Long ago, the last founding father Frederick Douglass said, “Everybody has asked the question, and they learned to ask it early of the abolitionists, ‘What shall we do with the negro?’ I have had but one answer from the beginning. Do nothing with us! Your doing with us has already played the mischief with us. Do nothing with us! If the apples will not remain on the tree of their own strength, if they are worm-eaten at the core, if they are early ripe and disposed to fall, let them fall! I am not for tying or fastening them on the tree in any way, except by nature’s plan, and if they will not stay there, let them fall. And if the negro cannot stand on his own legs, let him fall also. All I ask is, give him a chance to stand on his own legs!”
The truest and hardest aspect of truly liberal society and life is the right to fail, the right to be weighed and measured upon your talents and effort. This is what Douglass was saying with infinitely more eloquence than I could ever muster. This was a right denied him while he was legally chattel.
He would’ve looked at the New Deal and Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society with disdain, because these programs asked the question anew: What are we to do with black Americans? Douglass would have shouted “Nothing!” They are men and women fashioned in God’s image, belonging to the category of inherent dignity. Their welfare belongs to them and God alone, not to any government. Government is established to take away the shackles of elitist condescension.
But we have decided to ignore Douglass as much as we do the rest of the founding fathers. We have decided that some things and certain people need to be propped up. We have decided that the trapeze of life requires a safety net. This is deeply unfair. And this is what our contemporary cultural moment has done to the film “Black Panther.”
Validating a Film They Haven’t Even Seen
“At its Hollywood premiere, Black Panther received a rousing standing ovation. What’s impressive is that this ovation occurred before the movie was shown,” The Hollywood Reporter says. That is the opposite of impressive. It’s an award of sheer tokenism.
The truth about the film “Black Panther” is very similar to that of Barack Obama’s presidency: disappointing. The people at the Hollywood premiere may have gave an ovation at the beginning of their showing, but at the end of mine there was one awkward attempt at clapping. It didn’t last long. The solitary soul gave up after one halfhearted smack. My theater of choice is located in a very mixed racial area of southern California. The audiences I see films with are rainbow-colored.
As I walked out of the theater, I noticed that everyone was silent. There was no chatter. And it wasn’t a solemn silence. I had the sense that everyone felt let down. Normally, people are full of chatter after an Marvel film. The multiple codas are often confusing to non-comic-book fans, so there are a flurry of clarifications, mostly to wives from nerdy husbands.
The film has been receiving bombastic praise, being called everything from a “movement” to “majestic” and even that it “shows the real Africa.” As a cynical conservative, I knew it would be none of these things, least of all a movement.
But I am a massive Marvel Comics Universe fan. The Captain America trilogy in particular are some of my all-time favorite films, especially “Civil War.” T’Challa’s (Black Panther’s) story in that epic is easily one of my favorite parts. I cry every time I hear Black Panther say to Zemo: “Vengeance has consumed you. It’s consuming them (Tony and Steve). I am done letting it consume me. Justice will come soon enough.”
So I was very much looking forward to seeing the next step of this character arc, in large part because Chadwick Boseman took a very small part and made it feel big in “Captain America: Civil War.” He is a fine actor able to evoke complex emotions with just his eyes.
But unfortunately screenwriters Ryan Coogler (the director) and Robert Joe Cole somehow managed to make the character seem smaller and weaker inside a film that was supposed to be all about the Black Panther. Boseman is still excellent in the role, but is hardly given anything to do until the villain finally shows up.
Major spoilers to follow.
More Than an Hour of No-Stakes Film
There are some very good things about this film. But first let’s slough through the bad. “Black Panther” suffers from several fatal flaws. The greatest sin a film can commit is to be boring. Most of this film is shockingly boring. The first hour and fifteen minutes is virtually tensionless. There are simply no stakes. It feels more like the stuffy and pointless courtliness of “The Phantom Menace” than an exciting superhero film. Even the irrepressible Andy Serkis’ scenery-chewing was joyless and, more importantly, threat-less.
