I do not want to talk to my white friends about Black Panther. I can count the ones I would be ok doing so with on one hand and none of them has pressured me to do so yet. Certainly not in a group setting, or in a bar or at work. Maybe that’ll change, but I doubt it. So I'm writing this instead to save us some time.
This realization all started at work. My co-workers are well-intentioned liberal white folks and, to their credit, generally not in that gross painful way. A movie came out, we talk about movies. So of course they would ask what I thought since I saw it first.
But how do I explain how much I got my entire life when middle-age white dude tried to insert himself in a conversation only be quickly shut down, an internal desire I unknowingly called out for as it was being actualized? What about the politics of having to wear a straight hair wig in mixed company, even if that company is majority POC? And, truly, more than anything, how do I explain at my jovial workplace that I woke up crying thinking about Killmonger again that morning?
You just tell them “it was good” and try to drop it.
But I almost called in black on Friday.
I have already seen mainstream critics write a 1000 critical words to avoid facing the fact they didn't get it (more on that in the sidenote at the end) . I’ve already had people confused that there is even hype around this film say “Uh...it does look interesting”, unconcerned with the "why" behind the culture of palpable, unbridled excitement. And it’s easy to think “Well that makes sense, it wasn’t made for them in mind” but here’s the thing - how often have black audiences and marginalized audiences in general been asked to relate to worlds that weren’t built for them? Asked to analyze and respect and dig deeper than their $10 ticket is worth because it’s held to a standard that was agreed upon without their ancestors’ input?
So I’m here, writing this to fill the void as I try to come down from the alienating feeling I’ve been hyper-conscious of since I left the theater Thursday night.
This isn't a review of the film for most part for two reasons - one is that there's enough of those everywhere online by now and two is that I only write reviews when I have something constructive to add to the conversation. I don't here really. It's a well constructed film.
I will make this point though: film can achieve greatness in a lot of ways. If you're expecting it to do so through its narrative structure like The Dark Knight for example, you haven't taken into account the full context of both films. TDK was in the position where it only had to live up to Batman Begins, which was done without the extended universe pressure attached. Black Panther is a film ten years into the Marvel Cinematic Universe and so has so to carry with it everything that means. Part of what that means is that there will be a pre-assigned narrative structure, and because it's Disney, that structure will be traditional.
But reinventing the narrative wheel isn't the only way to achieve greatness. We can see this in the acting, cinematography, writing, pacing, action, costume, and ultimately direction. Those aforementioned reviews that will break all that down for you. This essay is about the last aspect- themes.
Part of what I’m still so raw about is this conversation about at the center of the film, the relationship between Africans and African Americans. It’s a conversation we are barely having in real life right now and certainly not as well as the ones we are having about civil rights and black lives mattering and white privilege and appropriation. (If you just thought “Wait, those conversations aren't going well", welcome to my point). Killmonger isn’t just a properly motivated antagonist, he’s tapping into a raw truth a lot of us don’t know how to navigate yet. Comparisons to Magento fall short in so many ways, chief among them [mild spoiler italicized] is that Professor X never actually took what he said to heart like T’Challa does.
This is at the heart of why I don't want to discuss in mixed company. I am barely able to sort through my thoughts. In a lot of ways [mild spoiler italicized] Wakanda is the villain, a passive one who didn't lift a hand when great evils were going on around them, despite their great capcity. It's a metaphor actualized in Killmonger, who embodies the great sadness of that fact and has turned it to rage. His methods are villainous but his goals? His goals I wrestle with.
And then I make sure to suppress that fact when I'm at work. Navigating spaces and code switching and having to keep a good job that I like and such.
There will be thousands of think pieces on this theme to peruse soon, if not already. Video essays and in-depth critiques after that. Very likely a college course. All of which written by folks paid to cite their thoughts to pre-existing academic research if it's still not clicking. But for me, no, I really can't talk about the cinematography or pacing or costume or acting because it all ties back to this theme that opened a wound I didn't know I had. I think that's true for a lot of us, and even the ones that weren't affected in that way saw a discussion unfold in major Hollywood film that we have never seen happen before.
Y'all can wait.
That Related Sidenote
People are crying in the theater. I woke up crying the day after I saw it. Careful and well executed representation on all fronts is a lot to take in for sure (THIS IS HOW YOU WRITE BLACK WOMEN BTW OK???) but that's not just it. A lot of what is in Black Panther is for us and it is never processed through a white gaze for “mass" understanding. That more than anything is something I adore about this film.
Whatever we see in the media, we have to have a presumed level of white cultural and historical knowledge already at hand to understand the context. White musicians, white writers, white wars, white religions, white foods, white jokes. The reverse is never true. Hashtag white privilege. If I said I had never heard of Tom Sawyer there would shock and likely ridicule but white people are forgiven for not knowing Celie.
For the first time to my knowledge, a major Hollywood film flipped that script. No white hands held through cultural references and historical moments. Not here. I've never seen that before.
It was awe inspiring.
So when you do go see it, assume you don't have the tools to get it. Assume you didn't read our Tom Sawyer. Even if you feel like you got the gist, assume your gist lacks severely. Then when it's over, do what we have to do when we can't risk admitting we don't know some cultural thing we were never really welcomed to know in the first place: Google it.
One Last Thought
This (vibranium infused) armor...
...is far and away more functional than this armor...
...and it deserves far more praise from mainstream feminists for it.
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