U.S. So we’re gonna talk about it. 

Let’s start with a major gripe I had about the movie at first which was pan-Africanism and cultural appropriation. At first I was very bothered by the picking and choosing of various African motifs and clothes for Wakanda. You see various African cultures represented during the first trial scene and at first watch, that bothered me. Many of those cultures and traditions had nothing to do with each other but to show them off as all related and to a fictional land in Africa just bothered me as lazy costume design and story-telling. Not to say that the outfits weren’t executed with care: everyone looked great but it just sat wrong with me. On the third or so watch or so, I cared much less and was mostly just glad to see nice costumes. Now as far as the cultural appropriation goes; I still have an issue with it and it’s one that may shock some readers and is an instance hiding in plain sight. Hanuman is a real Hindu deity and while I do love M’Baku, his is using a god that is still worshiped by millions. Now, I don’t feel that strongly about the movie’s appropriation of Baast mostly because while she is worshiped by some pagans; the religion of the ancient Egyptians is not one still commonly practiced. The cultural appropriation still sits a little raw with me but I’m less willing to openly show displeasure about it: maybe I’m getting old. 

Next up has to do with one of the biggest changes in opinion I’ve had on the film and that has to do with Chadwick Boseman. Now, the first time I saw the movie and the other MCU films that had Black Panther in it; I was always a little put off by Boseman’s almost sleepy performance. To quote a conversation I had with a friend: “It looks like he’s delivering every line with his dick being cut off.” I was really concerned about the utter lack of charisma the King of Wakanda had and that stayed with me until late last year when the news hit. Chadwick Boseman passed away after a lengthy and secret battle with cancer; meaning that all the roles he did for the MCU, he was in treatment for and dealing with a serious medical condition. It put things in perspective for many who had looked at Boseman as someone who just never seemed to match the energy of the other big personalities in the room when playing T’Challa. Even if your canon version of the King of Wakanda was one of the more regal and stoic types, Boseman to many (myself included) just seemed particularly low-energy without the context of a man who was battling disease and mostly suffering in silence. When the news of his death reached the masses, I felt like an immediate jerk: I was determined to take back every mean thing I had ever said because death tends to make saints of men but upon watching Black Panther a few more times I’ve come to a more balanced conclusion. Yes, the performance is subdued in comparison but really, everyone is except for Shuri who…we’ll get to. It’s a mostly laid back movie despite the stakes and message of the film. In his own movie, Boseman’s more flat affectation as T’Challa makes sense and though it does still stand out in other movies where he may not match the charisma of RDJ or Chris Evans: it’s still a good performance. 

The battle in the climax of the film does nothing for me as it is still just CGI blobs fighting in dark CGI nothing-scape. Angela Bassett is literally wearing baskets on her head. Everyone’s accents are inconsistent and weird. Andy Serkis is…I suppose, happy to be a human being on camera? The movie has flaws still but upon many rewatches, I find it more and more enjoyable. We’re not done yet; we’re finally going to tackle who may replace Killmonger as “Character I Wish Would Fall into a Pit” the most: Shuri. 

At first, Shuri was a funny character to me. I liked how funny and charming she was and she acted as a good foil to T’Challa’s more traditional and subdued personality. I was okay with her and her memes and the nonsense technology Wakanda has with its let’s say loose use of vibranium but after watching the movie a few times again; Shuri began to wear on me the most. She just knows too much in the way that many characters that are not written that well are. She has an answer to everything, a solution to everything; she’s very much written like a Mary Sue insert character. Now, I get that canonically she’s meant to be very smart and there’s a way to show that. Shuri is no Tony Stark, there’s just something about her that makes her quickness to correct people irksome (it’s probably internalized misogyny). 

Now onto the character I had the most issue with on my first watch and still have issues with now: Killmonger. Killmonger is touted as one of the most complex, most right and best villains in the MCU and while yes, his motivations are, I suppose, better than Klaue’s or Ultron’s; I don’t think he’s all that right. Being black, I’ve seen his rhetoric. I’ve seen the class of ideals between peace and violence. Being the PR savvy person I am, I’ve always chosen peace. In my opinion, oftentimes, violence makes an entire group look bad and has rarely been a good way to get a point across. Exceptions exist for sure but on a whole I’ve never supported revolution that way. And Killmonger’s idea to just arm random black folk and hope that it will be a big enough show of force just turned my stomach. However, after seeing the horrific backslide we’ve made in the last few years when it comes to police brutality, racism, acts of violence and domestic terrorism: maybe he has a point. Maybe being nice isn’t getting us far. I still won’t ever advocate for violence on the scale he planned but after seeing so many unarmed black men die at the hands of the police who are meant to protect us: yeah, fuck up that Target. 

