by Fanta Sylla
Dir. Ryan Coogler, U.S., Disney/Marvel
Fatally wounded during the final battle with his enemy and cousin T’Challa, Black Panther’s rageful villain Killmonger becomes calm and introspective: “Can you believe that?”, he says looking at T’Challa. “A little boy from Oakland, walking around believing in fairy tales?” The line takes us back to the beginning of the film, during which the eager voice of a boy asks his “baba” to tell him “the story of home.” Home was meant to be Wakanda, the wealthiest and most technologically advanced nation on Earth, where, his father says, one can witness the most beautiful sunsets. The deception the character expresses signals his utter disenchantment, coloring the film with a lasting sadness. His subsequent decision to take his own life illuminates Wakanda’s weakness and superficiality as both cinematic and political utopia. Under its splendid surface are a world and future not so distant from our own. This is a bold statement to make—even implicitly—in a film whose appeal revolves around the near therapeutic beauty of Wakanda. But Black Panther is an unsettling experience. A sexy and entertaining blockbuster, Ryan Coogler’s third feature, following Creed (2015) and Fruitvale Station (2013), is also a sad and perverse object. Its provocative ambiguity reveals itself only gradually; my initial visceral reaction was more univocal. Far from feeling empowered, I came out of a first screening highly anxious, on my guard. What did I just watch?
Confident and poignant, Creed proved that Coogler could seize an iconic cultural legacy and make it his own, never ceding to mimetism or nostalgia. With Black Panther, he proves this again and pursues his exploration of Black fatherhood and lineage, and the effects of arbitrary and premature death on the trajectories of Black men and boys. The pan-African inspirations of the original comics created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1966 and the blockbuster form allow him to explore these themes in a larger spatiotemporal continuum. We could have feared a loss of the regional and autobiographical specificities that are characteristic of Coogler’s cinema, but by starting and ending Black Panther in Oakland, California, his native hometown, and by calling upon Compton-born Kendrick Lamar to curate the soundtrack, he assures us that he speaks from the boundaries of his particular, personal place.
The film opens in 1992, in Oakland, where we are introduced to four major characters: Prince N’Jobu (Sterling K. Brown), Zuri (Denzel Whitaker), King T’Chaka (Atandwa Kani), and, though we don’t know it yet, the film’s villain, Erik-soon-to-be-Killmonger (Seth Carr). N’Jobu, in the company of his friend James, receives the visit of his brother T’Chaka, King of Wakanda and Black Panther. We come to realize that N’Jobu, a War Dog on a mission in California, has been away from home for a long time. His brother informs him that Wakanda has been attacked. The world’s most prosperous nation thanks to its resource in the virtuous metal vibranium, the fictional kingdom has ingeniously managed to conceal its reality to the rest of the world by posing as just another poor African country. Soon we come to understand that N’Jobu has been involved in delivering information to the perpetrator of the attack, the vibranium-obsessed Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis). Unbeknownst to him, James, whose real name is Zuri, had been spying on him and reporting to the king all along.
This elliptical opening sequence anticipates the film’s ambiguous narrative approach. A conventional shot/reverse shot montage sets up the original antagonism from which derives the film’s subsequent opposition between our titular hero and his foe, while also predicting the back and forth between the two sides that will structure the film. The performances, especially Sterling K. Brown’s, blur the strict lines of good vs. bad, hero vs. villain. An inspired casting choice, Brown brings a tragic depth to N’Jobu. When he turns to Zuri, for whom he had earlier vocally expressed his trust, and asks “You were a Wakandan all this time?” The despair in his dark, expressive eyes leaves us wondering who has been betrayed here. The film holds back; Coogler cuts to a basketball court where boys are playing; young Erik turns his face up to the sky as an unidentified flying object escapes his gaze. We will come to realize we are witnessing the villain’s origin story.
Twenty five years later, T’Chaka (John Kani) has been killed in an attack targeting the United Nations, and his son T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is to succeed him on the throne of Wakanda. We follow T’Challa and his general Okoye (Danai Gurira) as they fly in a high-tech ship to the forest of Nigeria. It is one of the rare times that our main character engages in any traditional superhero activity, and even then it seems less triggered by a desire to save the kidnapped girls he will eventually rescue than to join Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) and inform her of his father’s passing.
