Y’all. I saw Black Panther at a Friday matinee and it was packed. Every showing has been packed. This movie means a lot to a lot of people, partly because it’s so unapologetically Black, and partly because it’s one hell of a superhero movie. I have a lot to say about how incredible and important this movie is, so get settled in. This is going to be a long ride.
Oh, and this review is NOT spoiler free, so make sure you’ve seen the movie first.
If you’ve been paying attention on Twitter you’ve seen the hashtag #WhatBlackPantherMeansToMe. It was started by Kayla Sutton, director of online marketing for Black Girl Nerds, when she tweeted about how she was thrilled her son could finally see a whole movie full of people who look like him.
Sharing this experience with my son, who jumps and shakes with excitement every time he sees his favorite comic character's trailer on tv. He gets representation and its about damn time. #WhatBlackPantherMeansToMe https://t.co/OczeBN3GEE
— Kayla Marie, Wakanda Social Media Manager (@Maria_Giesela) February 6, 2018
Many Black people took up the hashtag and ran with it, explaining why Black Panther was so important to them. I joined in. When I was a kid and we’d play pretend based on TV, movies, books etc., we all always gravitated toward whoever looked the most like us. I always got to be “The Girl” and “The Girl” was almost always white. If there were multiple girls playing along, then I was whichever one had dark hair or a tan. My first OMG moment, where I could finally be a superhero with my own coloring, was Storm. And for a very, very long time, she was my only option. Don’t get me wrong. I love Storm and she’s my girl, but I didn’t have any other choices.
This!! There are MULTIPLE OPTIONS. I never had that. My option was always just "the girl" and she was always white. I used to get assigned whichever girl was darkest (had a tan) or maybe had thicker or darker hair.
This generation has CHOICE https://t.co/Wf3rP7Pr4j
— in the name of Wakanda, i will punish you (@mythicgeek) February 7, 2018
Black Panther changed that. Now you’ve got little girls who can pick different members of the Dora Milaje, or Shuri, or Nakia, hell even Queen Ramonda, other tribeswomen and there’s no overlap! They have choice. It sat so deeply in my heart to realize these girls are getting the experience I wished I had growing up. There are a lot of Black women in Wakanda and they are all distinct separate, incredible people. No one is just “The Girl.”
And on the subject of female representation, I’m going to go off on what Shuri, Princess Shuri means to me. As a Marvel character, an entity owned by Disney, and a princess, Shuri is a Disney princess. You can come fight me on that and I will never back down. People jumped on the “Carrie Fisher is a Disney Princess” bandwagon the second Disney bought Star Wars, y’all can do the same for Shuri. Especially since she is an incredible character. Sixteen years old, brilliant, funny, and yet a definitive teenager, Shuri is just the kind of representation girls need, especially girls interested in STEM careers. She’s is certified genius, intuitive, and clever, never compromising her personality for anyone’s sake. She roasts T’Challa, King of Wakanda, but loves and supports him too because he’s her brother. He relies on her and their relationship is wonderful. No jealousy, just mutual love and respect. It’s real. And it’s so important to see Black girls being portrayed as the geniuses that so many of them are in real life, before society does its best to beat them down and take away their pride. Shuri is the representation we all need.
What I love about her is that it’s so clear she’s a teenager – she references memes and pop culture, she makes jokes out of tradition pretending to challenge her brother when she really just wants him to speed things up, and she’s just apologetically herself and no one comes down on her for it. It’s refreshing to see a teen portrayed this way, and not a whiny, self-centered girl focused on her phone, her friends or herself, and coming across as an annoyance. This is the awful caricature teens are usually forced to see about themselves in media. Not here.
It gets really spoileriffic from here on in folks, just a big ol’ warning.
Something else the struck me was the few white characters in the movie. I’m so used to going into literally any movie and seeing one or two Black characters and they’re always just support. So it tickled me to see that the two white men here, both of whom were in the Lord of the Rings franchise, earning them the nickname “the Tolkien white guys of Black Panther” from fandom, fit that role. One was a means to an end for the villain, and the other was hero support. Anyone else could have stepped in where Martin Freeman’s character did during the battle and it would have been no different. He was a body, and Andy Serkis’s character, was part of the body count, a plot device.
Kinda made me want to yell out “HOW DOES IT FEEL!?”
