First, let’s get this out of the way: Marvel’s new Black Panther movie is an excellent movie that captivates you in its splendor. The characters are compelling, the plot is thrilling, the cinematography/set design/costumes are great, the themes are treated intelligently, fight choreography is handled well, the villian is memorable, and it just exudes cool. If you haven’t seen it, go out there and watch it. That’s my Black Panther review. It’s easily a contender for one of the strongest Marvel movies to date. The publication time of this article is about 4 weeks after Black Panther was released and the movie still retains the #1 spot in the North American box office. Worldwide, the movie has grossed over $1 billion.
Second, I want to explore some interesting themes interacting between Black Panther’s characters, literary motifs, and some real life African-American leaders. Obviously I am not Black and do not speak for Black people. I’m also not an expert on African-American history, so feel free to do your own research on this. These are just my opinions.
One of the interesting things about Black Panther is how relatable Killmonger, the villian, is in his motivations. He was born of tragedy, not just in the everyday use of the term, but also in the more classical literary motif of capital T Tragedy. Classical tragedies in the Greek and Shakespearean tradition focus on the danger of hubris, of overweening human pride, and how they always lead to the downfall of lofty people like kings and heroes.
The tragic tradition is exemplified superbly by the Wakandan royal family’s conflict. It’s a conflict that ultimately leads to the birth of Killmonger. King T’Chaka creates his own enemies when the King’s brother, N’Jobu, disagrees with the way T’Chaka manages Wakandan affairs. His brother believes in more direct intervention in the outside world, that Wakanda shouldn’t stand idle while others suffer. T’Chaka cannot allow that dissent–his pride, his hubris, is that only he knows what is best for Wakanda. The king believes in an isolationist Wakanda that closes itself to the outside world, maintaining Wakandan prosperity by hiding itself. Yet T’Chaka’s beliefs can also be understood–the tradition of isolation has kept Wakanda safe since its founding so why change? Let Wakanda be exceptional alone and squash any voices that say otherwise. In a way, you could say isolationism is actually the hubris of Wakanda itself.
That larger hubris still doesn’t absolve the king from his duty to lead the country in growing and adapting beyond its past. Yet, to be king is almost to be powerlessly bound by the system that surrounds the king; the center is, by its own nature, the most immovable piece.
The king cannot see how Wakanda could interact differently with the world. That blindness culminates with him not accepting the ideological split of his own brother, pushing N’Jobu out in the world as a War Dog and further into extremism. In the outside world, N’Jobu sees how unfairly people of his skin color are treated and he chooses to attack the problem without the help of Wakanda. He goes as far as working with Ulysses Klaue, hoping to use the vibranium for his cause. N’Jobu’s radicalization directly enables not only the rise of T’Chaka’s enemy Ulysses Klaue, but also T’Challa’s future adversary Killmonger.
When T’Chaka kills N’Jobu, his pride reinforces the belief that it is a righteous decision necessary to protect Wakandan isolationism. Ironically, the murder of his brother and orphaning of his son becomes the sin that leads to the deaths and the suffering of the Wakandan civil war in the future. The key word here is betrayal: betrayal of the Wakandan nation by N’Jobu contrasted with the betrayal of familial bonds by T’Chaka’s brother killing and his choice to leave his brother’s child to fend for himself. The king could have accepted the child as Wakandan, bringing him into his country. Instead, both he and the brother are treated as outsiders–foreign substances to be excised from Wakanda.
The tragedy is that each brother cannot understand and accept the others views, each too confident in their own interpretation of the world to work together for the sake of Wakanda’s future.
Killmonger’s origin mirrors the origin of many comic book heroes: a tragic past where he is orphaned by outside forces, a fantastic secret that reinforces his belief in his uniqueness, the righteousness of his planned revenge, and the adversity he works through in the outside world to become stronger.
Sound familiar? It should, it’s basically Batman’s backstory, just without the inherited billions. He’s arguably more impressive than Batman in the hardships he must endure. He’s the underdog born from violent back alleys and a poor neighborhood who wants to change the unfairness he sees in the world. Compare that origin to the privileged upbringing of the Wakandan prince T’Challa in a prosperous secret kingdom and Killmonger almost seems like the hero in the story.
I’m not saying he’s a good person though. We should remember all the people he kills and his burgeoning narcissism. He doesn’t just want equality for Africans in the outside world, he wants to inflict suffering while he stands on top. He wants to watch the world burn.
