As a queer woman, when it comes to film, I fulfill pretty much all of the stereotypes. I don’t really like action films. I am underwhelmed by special effects and action sequences. As my wife once complained, “All the movies you like… nothing happens in them.” My undergraduate thesis was on documentary film theory. I am, absolutely, one of those insufferable film snobs.
I love Black Panther.
Even as I state that, I feel confused. It’s just an action flick, which superficially doesn’t really have much to write home about. The acting was fine. Nothing particularly stand-out, but no cringe-worthy moments either. The action sequences were similar. Fun special effects, but really nothing revolutionary.
But of course, we all know that given the world we live in, Black Panther is so much more. The entire film is like a live-action Kehinde Wiley exhibit and it was just as emotionally powerful.
As you’re introduced to the nation of Wakanda, it’s the first time you’ve ever seen elements of African culture embedded in an empowered society. As if that were how it always was. For once, you’re not given a choice between poverty and beautiful, colorful textiles and armbands. It’s a breath of fresh air when you didn’t even know you were suffocating.
Literally, simply the setting of the film choked up my chest and brought tears to my eyes. My right foot, left arm, and whole face started tingling. Wondering if I was losing circulation, I uncrossed my legs and tried to spread out my arms. Nope. Still tingling. Those images are just that powerful. Cathartic in so many ways, I was saddened when it all came to an end. Never in my lifetime did I think that I would get to witness a white man being called “colonizer” as a joke in a mainstream, Hollywood film. There’s even a token white character who has the refreshing role of taking orders and being willing to sacrifice his life in pursuit of the greater good!
As I sat there, reveling in the images, I couldn’t help but yearn for my own version. I thought, it would be so incredible to see an Asian movie like this!
Like any good action film, it plays with larger philosophical issues in between stunts and guns. The eternal debate between liberation by “any means necessary” and non-violence is the crux of the conflict in the film. I appreciated the poignancy of N’Jadaka’s character, played by Michael B. Jordan, illustrating intergenerational trauma. It reminds us that even if we were able to miraculously stop the pervasive mass incarceration and over-policing of Black communities tomorrow, the psychological impacts would exist for generations to come.
But a third of the way through the film, I still couldn’t help but wonder to myself: “Don’t men know how to do anything besides fight and wage civil wars?” The entire conflict, climax, and resolution of the movie revolve around a battle for the throne from two men in the royal bloodline. The king is dead and the privileged but kind-hearted and wise son, T’Challa, played by Chadwick Boseman, takes his place. Just as this happens an unknown son of the bloodline, N’Jadaka (aka Erik “Killmonger” Stevens), resurfaces after being abandoned in the slums of Oakland, CA.
This African nation that is so evolved and technologically advanced that it decides it’s best to remove itself from our world still relies on male bloodlines to determine who will rule their country. On top of that, this power can be challenged through a ritual fight to the death. This of course happens and the wise T’Challa is dethroned while the anger-filled N’Jadaka takes control, promising to basically conquer the world and violently dismantle white supremacy. And so we’re drawn into this power struggle.
But all of this could have been avoided if they didn’t rely on such a stupid, patriarchal system of power to begin with! I found myself sitting there trying to remain engaged in the battle over the future of the world, but being distracted by my wonderment over how sexist this world is. Surely, if there were more female influence, there would have been a better system. Even if you were unwilling to give up traditional nepotism, why didn’t Ramonda, the Queen Mother of Wakanda, and the wife of the late King, inherit the throne? It’s really hard to imagine that Angela Bassett, who plays the queen, would have led the country astray.
Probably the most difficult scene to stomach was shortly after N’Jadaka dethrones T’Challa in said ritual fight. The Queen, her daughter, Shuri, and Nakia, the nation’s pre-eminent spy, now comprise the resistance (token white man in tow). They flee to neighboring Jabari tribe ruled by M’Baku. In an audience with him, they ask for his help.
While this scene does contain my favorite line of the movie (M’Baku silences the token white guy with something along the lines of, “If you talk again, I will kill you and feed you to my children… Just kidding, we are vegetarians. Hahahaha.”), it is quite nauseating to watch these three female characters, otherwise portrayed as intelligent, strong women, bow to M’Baku, a character up till this point is portrayed as a chest pounding, traditional brute of a man. As they kneel before him and beg for his help, you can’t help feel like they’re just helpless women running from one strong man to the next, looking for their salvation.
For a blockbuster action film, Black Panther probably has the largest number of woman warriors and females in leadership to date (even more than Wonder Woman). But for a film that is so refreshing from a race standpoint, it failed to deliver in the sexism category. The country of Wakanda is absolutely still controlled by men.
Sure, the movie does pass the Bechdel test but not without some brain racking. And let’s remember, the Bechdel test was created in irony. It’s a powerful test because most Hollywood films fail the simple challenge of having at least one conversation between two women that is not about a man. It’s hardly a marker of male-female parity.
Despite these criticisms, in a world where women and people of color alike are accustomed to settling for “better than nothing,” Black Panther is certainly one of my favorite movies of the past few years and is to 2018 what Get Out was to 2017.