All stories thrive on conflict, but none more so than superhero stories. This does not mean action. This means introducing a problem that our hero must try to solve. But for more than an hour in this film, it is completely unclear what exactly the problem is.
There is a ton of African fetishism. There are even multiple James Bond-esque gadget scenes, a brief MMA-style fight between T’Challa and a would-be usurper, and a car chase in south Korea. But none of this matters. It feels rote. It is completely unclear why we are watching this story. It is a case study of pretentious self-importance, a.k.a. bad writing. The filmmakers believe their subject matter is interesting as-is without any real story. The script should have gone through several additional drafts for the first act and a half.
The hashtag #whatblackpanthermeanstome has been a venue for many to express how happy they are for their minority children to see themselves represented in this movie. But children are not going to like this film. This was a particularly hard realization for me, because I work with minority students.
In principle I hate identity politics and the idea that anybody needs to be represented in order to feel valued, but it’s hard not to get excited about this sort of thing. It’s easier for all of us to relate to characters that look like us. So I’m dreading having to answer my students’ numerous questions about the film. I don’t want to disappoint them. But I’m not the one who will disappoint them. The filmmakers are.
Finally, the Conflict Shows Up
Now for the good. Erik Killmonger is almost certainly the best villain in the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) thus far. Sadly, this is not saying much. The MCU, and Marvel Comics in general compared to DC Comics, has been notoriously plagued by weak villains.
That being said, he is still a fantastic nemesis, thanks in no small part to actor Michael B. Jordan. His presence is constantly threatening, and it invigorated the entire film. When Boseman faces off with him in the royal throne room, it’s as if the film had been wearing handcuffs for an hour and a half and they finally came off. Every scene is better, every actor more convincing, every line more poignant. It’s almost worth the first half being so weak. Conflict is the essence of story, and Jordan’s Killmonger is a tornado of conflict.
The conflict Killmonger represents is very real and deeply relevant to contemporary culture, because Killmonger is an Afro-Nazi. He’s a black supremacist, a real Black Panther. In the X-Men films, villain Magneto is a Holocaust survivor who wants to racially cleanse humanity. Similarly, Killmonger is a Wakandan of royal blood orphaned in an American ghetto who has decided to incarnate identity politics.
He sees Wakanda’s excellence as a means to subjugate the white world. The word “colonialist” is consciously thrown around more than once. Killmonger has drunk deeply of Obama’s anti-colonial well and decided it’s time for vengeance upon the white world.
But T’Challa is more than up to the task. He will not be swayed by the politics of hate. He is a true hero—the same hero who gave up his right to vengeance against Zemo. First and foremost, he wants to do what is right by his nation. He is motivated by actual justice, not Marxist reversals of oppression. The climatic confrontation between these forces of good and complicated evil is well worth suffering through the first half.
Malcom X Boxes Martin Luther King Jr.
In many ways, the third act of this film is like watching Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. put on boxing gloves. The film’s first coda contains an eloquent rhetorical refutation of identity politics in favor of the politics of unity. Speaking to the United Nations, T’Challa says we must all come to see ourselves as one tribe, one family of brothers and sisters. We must learn to see what we have in common first, and not how we are different.
Unfortunately, the film is extremely uneven. I predict it will underperform by a shocking margin. Racism and alt-right activism will be blamed for this, but Disney does not have to look any further than the ecstatic champions in the media who attempted to prop it up, refusing to let this panther stand on its own legs. They have forgotten Douglass: “Let him fall if he cannot stand alone! If the negro cannot live by the line of eternal justice, so beautifully pictured to you in the illustration used by Mr. Phillips, the fault will not be yours, it will be his who made the negro, and established that line for his government.”
We desperately need to learn to let things be what they are, and nothing more. When we turn films and hashtags into fictional movements, we infantilize ourselves and our culture. Everything and everyone deserves the right to fail.
I give the first half a 4.5/10 and the second half an 8.5/10. It’s too uneven for a total score.