One of the most beautiful and emotionally evocative scenes in the movie is after the climactic battle between Killmonger and T’Challa. T’Challa mortally wounds Killmonger with a spear head, ending their fight. At this point, T’Challa owed Killmonger nothing. Killmonger had stolen the throne from him, killed or attempted to kill his friends, burned all of the heart shaped herbs, and was on a megalomaniacal rampage to destroy the world order. Yet, in that moment, T’Challa does what his father never could and is able to understand an alternative view of Wakanda.
Killmonger is wrong, yet he is also right. Let me explain: T’Challa recognizes the kernel of truth in Killmonger’s motivation, that Wakanda should not hide and that his people can help others in the world. He learns from his enemy; he humbles himself by reflecting on the views he has held for so long. He achieves wisdom in this newfound self awareness and it’s reflected in the movie’s narrative: he helps his dying enemy up in empathy, together going to watch the sunset Killmonger never saw as a child in the ghetto. He may be an enemy, but he is still part of Wakanda–they can cease their fighting and struggle towards understanding each other. They face the sunset, a metaphor for the future, together.
In that scene, Killmonger turns to T’Challa and says, incredulously, “Can you believe that? A kid from Oakland walking around, believing in fairytales.” Though they come from different backgrounds, Wakanda symbolizes hope for them both.
It’s the most powerful scene in the movie because it’s a moment of clarity and understanding. Here on the cliff, hero and villain are meaningless. There are just two Wakandan brothers striving to understand each other and respect each other. T’Challa offers Killmonger a chance to keep living, but Killmonger tells him that he cannot live in bondage like those who suffered under slavery. This is where T’Challa’s thoughts crystallize. He will be the king, the Black Panther, to lead his country in connecting with those who suffer in the outside world. He has the compassion to understand the truth Killmonger offers him, of strength in unity.
If there’s one thing I want you to take away from this Black Panther review, it’s the effectiveness of this scene. It’s poignancy is a stark contrast to so many unthinking films where villains are cartoonishly portrayed as just obstacles for the hero to destroy and forget about. There’s real character development going on with villains that are human too.
Interestingly, T’Challa’s former lover Nakia also believes in the same principle of changing the outside world that also motivates Killmonger. Her split with T’Challa and their subsequent reunion parallels T’Challa’s own changing views on Wakanda’s isolation. Where the movie began with a death between brothers and a split in views, it ends with the mending of love and the reconciliation of disagreements.
Evoking Different Schools of Thought
The dichotomy between T’Challa and Killmonger echoes past conflicts within the African-American community. T’Challa’s more compassionate approach, softer approach contrasts with Killmonger’s direct, forceful approach. Their fight is almost a continuance of the dialogue started by leaders like W.E.B Du Bois and Booker T Washington. The African-American community shouldn’t be looked at as a monolithic institution. Like any large grouping of human beings, there is disagreement and infighting about the best path forward. To understand this, we can highlight a bit of the history between some key Black leaders.
Note that I’m going to be glossing over a lot of history so what I write here won’t be the fully nuanced, unsimplified versions of their arguments.
W.E.B. Du Bois vs Booker T. Washington: Genesis of the Debate
W.E.B Du Bois and Booker T. Washington were 2 leading Black leaders of the late 19th and early 20th century who often clashed over their beliefs. W.E.B. Du Bois was the first African-American to earn a Ph.D from Harvard, co-founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), supported Pan-Africanism by organizing Pan-African Congresses to help colonies break free from Europe, and advocated extensively for African-American rights.
Booker T. Washington was a former slave who earned an education, became a teacher after the Civil War, founded Tuskegee University to educate African-Americans in agriculture, served as a political adviser to 2 presidents (Roosevelt and Taft), and published several books.
PBS Frontline’s article Booker T. & W.E.B illustrates their debate in more detail (emphasis mine):
Booker T. Washington, educator, reformer and the most influentional [sic] black leader of his time (1856-1915) preached a philosophy of self-help, racial solidarity and accomodation [sic]. He urged blacks to accept discrimination for the time being and concentrate on elevating themselves through hard work and material prosperity. He believed in education in the crafts, industrial and farming skills and the cultivation of the virtues of patience, enterprise and thrift. This, he said, would win the respect of whites and lead to African Americans being fully accepted as citizens and integrated into all strata of society.
