If its record-smashing box office performance is any indication, “Black Panther” has set a new standard for movies. As a superhero epic, it delivers on the essentials. It has dazzling special effects, superb design and satisfying, bone-crushing fight scenes, all made better in 3-D. Were “Black Panther” a mere action movie, it would satisfy most of its audience, and distinguish itself as a solid addition to the genre.
But the fawning media coverage has made abundantly clear that “Black Panther” is to be seen as more than just a movie. It is an atonement for white guilt, to which quasi-religious devotion is due.
When Prince T’Challa’s (Chadwick Boseman) father dies, he must return to his native Wakanda to assume the throne. The kingdom of Wakanda — nestled in an undisclosed location somewhere in the heart of Africa — is a technologically advanced utopia, the inhabitants of which are woke indeed. Its political system is a mixture of monarchy and martial arts, guarded by a phalanx of frightening bald women. Director Ryan Coogler made a pilgrimage to Africa to prepare for the film, and expressed his hope to The Hollywood Reporter that it would “give people who are of African descent a feeling of pride.” It is curious, then, that Coogler takes the audience to an Africa that does not exist, nor ever has. Presumably, Wakanda is what Africa could have been, were it not for the oppression by the white man.
Wakanda is not a superior civilization because of some belief system, but because of its access to vibranium — a unique economic resource from outer space which it has carefully hidden from colonialist exploitation. The creators and distributors have congratulated themselves profusely for the film’s celebration of diversity, yet Wakanda is the opposite of multicultural. The universally dark-skinned Wakandans use their vibranium technology to hide their society behind a hologram of impoverishment, protecting from Western eyes what is the least diverse society ever to exist. The Anglo-American who is reluctantly given entry is gratuitously called “another broke white boy,” a “colonizer,” and literally barked at amid threats of cannibalism.
After introducing the vibrant, sunny land of gleaming towers, flying cars, efficient trains and miraculous healthcare, the camera cuts to the dreary old imperial capital of London. The symbolic parallel is plain. Fittingly, it is in London that we are introduced to Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) as he studies the spoils of colonialism in the British Museum. Erik is T’Challa’s long-lost cousin, who was made villainous by his upbringing in Oakland, California — the birthplace of the director (and, incidentally, the Black Panther Party). The injustice of having left him in the United States is a secret sin too ghastly to be mentioned in the hallowed halls of Wakanda. When Erik obtains entry into the land of his ancestors, he overthrows its relative tranquility with the violent bitterness engendered by his systemic oppression. For all its exotic costumes and otherworldly aesthetic, it must be remembered that Wakanda was actually a backlot in Atlanta, and that the lessons of “Black Panther” are intended for America.
It seems increasingly to be the case with much entertainment churned out these days that the art itself is subjugated to its statement. For this reason, truly critical and objective reflection is rendered unnecessary and unwelcome. Nothing less than misty-eyed devotion will be accepted. According to The Hollywood Reporter, “Black Panther” was given a standing ovation at its Los Angeles premiere before it even played. The professional critics have since lined up dutifully to pay homage—not merely for its merits as a movie, but for its “long-overdue embrace of diversity and representation,” and the “barrier-breaking significance of its mere existence.” It was extolled as a film “whose political theory matches its stunning effects.” Many of the reviews read less like film criticism, and more like papers from an undergraduate anthropology class. The critic for GQ gushed that the movie “is more than an exercise in diversity for Hollywood, it’s a lesson on how to recover and move forward from society’s mistakes.”
One almost forgets that this is a comic book flick for kids — entertaining enough on a rainy afternoon, but hardly worthy of the nearly messianic significance it has assumed. A recent Rolling Stone profile of Chadwick Boseman exhibits a bizarre portrait of him adorned with a crown of thorns. The claim of “miracles” on set by Sope Aluko, who plays the shaman of Wakanda, is reminiscent of similar reports during the filming of “The Passion of the Christ,” which was perhaps the last movie to garner such enthusiastic disciples. Anyone put off by the seemingly endless liters of blood shed by Jim Caviezel risked being accused of blasphemy. Likewise, anyone caught so much as yawning during “Black Panther” invites a charge of racism.
But for those left bored and weary by the long, relentless march to replace culture with politics, the yawns induced by Hollywood never stop.
Jon Brown is a freelance writer from Asheville, North Carolina. He is currently studying journalism at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.