Black Don't Crack
by Tyler Wilson
The election of Donald Trump seems to strengthen the Alternative Right. In ways both direct and indirect, Trump’s presidency offers right-wing groups a way to get more attention. But the film industry is fighting back against the hate-driven ideologies of the Alt-Right Movement. Ryan Coogler's work comes at a time of great need and urgency. Black Panther, a major motion picture that features a predominately black cast, gives a global voice to positions and viewpoints that oppose the rise of the Alt-Right. This article analyzes the cultural impact of Coogler’s film, focusing on the Black community, the film industry, and popular culture more widely conceived.
“I hope everyone reads my caption. You know people keep asking me why is this movie so important, why have I seen it so many times? As a kid I remember going to a super hero costume birthday party were I was told I couldn’t dress up as any super hero by other kids because their are no cool hero’s that “look like me”. That day I felt so inferior as a kid so ashamed. Now I see little black boys in the theatre. And I’m overwhelmed with euphoric emotions knowing they will never have to go through that.” [i] Brent Shepherd’s caption taken from an instagram post convinced me of the value and urgency of a project like this, because the caption illustrates the emotional impact that Black Panther has had on the African American community. While there have been many instances in which black leads have been cast for feature films, Ryan Coogler’s work did something very different in not only having a predominately black cast with a black lead, but placing those characters in positions of royalty. Coogler himself immersed himself in African culture from the moment that he was approached to direct the film depicting the black superhero. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Coogler was adamant and “was very honest about the idea I wanted to explore in this film, which is what it means to be African.” In taking a trip to the continent himself in order to gain appreciation as well as inspiration for creation of the film came from how African-American’s are treated at home, “Being marooned in this place that we're not from. When people ask me where I'm from, I tell them the Bay Area and there's a sense of pride there. But the truth is, we're really from that place. The place that everybody's from.”[ii]
Inspiration for a project like this was born in November of 2016 when the United States election seemed to take on characteristics of a reality television program rather than a due process that should develop the most apt candidate for leader of the free world. It only seems fitting that he who was elected was in fact the host of a popular television show rooted in all the characteristics of business and capitalism. The issue I want to address however extends past the glamour and lights of primetime television to the impact on culture that having President Donald Trump elected as one of the most powerful men in the world. In the aftermath of the Trump election, the Queens native progressively became a figurehead for the Alternative Right movement. With comments like “Why are we having all these people from these shithole countries come here?”, [iii] the U.S. president flirted with normalizing racism. And while Trump defended the comments as not intentionally racist, he again and again showed a willingness to accept the core values of implicit and explicit racism that the Alt-Right holds. In what follows, I will analyze Ryan Coogler’s film, Black Panther and the massive positive impact that it had and continues to have on the African American community in light of the strength that the Alt-Right movement has seemed to gain with the insertion of President Trump into power. Coogler’s Black Panther is more than the most successful film that the Marvel Cinematic juggernaut has produced. It is a ray of hope for the African American community and a call for self-defence, to stand up against the Alt-Right, its ideology, and the new strength that the movement has gained in the aftermath of the election of Donald Trump.
Time.com pegs the sheer existence of the film itself as a “resistance,” arguing that no one could have anticipated the film's timeliness back when it was publicized in 2014. That timing needs to be taken into account especially in a moment when Trump’s America seems help the Alt-Right in establishing its stronghold on mainstream media. When the premier of this film was flooded with people dressed as if they were attending some sort of coronation of a real life king that is portrayed in the film. The royal attire that was required per the invitations that were handed out were presented as a stark contrast to the typical black and white affair that movie premiers tend to represent. Dashikis and boubous’ flooded the red carpet as many respects to African heritage were paid on the carpet as well as the film. The representation of Africa in this film and at this premier stands in as stark contrast to the “shithole” comments that were reportedly made by trump.
The film itself is in love with the black community with its portrayal of Africa as an ultra-futuristic region which is a far cry from the backwards and savage tones that Hollywood tends to show the continent as being. While the country of Wakanda remains fictional, traditional aspects of the African culture proved to be strong throughout the film. This was an important concern of the film’s costume designer, Ruth Carter, to hold onto the tradition of culture that real Africa continues to abide by while also looking forward to an afro-futurism that typically is never considered. She wanted to show an Africa that had “never been colonized, one that looked toward the future but was based on a real past.” [iv] The need for authenticity even came from the hair that much of the cast dawned by drawing ties to the natural hair movement of the early 2000s that encourages African women to keep the style of their natural hair. From traditional clothing in attempt evoke authenticity, to the musical production for the film, one is led to the film’s protagonist, King T’Challa played by Chadwick Boseman.
