If you’re a black superhero with space-age technology, wealth and power at your back … why aren’t you doing more to help?
This question is flung at the hero of Black Panther, the 18th superhero film in the Marvel cinematic universe, inspired by Marvel’s comic of the same name.
Black Panther is a strong, adamant and proudly black film, mainly set in Wakanda, a fictional African nation.
The film’s predominantly black cast overdeliver. Boseman is a brilliant lead, but the shining stars of Black Panther are the women: Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright and Angela Bassett are unbelievably good. Their characters are brimming with depth, and they love, support and fight for Wakanda with such fervour that they all feel like leads.
The soundtrack is co-produced and curated by Kendrick Lamar. And the film is directed and co-written by Ryan Coogler, who co-wrote and directed Creed.
All in all, it’s a joyous, complex exploration of what it means to be African.
What will your legacy be?
Black Panther was first portrayed by Chadwick Boseman in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War. Here, Black Panther’s at a political summit when tragedy strikes and he lands the onerous task of ruling his homeland, Wakanda.
In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Wakanda is perceived to be a poor nation. As the film’s opening crawl tells us, however, it’s home to a thriving civilisation with a rich history, and King T’Challa is one in a long line of Black Panthers, who use wisdom to rule their nation.
But the country is thrown into nightmarish political upheaval when Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) arrives and lays claim the throne. The young king must rally his allies to secure the safety of his country and people.
Coogler’s Black Panther is oddly wholesome. It’s colourful and visually clean, with a real sense of place. It’s also filled with the kinds of performances you don’t normally see in superhero films.
But the film’s underlying question is what makes it sing.
If you have power, strength and the ability to inspire, what are you going to do with it?
What is your legacy going to be? Are you going to smash into people, or are you going to do something more?
Generations of controversy
The Black Panther made his comic-book debut in early 1966, and later that year, the Black Panther political movement was founded. This caused some internal controversy at Marvel Studios — suddenly they were in bed with a radical movement, apparently by sheer coincidence.
In-universe, T’Challa underwent a few name changes. In 1972, he was renamed The Black Leopard, stating to his fellow Avengers that the name Black Panther had political connotations, and that “I neither condemn nor condone those who have taken up the name, but T’Challa is a law unto himself.”
By the mid-’70s, however, writer Don McGregor took over the Panther’s run of comics, and took a swing at getting political, flinging our hero against the Klu Klux Klan.
Before this (frankly, fantastic) story could be resolved, Marvel caved to internal pressure over the controversial storyline and low sales, giving the character back to one of its co-creators, Jack Kirby.
But Black Panther had already made waves. A generation of kids had grown up reading about a ballsy, principled black superhero who fought for the lifeblood of his birthplace and his adoptive home of New York. And one of those kids was writer-director Ryan Coogler.
A real-life example?
In 2016, Colin Kaepernick, quarterback for the 49ers, launched a dedicated and stoic on-field protest against racial injustice and police violence in America. At first he began sitting during the anthem, but then, he began kneeling. Dozens of NFL players followed his lead. Why did he do this?
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way”, Kaepernick told the press in 2016.
As his protest spread nationwide, President Trump told NFL owners they should react to any player who knelt with the command to “get that son of a bitch off the field”.
This week, outside the Super Bowl, some 80 protesters, many the mothers of young men gunned down by police — knelt in support of the now blackballed Kaepernick.
Since leaving the NFL, Kaepernick has started the Million Dollar Pledge, donating proceeds from jersey sales to organisations working in oppressed communities. He’s started and funded the Know Your Rights Camp, a youth campaign to “raise awareness of higher education, self-empowerment, and instruction to properly interact with law enforcement in various scenarios.”
Black heroes meet resistance
T’Challa, too, is a man with physical power and prowess, with celebrity, and the eyes of the world on him. And throughout the film, people challenge him to do more with that power. The women who surround him challenge him to do more. Even his adversary, Killmonger, an angry and disillusioned man who experienced tragedy in a poor backstreet as a kid, asks T’Challa to step up.
Kaepernick has met head-on the backlash from internet trolls and politicians during his crusade. This week, Facebook took down an alt-right page protesting the film, while others attempted to sabotage it on Rotten Tomatoes, leaving torrents of negative reviews before it even hit screens.
We live in an age where black heroes, both fictional and real, are met with fierce resistance.
But they’re making a difference. And if you don’t believe a black superhero film can inspire kids, watch this classroom — in a non-profit school dedicated to developing kids from all backgrounds — react to the news they’re attending a screening.
Black Panther opens in Australian cinemas on February 15.
Topics: film-movies, government-and-politics, united-states