On the subject of villainy, can we talk about Erik Killmonger? The whole time I sat in the theater I thought about Erik’s motives and realized he is the most sympathetic villain I’ve seen in a very long time. Here was a boy raised in a bad neighborhood by a father who is murdered, killed by members of a family Erik knew little about, just enough to know that he was living like this in Oakland, where people who look just like him suffered, were oppressed, incarcerated, murdered every single day. And yet here were his cousins, his extended family, hiding away their wealth and power, their ability to help, just to keep themselves and their traditions safe.
How, as a Black person in America, can you not understand his motives? (I know there are Black people suffering in many other countries as well, but as an American, I’m speaking from my own experiences and observations). I won’t excuse Erik’s evil deeds as many people in fandom love to do with their white villains, but I do understand where he’s coming from. His actions were born out of sense of justice merged with vengeance. You know that old phrase about villains being the hero of one’s story? That’s how Erik started. But his callous disregard for individual lives and the corruption of his “let people like me rise up” to “let people like me stomp down on their oppressors and take over the world” is where he lost his way and became a villain.
But even his last words showed how much he clung to what he believed. “Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from ships, cause they knew death was better than bondage.” It reminded me of Orlando Jones as Anansi in American Gods – a complicated character himself. Erik was, in Dungeons & Dragons terms, neutral evil. Someone whose actions were for his personal gain, regardless of the lives it may have cost, but without going so far into chaos that he was just being killing for fun.
And yet the path he wound up on was not entirely his fault. His decisions yes, but he would not have wound up there if not for one thing. Something that’s so powerful, so incredible and sometimes wonderful, but sometimes so dangerous.
Confused? Let’s break it down. Traditions are amazing. There are cultures that still follow traditions set down by their ancestors ages ago. There are people creating new traditions daily. They are what help us connect to our roots, and families across the globe. Tradition is also what nearly caused the downfall of Wakanda. Strict adherence to tradition with no flexibility is dangerous. The tradition of Wakanda is to keep it hidden, secret, and safe from the outside world so the power of vibranium doesn’t fall into the wrong hands. Shocker: Vibranium totally winds up falling into the wrong hands anyway. But if they’d allowed themselves flexibility, King T’Chaka, after killing his brother Prince N’Jobu for betraying all of Wakanda, could have brought Erik, T’Chaka’s own nephew, home to Wakanda. He was a child, left to fend for himself when his father was murdered, by family no less! Tradition forced T’Chaka to kill his brother, and then he chose to keep Erik away from the rest of his family. Why? Because they couldn’t possibly bring home a child who was not born in Wakanda or because making it known the king had killed his brother might have opened a can of worms that disrupted tradition? In any case, keeping secrets created a villain, and it could have been avoided.
But that’s not all. The same blind adherence to tradition nearly destroy Wakanda when Erik challenged T’Challa for the throne, won, and gets made king. The Dora Milaje, loyal to the throne, and not the individuals who sit on it, do not support Nakia, Queen Ramonda, and Shuri who are revolt during what they think is the wake of T’Challa’s death. The Dora Milaje’s leader Okoye, lawful neutral to the letter, instead sticks to her traditional duty: protect and serve the throne of Wakanda and whoever is sitting upon it, never mind that he’s clearly a despot already. His motives were clear from the start there were no surprises as to what his actions were going to be. And still, they chose traditions, and wound up supporting a clearly evil man. Why? Because it’s tradition. They’ve always done it this way, and that’s so dangerous.
Obviously they come around, but only after the loss of lives and the revelation that T’Chaka is still alive, never having yielded in the challenge, which loophole, means Erik technically isn’t king yet. Shifting loyalties make things even more complicated. T’Challa’s former best friend and second in command W’Kabi joins Killmonger, but T’challa’s former rival M’Baku (I could go on a huge-ass rant about how much I love M’Baku of the Jabari but this is long enough already) joins T’Challa for the sake of all Wakanda.
They flout tradition and that is what saves Wakanda.
But it only took a few, just a handful of people to start the rebellion that brings down Erik. They grew in number rapidly, but it started small, with determined women who knew they had to save their people. This is something we can take to heart in the real world. It only takes the voices and actions of a few to gather the strength of many and topple a dictator hellbent on destroying lives.
So, go see Black Panther again, because I hope you’ve already seen it before reading all of this. Donate to causes to help Black youth see it. Share articles, discuss it on social media, tell all your friends to see it, and don’t stop talking about it, because Black Panther is the movie we’ve needed for a very long time and we need it to be the beginning of a revolution.