The movie Black Panther recently debuted worldwide and has garnered a massive amount of public attention in the lead up to the release. In this article I’ll be reviewing the movie as well as spoiling plenty of details so you’ve been warned. The world of Black Panther is set in the African country of Wakanda and deals with a dynastic dispute between King T’Challa and his cousin Killmonger. The rifts that form as a result of this struggle defines the difference in opinions that leading figures in Wakanda have for their society, or at least wants to. My rating for the movie and short description about it are below if you would like to read it now. The hype behind the movie is quite large and seems unstoppable, especially since it dominated at the box office with over $200 million in profits on the opening weekend. However, as Martin Freeman puts it, the movie needs to be good. It’s nice that it is a majority black, African-based film but if it’s no good then no one will care.
So far we’ve been bombarded with waves of positive reviews and honestly, the movie doesn’t deserve it. As far as the quality of the movie I’ll be splitting that up below but suffice it to say that it isn’t as good as it is being hyped. This isn’t to say the movie is atrocious by any means. It’s not a bad film, it just isn’t very good. The ratings below spell that out given the recent controversy surrounding Rotten Tomatoes’ suppression of negative reviews in fear of racist attacks and false reviews intended to deter attendance. The difference between reviewers and the audience rating should let you know how much disconnection in opinion is currently ongoing regarding the quality of the film. Now, let’s dive into the details.
Credit: Rotten Tomatoes
There was plenty about the movie I liked despite the underlying issues. The visuals and score were excellent ranging from the large number of costumes to the heavy usage of drums. The score also used flutes and an African inspired singing style ranging from groups to higher pitched singers. I thought that the usage of different colors for tribes was interesting but probably unnecessary since their society is so close together. I liked how the kimoyo beads were utilized as well as the unique architectural styles ranging from rondavels to eco-architecture as well as the similarities between the exterior of the throne room and the Djinguereber Mosque located in Timbuktu, Mali. Another interesting aspect in the film is the names, or lack thereof. Did you notice how Wakandans don’t have last names? T’Chaka, N’Jobu, M’Baku, W’Baki, T’Challa, Shuri, these are all first names but none of them have family names. My guess is that in their society they chose to look at people from a specific tribe and count that as their family instead of being very specific. Overall I commend Hannah Beachler, Ludwig Göransson and Ruth E. Carter on creating a fantastic and engaging world. However, we expect films to look good. It’s a basic requirement these days. The most important part is the story and there is plenty to say on that matter.
The story presented in the film consisted of numerous issues, many of which weren’t explained or acknowledged. The result was little debate over government, society, morality and even the characters themselves, all in sacrifice to focus on their central message of black oppression, revolution and the role Wakanda should play in helping black people today. It’s not a bad idea for a movie but without proper debate and conflict it comes away as hollow and poorly developed. I’ll explain myself further here and explore the ideas more fully and in a way that would make more sense logically. One of the main ideas presented before the movie even premiered was the conflict between tradition and modernism within Wakanda and how that would shape the movie. I’ll also show that this essentially didn’t happen and was very superficial, given up to a different narrative. This will probably be quite random and jump around a bit but each point is something I have considered or would like to be addressed.
The government of Wakanda seems to be entirely controlled by a king which, as far as history is concerned, is fairly rare. Normally there will be a power struggle within the royal court as well as powerful nobles who can influence the nation to the point of becoming authorities in and of themselves. Black Panther tried to show this by demonstrating how W’Kabi’s tribe fought for Killmonger, the Dora Milaje fought for T’Challa and the Jabari swung in at the last minute to help T’Challa win. While all of this is meant to demonstrate the nature of politics in Wakanda and how alliances can shift based on leaders decisions it doesn’t make sense within the context of the society itself. As a country, doesn’t Wakanda have a military? I didn’t see thousands of Dora Milaje and they were shown to be bodyguards to the Black Panther. W’Kabi’s Border Tribe seemed to be Killmonger’s military force but why wouldn’t Wakanda have its own military? Do all the tribes just come together to fight? I know Wakanda is hidden so maybe the Border Tribe does the heavy lifting, hence their usage as Killmonger’s army. However they should still have an internal force to suppress riots, revolts and disputes between tribes. The tribes are also a good thing for us to focus on next.
