My love and minor discontent with the new Black Panther film

*****Warning: Spoilers****** (both cinematic and philosophical, lol).

Let me start off with this initial statement: I thoroughly enjoyed the film. I will see it again (and again, and again). It is right up there with Wonder Woman, Captain America, Deadpool, etc. in my list of over-the-top comic book movies. I also love the fact that there was a superhero movie featuring African American actors, an African American director, and so much African music. I think it is awesome that African American kids will see a superhero that looks like them and white kids will see a superhero of color.

What I have struggled with is white liberal hype around the movie.  First and foremost, the white liberals praising that “finally” Hollywood made a move with a black cast and black director and black music. Ok, let’s be clear here. That is just not factually true. There have been lots of “black movies” over the years. Now, they were aimed at a black audience almost exclusively and were seen almost exclusively by black audiences. So they aren’t considered “blockbusters” because the majority white audience never saw them. So I’m not surprised that a group of privileged white liberals don’t know that they exist.

Black Panther is the first black superhero movie (from a major comic book entity and Walt Disney) and will therefore hopefully appeal to a white audience as well. But that is the limit of its firsts. The only people claiming this as a “first” are either too young to know who Foxy Brown and Shaft are or they don’t understand the history of blaxsplotation films. (And so many never heard of Black Panther before this for the same reason they never heard of Foxy Brown.) For those unfamiliar with this term, this is when a white Hollywood production company hires a black director, black actors, and uses black music to make a film for black audiences. It started in the 1970s and has continued in many forms through today. The money from these films largely comes back to the white production companies. They also have ignored the entire genre of films it has spawned that includes comedies (Don’t Be a Menace to South Central and the Madea series.) Things white liberals are generally uncomfortable watching because it includes a lot of cultural humor they don’t get. But a superhero film doesn’t have as much of that. (Although there are a few hilarious quips in it – like the “colonizer” line.)

So is Black Panther a blaxsplotation film? I see an argument that it is an evolution of the genre. In some ways, it does fit and in some it doesn’t. It certainly appeals to black audiences to try and make money for a white production company. It uses black actors and black music to do so. It tells a story of both African American life and black culture. If it is a blaxsplotatoin film, it is the biggest budget one of all time (I am guessing) and it is the first superhero one and the first Walt Disney one.

So is Black Panther a superhero film? Yes, I think it is firmly grounded in that genre. As such, my complaint is in how they changed the sub-text of the original comic book series to be more palatable to a wider audience and did some damage with that. The original Black Panther stood up for African Americans. He was a crime fighter. He protected black communities when police wouldn’t do it.

I think my other struggle was with Killmonger. (This part might not make sense if you haven’t seen the movie.) Killmonger works for himself and wants to overthrow governments and rule the world. If memory serves me right, in the comic book series, the bad guys were always corporations trying to steal African treasures and resources. And the bad guys always worked for these corporations in some way. Anti-global-capitalism is the theme that comes to mind. Instead, they create a new story line that is closer to a blaxsplotation film. Killmonger plays out a deep philosophical conflict concerning what kind of activism is appropriate in the African American community. (I do love a philosophical problem. Hence, I like him more than we are probably supposed to.) It asks the question, should the oppressed rise up with violence and threats of violence or should they aspire to non-violence means and forgiveness of their oppressors.

So is Black Panther a socialjustice film? No. Not beyond the “look at all the money Hollywood put into a film made by African Americans” sort of way. I think the superhero genre bent to meet a blaxsplotation genre in a couple ways. First, Killmonger’s story of his father being killed for his involvement in crime results in Killmonger turning to killing and crime despite clear intellectual ability. This sub-plot reinforces white conservative story lines about the problems of inner-city violence. Second, much of the story is about black-on-black violence that is core to blaxsplotation films. Lastly, you still have a tribe of black “ape-like” people who come to the rescue while grunting like apes. Yes, in the end they build a community center and yes, they tell the UN they are there for everyone that doesn’t undo the previous hour.

If this is not a blaxsplotation film, designed purely for an African American audience you have to consider how these plots points will be received in conservative rural America. The same people who pass around memes of the Obamas comparing them to apes now think it is acceptable. The same people who blame problems in the African American community on “black-on-black” crime will see that here too.

If this film was designed as a superhero film for everyone, I think these plot points could have been smoothed out and addressed in better ways. They don’t ruin the film but they don’t help it as a tool for social justice that my liberal friends seem to think it is.

I realize these aren’t popular things to bring up. If you are mad at me by reading this far, I apologize. Remember – I like the film. Please don’t hate me. But I was told be a well-meaning liberal family member that if I was going to bring these points up, I probably shouldn’t engage in discussions about the film with people. In other words, liberals don’t care how racists might see the film. Especially with our liberal friends, most of whom are falling all over themselves talking about what a great movie it is and what a break-through it is for Hollywood. I think it is a break-through but it can have some problems too and that’s okay. It’s a paradox I am comfortable with, even if they aren’t.

I still think it is a great movie. I still want to see it again. But for now, I’m keeping my plot point criticisms to myself (and the three people who read this blog.) But I look forward to seeing what film critics say of it over time. I also hope this opens the door for more blockbuster films with people of color in lead and supporting roles and featuring their music and culture.