W.E.B. Du Bois, a towering black intellectual, scholar and political thinker (1868-1963) said no–Washington’s strategy would serve only to perpetuate white oppression. Du Bois advocated political action and a civil rights agenda (he helped found the NAACP). In addition, he argued that social change could be accomplished by developing the small group of college-educated blacks he called “the Talented Tenth:”
At the time, the Washington/Du Bois dispute polarized African American leaders into two wings–the ‘conservative’ supporters of Washington and his ‘radical’ critics. The Du Bois philosophy of agitation and protest for civil rights flowed directly into the Civil Rights movement which began to develop in the 1950’s and exploded in the 1960’s. Booker T. today is associated, perhaps unfairly, with the self-help/colorblind/Republican/Clarence Thomas/Thomas Sowell wing of the black community and its leaders. The Nation of Islam and Maulana Karenga’s Afrocentrism derive too from this strand out of Booker T.’s philosophy. However, the latter advocated withdrawal from the mainstream in the name of economic advancement.
Doesn’t that last sentence sound similar to the Wakanda-centric philosophy of T’Chaka and T’Challa? Wakanda has it a bit better than the African-American community, but they are still essentially accommodating the outside world. The Wakandan policy of hiding themselves from the outside world can be read similarly to Washington’s belief to “…accept discrimination for the time being and concentrate on elevating themselves through hard work and material prosperity.” Accept the injustice in the outside world, stay within your own borders, and work only on elevating your own kingdom–that’s the crux of Wakandan isolationism.
The Biography.com entry for Washington notes that there was truth in Du Bois’ criticisms of Washington’s accommodationist philosophy:
Du Bois criticized Washington for not demanding equality for African Americans … and subsequently became an advocate for full and equal rights in every realm of a person’s life.
Though Washington had done much to help advance many African Americans, there was some truth in the criticism. During Washington’s rise as a national spokesperson for African Americans, they were systematically excluded from the vote and political participation through black codes and Jim Crow laws as rigid patterns of segregation and discrimination became institutionalized throughout the South and much of the country.
Compare those patterns of segregation to Wakanda’s isolationism, which is almost a form of self-segregation that excludes them from participating in the world.
When Killmonger challenges T’Challa, he criticizes their callousness:
Killmonger: Y’all sitting up here comfortable. Must feel good. Meanwhile, there are about 2 billion people all over the world that looks like us. But their lives are a lot harder. Wakanda has the tools to liberate them all.
T’Challa evokes Washington’s separatist accommodation philosophy while Killmonger is reminiscent of Du Bois’ direct demand for full rights. I use the word reminiscent strongly here–Killmonger is a bit of an anarchist egomaniac, not the caring activist Du Bois was. Remember that Killmonger didn’t want equality, he wanted supremacy:
Killmonger: It’s time they know the truth about us. The world’s going to start over, and we’re going to be on top!
These aren’t the only historical figures that Black Panther’s titular characters draw inspiration from. The struggle between pacifism and direct action philosophies continued with an even more famous pair of Black leaders.
Malcolm X vs Martin Luther King Jr: Two Leaders of the People
Malcolm X was a fiery Black nationalist leader who helped grow the Nation of Islam to 40,000 members and a civil rights activist who spoke powerfully on defeating racism. He had a tumultuous upbringing that included having his house burnt down by a racist mob, a father dying under suspicious circumstances, a mother going insane, revolving through the foster care system, navigating the streets as a drug dealer, and finally ending up in prison where he joined the Nation of Islam. After his release, he started a national newspaper to help expand the Nation of Islam and gave passionate speeches pushing for revolution, cementing his place as a radical civil rights leader.
Who hasn’t heard of Martin Luther King Jr? He was a Baptist minister and civil rights leader who headed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, gave speeches that moved millions of people, and received the Nobel Peace Prize. King was born into a family of ministers, showing great intellectual promise by skipping 2 grades in high school, becoming valedictorian in college, and completing a Ph.D. at age 25. Later that year, a woman named Rosa Parks was arrested and sentenced for refusing to give up her seat on the bus. He would give his first notable speech and lead the subsequent citywide bus boycott, starting his ascent as an civil rights leader.
The first thing to note is how both Malcolm X’s and King’s upbringings mirror the origins of Killmonger and T’Challa. Like Malcolm X, Killmonger’s father was killed and he was forced to fend for himself, eventually moving into a violent criminal life. T’Challa grows up in a royal family, being groomed for the throne similar to King’s lineage of ministry. T’Challa is also afforded a secure upbringing, similar to King’s relatively well-to-do background.
