The Right and Wrong Lessons of 'Black Panther'

The latest popcorn flick in the Marvel Cinematic Universe has some powerful and worthwhile themes.

Nate Jackson · Feb. 20, 2018

“Black Panther” is the latest popcorn flick to fill the canon of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Several of the other MCU films have had political messages (“Captain American: The Winter Soldier” and “Captain America: Civil War,” for example) but none have enjoyed the hype for that reason that “Black Panther” has. Why? It’s a story about a black superhero and his African heritage, written by black writers, scored by black musicians and directed by a black director. Outside of a couple of white guys (Bilbo CIA agent Everett Ross and Gollum Ulysses Klaue), the cast is almost entirely black as well. Oh, and it was released smack in the middle of Black History Month.

It’s also a very good movie — at least to this father of two adopted African boys who love the hero. That’s not to mention it’s impressive, if inflated, 97% Rotten Tomatoes rating and record-breaking box office haul.

Setting aside both the history of the comic book by the same name and the radical racial group known as the Black Panthers, let’s look at the movie on its own terms. From a purely human standpoint, two important themes stand out: What do you do with the gifts you’ve been given, and how do you cope with the sins of your father?

Of course, both of those themes have political angles as well. Should a nation (in this case, the fictional Wakanda, of which the Black Panther/T'Challa is king) focus inward or take on a mantel of world responsibility because of its blessing? And are people responsible for their own actions even if their ancestral past includes wrongdoing, both of the perpetrated and victimized sort?

The plot in a nutshell is this: Wakanda is an African utopia blessed by a huge deposit of fictional vibranium (what Captain America’s shield is made of), and the nation is isolated and concealed to protect this resource from exploitation by the outside world. (Screenwriters’ public service announcement: European colonization was bad for Africa!) Despite its status as the most technologically advanced country on earth, Wakanda retains many elements of primitive African culture, including ancestor worship and that its king is chosen among its tribes by fights to the death. (“Lion King,” anyone?) Influenced by a desire to preserve this cultural heritage, King T'Challa wishes to maintain what his father built — only to learn his father wasn’t always who T'Challa thought he was.

The villain and T'Challa’s cousin, Eric “Killmonger,” lost his father at a young age, and as a result, not without reason, cultivated bitterness against his relatives. He got his name by — ahem — joining the American military and learning to kill as many people as possible in Iraq and Afghanistan. He also trained with the CIA in toppling regimes, all in preparation for his birthright challenge for the Wakandan throne.

Ben Shapiro’s observation is spot on: “It’s impossible not to watch the film and see the parallels between T'Challa (a stolid Chadwick Boseman) as MLK and Killmonger (a spectacular Michael B. Jordan) as Malcolm X. T'Challa doesn’t want to overthrow existing regimes; he wants to work with them to better life for everyone. Killmonger wants to give resources to oppressed peoples to help them overthrow their oppressors.”

Paul Bois similarly likens Killmonger to “a black nationalist revolutionary that would be right at home shouting ‘death to pigs’ at a BLM rally,” while T'Challa “represents EVERYONE.” While Killmonger is somewhat sympathetic, he’s also clearly the villain.

So, our ancestors screwed up; what now? Should blacks make the most of their opportunities, or lash out in bitter violence?

And then there’s the Leftmedia’s additional politicization. A New York Times op-ed ponders whether white kids dressing up as Black Panther might be “cultural appropriation.” Meanwhile, the Associated Press reports: “‘Black Panther’ has burst onto the screen in Africa, handing a powerful response to the unfortunate remarks about the continent by President Donald Trump.” Those “unfortunate remarks” were, of course, the alleged comments about “s—thole countries.”

The movie had nothing to do with those comments, but why not grind the political ax anyway? In a story about the pride stars of the movie felt in bringing the film “home” to Africa, the AP’s first sentence just had to jab at Trump.

All of which brings us back to the human themes of the movie. Wisely using one’s blessings for the betterment of mankind is far preferable to selfish isolation or murderous revenge. We can certainly take issue with elements of the movie — not least the aforementioned besmirching of the American military — but the themes aren’t black or white, they’re universal.

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