Black Panther barely lives up to the hype

I wanted to title this post “Black Panther was meh, and you know it” or something like that. That would have probably invited more eyeballs but who am I, BuzzFeed? I’m now going to have to talk about the film a little bit, so if you’re bothered about spoilers, stop reading, go to other parts of my blog, or go watch the movie.

First off, Black Panther is shot beautifully. It’s what you’d expect with a $200 million budget and Disney’s heft. The colourful costumes, the African music and the scenic locations are all very thoughtfully chosen.

The story is set largely in Wakanda, a highly-developed technocracy in the middle of Africa, which derives its power from a meteorite called vibranium that landed there many centuries ago. Wakanda very much looks like the future, but is concealed to non-Wakandans (like Hogwarts). So to outsiders, it looks like a poor African nation.

T’Challa, the prince of Wakanda, battles a challenger, M’Baku to the throne after the death of the king, his father. In a futuristic society with high-tech weapons and a world-class army of badass, spear-wielding women (’cause guns are primitive) at your disposal, why does ritual combat decide who should be king? Shouldn’t the smartest person, the brightest economist or the most-skilled technologist be elected ruler instead of settling this through WrestleMania? Apparently, the Afrofuturism of Black Panther ends at technology, because Wakanda likes its traditions.

This battle also gives you the illusion that Wakanda is like any democracy. If a commoner wants to challenge the king for the throne, they can. They just need to be really huge and highly skilled at mixed martial arts. The backdrop for the fight, a plunge pool of a scenic waterfall in Wakanda, is a visual treat. T’Challa packs many deft punches, but the fight itself, taken separately, packs few. It is so unrealistic (much like WrestleMania) that T’Challa is able to somehow strike M’Baku after getting pummelled three times on the head, while being tightly locked mid-air by his much larger opponent.

Predictably, T’Challa wins, becomes king and the next Black Panther, which is essentially just a cool vibranium suit that can dodge bullets and most modern weapons. It has claws too.

The Dora Milaje, Wakanda's special forces. Credit: Marvel Studios
The Dora Milaje, Wakanda’s special forces. (Marvel Studios)

Time for some flashback: In far away America, T’Challa’s dad, as king, meets his brother N’Jobu, deployed there as a Wakandan spy. Having witnessed African suffering in his home continent, and now witnessing police brutality against African Americans in Oakland, California (where by the way, the Black Panther Party was formed by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in 1966), N’Jobu wants to ship vibranium outside Wakanda and help Africans everywhere. A decent enough plan, right?

T’Challa’s dad, King T’Chaka, begs to differ. He wants Wakanda to keep maintaining its secrecy. Wakanda does not “wage war” on other nations, he argues. There would then be no difference between Africans and their white oppressors, the imperialists. So T’Chaka kills N’Jobu, his own brother, for the treasonous act of nicking some vibranium out of Wakanda (with the intention of liberating oppressed black people everywhere).

From here on, the story is broadly a battle between these two viewpoints. Should Wakanda lead world blackdom into liberation with its abundant supply of vibranium? Or should it maintain the status quo, not wage war, keep itself isolated, and only look after itself? Sadly, the film fails to recognize that it is possible to bring prosperity to Africans without waging war. Ever heard of Martin Luther King Jr?

So along comes a supervillain in the form of N’Jobu’s son, whom you end up rooting for, because his ideology is right. After centuries of Wakandans guarding their precious properity-giving metal, someone finally wants to use it to liberate fellow Africans.

Even though the makers of this film have done some impressive, meticulous work in using appropriate African music, costumes, themes and even language, they do not want a logical conclusion. So someone who wants the best for black people can only exist as an evil supervillain — N’Jobu’s son, a.k.a Killmonger.

Killmonger grew up radicalized just like his dad, seeing black suffering in the alleys of Oakland and hearing about poverty in Africa. He becomes a US black ops soldier who goes by the name of Killmonger because of his many, many kills in Iraq and Afghanistan. Are we to understand that someone who wants to liberate fellow black people, someone whom the movie labels as a black radical, someone who was possibly inspired by Malcolm X and King Jr, is a murderous maniac who enjoyed killing Arabs and Afghans in largely pointless American wars waged by a white president? Remember Vietnam?

Killmonger wants to liberate world blackdom from oppression, but he will do it only by waging war on white countries including America, by challenging his cousin T’Challa and gaining control of Wakanda’s hyperfuturistic weapons.

Black Panther tries to be a stunning superhero movie and a strong political statement at the same time, and fails at both. It is instead a predictable Marvel story-arc recycled painfully with half-baked and misplaced politics.

Black Panther is also only a scaredy-cat when it comes to being openly political. It does, after all, have the limitations of being a Marvel film. Still, if you must sprinkle politics, you must be generous.

There’s a vague mention about slavery at a somewhat inappropriate moment: T’Challa has defeated Killmonger. But our virtuous hero, instead of dealing the coup de grace, takes him to see a beautiful sunset from a mountain top. “Maybe we can still heal you”, he tells Killmonger. But the blacktivist-turned murderous supervillain will not have it. “Why? So you can lock me up? Nah. Just bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from ships, ’cause they knew death was better than bondage.”

Is Killmonger, the once aspiring liberator of all Africans, comparing being jailed in righteous Wakanda to the dehumanizing institution of slavery? In the end, T’Challa opens a Wakandan outreach center in Oakland to teach black kids science — basically carrying out Killmonger and N’Jobu’s ideas, but without weapons. Does T’Challa realize that had he or his father done this earlier, there might not have been a devastating civil war?

I was surprised to see overwhelmingly positive reviews for this film. Are film critics scared of being labelled racist if they give a negative review? While the film is a soaring recognition of African culture, it is not an entertaining experience. If Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole deserve credit, it is for attempting something so monumentally difficult and not completely cratering. Any version of the movie would have faced some sort of stinging criticism for not getting something right. On that note, here’s one more thought: can an African country be highly advanced only when the most powerful metal in the universe literally falls from the sky by luck? That’s racist.

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