On the conflict between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr, Al Jazeera’s article Malcolm X and Martin Luther King quotes historian Herb Boyd:
“Malcolm comes from a black nationalist tradition that does not believe that you can get your freedom, your self-respect, your dignity by simply letting somebody beat up on you, and you do not try to defend yourself. That’s why Malcolm emphasised self-defence. But King emphasised non-violence because if blacks had responded, tried to defend themselves, that would have brought the police department down on those demonstrators and whites would have loved to have the chance to kill black people indiscriminately. So King and Malcolm had that tension,” says Cone.
The article continues by quoting Malcolm X on his criticism of King’s approach to civil rights:
“The white man pays Reverend Martin Luther King, subsidises Reverend Martin Luther King, so that Reverend Martin Luther King can continue to teach the negroes to be defenceless. That’s what you mean by non-violent: be defenceless. Be defenceless in the face of one of the most cruel beasts that has ever taken a people into captivity. That’s just the American white man,” Malcolm X said.
Killmonger has a similar criticism on Wakanda, that they sit idly by while billions of people they could be helping suffer. Essentially, Wakanda is abandoning every person of African descent by remaining hidden and following a King-like non-interventionist strategy with the outside world. I’m not the first to notice or write about how the movie’s main conflict resembles the conflict between Martin Luther King, Jr and Malcolm X either.
Remember this earlier quotation from Black Panther? (Expanded a bit for context):
Killmonger: Y’all sitting up here comfortable. Must feel good. Meanwhile, there are about 2 billion people all over the world that looks like us. But their lives are a lot harder. Wakanda has the tools to liberate them all.
Killmonger: [ to T’Challa] Not your own? But didn’t life start right here on this continent? So ain’t all people your people?
T’Challa: I’m not King of all people. I’m King of Wakanda.
Killmonger, like Malcolm X, criticizes someone he perceives as telling him to be defenseless. T’Challa attempts to rebut Killmonger’s criticism by saying his duty is only to the people of Wakanda. This is where the Killmonger-Malcolm X/T’Challa-King metaphor unravels. The Black nationalist position was more Malcolm X while King was someone who believed in helping all people. The reversal makes sense if you interpret these Black Panther characters as complex individuals, not just caricatures of past figures, and as two valid viewpoints requiring a balancing act. Other viewers of the movie have made similar warnings about interpreting the movie as a direct representation of the Malcolm X-King dynamic. If you interpret Killmonger-T’Challa as two halves of a whole, the movie can be viewed as a search for balance in the discourse between integration and separatism.
Similarly, a surface level examination of the Malcolm X and MLK debate poses them as opposites, but real life was more complicated. When the two finally met in person, they seemed to reconcile with respect for each other. The Al Jazeera article states:
Malcolm X always wanted to meet King, but King never responded to Malcolm’s repeated requests for debate. After a hearing about the Civil Rights Act in Washington in 1964, they finally met face to face. Their meeting only lasted a minute, but the images that captured them side by side, both men smiling, became a strong symbol of reconciliation between two stridently different visions of the black cause.
“Those two people Martin and Malcolm, symbolised something that is in all African Americans. Each of us has a little bit of Martin and a little bit of Malcolm in us. Malcolm represents that blackness in us, that sense that we don’t want white people messing with us. Malcolm represents that fire, that fight that refuses to let anybody define who we are. King represents our desire to get along with everybody, including whites. Our desire to want to create a society for all people, defined by non-violence, love and care for all people in the society,” says Cone.
This reconciliation almost feels like the inspiration for the ending sunset scene where Killmonger and T’Challa come to understand each other. They look towards the setting sun together in solidarity, despite their differences, focused on the bigger picture. When Killmonger dies, T’Challa gains respect for him. In a similar way, Martin Luther King respected Malcolm X after he was assassinated:
“I think Malcolm X did serve a role, I think he played a role in pointing out the problem, calling attention to it, but his great problem was an inability to emerge with a solution. He had slogans that were catchy and that people listened to, but I don’t think he ever pointed out the solution to the problem.”
