Written By: Terrence A. Merkerson
One of the primary reasons that Black Folks were so excited about Black Panther was because finally a film with a predominantly Black cast and a huge budget offered diverse portrayals of Black people in ways that have seldom (well honestly never) been seen on this scale with this kind of build up, so we were gassed up to see this film. I came to the theater in character, all black everything, sat in my handicap seat (because it was the only seat available, but I reserved the seat before I left home so its fine 😅) and prepared myself for what was to be a transformative experience…
And it was.
Throughout the film, I would catch myself smiling from ear-to-ear. I took so much pride in how proud the characters were of their people, their country, and their culture. It was absolutely liberating. I walked out of the theater with such pride and conviction, excited about being able to sit with and unpack all of the themes, message, and tropes of the film. This is when things started to go left. At around 5:30a Monday morning, it all came home and my perspective was totally different.
Black Panther was not my hero and Wakanda was never meant for us…
Us, as Black Americans.
The distinctions are so blatantly obvious in the film (and even in the casting) that we completely missed it. Yes, Black Panther was uplifting, but to what extent and to whom? The irony is that this is a film that is transformative because of the Blackness of the cast, yet the 134 minutes of the film itself is predicated on the vilification and destruction of Black Americans.
The Black Panther canon is not unlike most others in the Marvel Universe. Socioeconomic tropes, such as gender, race, and class, are themes that are subliminally (and not so much) woven into the storylines of every Marvel character. Though, the Black Panther storyline is the only one that deals directly with issues of race and class as they are reflected in reality. The primary struggle that is the most complex and provocative in the canon is the dichotomy of Blackness, manifested in the struggle for power between blood cousins, T’Challa & Erik Killmonger.
In the film, both characters are positioned very early as to how they should be recognized and received. T’Challa is representative of the regality, purity, tradition, and strength of how we, as Black Americans, tend to view our African ancestry. Killmonger is the manifestation the anger, disenfranchisement, frustration, and diaspora of Black people in America. While T’Challa is positioned as the well-to-do, cooperative hero, Killmonger is made to be the villain.
As with the canon of every superhero, the story of the protagonist is only as strong as the complexity of his or her provocateur. Antagonists drive storylines and Killmonger presented a very unique narrative that I expected to identify with immediately and I did. But in hindsight, the development of his character was disappointing because the complexity and nuance of his narrative were left only to be suggested, while the attempt to portray him as an unreasonable, ruthless killer, seeking only power and vengeance was pushed to the forefront. While this makes for a strong and clear dichotomy, it narrows the lens of what is a very sincere, well-intentioned (though extremely violent) and intelligent character.
This is a clear illustration of how Black Americans are positioned in direct contrast to Africans, especially within Black Culture. We celebrate our ancestry, despite being unable to directly identify it. We lust for Afrocentricisty without being able to clearly map our connections to Africa. Many of us are exasperated, whether consciously or unconsciously, with native Africans for being unwilling to accept us. In America, we are vilified, disenfranchised and abased (Killmonger). Our lives are taken from us without conscious and our deaths quickly fade or are erased from the memory of our murders (N’Jobu, Killmonger’s father). The only Black American woman in the film barely mutters a line and is killed without hesitation in devotion to her Black American man (Killmonger’s girlfriend). Killmonger’s pride (a Black man’s pride) is what prevented his reconciliation.
Y’all see what I’m getting at here?
Killmonger was representative of all Black people in America seeking the liberation, history, power and inheritance that was stripped of them, only to find out that inheritance is ultimately death.
Every prominent representation of the Black American in Black Panther was killed.
Every. Single. One.
Conversely, every prominent African (Wakandan) lived (with the exception of Zuri, Forest Whitaker’s character, whose death is directly attributed to his abdication). Even the “broken” White man was “fixed” (by a Black, African woman) and made to be a hero. Go figure. The entire film dependent on the emotional and mental trauma of a Black American man and that same trauma is what prevents his reconciliation. What ended up being most disheartening is that his cause, to liberate all Black Americans, died with him. In its place, we are offered a school in Oakland… What an outstanding consolation.
To quote Christopher Lebron, “In 2018, a world home to both the movement for Black lives and a president who identifies white supremacists as ‘fine people,’ we are given a movie about Black empowerment where the only redeemed Blacks are African nobles. The safeguard virtue and goodness against the threat not of White Americans or Europeans, but of a Black American man, the most dangerous person in the world.”
While I really enjoyed and appreciated the film for much of what it was, as a Black American, it did not land for me in the way that I had hoped. This movie was made by us, but in so many ways, it was not for us, but that’s ok because art reflects life. This is the reality of our existence.
While I appreciate the effort greatly, Black Panther is neither the hero that we need or desire and Wakanda is just as oppressive in absence as America is in presence.
But after all, it is only a comic/movie… right?
Terrence A. Merkerson is the Founder & Creator of Avenue Fifteen. Terrence earned Bachelor’s Degrees in both Political Science and Gender/Race Studies from the University of Alabama. Terrence also completed Graduate School at the University of Alabama, earning a Master’s Degree in Communication and is currently pursuing a Master’s Degree in Business Administration at Louisiana State University.
He currently resides in Charlotte, NC.