In case you didn’t know, since they weren’t mentioned often, the tribes in Wakanda are the Mining Tribe, Merchant Tribe, River Tribe, Border Tribe and Jabari Tribe. I didn’t like how they weren’t explored in depth in regard to their power within the country and unique differences from each other. They are shown to be part of a council which consults the king however they’re largely ineffective in what they can do, short of complaining. When Killmonger make his decision to begin arming blacks around the world they basically do nothing. I’m still wondering why they don’t have their own armies. The King’s trial, which involved ritual combat by challengers from each tribe, necessitated trained warriors to challenge the king. If there is no warrior culture to prepare anyone to do this, how would it work? Conversely, on this topic, I liked how both of the trials contrasted each other. The first was a happy and sunny occasion while the second was a dimmer, more distressing one. It also showed how Wakanda’s traditions could kill the country since the king could essentially change hands in an afternoon, which brings me to the Jabari.
The Jabari tribe was another confusing point based on their role within Wakandan society. Originally they chose not to join Wakanda and live in the mountains, yet are somehow still part of the society. They don’t really explain why they left, why people fear them or if they’re allowed to visit the main city. In the film, they have two opportunities to gain power. In the first, M’Baku yells at T’Challa for disrespecting tradition but is defeated in his challenge. Later he accepts Killmonger as the new king, as tradition dictates, but later fights him, which is actually in line with his character since Killmonger wants to rule a black dominated Earth, exposing Wakanda to the world. An interesting fact is that M’Baku’s character speaks an Igbo dialect, a language from Nigeria, to further create a difference between the Wakandans and Jabari. Despite the difference between the Jabari and regular Wakandans we actually don’t even know much about the average citizens.
Who are the Wakandan people beyond the tribal differences? Do they see themselves as part of a larger nation or are they more focused on their individual lives. Do they support the kingship? Would they support a more democratic or tribal government? Why are there skyscrapers in the city? Skyscrapers are built to be used by major corporations and yet I saw no ads, no workers, no mention of companies and no products being used which were distinctively Wakandan. What do they do in their everyday lives? Is it more similar to parts of Africa or more modern? Despite this drive to focus on identity, most non-noble Wakandans in the movie were reduced to background characters. We were effectively given a movie based on a society which we know nothing about. This lack of any real details just made the society feel fake and only a set piece to serve the story without actually being used. This is even more important because the people’s view of their king will be important in the long run.
Since T’Challa is the king you would think he would be popular. When he is in the street no one seems to recognize him. Do they approve of him or dislike him? As king he didn’t really deal with any issues. Before Killmonger he found a terrorist/thief but he got away thanks to Killmonger’s help. This is pretty typical for security forces but not the king. He should be dealing with the laws of the nation and the general prosperity but that isn’t really shown. He could send the Dora Milaje but that would take away from the mystique of Wakanda’s secretive superhero. One of the questions I had about the Dora Milaje was how you became one. Is there a school for it? Once again the world isn’t explained and doesn’t make sense. The movie just wants you to accept that everything exists through some way and makes sense. Wakanda presented the chance to flesh out an entire world but it was just another good guy vs. bad guy movie. The religion in the world of Wakanda was more of a mixed bag for me.
I do like the ritual T’Challa undergoes to travel to the, I’ll call it the Dream Savannah, as well as how you can see deceased people. Since T’Chaka transformed from one of the black panthers sitting on a tree, I’ve wondered if the others were kings or perhaps different influential figures from the kingdom. When it’s Killmonger’s turn he is in his old apartment and meets with his father again. This raises the question of what the dream state really means. Is it a real place like a separate dimension, a glimpse of Heaven, a hallucination or a mental state that we haven’t discovered? Whatever the case, the symbolism for the power of plants and their hidden capabilities should be respected. Unfortunately, they didn’t touch on a different aspect of Wakandan society and that is the cults of different tribes. In this context I’m using the older meaning of cult for a small, specialized group who worship a deity. Some of the tribes had their own gods and worshiped separately until the Black Panther made them worship the Panther God. This set up a conflict for the Jabari who worshiped the White Gorilla and were repressed, leading to a power grab by Man-Ape (M’Baku in the film) to assert his dominance. However, this falls back into my criticism of the poor exploration of the tribes and their main differences from each other beyond just different colors.