Another misconception is that Malcolm X always believed that a violent revolution was necessary to obtain equality for African-Americans. In his later life, he made a pilgrimage to Mecca, where he had an epiphany and changed his name. After he returned to the US, he was more hopeful for peace. Biography.com writes:
…Malcolm X returned to the United States less angry and more optimistic about the prospects for peaceful resolution to America’s race problems. “The true brotherhood I had seen had influenced me to recognize that anger can blind human vision,” he said. “America is the first country … that can actually have a bloodless revolution.”
Killmonger diverges from the Malcolm X here–he was out for blood. His skews too far out of balance, ultimately causing his downfall. However, watching that last sunset, Killmonger might have finally recognized the blindness his anger was causing. He never apologizes, so whether he actually has an epiphany is left up for interpretation. I theorize that once his perspective, a perspective that began with his father and continued with him, truly reached T’Challa, he became able to let go of his anger and die peacefully. His goal, the seed of change, was planted.
As I’m sure you’ve noticed, the superhero Black Panther shares a name with the infamous Black Panther Party, with both established in the same year. Nate Marshall of In These Times explains the coincidence of their names (cached page, original source page is down):
The character of Black Panther first appeared in the July 1966 issue of the Fantastic Four series, which was the prestige Marvel title at the time. Created by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, the character debuted during the Civil Rights Movement and was the first Black superhero in mainstream American comics. Only a few months later, in October 1966, the Black Panther Party would be founded in Oakland. The overlapping names were a coincidence, but a fitting one.
Being founded in the same year, there’s obviously going to be an influence on Black Panther, the superhero, from the real life drama of the Black Panther party. Artists don’t work in a vacuum after all. The movie Black Panther can reasonably be expected to show influence from the the real life Black Panthers. I want to highlight that the director, Ryan Coogler, is from Oakland, the birthplace of the Black Panther Party.
When people talks about the Black Panther party, it’s usually pretty one-sided. Either they were saints that could do no wrong or they were gangsters and terrorists. I’ve been to the Oakland Museum’s exhibit on the Black Panther’s and what comes across is that they were humans, just like everyone else, with both virtues and flaws. Life is more complicated than black and white; I like having a more nuanced view of things.
They provided valuable social programs like free breakfasts and health clinics, though the aim was to indoctrinate people while they were young in the Black Panther party’s ideologies. Honestly it’s not that bad, it’s still free stuff you’re getting in exchange for listening to a sales pitch–people do this for time share presentations too. Having an advocacy organization for an oppressed class, even if a bit militant, probably wasn’t too bad for Black people either. There was also fierce violence both within the party, directed against the party, and at authorities (to be fair, the authorities were, in scientific terms, kind of being huge assholes). In short, they were like any big organization where you’ll have good people and terrible people. Just think about how many people you trust at your workplace. Their history is interesting–I’m definitely not doing it justice by glossing it over in a couple paragraphs.
Huey Newton and Bobby Seale
The Black Panther Party for Self Defense was founded by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale after they met in college. Both founders were heavily inspired by Malcolm X, who had just been assassinated the previous year. The organization was dedicated to helping African-Americans defend themselves from what Seale described as “…this racist decadent, capitalistic system.” According to Wikipedia’s entry on Newton:
The Party’s political goals, including better housing, jobs, and education for African Americans, were documented in their Ten-Point Program, a set of guidelines to the Black Panther Party’s ideals and ways of operation. The group believed that violence—or the threat of it—might be needed to bring about social change. They sometimes made news with a show of force, as they did when they entered the California Legislature fully armed in order to protest a gun bill.
Killmonger’s desire to bring about a violent revolution seems to draw from the Black Panther Party’s belief in the necessity of violence for liberation. Killmonger’s command to distribute vibranium weapons to foster a violent uprising is an example of how he pushes that belief to an extreme. Yet, by the end of the film, T’Challa is leading Wakanda towards providing aid and fostering social programs to help those who are suffering. Arguably, he is pursuing a course similar to the Black Panther Party’s lesser known community support actions. The party provided real, tangible benefits with their social programs:
Newton and the Panthers started a number of social programs in Oakland, including founding the Oakland Community School, which provided high-level education to 150 children from impoverished urban neighborhoods. Other Panther programs included the Free Breakfast for Children Program and others that offered dances for teenagers and training in martial arts. According to Oakland County Supervisor John George: “Huey could take street-gang types and give them a social consciousness.”