I’ve had plenty of time to think about the media I ingest and why I ingest it. I can’t and won’t deny the impact Black Panther had on society and for black people. It was empowering to see an Africa not in strife and to see black excellence. It was empowering to see people use the Wakandan salute in real life to greet each other as a show of respect. I personally wouldn’t mind calling more white people “colonizer” when they speak out of turn or barking at them like M’Baku does. If this movie gave black kids someone to look up to, aspire to be, admire; then I’m not here to harsh anyone’s yums. I’ve had time to let my opinions mellow and change as the times have changed and because of that I’m still happy to say: Wakanda Forever. 

Framing Is Everything

“The tyrant dies and his rule is over, the martyr dies and his rule begins.” ― Søren Kierkegaard.png

There was one aspect of Black Panther that settled in my stomach, rough and raw for weeks after I saw the film. It left a bitter taste in my mouth and left a haze of a film that I had mostly praised.  It was around the issue of Erik Killmonger. I mentioned it in my review of the movie so I’ll get straight to the point. The issue I have with Killmonger is a framing problem. His actions, his motives, his motivations, his everything is framed as “perfectly fine” and that is to be very frank, troubling as hell. Killmonger is compelling, heartbreaking, tragic, real and very valid. His anger is rational and he is very much a sympathetic character. So when Erik says radical things like “Hey, maybe we should make our own militant colonizing force.” and similar statements, he sounds like a rational, logical young man. How else would one expect for someone in his position to feel and act?

And in his final moments, there was the line that burrowed deep into my gut and remained there. “Death over bondage.” (Yes, I’m paraphrasing but in my horror, that was all I heard.). And that brings up to framing.

Framing in film language is how a thing is set up. We code (another film and sociology term) lots of things about characters and setting based on framing. A hero is a hero because of swelling music, bright colors, bright clothes and handsome looks. A villain is a villain because of dark music and tones and velvet and other things that make a villain a villain.

And framing done wrong is just as bad as framing done not strongly enough. Poor framing gives up the Victorian mustache twirling villain and the overly Jesus-like hero. Now, weak framing does a similar thing were a bad guy doesn’t seem so bad. Let’s take a scene from Rent that Folding Ideas and Lindsay Ellis both took umbrage with and that I mentioned in my post about Rent. There’s a scene in both the musical and movie during the whole No Day But Today thing where Mimi stands out in the cold with her posse that doesn’t know here while Roger remains in his ivory tower refusing to come down and play. But the framing makes it look like Roger is a stuck up mean guy for not wanting to leave his lonely life but really, his concerns are valid. Mimi is a known stripper and drug-user and Roger is a recovering drug addict with HIV. He has every reason to not want to be with her but the framing makes Mimi’s lack of care, concern or logic seem good and warm while Roger’s very valid logic and hesitation is framed negatively and that’s just not fair.

But plenty of films recently have had framing problems. A big example that comes to mind is actually both Kingsman films. We’ll use the first one mostly because it’s my favorite. Valentine is compelling, charming, charismatic and in parts of the movies just plain right. He has lots of ideas about how the Earth is going to hell and how to stop global warming. The problem is that his plan involves a violent mass genocide. But by the time he gets to the “I want a lot of people to die.” part, he just sounds like a pretty okay guy with a good plan to save the world. And that is a framing problem. The film around him has done a piss poor job of saying “Hey, watcher of this film, this man’s ideas are not good.”

Anime has had this problem for easily 20 years with antagonists and villains who are far more relatable than their hero mains. I’ve been paneling about this topic for literally almost 5 years. Many times, this is done to create more empathetic villains while also giving the hero/main something to do but again, it’s weak storytelling when your villain is more compelling than your protagonist.