The next few parts are going to get random so get ready. I don’t know why Martin Freeman’s character Everett Ross was in this movie. He really adds nothing and is just a reason to put the actor in the movie. They even messed up an essential problem with his presence in Wakanda. Will he tell the CIA anything or will he side with Black Panther? It is never answered and was presented as a very troubling problem to the nation’s traditional policy of isolationism. If you scrapped his story almost nothing would change. When it comes to Andy Serkis I agree with this article on keeping him alive in the film to be used more, especially since the Wakandans hate him. This has been done once before though since they wanted to use some lesser known villains. In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Agent Rumlow is defeated and badly burnt, returning at the beginning of The Avengers: Age of Ultron as Crossbones and tries to commit suicide. In doing so he is thrown upwards but accidentally kills Wakandan aid workers, tying that death to this film.
The science and technology of Wakanda is also generic and lacking in basic logic. First off, nanites have been used as a concept everywhere and are not original. Second, where are all of the scientists and engineers? I know they wanted to present Shuri as a massive intellect capable of outsmarting almost anyone but all they really did was to make her a smart talking teenager. They could have had her working on something or giving presentations but I think they just decided to settle for a Mr. Q scheme. The issue with this is that Wakanda’s advanced technology cannot all be the result of one person who’s only been capable of doing so for a small number of years. Who were all of the past inventors and scientists? Who originally created the suit? This has to come from somewhere but again, just accept it and don’t question things. It’s lazy and sad to see what they could have done compared to what we got. With Iron Man the entire first movie was Tony Stark gradually creating the concept and perfecting it. In Black Panther, they have everything with no explanation.
Some of the speculation for the movie turned out to be incorrect but some could still be true. There was speculation online about the white mannequins next to the Black Panther suit in Shuri’s lab being some kind of White Panther. Unfortunately they were just mannequins for the different necklaces. One I didn’t see as a prediction was Bucky Barnes, The Winter Soldier, returning and hopefully having recovered from his brainwashing. After all, if they can heal a bullet to the spine they should be able to do much more. The last theory wasn’t proven but I think there is a case to make for it. Some people had thought that the Soul Stone, the only Infinity Stone not to be revealed yet, was being hidden in Wakanda, providing a historical context for their secrecy. The stone is supposed to be a creature capable of holding souls within its dimension, spawning a theory that this is where Wakanda’s afterlife comes from. This is thought to be substantiated by, of all things, a LEGO box set which shows an orange gem. If it’s true it would go a long way to explaining why the epic finale takes place in Wakanda because Thanos could be heading there to get the last stone he needs. Just a little fan theory fun.
Credit: Sean Turner Reviews
For a little break here I’ll show you the reactions to the movie from Africa as well as elsewhere.
What they seemed to like was the mixing of tradition and modernism, the costumes and the representation of Africans in a positive way. They don’t really talk much about the story though. The representation is a fair point but for a long time no one really cared about it. The reason was even pretty simple. People didn’t watch superhero movies. They always had a fan base and some are considered classics but they weren’t billion dollar movie franchise extravaganzas. Now that they are, people want them to cater to additional facets of society and feature gay or black people. The issue is that these comics were made nearly a century to half a century ago by people who were not gay or black, mostly. If you want to see those movies you have to create them yourself but it’s easier to feed off of a popular brand than it is to create your own and that is what we are seeing.
Another idea I had seen circulating on the Internet was that Wakanda is an example of an Africa that could have been without colonization which I call BS on. First off, most of Africa that had been conquered was rural or tribal, meaning that they weren’t exactly inventing computers. Perhaps some of the other powers would have naturally developed into modern nations with better standards of life today but even that’s hard to tell. The issue with the comment people have been sharing is that in the real world you don’t live in the bubble. You live next to other people and must engage with them whether you want to or not. History is written through its conquerors. Do you see any Carthaginians or Sassanids? Wari or Vikings? People die out and new people come.