Though the Black Panther Party was mired in violent controversies, murder, and internal strife (fostered by destabilizing FBI COINTELPRO operations), they also had positive influences on their community. The duality between Killmonger and T’Challa’s paths seem to represent this tense dynamic between violent revolution and social uplift. Although the Black Panther Party never succeeded in their political goals, T’Challa’s plans for Wakanda at the end of Black Panther symbolize a kind of hope for societal change in the future.
One of the first things I wondered after seeing Black Panther was “how are actual African people reacting to this movie?” I’d like to caution that Africa is a huge continent spanning 30 million square kilometers with varying cultures among its 54 countries, so anything I say here is just going to be a sampling of opinions.
Just look how many well known countries you could fit in Africa:
Moving on, another layer of the Killmonger-T’Challa tension is the relationship between Africans and African-Americans. The first African-Americans were forcibly removed from their homes, enslaved, shipped across the ocean, and sold off, losing much of their culture in the process. Fast forward a couple hundred years and you have a unique culture that bears little resemblance to it’s birthplace.
American Joy Notoma of the Huffington Post describes the feeling of cultural divergence in audience reactions when she watched Black Panther in Benin:
It was opening weekend, and I was watching the movie in the West African country Benin, just a few hours from where the bronze art was made. Grumbles punctuated by tooth-sucking ― that ubiquitous signal that a wrong has been committed and needs to be rectified ― rippled through the theater.
The wrong in this case was centuries-old theft hidden in plain sight for anyone with enough money to see the items at the British Museum in London, the Quai Branly Museum in Paris, and various collections in the U.S. But this time, the tooth-sucking was more than indignant ― it was triumphant.
I wondered if a black American audience would have registered the moment in the same way. Maybe they, like I, would have simply wondered if Killmonger (played by Michael B. Jordan) would make a successful getaway in the scene.
Despite a shared past, African-American and African cultural differences cause the author and the audience around her to be affected by the film in divergent ways. Their experiences are fragmented and separate. The same split is explored in the film with Killmonger fully absorbing brash American swagger that clashes with the more humble T’Challa. And yet they still come from the same family; they are both connected by their fathers. The film hints at the connection that the two still share in spite of their contrasting natures, with that connection being fully realized by the ending scenes. Black Panther concludes by espousing the necessity for solidarity and unity. These ideas point to support for Pan-Africanism, the movement saying all people of African descent should bond with and help each other.
One thing that I had never realized was how some privileged Africans (a bit broad since Africa is a huge continent with different countries and cultures, but I simplify here for this discussion) in real life were like the Wakandans who ignored the plight of Africans elsewhere in the world. Jessica Bennett of Ebony writes about this disconnect:
Part of the tension lies in the ignorance of many Africans about the history of their American brothers and sisters. Author Luvvie Ajayi shared her perspective as a middle-upper-class Nigerian child who had no idea about the plight of Black Americans because it was never discussed nor included in her school curriculum.
“Africans aren’t taught about the middle passage in school. Or about slavery in the U.S.,” Ajayi explained via Twitter back in 2014. “I didn’t know a thing about African-Americans being slaves when I was growing up. I thought everyone had a maid and driver like I did.”
While Africa dealt with colonialism and imperialism, Africans in America had to deal with slavery and being forced to create their own kind of culture. That’s what colors the contrasting reactions to Black Panther by different audiences. These injustices, colonialism versus slavery, are expressed in the film by T’Challa and Killmonger’s disparate concerns. T’Challa worries about outsiders interfering with Wakanda while Killmonger is focused on the injustices people like him face in the world. Their tension is symbolic of the schism between African and African-American viewpoints.
Because of the discord between African and African-American cultural lenses, even Killmonger’s final lines can be interpreted in varying ways. Joy Notoma compares her reaction to her Beninese friend’s reaction:
When Killmonger meets his death, he says that he would rather join his enslaved ancestors who jumped ship in the Atlantic Ocean rather than spend their lives in chains. The poignancy of the statement encompasses the assault on black freedom, which includes mass incarceration. But when I spoke to my friend, Pretty Adjanohoun, a 28-year-old from Benin who also saw the movie, I found that the mass incarceration reference was lost on her. Instead, she homed in on the film’s depiction of “the Africa of the future,” her term for the movie’s Afrofuturism genre.
It made her think of Africa as beautiful and lush, she said. As someone who has never left Benin, who is used to the red clay and monochromatic cement architecture of its cities, the landscapes of the movie, which recall northern Ethiopia, were pure fantasy.
