Movie Review: Black Panther, Amazing, But with Reservations

Having watched Black Panther on the week of its release and allowed the excitement to simmer down a little, I wanted to offer my exhaustive review of the movie. I’ve numbered my paragraphs to help with delineating my points. But I just wanted to say upfront that I thoroughly enjoyed this movie despite my deep reservation on some plot points and will recommend it to everyone interested in a slightly different Hollywood superhero experience.

  1. Pulling at the heartstrings: a real big win in terms of representation for black men and especially black women. Watching it made me feel good, so the feel-good aspects of this was just phenomenal especially given the movie was set in a fictional African country with a proud African people with amazing African costumes etc. I think this is what is driving most of the support for the movie. We’ve been so starved of representation in this arena that we’re all just gobbling it up because it just feels good to be represented on the big screen. Looking at the strong and beautiful African women, I could help but applaud this superhero flick. And of course, I will like to imagine myself T’Challa with his beautiful African print as the center of attention and leader of a powerful black nation. Pulling at the heartstrings of anyone like me.
  2. After effects and momentum: There are a number of after effects this movie has the potential to have
    1. It should stimulate more interest in putting black faces as top casts in big budget movies
    2. Giving black kids the power to imagine. Imagine is one of the most important things to have as a child. It helps build your personality and expands your idea of what is possible.
    3. Massive interest in Africa by African Americans and other races but much so interest in African Americans to go to Africa. I’ve already heard many African Americans declaring their love for and interest in visiting Africa so this should be a boost to this movement. This will help link us together better and help the economy and tourism in these countries
    4. More interest in African fashion therefore creating more economic potential for the African entrepreneurs in fashion
  3. Real Issues: The Ryan Coogler directed movie tackles real issues more than most superhero movies do. Many fans talking areas cover some of these areas. And the ones most interesting to me are the following;
    1. Killmonger as an alternative hero; To many people, especially African Americans, Killmonger is the true hero because he’s most relatable because he’s partly African American. He wants to immediately change the lot of African Americans. I must say I was rooting for him at some point and getting conducted given that I’m more T’Challa than Killmonger
    2. Killmonger to me is kind of made a caricature of the angry black male stereotype, the Malcolm X character type without the depth of Malcolm X. This is partly because he’s a superhero movie villain, he can’t have too much depth. But it still allows for a lot of public education and imagination around the black male in America especially given his arc intertwining with real African American history i.e. slavery. It’s difficult to just see him as a fictional character.
    3. His juxtaposition with T’Challa had too much uncanny resemblance to the juxtaposition of Africans to African Americans in popular American imagination. He’s the rabid uncultured and violent one, T’Challa is the cool regal calm and collected one, ie the good non-threatening black male. And given that Wakanda is literally hidden and non-threatening to the white world, this is perfect fit for T’Challa’s character arc. As an African male, I was a bit queasy with these parallels to say the least.
  4. The Wakanda Trope and African Culture: Ubuntu. The idea of an African nation hidden away and purposefully not interested in helping their neighbors is absolutely not African. It is true that African nations and tribes didn’t see themselves as one but separate nations in the past, but it is absolutely the case that ever since slavery and colonialism, which apparently happened in the Wakanda world too, African nations have come to each other’s aid with the meager resources we had, especially when it came to fighting outside African forces. Take Algeria, take South Africa, take Guinea Bissau etc. African Sensibilities of Ubuntu ie compassion and humanity for fellow humans and neighbors isn’t properly represented. The only character who came close to this was Lupita’s character Nakia who was out helping kidnapped children in Nigeria. To just hide away as a state policy is absolutely at loggerheads with the communal nature of African society. That kind of state individualism is more American or Western but not surprising given that this is a Western movie. And during the heyday of the independent movement, when African leaders like Nkrumah wanted to unite the continent, of course America, Britain and France fought tooth and nail to ensure that unity never happened by sowing division among the different leaders in the continent and killing off others like Nkrumah and Lumumba through coups and military takeovers through their intelligence agencies like the CIA.