It is important to note the musical soundtrack for the film not for its content, but for its producer, Kendrick Lamar and the voice he holds for the black community and how those produce for the viewer a better rounded main character in Boseman’s T’Challa. When one thinks of the choice in musical direction of Black Panther they can draw back ties to Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 hip hop album To Pimp a Butterfly and how very much of the album’s content drew attention to the struggle and strife that the black male in America has to undergo. The track from the album that stands out in regards to the film is “i” and the monologue that Lamar gives at the end of the song. He starts the vital explanation with “Well, this is my explanation straight from Ethiopia N-E-G-U-S definition: royalty; king royalty […] the history books overlook and hide it.” [v] This is precisely where Boseman’s T’Challa garners importance not only in his portrayal of the King of fictional Wakanda, but King in general and how the notion of having a black king of anything is something that Hollywood and mainstream media tends to ignore. King T’Challa is the fictional opposition to everything in regards to racial hate that the Alt-Right bases a lot of its foundation in. Lamar acknowledges that the derogatory term used for blacks in contemporary times was not always such a weapon to oppress but rather a term to describe those of royalty and high standing. While his character depicts the version of a black man that holds power and status not known by non-fictional reality, T’Challa in the film battles something as deadly as being oppressed, power. While the rest of the world in the film is going through the very same problems that exist in terms of oppression, T’Challa is hesitant to extend his power outside the shell that protects his fictional country due to fears of corruption creeping in. T’Challa initially takes on the role of villain in that he turns a blind eye to the real atrocities that exist around him for fear of damaging the small part of utopia he clings onto. While T’Challa juggles the problems he now faces while on his newly acquired throne, he turns to what can be considered as the unsung heroes of the film, that being the various female roles.
The first female character that viewers are pulled to is that of Nakia, and while there is some romantic history between the two characters, it does not diminish the importance that she carries in the film as it is T’Challa’s primary objective to remove her from her undercover mission in order to seek guidance from in the wake of his father’s death and his own thrusting onto the thrown. Nakia is the calming voice of reason for T’Challa as she tries to relay to the new king that he “cannot let your father’s actions define your life. You get to decide what kind of king you want to be.”[vi] It is the softer nature that Nakia adopts that presents her as the voice of reason as the humanitarian approach she adopts in hopes that T’Challa sees that foreign interaction is something to be heavily considered. Just as T’Challa is opposed by characters in the film (one in particular) Nakia has her own character foil that T’Challa seeks for guidance and she comes in the form of Okoye (Danai Gurira). Nakia’s understanding of the need for foreign involvement is contrasted by the warrior defense mentality adopted by Okoye who believes Wakanda’s strength can be directly correlated to the fact that they close themselves off from the rest of the world. Once the film’s antagonist Killmonger takes the thrown however, Okoye arrives at a crossroads because her undying loyalty to the throne of Wakanda must come to blows with her philosophy that Wakanda should never involve itself in foreign affairs.
While the role of female characters remains a strong one in the film, Okoye and Nakia embody the inner struggle that Coogler’s hero must deal with. Nakia is the humanitarian voice of reason that T’Challa ultimately listens to when deciding whether or not to involve Wakanda in foreign matters. Herself along with T’Challa’s sister and mother share in a love for T’Challa whether he is on the throne or not is the precise reason that he is able to come back and help save the fictional African country from falling at the radical hands of Erik Killmonger. Okoye on the other hand and her loyalty to the throne allows her to stay close to it long enough for her to band her army together and fight the atrocity that Killmonger attempts on the rest of the world. The two women drive the plot forward by being the physical embodiments of T’Challa’s inner struggle and are both represented as viable paths for T’Challa to go down. Other plot drivers and character savers can be attributed to Letitia Wright’s Shuri as she spearheads and looks over all technological advances that sets Wakanda apart from the rest of the world. Where the male characters in the film take on typical roles of stoicism, so too does the female characters, as the are presented as a sort of backbone that holds Wakanda together amidst the threats that try to diminish its excellence. Wakanda’s greatest threat however, can be looked at as the story’s greatest message and that comes in the form of Erik Killmonger.
With Black Panther being the eighteenth instalment thus far in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it has not been out of the ordinary for fans to become accustomed to villains of abnormal nature hailing from even more abnormal places. Many of the protagonists pose certain threats to the non fictional world that the M.C.U. occupies and while many of them are alien, it is one, human foe, from the streets of Oakland, California. The insertion of Michael B. Jordan’s character offers a different, real, human account to the problems presented by the film’s story. While the title of the film is reserved for Chadwick Boseman’s superhero, it is not difficult to see that Erik Killmonger is the true Black Panther, by historical terms. While the setting and customs pay homage to the homeland of the African continent, Jordan’s villain pays homage to the young African American man, and the very problems that make a project like this one so important. The advancements and portrayals of black leaders that this film places at the forefront does not diminish the fact that this film is also about pan-Africanism and Erik Killmonger represents that responsibility that descendants of a single continent have to each other to aid in escaping oppression. “Two billion people all over the world who look like us whose lives are much harder, and Wakanda has the tools to liberate them all,” [vii]is one of the first things Killmonger manages to say while in the presence of the Wakandan court which solidifies the motives of the film’s antagonist. While his motives prove to be radical, much like some of the motives shared by the Panther party of the late 1960s, Jordan’s villain sparks conversation whether or not he can be looked at as negative in the first place. This debate is held up by the fact that Killmonger’s main and core value is to liberate the oppressed black people all over the world.