To answer my original question of what Africans thought of Black Panther, the overwhelming consensus is love for the film:
The South African actor Kani, like many at Friday night’s Johannesburg premiere, expressed pride at seeing an Afrofuturistic society that celebrates traditional cultures and dreams of what the world’s second most populous continent can be.
Added actress Danai Gurira, who grew up mostly in Zimbabwe: “To bring this film home is everything.”
“The African culture highlighted in the movie is so rich that it makes me feel proud of being black. I totally love it,” said Liz Muthoni after a screening in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. “I can watch it again and again.”
In Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, “Black Panther” has been selling out its five-times-a-day screenings at the only theater showing the film.
On Black vs African-American
Speaking of the tension between Killmonger and T’Challa as the tension between African-American and African reminds me about the debate around the terms Black and African-American. There’s a great debate about names in the African-American community. Names can hold a lot of power so they’re a ripe battleground. You’ll notice that I’ve used both the terms Black and African-American in this article. In the past, I’ve had to think about which term is more appropriate.
If a South-African person moves to the US, they are clearly African-American. Yet, the culture of a newly immigrated African-American is miles away from the culture of the African-American who was born here. Compare that example to Irish-Americans who have been in the US almost as long as African-Americans, yet few would still call them Irish-American instead of just “white”. Black people have a unique history due to being brought over during slavery. They aren’t really African anymore–most of their African cultural heritage was removed from them. Instead, they have their own uniquely developed American subculture.
How about this: what happens when that South-African person is white (almost 1 in 10 South-Africans are white)? Calling them African-American is technically correct, yet common sense would dictate otherwise. Shouldn’t African-Americans have a word that accurately describes their unique experience?
I don’t know the answers to these questions. Others have written about this naming conflict in more depth so I’ll highlight some of their points.
“We say that someone is black rather than African-American,” the Bloomberg style guide reads. “Ethnic descriptions used in hyphenation with ”American” are best reserved for immigrants or first-generation Americans.”
“President Barack Obama’s father was from Kenya and his mother was from Kansas, so it’s precise to say Obama is African-American. Arnold Schwarzenegger is an Austrian-American because he emigrated from Austria. Henry Kissinger, born in Bavaria, is German-American,” the guide continues. “We don’t say former President George W. Bush is German-American or Irish-American, although he has German and Irish ancestors, because he is generations removed from those forebears.”
A style guide from the National Association of Black Journalists says, “In news copy, aim to use black as an adjective, not a noun. Also, when describing a group, use black people instead of just blacks. In headlines, blacks, however, is acceptable.”
At the [New York] Times, “We don’t have a guideline one way or the other on noun versus adjective,” spokeswoman Eileen Murphy told Journal-isms…. At the Associated Press, “The AP Stylebook entries on ‘African-American’ and ‘black’ permit noun usages of black,” spokesman Jack Stokes said. “The individual’s preference is always a factor.”
Living descendants of slaves in America neither knew their African ancestors nor even have elder relatives who knew them. Most of us worship in Christian churches. Our cuisine is more southern U.S. than Senegalese. Starting with ragtime and jazz, we gave America intoxicating musical beats based on African conceptions of rhythm, but with melody and harmony based on Western traditions.
Also, we speak English. Black Americans’ home speech is largely based on local dialects of England and Ireland. Africa echoes in the dialect only as a whisper, in certain aspects of sound and melody. A working-class black man in Cincinnati has more in common with a working-class white man in Providence than with a Ghanaian.
And our name must also celebrate our history here, in the only place that will ever be our home. To term ourselves as part “African” reinforces a sad implication: that our history is basically slave ships, plantations, lynching, fire hoses in Birmingham, and then South Central, and that we need to look back to Mother Africa to feel good about ourselves.
But what about the black business districts that thrived across the country after slavery was abolished? What about Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, W.E.B. Du Bois, Gwendolyn Brooks, Richard Wright and Thurgood Marshall, none born in Africa and all deeply American people? And while we’re on Marshall, what about the civil rights revolution, a moral awakening that we gave to ourselves and the nation. My roots trace back to working-class Black people – Americans, not foreigners – and I’m proud of it.
My point here is that identity and identification can be a bit complicated. There are whole discussions in these communities that I’m barely aware of and likely unqualified to speak about.
Such is the nature of life–you don’t know what you don’t know.
Here’s what I do know: Black Panther is an excellent movie that makes you think. It’s a movie that examines conflicts you might not be unfamiliar with. And that’s a good thing.