Ryan Coogler does not seem particularly fascinated by his character’s superhuman capabilities, which is both a delight and a disappointment. In anticipating Black Panther, I feared it would pose an opportunity to redeem a generally disrespected and emasculated Black masculinity, an empowerment through masculinist discourse and aesthetics; but this is not the film’s aim. On the contrary, Coogler seems to take more pleasure in showing T’Challa in moments of vulnerability, stripped of his powers, his face distorted by pain, as in the recurring scenes of ritual combat. T’Challa relies consistently on the women around him, including his general Okoye, who leads the female royal guard Dora Milaje; his much younger sister, the brilliant Shuri (Letitia Wright), who designs his suit (and most of Wakanda’s futuristic technologies—nod to production designer Hannah Beachler); and his mother, Ramonda (Angela Bassett), whose encouragement he seeks during the first ritual combat. Embodied by Chadwick Boseman with a frail candor, T’Challa is a peculiar type of superhero, patient and attentive—you just want to hold him tight. His softness and vulnerability contrast with other male characters, such as the imposing and brutish M’Baku (Winston Duke, a revelation), the leader of the Jabari tribe, and, of course, the lethally misogynist Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan). This refreshing choice also means, however, that we rarely get to experience the spectacle of a superhuman body in motion, which in other films offers viewers the occasion to rediscover our own bodies through the dynamism of another. Here, the character’s potential panther-like animorphism is underexploited. (The chimeric aspects of, say, Spider-Man or Wolverine, are better embodied and manifested in their films.)
The lack of such superhero conventions also makes certain sequences, like the one set in Busan, stand out. The undercover trio of Nakia, T’Challa, and Okoye travel to South Korea to get their hands on Ulysses Klaue (who had been introduced to us in an earlier sequence, along with Killmonger, as they stole a vibranium-based artifact from a museum). It is the film’s most bravura set piece and features Coogler’s signature one-take (as seen in Creed), capturing a brawl from all levels and sides of the casino where the trio ambushes Klaue. This pure moment of action is devoted to showcasing Danai Gurira’s methodical agility, from the moment she throws her wig to the jubilant instant she descends upon Klaue’s minions, aided by her spear.
When the team finally manages to capture Klaue, they head with CIA Agent Ross (played with posh arrogance by Martin Freeman) to CIA headquarters, where the black-market vendor will be questioned. During his interrogation, Klaue divulges the secret of Wakanda to a skeptical but curious Ross. Before he gets to know more, Killmonger comes to Klaue’s rescue, shooting up and bombing the quarters. Ross, in attempting to protect Nakia, gets wounded and is taken to Wakanda, where medicine is so advanced that it can heal a bullet wound in less than 24 hours (imagine all the Black people who could benefit from this). Later, after having recognized the royal Wakandan ring around Killmonger’s neck, T’Challa goes to Zuri (Forest Whitaker), Wakanda’s shaman and royal family’s loyal spy, who unravels the details: N’Jobu’s “radicalization” during his mission in California after witnessing and probably experiencing anti-black racism; his romance with an American woman who gave birth to Erik; his complicity in Klaue’s attack on Wakanda; his killing by T’Chaka, who was trying to protect Shuri; and above all T’Chaka’s decision to abandon his brother’s son.
Eventually, Killmonger kills Klaue, who had been seemingly positioned as the film’s obvious villain. Eliminating Klaue spares us an easily digestible and expected white vs. Black antagonism; from here it becomes a strictly familial and intra-Black affair. When Killmonger appears at the Wakandan border with Klaue’s dead body, it is not clear what he wants. Does he present Klaue as a sort of peace offering, thinking that he could be his passport to his estranged motherland? Or is it just a way to get to T’Challa and challenge him for the throne? His gesture reflects his ambivalent relationship with Wakanda, both a possible home and the reason his father passed away.
Played by Michael B. Jordan with a juvenile ardor, rage boiling under his skin, Killmonger is a beautiful fictional creation, the embodiment of this passage from German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk’s Rage and Time: “The person who is en-raged in the highest form enters the world like a bullet enters the battle… Wherever rage flames up we are dealing with the complete warrior.” The type of character I have long been waiting to see onscreen, he’s both familiar and novel, and his presence gives way to moments heretofore unthinkable in mainstream cinema, like the museum scene, which would make Martinican poet Aimé Césaire proud, as it seems like the direct illustration of a paragraph from “Discourse on Colonialism.”
We had seen fictional Angry Black Men before—anger has long been easily associated with Blackness—but rarely has a Black character’s rage been so historically and culturally contextualized and justified in a major studio film. That Killmonger fosters so much passion and debate is understandable. His rage is as magnetic as it is repulsive. His demeanor and attitude are in stark contrast with that of T’Challa, who’s as passive as Killmonger is agitated, as attentive and soft as Killmonger is brutal, always on edge. If his radical demands for Black liberation and self-defense evoke the Black Panther Party, at the same time his blind rage and destructive impulses recall the profile of terrorists whose vengeful, simplistic desires are only to turn the world upside down (“We’ll be on top this time,” he says while unraveling his world domination plan, breaking my heart).
