The Provocation and Power of Black Panther

The biggest success of the new Marvel film isn’t representation, but its contemplation of identity, responsibility, and the future of a diaspora in an interconnected world.

Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o), T'Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), and Okoye (Danai Gurira)
Marvel Studios

This article contains light spoilers.

Blackness invites speculation. The very idea of a global African diaspora creates the most fertile of grounds for a field of what-ifs. What if European enslavers and colonizers had never ventured into the African continent? More intriguing yet: What if African nations and peoples had successfully rebuffed generations of plunder and theft? What if the Zulu had won the wars against the Voortrekkers and the British, and a confederation of Bantu people had risen up and smashed Belgian rule? What if the Transatlantic children of the mother continent had been allowed to remain, building their empires with the bounties of the cradle of civilization?

These are the questions that vibrate beneath the vibranium bedrock of Marvel’s Black Panther, due out in theaters this week. The basic premise of a superpowered king fighting crime in a futuristic feline-themed suit is the kind of fresh-off-the-panel action absurdity that marks today’s comic-book movies. But, on a deeper level, the fictional African nation of Wakanda is the same Atlantean archetype that has always haunted this diaspora. And like all variations on that archetypal story, Black Panther is a fantasy about black power.

The broad strokes of the newest Marvel movie are likely familiar. Director Ryan Coogler begins Black Panther in the aftermath of 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, a story that introduced Wakanda into the wider Marvel Cinematic Universe. In that film, Prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), the aforementioned supersuit-wearing royal, takes on the mantle of Wakanda’s king after his father, T’Chaka, is killed in a bombing. T’Challa is also the holder of the hereditary role of “Black Panther,” a post empowered by a combination of divine blessing, biological enhancement, and cutting-edge technology. He is, in layman’s terms, a superhero with a bulletproof suit made from vibranium, the strongest substance in the Marvel universe and the stuff that Captain America’s shield is made of. And he also has very sharp claws.

Black Panther picks up where Civil War leaves off. (Mild spoilers ahead.) T’Challa is finding his footing as the new king in the aftermath of his father’s death. Among his Wakandan countrymen and retinue are a number of remarkably fleshed-out characters with complex relationships, and a veritable who’s who of black actors, including Letitia Wright as his sister Shuri; Lupita Nyong’o as his ex-flame Nakia; Danai Gurira as Okoye, the head of his all-women bodyguard; and Daniel Kaluuya as his best friend W’Kabi.

But as is the way of these stories, T’Challa is not king long before the troubles that began brewing under his father boil over. The central political conflict of his dominion involves Wakanda’s exclusive access to vibranium, which makes it one of the most technologically sophisticated places on Marvel Cinematic Earth. But the nation preserves its power by presenting itself to the world as a secretive and remote land of poor pastoralists—an illusion that becomes increasingly difficult to keep. Without revealing too much, the arrival of Michael B. Jordan’s Erik Killmonger, an American mercenary soldier with dreams of seizing power, to Wakanda brings its conflict to an internecine crisis point. Should Wakanda remain an isolated utopia? Or is there a duty to help the marginalized peoples—especially those of African descent—throughout the globe? What follows is a feature-length rumination on the message of many comic-book heroes, that with great power comes great responsibility, applied to an entire nation: Heavy indeed is the head that wears the vibranium crown.

Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok, the previous film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe juggernaut, was lauded by many for its anti-colonialist message. Coogler’s story sprints a few miles past that, and (spoiler) the idea of a global revolution by black peoples is an understated but key driver of the film’s plot. Wakanda and her sovereign act as stand-ins for those great what-ifs in black history, and for exploration of the examples of resistance to global white supremacy that have resonated from the Horn of Africa to the farthest shores of the Atlantic throughout the past half-millennium.

Even in the colonial era of limited communications, the names of Toussaint Louverture and other revolutionaries in Haiti were whispered throughout the diaspora after they successfully threw off the yoke of French enslavers. Nat Turner’s Virginian rebellion, though failed, took the Haitian mantle of resistance and amplified it throughout the antebellum United States. In the 20th century, Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia was mythologized as God incarnate by the Afro-syncretic Rastafari movement in part because of his resounding triumph against Italian colonizers. Each of these and other victories, material and moral, became the early pillars of a Pan-African movement, embodied in the words of Marcus Garvey: “Look to Africa, when a black king shall be crowned, for the day of deliverance is at hand.”

