I’m late to the party – practically a whole month – but I have a lot of thoughts about Black Panther. When discussing blackness, there is always the issue of “doubleness” – for me personally, I think a lot about duality when thinking about this film. It is the nature of superhero films to have opposing characters, or they don’t work. “Good vs. evil” is a necessary device of the genre. However, an additional layers of complexity are added when blackness is part of the equation. I’ve heard the film called many things by my friends and colleagues – sensational, neoliberal, contrarian, groundbreaking, boring – the list goes on. For me, it feels hard to critique this film, as though negative critique betrays my blackness; having only positive commentary is equally as egregious and showcases a fear of critically engaging with works produced by members of my community. Alas, we shall go forward. I’ve only seen the film once, and I’m still processing. This blog is basically me airing out my thoughts.
First, I must admit, in the same vein as VSB writer Panama Jackson, that I don’t know a thing about Black Panther, as it pertains to the Marvel universe. I don’t believe this takes away from one’s ability to critically examine the film, however, it would disallow someone to understand the built in features that come with a Marvel product. Furthermore, it denotes a lack of background that may be necessary when profiling a character for the sake of analysis. Overall, I think that that film, like most hero films, centers itself upon the relationship between the hero and villain characters: T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) and Killmonger (Michael B Jordan).
The film gives me Martin vs. Malcolm vibes, in terms of the conflict between T’Challa and Killmonger. I think that there’s interesting commentary that Black Panther raises on the state of black liberation today, but I’m not sure what it is saying exactly. The plot feels thin – I think this where my biggest disconnect with the film is. Unpopular opinion, but it didn’t hold my attention. I get that it’s a superhero movie and though it can contain philosophical platitudes, this is not ultimately its responsibility. It’s a Hollywood blockbuster – another dichotomy comes to mind, between the worlds of industrial film vs. art cinema. This film isn’t nebulous on where it stands, but it feels like it could do so much more.
The women in this film are the people pushing Wakandan society forward and keeping it functioning on a daily basis. Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) collects intel on behalf of the nation and is a member of the Dora Milaje. Okoye (Danai Gurira) serves as the head of the Dora Milaje. Most notable to me was Shuri (Letitia Wright), the 16-year-old who is responsible for technological innovation on the island.
Her character was by far the most interesting in the film, as she exhibited the very real notion of black women being on the technological forefront (read: Sherrell Dorsey), the idea of youth advancing the society and the seemingly opposing forces of advancement and tradition. The world of this film does not function without its women – I think it could have been made stronger with more backstory, on at least one of them. The two hours may have felt more complete with this addition.
Technically speaking, I have to address the music and sound, as a sound artist myself. Kendrick Lamar curated soundtrack notwithstanding – from my memory, none of those songs appeared outside of the credits – the score felt lackluster. I am a huge fan of Ludwig Göransson, by proxy of Donald Glover, but some of the musical choices felt off. I understood the trap association that was being emphasized in relation to Killmonger, but thought that it was a bit heavy handed. There were a few scenes where I felt like the percussive nature of the instrumentals deflated the dialogue by making it harder to hear. The sound design was generally good, but something about the reverb during the ancestral scenes took me out of the picture. It sounded spacious, yet not ethereal and otherworldly.
I don’t believe in perfect films – if one exists, I haven’t seen it. Black Panther isn’t exempt from this, but it isn’t without its successes. The character dynamics are incredibly complex – I left wanting to know more about each character, and their backstories. I’m all for Afrofuturism being presented in the mainstream, and with other productions (e.g. Ava DuVernay’s excellent rendition of A Wrinkle in Time) also pulling from this aesthetic, it looks like it may be here for a while. After reading a disheartening article on a Chinese audience’s reaction to the film, it was clear to me why this film is important beyond the American context. If media is the forerunner of public perception, then Black Panther is a great offering of humanized black characters for the world to behold.