  5. The CIA as good guys: One of the challenges I had in the movie was seeing the way the CIA operative, even though the butt of jokes and quips against whiteness and colonialism was portrayed as a good guy. This definitely floored me a little. He’s portrayed as the opposite of Killmonger, i.e. the good American as opposed to Killmonger being the wild American. Given the history of the CIA in Africa like I just mentioned above, it is rather weird that he’s the good guy helping stop the global proliferation of the Wakanda vibranium-made weapons. On the continent, the CIA has been involved in weapons proliferation and fomenting of civil wars, especially in countries with uncanny resemblance to Wakanda. In the DRC where over 60% of the world’s cobalt (a mineral vital to the making of all electronics from laptops, cellphones, TVs, to fighter jets) is mined, the CIA alongside their Belgian and British counterparts have had their hands in every civil war since they killed Lumumba. So, it’s rather ironic that he’s the good guy and opposite to Killmonger. I love Martin Freeman. Who wouldn’t? He’s always a loveable character and I’ve always loved him since his days in Sherlock Holmes. But I still couldn’t shake off the feeling this was wrong. He’s the one to even save Nakia in Busan South Korea and plays an integral role in saving Wakanda from the big bad Killmonger. This was indeed a letdown.
  6. Wakanda to the world: This was absolutely my least favorite part of the movie. Instead of helping his African neighbors, T’Challa immediately went to the United Nations to declare he’s arrived. I found this very gulling to say the least. Instead of following Nakia’s values and helping their neighbors, T’Challa chooses to play big boy games at the UN. I really did think this was a low moment for the movie. I’d have been happier if this was at the AU where Wakanda promises to strengthen the African Union and help fend off global vultures formenting war and stealing Africa’s natural resources. But it does fit into the idea of individualism the movie portrays. But I think the worse showcase of this kind of individualism and neoliberalism pervading Black Panther is the scene with the boys in Oakland. He’s simply bought out the rundown buildings in Oakland as Wakanda outreach centers in the US. What will happen to the poor black residents? Doesn’t Coogler know anything about the displacement of poor people in historically black neighborhoods in the US due to gentrification? What happens when a powerful foreign country situates its embassy in a rundown neighborhood? Just ask residents of the Chicago neighborhood Obama’s presidential library is being built. T’Challa is the Martin Luther King Jr and the Obamas of the world. The neoliberal black elite in the imagination of the white and black liberal. I understand King was more radical than we see him today (thanks in no small way to liberal marketing of King) but all T’Challa is doing is joining the system not upending it. And the conversation with the kids is appalling as well. The question the kid immediately asks is whether he can sell this futuristic tech he’s just seen instead of “can I learn about it or can I drive it”? This isn’t a good portrait of the black kid in America. I wasn’t happy at all with this portrait and I think this stands alongside the general Killmonger portrait as the weakest points of the movie.
  7. I want to end by saying that I thoroughly enjoyed this movie more than most movies I’ve watched in recent times. I felt good being in the theater. And if for nothing, I’d glad to see a sequel and hopefully other movies like it with African top casts. I loved the costumes and the Afrofuturism on display especially as it comes to tech and advancement. I’m hopeful that this is just the beginning.
  8. When I left the theater, I felt I had just read a book. I don’t often feel much so after watching most American movies, especially the superhero ones which are just full of dull plots and over the top violence and blowing up of things. It is to the credit of Black Panther that I’m, and others too are, discussing the thematic content of the movie whether in total or partial agreement or disagreement. It is a total win on that score alone for me. It has done more than 99% of its counterparts in that genre. And this is in no small part to the brilliance and fresh air brought on by the amazing young direction from Ryan Coogler and the top acting by our all black star cast, especially the ladies. For a debut, I’ll score this movie a nine out of ten overall. It’s definitely going to be my DVD Blu-ray buy and hopefully a 4K digital purchase this year. It’ll definitely be a regular watch in my household for my kids.

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