Africa does not get to cloak itself in a protective blanket and ignore the rest of the world. The fact is that they did not develop fast enough and got conquered, just like the native peoples in the Americas or the weaker nations in Asia which were played with by European powers. It’s a fun fantasy to dream of what could have happened in the past but anything could have happened. A better idea would be to find out how to reform Africa as it is now and change the continent in a way that is better for their lives. Last century, no one talked about South Korea and now it’s a dominant economy in the world. 3,000 years before the Romans started traveling to the backwater of northern Europe the Pharaohs of Egypt were a world power. Now, London is one of the most financially powerful cities in the world, more than any city in Italy or Egypt. The point is that things change over time and that if you want to make a change you have to do it now, not in the past.
I recently found out about the lawsuit (thanks to Mr. Anthony Fantano) against Kendrick Lamar over allegations he stole the artwork of Lina Iris Viktor for use in the music video “All The Stars”, a song featured on the Black Panther soundtrack by the artist SZA. You can see it at about 2:59:
She had been previously asked about contributing her artwork but had declined. She also noted the irony of the video’s involvement in a movie about black empowerment contrasted to the theft of her art since she is British-Liberian. I won’t go on any longer but the similarities are almost without distinction and I’d advise you to look at her art below. I wanted to feature her in my Art series but now I have to. You can also listen to a review of the Black Panther soundtrack by Anthony Fantano.
There was one point in the film which I thought seemed off while another was frankly weird. I’ve read in the past of negative perceptions of black people within TV and film as criminals, gangsters, dumb or violent. These are perfectly reasonable since you want to see whatever group you belong to portrayed in a positive light. The issue I found was that within the first three scenes black people were portrayed as criminals. First it was Prince N’Jobu with Zuri handling guns and planning something which was clearly not legal. Next it was terrorists in the Sambisa Forest in Nigeria. They did mention this place though which is the hideout for Boko Haram, the Islamic terrorists which kidnapped hundreds of young girls and spawned the #BringBackOurGirls campaign. For that I have to say thank you since it is a seriously dreadful war which has claimed too many lives. The last example is Killmonger who helped plan the theft of a Vibranium axe which resulted in multiple deaths. Unless the creators of this film also wish to depict black people negatively I don’t see how this is any different from other films which do the same.
The other part of the movie which caught me off guard was the monkey grunts. When Ross tries to speak to M’Baku he shouts him down with grunting which sounded very similar to a monkey. If you didn’t know, in the United States this was a common way of being racist in the past (and present unfortunately) by implying black people were monkeys. I guess with the reverse in the film they intended it to be empowering but it comes off as silly, even with the vegetarian joke after (which was hilarious by the way). This is even funnier when you read the article below which suggests that the problem of Man-Ape has been fixed and the “racism” removed. If this was a common, more visible part of their culture than perhaps you could pass it off but within the film it’s ridiculous.
There was even an article titled (I swear this is real), “We Need to Start Barking at White People Who Speak Out of Turn”. I’m hoping it’s a joke but I’m not entirely sure. If he’s serious, just know that you’re an adult and if you start barking like a wild animal, no one will take you seriously. Other than the bark, I liked M’Baku as a character and want to see him return.
I’ve seen a generous amount of praise for Killmonger in the story which is frankly undeserved. Exactly what did he do that made him so unique? A major defining moment in his life is the death of his father for trying to kill the king. This is made even more quizzical by the apparent travesty this was viewed as by a culture which is based on a ritual of combat for their leader. There were far worse things in the Marvel universe up to this point so the horrified reactions didn’t feel real to me. This is also fairly common in governments with a king. Rival siblings and their children were routinely killed off in power struggles and the people in control of Wakanda should know this. As he grew up he attended great colleges and got amazing experience from the military, far better than most black people who he would fight for later.