The incommensurable distance between Killmonger and T’Challa is explored in two trips to their respective ancestral planes. While T’Challa’s is a lush blue and purple dimension with an infinite aurora where various members of his lineage exist, Killmonger’s appears in his childhood home in the Oakland projects, with only his father. Coogler and cowriter Joe Robert Cole’s approach is refreshing, contemporary, and resonant for the way they avoid long exposés on Black diasporic relationships, instead dramatizing the after-effect and affects of the atomization of the Black diaspora: the entanglement of shame and envy; the feelings of abandonment; and the aggrieved sense of entitlement, rage, and incomprehension that’s settled and rendered dialogue tortuous, if not completely impossible.
Coogler has declared that the first cut of Black Panther was four hours long. Perhaps in that version he took more time to set in place the confrontation between T’Challa and Killmonger before it escalates into violence. The second half of the film betrays the film’s initial democratic philosophy and finally picks a side. Killmonger, whom Ryan Coogler is obviously attached to—if not he wouldn’t have given him the most poignant moments (and sometimes heavy-handed lines)—becomes no longer the dreamed complex Black anti-hero but just another Disney villain. We had forgotten that Black Panther is captive of a Marvellian cinematic universe and therefore must wrap itself up. Some of us had hoped the thorny familial drama would last forever, as there was so much more to explore.
It is no wonder that there are already conspiracy theories about CIA involvement in the writing of the script—after all, at one point, a CIA Agent is literally piloting the ships that will shut down the “race war” engines. Shuri, who had been thus far characterized as a genius disdainful of traditions and authoritarianism, is seen guiding Agent Ross. Her alliance with a CIA agent, a figure of authority, a white British man she had called “colonizer” just minutes before, is both inconsistent with the characterization and at the same time understandable; her naiveté stemming from having been raised in a literal bubble of privilege and ignorance. Is it a provocation? Or is it a metaphor for the way secret services have destabilized black radical movements all over the world? From here Black Panther reveals itself as a cruel kind of disaster, a revolting turn of events that also feels strangely satisfying.
After all, Black Panther had an impossible mission to accomplish. It was promoted and initially discussed as though it could redeem a century of cinematic anti-blackness in a little more than two hours. Set in the motherland, Black Panther had the capacity to represent not just Black Americans but all Black people in the diaspora coming from all walks of life, and maybe the potential to start all over. Forget (or forgive) the coons, mammies, criminals, bucks, monkeys, and slaves. Forget the miserabilist depictions of Africa. We are not just superheroes, but Black kings, princesses, rulers. We are not from the heart of darkness but from a rich nation untouched by colonialism and slavery. Our humanity is intact, never challenged, no neurosis or inferiority complexes. We are dark-skinned and rich and beautiful, and highly intelligent. The comic enabled dignified, empowered, positive representations of blackness deployed on a global level: Black visual pleasure and desire for escapism through fantasy cinema recognized and served. Black Panther is certainly a cultural event, so unprecedented that it has produced the sort of amnesia that inevitably leads to revisionism (“the blackest movie of all time,” “the first Black superhero on-screen.”). It’s not that it is the Blackest movie of all time, but that its blackness is loud, transcending frontiers, intentionally propulsive and presumably encompassing. Not really from us, but “for us by us.”
A gift too opulent to not be at least partially corrupted, Black Panther contains multiple films in one: the one we get to see and, underneath the CGI afrofuturistic frenzy and celebration of diasporic blackness, what I’ll call the “forbidden film,” the one that has been snatched away brutally, the one in which Killmonger succeeds in supplying the Black world with vibranium. What would this film look like?
A certain progress has been clearly made since Wesley Snipes’s attempt to adapt the comics since the nineties, but the film also makes clear its own limits. The inevitable villainization and elimination of the Black radical Killmonger register as the concessions a young Black director must make in order to direct an all-Black, big-budget, globally distributed film. It is a cruel but familiar either/or situation, and Coogler emerges from it quite gracefully. The creation of Killmonger allowed Coogler to deliver the intelligent, personal spectacle that Black Panther often is. This character gives the film its modern, intemporal resonance. Killmonger prevents this comic-book movie from being aesthetically and thematically obsolete.