Black Panther's Politics Are More Than Skin Deep

By James O Malley on at

After seeing Black Panther last week, I’m fairly convinced that the pundits are right: this film really does look like it is going to be a cultural “moment”. Though the underlying film hits all of the standard superhero beats, it feels as subtly refreshing as you might expect for the first super-mega-blockbuster scale film to feature a majority black cast.

So what did I think? I loved it. You already knew it would be good because Marvel's scientists have perfected the formula by now - but after one viewing, I’m fairly certain Black Panther easily sits towards the top of my ranking of Marvel Cinematic Universe films.

Given the early reviews and reaction, this doesn’t appear to be a particularly controversial view. What feels grimly inevitable though is the narrative around how the film will be received: like seemingly every major release there’s going to be a “controversy” surrounding some aspect or other of the film. Maybe if we’re lucky it’ll just mean a bunch of ultra-tedious “cultural appropriation” takes by well-intentioned people stuck in an intellectual dead end, or maybe some leftier-than-thou types will chastise Disney for commoditising African iconography and selling it back to us. With that, we can roll our eyes and move on.

But chances are the “controversy” is going to involve a small-ish group of racists getting their stupid opinions amplified by Twitter. And then a bunch of useful idiots who exist somewhere between the Twitter Nazis and the more respectable hard right will argue that they have legitimate concerns. Because a film like Black Panther would never be allowed to not be political. Especially not given the, ahem, times we live in.

Like it or not then, it is surely certain that Black Panther will be mired in politics.

What’s great about the film though, is that it doesn’t shy away from this. Ryan Coogler is self-aware in this respect and knows what a big deal it is. The film doesn’t shy away from addressing racism and the legacy of colonialism. I mean, hell, one of the villains, played by Andy Serkis, is literally a white South African trying to steal Wakandan resources.

The racial politics also inform the major tension underlying the film’s narrative: At Black Panther’s heart is an ideological conflict that elevates both the characters and the stakes: Michael B Jordan’s Killmonger is clearly a bad person (what with all of the murdering), but what motivates him is a belief that Wakanda should use its sci-fi technologies to wage war and put right historical injustices in the process.

Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa, by contrast, is more interested in peace and incrementalism. It’s the same tension that existed between Martin Luther King and Malcolm X’s approach to the civil rights movement - and a new spin on themes that have previously been embodied by Professor Xavier and Magneto in X-Men.

Intellectually speaking, this is already a more high-minded film than many of its Marvel stablemates. But what impressed me wasn’t just this thoughtfulness - but how the film goes even denser with its politics. It isn’t simply all about the legacy of slavery and colonialism, though they are important thematic points. In creating Wakanda, the film treats the audience to what is effectively a political science lecture, as T’Challa and his colleagues attempt to govern the secretive state.

For example, the film talks about the tension between whether Wakanda should be an open or a closed society. There’s literally a few lines about whether they should invite in refugees, or whether that would simply create problems - which might feel a little heavy-handed, but you forgive it because you remember what the real world is like at the moment.

Early in the film we also get to see T’Challa’s coronation ceremony, which includes a process to legitimise his leadership amongst all of Wakanda’s competing tribes. But then the film challenges us: it shows us how the political institutions work, and how there is effectively a constitutional process for the transition of power, and then it asks us to sympathise with characters plotting a coup d’etat.

What I really liked about the film - and this may have been completely unintentional on the part of the filmmakers - was that it constantly made me ask thought-provoking political questions: wouldn’t the development of a technologically complex society require the creation of impersonal institutions to both create both stability and the conditions for innovation?

Isn’t it weird that Wakanda is a monarchy and that he appears to rule at least his own tribe as an absolute ruler? How would T’Challa respond to protests calling for democracy? To what extent would T’Challa use his state monopoly on the use of force to impose his will on unwilling citizens?

Is it awkward when Black Panther hangs out with Captain America, who is an almost literal embodiment of democratic values?

Contrast this with the recent Justice League, where the most profound questions raised were “is this over yet?” and “what the hell is going on with Superman’s upper lip?”.

Don’t get me wrong - Black Panther isn’t like sitting in a lecture theatre while a fusty academic talks in abstract terms. It’s a Marvel film: there’s still plenty of exciting action, and moments when gags puncture the pomposity of any given situation. The final act will come as no surprise to anyone who has watched the 17 preceding films. There’s even some perhaps-slightly-unwise globetrotting, with one sequence of the film inexplicably taking place in South Korea, despite Wakanda being way more interesting.

But the politics of the film really do make Black Panther something special. I don’t want to diminish the importance of the film’s “blackness” or the racial commentary (I’m massively under-qualified to comment on that). But what I’m saying is that if you’re looking for even more layers to what on the surface is a rather mainstream film, then you’ll find that the film’s politics are far from skin deep.