I am a granddaughter of colonized people, who as children walked the bloody leagues from their old homes to the new ones they had been promised, in the most massive migration of people in human history. Rape and murder followed their caravans, and their destinations failed to fulfill the promise of recompense for what they had left behind. Three of my grandparents were only ten in 1947, during the Partition of India, and it took them nearly seventy years to start talking about it.
Colonialism is the kind of violation that burrows into the bones and souls of a people like a parasite, visibly and invisibly eating away at them for generations. It’s a disease that leaves behind scars that are almost too deeply embedded under our skins to be translated into speech. But I felt a few of those scars heal—or at the very least give that twinge that signifies a closing wound—when I watched Black Panther for the first time.
This movie isn’t about me, but I was deeply moved by it.
There’s no doubt that the movie is gorgeous purely as a piece of art: the storytelling, the universe, the incredible set and costumes. That absolutely insane cast. Chadwick Boseman. Lupita Nyong’o. Michael B. Jordan. Angela Basset. Daniel Kaluuya. And on. It’s a miracle just to have them all in the same movie together, let alone telling such an incredible story about a fully realized African nation that is proud and innovative and politically functional, with a long history and a rich culture that shows onscreen in every frame. We have never gotten to see that before, which is enough to make one cry in both joy and frustration. How incredible to see the way the filmmakers took care to incorporate real African languages—Xhosa for the majority of Wakanda’s peoples, Igbo for the Jabari tribe—rather than making up some kind of insulting gibberish, or simply having them exclusively speak English. To create costumes based on art, craft, and indigenous tribal clothing from all over Africa, bringing something to the screen that is both new and rooted in a long and deep tradition that we never get to see in movies except through the warped lens of Orientalism. To seamlessly marry all of that with an imagined high-tech infrastructure that gives us a Wakanda that feels fantastical and grounded in reality at the same time.
And against this backdrop, inhabiting this world, we don’t just get beautiful people in an action-packed blockbuster, as is usually the case with superhero movies, but an epic story of near-Shakespearean dimensions. The characters are written with depth and nuance, with richly interconnected relationships and vibrant, engaging presences onscreen. Wakanda is strongly connected to its ancestral ways, but all of our main characters have different ideas about how their traditions should be interpreted for the challenges of today’s world. For T’Challa, our protagonist, who is suddenly thrust into the role of king far earlier than he had expected or wanted, this is the crux of his main conflict in the movie: whether to hold on to the ways of his forefathers, even at the cost of the safety and just governance of his people, or to embrace a new way of doing things. He must reckon with the fallout of the us-and-them mentality that has driven Wakanda’s benevolent isolationism for its entire history, and decide whether the security of staying hidden is worth the consequent lost opportunities to do good in the world.
[MAJOR SPOILERS BEYOND THIS POINT]
In contrast, we have Killmonger, Marvel’s best movie villain to date—an antagonist with clear and understandable motivations, who has legitimate grievances and a realistic trajectory. He is clearly monstrous, and Jordan plays him with a terrifying, mesmerizing charisma, but we feel grief and sympathy for him too. He isn’t wrong in some of his criticisms of Wakanda’s head-in-the-sand policies, and his worldview has been warped by the trauma he experienced as a child and the injustices he saw growing up. T’Chaka wronged him terribly by killing his father and abandoning him, erasing his very existence in the one place he yearned to go. The film acknowledges this, but it doesn’t let him off the hook for his hypocrisy and bloodlust either, for the monster he has become trying to take down his enemies. Killmonger is both a murderous usurper and a wronged son of the kingdom returning home to seek justice. His journey from the beginning to the end of this movie was the most moving to me, and the most relevant to the state of our own world, outside this fantastical universe of magic metal and kings.
But the women in this movie truly took my breath away. How amazing is Nakia (Nyong’o), a spy who reduces her own king to blank murmuring while she coolly kicks ass in circles around him? Or Okoye (Danai Gurira), general of the all-female Dora Milaje, fierce and deadly and loyal to her king unto death, with no patience for anyone’s nonsense. My favorite character by far, however, is Princess Shuri, sixteen years old and canonically the smartest person in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
When we’re first introduced to her she seems like just another spoiled princess, but we quickly find out that she’s the brains behind the entirety of Wakanda’s technology. I was so moved by how essential she is to her brother’s success, how much he respects and listens to her despite the way she constantly roasts him—and how vast the love is between them, despite their intensely hilarious bickering. Not only does Shuri subvert the bratty younger sister trope, but also a mainstay of spy movies that is almost ossified by this point: the Q figure. Shuri rules her lab with unflappable authority, designing all of T’Challa’s gadgets and guiding him from behind the scenes. Not the guy in the chair, but the girl in the driver’s seat. Her character brilliantly disrupts the decades-long tradition of an older white dude in this role, and I love it. Shuri is the one who is the key to T’Challa’s success in battle, and he never forgets it (nor would she ever let him if he tried). These two are without question my favorite sibling pair in movie history.
