Everyone knows the production of “Black Panther” is tied up with black pride. Press enthusiasm about the movie knows it. The Black History Month release shows it. The release of a Black Panther album in advance of the film, curated by the proudest black musician in pop, Kendrick Lamar, proves it.
At first glance, the film appears to locate black pride in Africa. Indeed, the set and costume designs, as well as everything else from weaponry to language, aims to persuade you that the fictional setting of the nation of Wakanda is the fruit of a respectful education about Africa. This is cultural appropriation you can believe in.
But it’s as surely about America as you might expect from writer-director Ryan Coogler’s respect for Ta-Nehisi Coates’s writing of the comic Black Panther. And this is something to be grateful for. With no intent of any slight to any African country, the film’s priorities are domestic, not foreign. Americans need some cultural ways of talking about race that aren’t hysterically partisan. And it’s probably not against the intention of “Black Panther’s” creators to understand the story in relation to the struggle for civil rights of American blacks. After all, it’s a 1960s comic.
Thinking About Race Relations Through Fictional Heroes
To make sense of the story, you have to start from the central conflict between two black heroes, Black Panther and Erik Killmonger. One stands for a politics of moral discipline, the other for a politics of revenge. Both have claims to justice that lead them to violence, but one insists on helping the immiserated and the other on destroying the institutions that have heaped up such misery with such disdain for so long. Does this sound familiar?
Black Panther has also inherited the political responsibility of leading his people after his father was assassinated. Yes, America, this is a story about the legacy of black pride and the civil rights struggle after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. That death failed to answer the questions the man’s great political activity raised, and to resolve the conflicts among blacks and among whites and between them as to what equality would demand.
The generations since have not solved this problem, and perhaps this is why finding some stories that can discuss race in light of human nature is now needful. We have seen that outside of film, conversations about race are invariably full of acrimony and bitterness. Their abstraction from urgent questions and a particular political situation allows film to work out a moral logic that makes a happy end imaginable.
This is not to say that the story is a parable about MLK or his legacy, or some kind of roman a clef. The story stands on its own and benefits from writing that stems from story-telling rather than ideology. This starts with the most important element, the African setting.
Reformulating Classically American Questions of Morality
Wakanda is the only country in Africa that has avoided foreign occupation or even any entanglement beyond its borders. This disentangles the moral questions about race from necessity and circumstance. Inasmuch as the story is about the terms on which Wakanda will join the rest of the world and the typical modern conflicts of America, it allows for plot choices to be determined by character and morality.
So at the deepest level of a story about America, “Black Panther’s” success really comes down to reformulating typical American questions of morality. Heroism is understood as assuming responsibility when one is not compelled to. Its legitimacy depends on a plot that dramatizes the search for and arrival at a moral consensus, all by bringing the audience around to agreeing about the demands of justice and the dignity of carrying them out.
I wish there were more to say about this level of reflection, because it is the highest duty of poetry. But today’s stories typically lack in plot. Everyone knows that we want entertainment out of our settings and the inevitable action scenes, with spectacular fights and surprising artistic inventions. But everyone also knows we can only tolerate the good guys winning, so every punch has a moral meaning rather than anything to do with the art of war. The question is only about on what terms the good guys will win. The function of Hollywood, and Marvel above all, is essentially conservative—it conserves the status quo.
We do not ask movies to solve our problems, because we do not dare risk the shameless things comedies have to show to solve problems. We do not ask the movies to show us what is simply impossible to solve in our problems, because we dare not risk the heartbreak that is a necessary part of tragedy. We want a bit of both.
We want all the suffering of tragedy when running up against our limits, but with all the comfort of comedy—a plausible happy end, above all, and the hope for more of the same later. These are the conditions we impose on the story to make its moral problems and solutions believable.
Where Black Panther Is Going from Here
As for what we might get from Black Panther in the future, because he really does seem unique, that depends on another level of story-telling: where he fits in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. We know from “Captain America: Civil War” that Black Panther is a hero and therefore bound by a very rigid code. We see Black Panther’s heroism tested in this story, but only to be augmented. He has neither existential qualms nor does he cause existential threats, as Iron Man routinely does.
Black Panther grows up morally and intellectually as he understands that his political responsibility in Wakanda is to use greatness to help the needy and that not even his country’s former isolation can keep it blameless. Not even the proud morality of self-reliance is beyond causing harm and offense. Not even this perfect city is angelic. But he is not really involved in persuading his people, nor does he have to make serious sacrifices on their behalf. He’s too successful for that.
So, in line with the Marvel ways of story-telling, this isn’t intended to lead to a crisis of first principles that could end a people or a way of life, as it did for Krypton in “Man of steel” or threatened to do for Gotham in the “Dark Knight” trilogy. That’s not the tragic level we’re operating on. Black Panther is a ruler, but he does not have the suggestions about him of being a god, as Superman and Batman do.
The character’s dignity is strangely separated from any crisis whose magnitude would reveal it. He is better than his story. We just believe in him because we want morality to win and it’s getting harder to find suitable champions. Marvel has failed to produce even one in its first ten years of unstoppable success. Black Panther is the first.
Why someone like Black Panther might be needed and what he reveals about us will have to await sequels for that reason. Aside from all the new things Black Panther brings to Marvel—a combination of futurism and primitivism that’s supposed counterpoint the neurotic and ignorant hi-tech Iron Man who otherwise dominates Marvel—we really have no idea why the stern visage of Chadwick Boseman fits in a Marvel setting.
A Different Kind of Superhero
Marvel just turned the darkest end of the world story in any mythology, the Norse Ragnarok, into a bro comedy with a feel-good morality about how good immigrants are and that a country is a people, really, not a place. With Wakanda, we see the entirely opposite attitude. The place actually matters, and it has to be defended. Throughout the story, loyalty matters in a way it has not in any other Marvel story, so that everything exotic is here seen as highly moral, even intransigent. Perhaps, after all, there is room in Marvel for more than the witticisms we have seen so far.
The achievement of the story is to show a black hero act in the realm of freedom. Apart from American entanglements, Black Panther can be a symbol of a dignity entirely free from any past of slavery. He is nevertheless tied up with America, as we see in a flashback, so it’s even more important that so much hope looks to him for a view of full dignity, grown unstunted by injustice.
This story shows the powers that either create freedom or thrive in the element of freedom, depending on how Wakanda ends up being understood, will nevertheless be morally disciplined and fully humane, that is, fully awake to the truth of human nature as human equality. This is really what the story has to offer Americans. I don’t know whether it will come to audiences primarily as a surprise or as relief, but it is doing a public service in the only way culture can.