Film, Politics

Okay, let’s talk about Black Panther…

As insidious as it is that Disney seem to be buying pretty much everything at the moment, it’s hard to argue with the quality of their recent output. Thor Ragnarok was an offbeat comedy that tackled colonialism head-on, The Last Jedi was one of the deepest blockbusters in recent memory (easily the best Star Wars film since Empire), and now we have Black Panther.

Anyone who thought that Black Panther was going to be breezy and turn a blind eye to its cultural relevance just because it was part of the MCU were in for a shock – Black Panther is an incredibly political film. Wakanda is a kingdom unaffected by colonialism, T’Challa is a king who struggles with both his own and the kingdom’s conservative views on isolationism, and Killmonger, the movie’s antagonist, wants to use their advanced weaponry to liberate people against systemic oppression.

I’ve seen Black Panther twice now and it’s clear this is a movie begging to be dissected and discussed for years to come. And yes, I know what you’re all thinking, ‘Yay, the hot take we’ve been waiting for – what does the white guy think?’

Fear not, I don’t plan to spend long giving my ‘verdict’ on the film. In short, I really like it but I don’t quite love it. I love the characters (Shuri is now my favourite MCU character), I love the soundtrack and I love the sheer weight of its political themes, but there were one or two plot points which clunked for me.

But you know what, that really doesn’t matter because I’m not the film’s primary audience. By that I don’t mean I can’t enjoy it – as I say, I really did – I just mean that the most visceral reactions are going to be from the people seeing themselves represented in a way they haven’t before. As a white geek, the last decade or so of blockbuster cinema has been almost entirely aimed at me. That’s starting to change. Slowly. And I can’t wait.

With a different primary audience we get different stories, different beats and different issues to explore. From a purely selfish point of view, that’s surely more interesting than watching the same western white male experience play out in every single form it possibly can.

It’ll raise questions, and that’s great. It’ll challenge the fundamentally flawed idea that the default character is a white guy, and it’ll challenge the image that the default setting is Western (or else be deemed ‘tokenistic’.)

Black Panther gives those of us who are white the chance to engage with art in a deeper way than logical nit-picks, Cinema Sins-style bullshit, and arbitrary star ratings – for once we can just shut up and listen.

For many black viewers, it’s clear that Black Panther means something very special. Representation matters and everyone deserves to feel empowered by what they see on screen. Black Panther is crushing it at the box office because people have wanted this shit for so long, and to read the writing of both black critics and general black moviegoers permits us an insight into the responses of those who this film is truly for.

It’s also important to remember that the black response to this is not homogeneous, people have reacted in different ways. After all, no white film maker has ever had to carry the burden of capturing all differing white perspectives so we shouldn’t expect the same from Ryan Coogler.

For example, Christopher Lebron, Associate Professor at John Hopkins university, has described the film’s central arguments as racist.

He warned on Twitter that ‘black folks should always be a little suspicious when white #liberalmedia crowns a work of black art as revolutionary, because that usually means they think all the work has been accomplished by the art and their part is over, when it’s just supposed to be starting.’

Can a film with a predominantly black cast, made by a black director, be racist? I guess if you see it only as an extension of the Disney machine then yes, even if you’d have to cynically see Ryan Coogler as selling out or ungenerously presume he’s too stupid to see what he’s doing. Yet there’s undeniably something instinctively gross about a white CIA agent shooting down the tools of liberation for the oppressed as the film’s victory moment – especially if divorced from the larger context of the movie.

Whilst I certainly prefer Film Crit Hulk’s interpretation that the movie is much more of a dialogue than that, and actually about the duality of the black experience, it’s important to recognise the many reactions to this movie in the black community (whilst acknowledging, of course, that it is overwhelmingly positive).

I also found Stephen Bush’s article in the New Stateman to be a really interesting perspective. He’s much more interested in seeing a black hero who is incidentally black than a hero who is defined by it, but he goes on to concede ‘for a young child whose blackness is more important to them than mine was to me, Black Panther will be a seminal moment not because of what it might portend, but because of what it is.’

There are plenty of issues to be worked through, and it’s almost a relief that the white perspective on them is irrelevant. It’s the perfect antidote to today’s ‘everyone has to have an opinion on EVERYTHING’ mentality – not because we should be passive zombies, but because we need to recognise people have unique worldviews, experiences and backgrounds which make their opinions on certain topics better informed and more vital.

I think Black Panther as a movie is itself a dialogue and has gone on to create a healthy discussion. It’s on us to learn from what is being shared.

To be clear, it’s important to point out I do not mean to appropriate a cultural landmark and make it about what white people can learn from it. The representation provided and debates about said representation in the black community are absolutely the fundamental good from Black Panther. Only as a secondary good, from the periphery, do we talk about what we can learn from this.

So let’s hear differing perspectives with empathy so we can begin to understand experiences beyond our own. There are so many good pieces on this movie out there – go and read them! Yes, let’s talk about Black Panther, but let’s also listen.

That’s part of what makes Black Panther so awesome. That’s why it’s incredible a film like this has been released as a tentpole movie. Wakanda forever!

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