Not only is Shuri smarter than Tony Stark, her quips outshine his too: he might be a lovable jerk, but her snark rises to a level of sharpness primed not to boost her own ego, but to effortlessly decimate the assumptions of male chauvinism and white supremacy. “Don’t scare me like that, colonizer,” she throws out casually at Martin Freeman’s character, not batting an eye when he stutters that he has a name. That and “Great, another broken white boy for us to fix,” are two lines of dialogue that contain multitudes of meaning. I didn’t even know how much I needed to hear them.
Inextricable from the joy of watching this well-told story unfold onscreen are the layers of brilliance in the writing that just blew me away both times I watched it. For me there are two things that made the experience of watching Black Panther not just unforgettable, but revolutionary: what it means for representation, and what it says about colonialism and oppression.
This is the first mainstream blockbuster to feature an all-black cast, and the implications of seeing a black superhero movie with this much buzz and acclaim in today’s world are self-evident. You would have to have a heart of stone not to feel joy at the photos of black people of every age dressing up and going out en masse to go see this movie. Little kids dressed like royalty and superheroes, with the widest grins on their faces. People taking their mothers and grandmothers to see this film, who still remember having to enter the theater through the back door.
It’s been amazing to witness over the last few days, because I too know the pain of growing up with no representation—or worse, misrepresentation—in the media that has such a powerful influence in shaping our world. Our African American community has had the worst of it, and it’s incredible that they can finally have this moment. When most of the images you see of people who look like you is of them being repeatedly brutalized and murdered onscreen, both in fiction and reality, how must it feel to see a movie like this? To see black heroes, men and women who are the rulers of their own land, who have never been colonized or enslaved, who are fierce and beautiful and whole. A people who fight to defend themselves with a pride and bravery that doesn’t bow down to anyone’s warped standards about what they’re allowed to do, or how much space they’re allowed to take up. I can’t know how it feels, but just imagining it moves me to tears. Black Panther is an aspirational fantasy in the truest sense of the word. How transformative to see what we have only imagined come to life before us. On a thirty-foot-tall movie screen, unapologetically black.
And it’s not just representation on a macro level, in terms of the casting and premise, but in every lovingly crafted detail. T’Challa and his family and friends have complex, human relationships which are self-contained ecosystems that relate only peripherally to white people. When do we ever get to see families of color onscreen? Usually it’s one person of color in a sea of white people, who not only carries the entire community on their back, but exists as a character solely to enrich and/or propel the white protagonist’s narrative. Here we have so many black characters that each of them gets to be their own person. The only one who carries the burden of representation in this movie is T’Challa, and he is the literal embodiment of his people.
What surprised and moved me most, however, is how directly and critically Black Panther takes on colonialism. I did not expect a Marvel movie to give us a story that so clearly speaks to such injustices, past and present, though perhaps I should have had a little more faith after Thor: Ragnarok. Wakanda is an uncolonized country, which for Africa and most of the rest of the world is a vision lost to history. Yet we see it come to life onscreen: in the movie’s soundtrack, in the accents of the characters and the way they use their native language freely, in their technology, which is incredibly innovative but still carries a unique look that is missing from the industrial blankness of many futuristic movie sets. (How amazing were those dragonfly airships?)
This is unremarked on in the movie, but it’s the clear result of development that happened naturally and wasn’t forced upon the country by opportunistic globalization. Wakanda’s technology grew from within and thus exists in harmony with nature and agriculture, with urban and rural communities flourishing side by side. The look and sound of Wakanda is free from the American brands that are ubiquitous anywhere you go in the world; instead you have backpacks and clothing and architecture that reflect indigenous design. Even the way they fight grows naturally from the way their ancestors did, with the added firepower and capabilities given to them by vibranium and Shuri’s genius. Okoye had some of the best lines in the movie, including her contemptuous, “Guns. So primitive,” when she and Nakia were chasing Klaue. Ryan Coogler didn’t just build a fun world, but one that has a sense of history and an internal logic so solid that the fictional Wakanda feels more real than many a movie purportedly set in our own reality.
This beautiful world, untouched by the ugliness of colonialism, gives us a powerful argument for the benefits of Wakanda’s isolationism, despite its costs. You can understand the fear that caused them to hide for so long. You can see why T’Challa is so reluctant to open them up to the outside world. And yet when Killmonger takes them to task for abandoning their own people—not just black people, but all of oppressed humanity—in order to stay comfortable and safe, he also has a point. We first meet him in the Museum of Great Britain, telling the “Africa expert” white curator who tells him the Wakandan artifact is not for sale, “How do you think your ancestors got these? Did they pay a fair price? Or did they take it like everything else?” he asks her. It’s a powerful reference to the way the British Empire looted the entire world, stealing its crown jewels from India and nations of people from Africa in order to enslave them into enriching its coffers.