When Killmonger goes to Wakanda he announces his intention to become king, after which he proceeds to ship weapons across the planet to Wakandan War Dogs who will use them to start revolutions, or as we would say, arm terrorists. Helping him are the Dora Milaje who respect tradition and must serve him as well as the Border Tribe, led by T’Challa’s friend (or former friend) W’Kabi. The heel turn of W’Kabi was startling to me because I had assumed he only wanted to kill Klaue and avenge his family. This made his decision to join Killmonger somewhat confusing to me. After Okoye decides to betray the new king he is eventually defeated. This is ironic because even though the Dora Milaje cared about tradition, Killmonger immediately destroyed the Heart-Shaped Herbs, the source of Black Panther’s power. It showed that he only cared about Wakanda in so far as it was a tool he could use, not a people he had to take care of. The events aren’t really interesting but I decided to explore the morality of Killmonger’s idea.
Killmonger wanted to arm black people throughout the world, leading revolutions and killing native populations to establish black lead nations which would become pieces of his new Wakandan Empire. He stops short of calling for an ethno-state (majority black population) but essentially wants a black dominated global empire so that they can stop being the oppressed and start being…something. He never really says how he’ll start ruling, if other races will become his slaves or what level of authority he will have. Based on his character so far I’d wager he isn’t exactly a benevolent leader who cares for the interests of all. He even adapted an expression that referred to the British Empire when he said that, “the sun shall never set on the Wakandan Empire.” This referred to the extent of the British Empire which was so large that if the Sun set in one part it rose in the other, truly a global empire. How he carried it out really confused me though.
My first question was why he didn’t start in Africa. There were plenty of poor, black people there; they were more similar to the Wakandans and they would be very grateful to participate in a nation that actually cared about them. Another issue was the black diaspora. Killmonger had sent weapons (I’ll get to that in a second) to New York, London and Hong Kong with the intention to start wars there. Now in NYC and London, maybe it would work, but how many black people live in Hong Kong? A few thousand? Less? How will black people take over a place that has nothing to do with them? That sounded strange to me. It also started up some speculation since those are the locations off the Three Holy Sanctums introduced in Doctor Strange. The last part was the military plan which, for a military man is pretty sad.
Their resistance would likely fail since the weapons Killmonger was giving them amounted to energy based anti-tank weapons and Wakandan operatives. For it to succeed they would need hundreds of thousands of soldiers, a few thousand of which have to be commanding officers. They’ll need thousands of vehicles, an air force, large amounts of ammunition, food and oil in addition to the support of the people. That’s not even mentioning repair crews, food, medical teams, communications networks, funding and everything else a major war needs. Any rebels he gave these weapons to would be able to temporarily seize control of a small area and would then later come under siege and be defeated when the military are deployed. You have to knock out the military first and then suppress civilian dissent which may be easier if you didn’t focus on the US, a nation awash in avid gun ownership to defend themselves from criminals and tyranny. Overall the plan is laughable but creates a convenient way to push the plot ahead without really talking about it much. Let’s get back to these black satellite states though.
Significant black diasporas are located in the US, Brazil, Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Most of the world doesn’t have large numbers of black people and would result in a minor ruling class lording over the majority. This would mean that, in order to create a global Wakandan Empire, he would have to conquer people and enslave them under his new rulers. Therefore, he hasn’t learned anything by watching black people suffer and only wants to inflict that pain onto others. This works very well into his character as well. Killmonger doesn’t really care about black people as evidenced by how easily he kills them with no remorse. He wants power and validation to cover the fact that he’s a sad little boy who wanted answers when he was young but never got them. It’s a very good representation of how revenge turns us into monsters whether we decide to kill one person or millions of them. The way in which he died was good though because he was just stabbed, showing the vulnerabilities of the Black Panther. T’Challa’s father died in a bombing as well and it’s an important lesson that the Black Panther is strong, but not invincible.
Overall I felt that the moral depth of the movie was shallow and the villain was uninteresting although the race aspect was something new in a universe of good guy vs. bad guy. Most Marvel movies aren’t really that complex so it’s not like I’m singling out Black Panther but I was excited for it and thought it could be better. I think this can be explained by the writing team, or lack thereof. The film was written by the director Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole, known for co-producing the first season of the TV series American Crime Story called The People v. O. J. Simpson. Neither of them are really veterans and neither have written for superhero movies before and I think that is why the movie suffered in quality, felt different than other Marvel movies and explored different themes.
Now that we’re at the end let’s get to the rating!
Black Panther is a good looking movie packed full of action and color which is very lean on story. It’s a nice movie to watch but not really think about.
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