The audience is able to sympathize with Erik Killmonger because his heart comes from a human place, a relatable place even though it is quickly learned that his goals along with liberation, is hegemony. It is because of this trait I believe that Coogler and T’Challa, cannot let Killmonger’s plan come to fruition. Even in death however, Killmonger does something that most superhero antagonists fail to do, which is to ultimately win the battle. When T’Challa learns that his own uncle abandoned Killmonger after the death of his father, he realizes that complete isolation on the part of Wakanda is not the path that should be taken. The abandonment of Killmonger is precisely why the only ancestor in the spirit plane is his own father as his father was all he knew and his ancestors were all lost. The same cannot be said for T’Challa as he was able to see, but only because his ancestors swore to never let Wakanda escape the confines of it, even if that meant neglecting their own people. The realization of this and change on the part of T’Challa, suggests a sense of defeat to his cousin. This defeat is realized ultimately when T’Challa offers physical salvation for Killmonger and is met with a response that supersedes all storylines of the film itself; “Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from the ships, because they knew death was better than bondage.”[viii] Killmonger stays true to his heart even though he knows he will never see his ultimate plan come to be. While that may be true, his influence onto the future of Wakanda is everlasting as T’Challa ultimately decides to base the first foreign affairs base in Oakland, where Erik was originally abandoned and Wakanda’s last major fault was committed. Erik Killmonger gives a doubled meaning to the title of the movie as he brings the realness of the world’s issues into a world of fantasy. His insertion to the story makes it seem all the more real, which in part calls a need of society to acknowledge the real problem of oppression that exists. Black Panther has proved since its release that it is not only a film that needs to be watched, as suggested by the box office numbers, but also a story that needs to be heard and a narrative of the existing problem that needs to be acknowledged.
The raging success that this film has had in the box office totals could be one cursor to show the impact that this film continues to have. It is important to note however that the two—success and impact—are two very different things. Any success that this film in particular could experience cannot compare to the impact that it is having on the African American culture and the emotional power it gives to people. I believe that impact starts with the director himself, Ryan Coogler. An African American in a white-dominated profession took it upon himself to create a work of art flooding in authenticity from the dialect used by those representing the continent of Africa, to having a hyper-realistic villain who stayed true to who he was forced to be. The more I watched the film the less I got the feeling that this was a superhero movie, and the more I got the feeling that it was a depiction of black excellence, at a time when it may be needed the most. It can sometimes be hard to realize how much a dominant culture is shoved down the throats of consumers when that is the only content that is being displayed. That is the precise reason why something like Black Panther stands out: because black culture is so rarely represented in a positive fashion. It is hard to measure the value of what it means for a group of people that is rarely placed in a positive light to suddenly see people from their heritage represented in such a way. “Whatever we believe about ourselves and our ability comes true for us,” writes Susan L. Taylor. Seeing this breeds possibility, the possibility to do more, to be more.
The possibility to be more will remain a possibility without persistence. While it is rare, there have been films with black-led casts and casts made up of predominantly black actors, the success and impact of the works seem short lived before the norm replaces it things return to normal. More often than not, these works resemble a flash in the pan and are quickly forgotten. The key lies in drawing inspiration from these works in order to remain as persistent as the forces that wish to oppress the minorities and their voices. The Alt-Right has proven time and again that the hate that drives them will not stop anytime soon, especially when they have someone in a position of such power showing a willingness to adopt their values. Troll groups trying to lower the viewer ratings of the film are small examples of the bigger enemy that works like Black Panther has the capability of combatting. It is encouraging that the results at the box office for this film means that we have not seen the last of Coogler’s king. Even more so, we expect that Black Panther will strengthen a movement among those to combat the ideals of hate that the Alt-Right roots itself in. “The people that are trying to make this world worse are not taking a day off. Why should I? Light up the Darkness.” (Bob Marley)
[iii] Estepa, Jessica. "5 Other times President Trump's Remarks Sparked Controversy over Race." USA Today. January 12, 2018. Accessed April 13, 2018. HYPERLINK "https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2018/01/12/5-other-times-president-trumps-remarks-sparked-controversy-over-race/1027925001/"
[iv] Johnson, Tre. “Black Panther Is a Gorgeous, Groundbreaking Celebration of Black Culture.” Vox. February 23, 2018. Accessed April 14, 2018.
[v] “Kendrick Lamar – .” Genius, 15 Mar. 2015, genius.com/Kendrick-lamar-i-lyrics.
[vi] Coogler, Ryan. Black Panther. Marvel Studios. 2018
[vii] Coogler, Ryan. Black Panther. Marvel Studios. 2018
[viii] Coogler, Ryan. Black Panther. Marvel Studios. 2018