Which brings up back to Black Panther. Erik’s sympathetic backstory makes it easy to ignore some of the venom that drips from his mouth. And in today’s current socio-political climate, I am sure that many see his vision as logical, sure a little radical, but surely sound. We’ve seen militancy fail over and over again for African-Americans. And while Black Panther does kill off Killmonger, his actions and words leave a heavy shadow over the film.

How do we correct such framing issues? Well, by simply not rewarding them. We’ve talked about characters getting what they deserve in a previous post and that is one of the best ways to combat poor framing. At least in Black Panther, Erik does not make it to the end of the movie but his message lives on and forces T’Challa and the people of Wakanda to think more closely about their isolationism. Not glorifying clearly horrible things is easy to do in real life but difficult to impose upon fictional characters. Consequences are vital. Erik’s rage rightfully makes him too unstable for this world and his exit is a pained sigh of relief. And those consequences don’t always mean death. Think of Loki in the rest of the Marvel movies: he is denied empathy at every turn despite his actions being mostly reprehensible. And movies are particularly fertile ground for framing issues. When you’re a handsome and well-known actor, you want screen time and being a mustache-twirling villain can be fun but often means that you are not on screen very long. Additionally, movies are a complex and visual media, creating sympathetic and likable characters is vital to keeping your audience’s interest. And I’m happy to see more complex characters, it has come at the cost of clearer storytelling. And I love morally ambiguous stories but those still have the stakes and consequences vital to keeping such narratives afloat. Valentine still dies at the end of Kingsman. Poppy for sure dies at the end of Kingsman 2. And if we’re talking anime then most of the time, the villain goes down with his or her overly complicated plan in a blaze of flames and glory.

Framing is a vital part of writing but an even more vital part of film and other visual media. How a character, scene and act are framed tells you a lot about how to feel about this character, the scenario and about the work. And when you frame a bad guy as a pious saint, you not only risk betraying your work but you risk muddying the waters of your own narrative.

Thoughts from Wakanda: Musings after Seeing Black Panther

I was afraid to see this movie.

I was afraid that people were going to cinnamon roll the hell out of this film. I was afraid that people were only going to see a diverse cast and ignore any flaws or faults in this film and mostly that has not been true.

Dear reader, I really liked that movie. I loved that movie. It isn’t perfect, but while it’s still fresh in my mind: I wanted to pen down a few of the thoughts about The Black Panther and what it means right now to be black, to be African-American, to be a nerd and to leave a movie theater while pterodactyl screeching.

  • Okay, so Alamo Drafthouse decked this movie out with some of the best promo material and all. Seriously, I’m getting spoiled to the Drafthouse. And all the previews made me giggle.
  • I had the pleasure of seeing this movie with my friend who is also named Amanda and she is white and real talk: she was way more excited to see this movie than I was and we spent a lot of time talking about the fact that this movie is objectively more important to me but she was the one screaming about Wakanda.
  • We also got to have several moments where she wanted to compliment women in beautiful African dress but didn’t feel it was right, so in those times I acted as her surrogate: not that I didn’t also find these outfits beautiful, I’ve seen them before and they don’t hold the same meaning to me.
  • Additionally, I don’t think much of Africa: I came from a family that was never much tied to our own blackness. Remembering Africa meant remembering Slavery and my family chose to focus on bettering their lives than remembering a land so many of us didn’t know.

Here’s a good place for me to talk about my position on and history with Black Panther before the Marvel movies. Truthfully, my favorite run of his was during the 90s and 2000s when he was very much rooted in radical Afro-excellence while also still being very much the blacksploitation character he was created to be. I never had an issue with that as a youth but also fully know we cannot have the superhero equivalent of Coming to America now in 2018.
Let’s actually talk about the movie now: there will likely be spoilers.