Black Panther prompts reflection on those words. Coogler’s script, written with Joe Robert Cole, draws heavily from the comic-book history of the hero, and that canon has always gestured toward heavy ideas of Pan-Africanism and the mantle of black power. As written by my colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates, the ongoing Black Panther comic-book run is deeply concerned with the themes presented in his journalistic oeuvre, from plunder by white-supremacist hands to the moral questions that circumscribe black nationalism. Indeed, the title of Coates’s first arc, “A Nation Under Our Feet,” takes its name from Steven Hahn’s 2003 book of the same name, which itself chronicled African American political power since the Civil War.

Evan Narcisse, who co-writes the miniseries Rise of the Black Panther with Coates, says he views Wakanda as the representation of an “unbroken chain of achievement of black excellence that never got interrupted by colonialism.” Narcisse’s work also filters Wakanda through the prism of Haiti, the revolutionary home of black liberation in the New World.

Even before his modern rejuvenation, T’Challa and his comic-book homeland offered up the same kind of representations of difficult concepts. As Jamil Smith writes for Time, the character of the Black Panther—the first black comic-book superhero—was created in 1966 during the civil-rights movement and very much represented “a vision of black grandeur and, indeed, power in a trying time.” His creation also coincided with the interconnected rise of both the Black Power movement and a second wave of Pan-Africanism and nationalism. Though created by white writers and shepherded through eras of embarrassing racial stereotyping and caricature, Black Panther the comic has always been notable for the cultural valences of creating a bulletproof, super-rich, erudite, and aggressively independent black hero, and for its willingness to fathom black geopolitical power.

In almost every facet of production, from wardrobe and costume design to the film’s score, Coogler’s Black Panther takes that thread of power and spins it into a diaspora’s fantasy. One perhaps more controversial element of the film is how Wakanda itself must be built out of whole cloth by borrowing from a spread of distinct and very different African cultures. Even many of its on-screen denizens are played by actors not born in Africa—a fact betrayed by their inconsistent accents. But the cast does reflect the incredible breadth of the African diaspora. Gurira is the daughter of Zimbabwean immigrants to Iowa, Nyong’o was born in Mexico to Kenyan parents and then later raised in Kenya, Kaluuya is the son of Ugandan immigrants to London, and Wright and Winston Duke (who plays M’Baku, a key rival of T’Challa’s) were born in Guyana and Tobago, respectively.

Still, the two leads of the film are African American, and many of the film’s themes seem to be explicit commentary on the African American experience. Killmonger’s view of Wakanda and Africa writ large, for instance, is filtered through partial history, myths, visions of royal heritage, and a yearning for a legacy that has been stripped away. His embrace of “Africanness,” as is true of the movie’s overall aesthetic, can be read as a hodgepodge, or it can be read as the African American syncretic embrace of a motherland lost. It is also not a coincidence that his character arc begins in Oakland, once the cradle of the Black Panther Party. His ultimate theory on the nature of power and the rightness of its use places him in direct parallel to other such conversations that have dominated black thought in the United States.

Caveat emptor: Even with so much to chew on, Black Panther is still a Marvel tentpole movie, one that will make oodles of money and likely spawn sequels so long as the margins allow. The major motivation of the enterprise is profit, and the franchise lives and dies not with its commentary, but with the bottom line. Blockbusters rarely challenge consensus, and Disney blockbusters even less so.

That’s what makes the final provocation of Black Panther so remarkable and applicable today. There is, of course, no Wakanda, no vibranium, and no (useful) cat-cowled superhero in the real world. Even among many of the most elite enclaves of blackness today, power is uniquely vulnerable and fragile, and there are as of yet no suits of any cost that will stop black youth from the ravages of police brutality the world over.

But the film will likely garner much of its earnings and generate much of its cachet from members of a mobile black middle class, centered largely in America, that have carved out some political and media prominence, both individually and as a group. Those viewers have rightly applauded the film for its incredible gains in representation, and will perhaps use it as a rallying cry for increasing diversity, often among their own ranks as a class. But Killmonger’s question seems as pointed through the fourth wall toward them as it is to Wakanda: What will they do with the power they do have to make the world livable for those without it?