Killmonger is right. But his solution is twisted by hatred and the desire for retribution. He has become his enemy in order to destroy it, which is never clearer than the chilling way he explicitly references British colonialism again after he takes the throne: “The sun will never set on the Wakandan Empire.” In the end his true purpose is to wreak death and violence against the world, on everyone who ever caused him harm, and he doesn’t care about the innocent lives he takes along the way. His own suffering and hatred makes him blind to that of others except as a way to justify his bloodlust. Yet it’s a tragic flaw, because it’s grounded in his history as an orphan who found his father murdered in their home, who was told stories of a mythical paradise that he was cut off from being able to return to.
Black Panther is the story about an African king, but it’s just as much the tale of an American black man who was denied the opportunities he should have had growing up, who was twisted by the violence and intimidation that systemically oppressed his community and still does today. It’s no accident that the movie opens in Oakland in 1992, with coverage of the L.A. riots playing on live TV in the background. That connection to the real-life struggles of black people in America, and the contrast to what African people might have built if their continent hadn’t been carved up and divided between European nations as though by hyenas fighting over prey, is what makes the movie so powerful.
Killmonger and T’Challa are mirror images of each other in a way, cousins who come at the same problem—the suffering and protection of their people—in different ways that are heavily influenced by their upbringings. Neither is exempt from making his own choices, but both are hamstrung by the legacies of their fathers in different ways. Killmonger can’t let go of the pain and hatred he’s been nursing his entire life; when T’Challa offers him another way, he is unable to trade murder for reconciliation. But T’Challa, who feels so betrayed by his father that he literally comes back from the dead to right T’Chaka’s wrongs, is able to rise above that hurt, admit that his isolationist approach was misguided, and bring a change to Wakanda that will have global reverberations. He was able to listen and evolve, while Killmonger could not see past his own arrogance and chauvinism. It matters that T’Challa has been surrounded by wise, strong women his whole life, and Killmonger was raised by the U.S. Army and trained by the American imperialist machine to murder black and brown people and overtake and destroy their nations. (And color me surprised that Martin Freeman’s CIA Agent Ross makes explicit reference to this. In a Disney movie.)
It very much says something about the need for family and rootedness and safety to a person’s healthy development, basic human needs that were brutally and systematically ripped away from African Americans when they were forcibly brought to this country’s shores, and which they have had to painstakingly rebuild in the face of incredible and unending dehumanization. People of color in this country start out at such a disadvantage, and work so much harder to achieve things that white people take for granted. It’s not rocket science that the daily burden of facing that kind of oppression and the psychic weight of history is just too much for some to overcome. I think Killmonger recognizes, as he sits waiting for his own death, how he too has ultimately been unable to escape that same fate. “Just bury me in the ocean, with my ancestors who jumped from ships,” he tells T’Challa, “cause they knew death was better than bondage.”
The movie wasn’t perfect—I wasn’t crazy about the sequence where we’re introduced to Nakia, when she emerges from among a group of hijab-clad female captives, ripping off her scarf as she saves them (from Boko Haram, I assume is the implication) and who also remove theirs once the enemy is dispatched. In a movie that gives us the freedom to tackle real issues in a fictional world the way that the best fantasy can, I could have done without that whiff of real-world Islamophobia. Especially considering the legacy of black Muslims the African American struggle for civil rights, which is clearly one of this movie’s core concerns. That was disappointing in a work that’s otherwise so good at representation, and more so given that there are no other characters that are depicted as Muslim in the movie, not even in the United Nations chamber at the end.
Additionally, the right of royal blood to rule is unquestioned in this movie, and that doesn’t quite jibe with the rest of the film’s themes about justice and equality and the right of oppressed people to rise up against tyrannical rulers. T’Challa is certainly the ruler that Wakanda needs in this moment, but when his throne is usurped by his cousin, there is no doubt that the problem isn’t that someone outside the line of succession took the throne, but that he will destroy the nation. The fact that Killmonger did so through a legal challenge was a good opportunity for the characters to question the wisdom of this type of monarchy, but although Nakia, Shuri and the Queen Mother do launch a rebellion, once T’Challa is returned to his “rightful” place the issue disappears. I understand that this movie already had a lot on its plate, but I would have appreciated even a cursory acknowledgment that the idea of a kingdom passed down to royal heirs might conflict with some of this movies’ central themes.
Still, the fact that it’s not an absolute line of succession, that the king can be challenged by someone from the other tribes’ royal families, and that the king is required to prove himself in battle, to sacrifice his own body for the protection of his people, is a radical concept of leadership in this era of modern warfare. The vision of a king fighting at the head of his army carries ancient echoes, and resonates in an age of presidents sitting behind desks and ordering drones to rain down murder on the other side of the globe. That’s also why King T’Challa’s speech at the U.N. is so powerful—and why it makes us smile to hear him asked, “What can a nation of farmers have to offer the rest of the world?”
What can Wakanda offer us, indeed. I think it’s pretty obvious what it has offered us already, with the shattered box office records, the collective joy and the incredible real-life community initiatives this movie has inspired in only a week since its release. As for me, I’m going back to see the movie again for the third time as soon as I have a chance.