  • The casting is AMAZING. There is not a single role that feels out of place or wrong. There is no one role that stood out more to me but dammit everyone was great.
  • I will say it was powerful as hell to see a movie full of beautiful, strong and important black people on screen. So powerful that I did not know that was something I needed until I saw it.
  • The action set pieces may be some of the best done by a Marvel movie: and while they’re actually pretty scarce: this is not as action-heavy as say Civil War was, it was still amazing.
  • The new suit is great, the special effects are great and the soundtrack was great.
  • I did not expect this movie to take me on the emotional ride it did. This movie is not dead parent approved but I am okay with that.
  • Also, how dare another comic book movie make a villian that ends up making more sense than the hero.
  • Andy Serkis is a treasure and it’s so good to see him on screen.
  • Martin Freeman is also a treasure and his American accent is quite good.
    • I was very impressed by this.
  • It was AMAZING to see women of color use technology and be more brilliant than Tony Stark in places.
  • The entire plot of how to deal with African wealth vs. African-American struggle hit me like I did not expect a comic book movie could.
  • I was giddy over the use of Zulu weapons and formations.
    • Seriously, this was like a LARP of the Deadliest Warrior episode that pitted Shaka Zulu against William Wallace.
  • SEEING WARRIOR WOMEN MADE ME SCREAM.
  • Stick around for that post-credits scene. It did upset me but it also did make me smile a little bit.
  • Killmonger is a very human character and his deadpan reactions to things added levity in places there needn’t be levity.
  • There was not a single character that felt out of place and that’s good for a Marvel movie.
  • The small cultural touches made me giddy. Killmonger’s scarification, the tattooed heads of warrior women…lip plates. ALL OF IT made me so happy. Yes, it is pan-Africanism but in the moment it was AWESOME.
  • There are lines in this movie that are so well-delivered that I almost choked on my Mr. Pibb several times. And that’s a damn good thing.

Now in this confluence of praise, I do have some issues with this film:

  • Killmonger is complex and his narrative is very interesting…is a word…it very much did remind me of the actual Black Panther party for better or worse. There’s just one problem with this: we have learned from history that militant African-Americans is not the way to promote equality. And his words ring so true in this era that many people likely will not see this as a problem: and that is the problem.
  • That’s actually just a general issue I had with the film that it does seem like the “villain’s” point of view is likely now one shared by many and in making such a sympathetic antagonist, his viewpoint: which mind you is wrong, seems very okay and normal and a valid way to feel.
  • This is a minor nitpick but the pan-Africanism did start to wear on me as the movie went on. There are so many different languages, religions, clothes and mannerisms that make each country in Africa unique so to see them all sort of just appropriated for the sake of a cool shot: it’s a minor pick but it did wear on me. And while in one breath I can say it’s cool, it also isn’t ideal. And yes, I know this is a fictional African-land but you’re in my world now, so deal with the nitpick.
  • Also there’s a Gorilla tribe that says to be loyal to Hanuman, who is a Hindu deity, which irked me. Not to say there are not Hindu people in Africa: but I’m sure the screenwriter needed a monkey god and just happened to find one.
  • This movie is tensionless. That isn’t a bad thing but despite all the hardship: we know T’Challa will be okay. We know he’s gonna be in Infinity Wars. But a lack of tension isn’t all terrible: just an annoying part of the whole franchise thing.
  • That post-credits scene did upset me a little because it didn’t seem like it was doing much but setting up the next movie and normally I’d be okay with that but as of yesterday, it made me the angry.
  • Some of the humor is meta and out of place and even though I laughed, it is still weak writing.

But all of that side, this movie is iconic and important. I never felt attached to being of African descent but for a moment, in a theater full of people in their finest cultural garb or even those of us just in dresses from Forever 21. I felt an attachment to a fictional place like no other. I felt beautiful and strong for being African-American and I didn’t feel weird for being black, being a geek and loving technology. This movie was the film we needed right now with our current…concerns as a nation and planet. And sure, I had problems with this movie but I am not going to let my personal issues with it diminish how important this film must be to people of color and people in general.
This is the opposite of Wonder Woman for me. Wonder Woman was a passable movie that you couldn’t critique because of how important it was. Black Panther is a great movie that also happens to be very important and while it isn’t perfect: it’s very easy to ignore those flaws.
But this movie is very much a product of today, right now and where we are as a nation, as people and as humans on this planet. It’s one of the biggest reasons I do not think this movie will age well: I think it so perfectly encapsulates what it means to be of color in an unkind world right now. This is not a perfect movie but considering that I walked in assuming that I would not like it and left hooting should tell you just how I feel about this film. It’s political, emotional and real and all coming from a character most only know because of his brief comic book marriage to a more iconic superhero.
I won’t say Wakanda Forever, because that isn’t the goal and shouldn’t be the goal. The goal is to be kind to each other, be better people and help when appropriate. So with that being said: Wakanda For Now.
And long may T’Challa reign.