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Thoughts on Black Panther

Note: this blog post contains spoilers for the film Black Panther. If you haven’t seen it yet, don’t read this blog post. But also, go see it!

Over the weekend, I went to see the highly anticipated Black Panther film.

Holy shit, it was good.

It touched on so many complex political and social issues with a deftness and tact that only the Black gaze could understand.

What was the most impressive part of the film?

Shuri, of course!

Shuri was one of the many female protagonists in the film. She’s the scientific genius of her community, responsible for many vital innovations include the safe transport of vibranium and Black Panther’s suit. I don’t think we’ve fully appreciated just how unique and refreshing her character is. In a society where “geniuses” are often aloof and snobbish white men, the fact that a young Black girl dominates the space on the screen is monumentally important.

I tend to be the kind of person who remembers films my the dialogue involved. Below are some of my favorite bits of dialogue in the movie.

“Don’t scare me like that, colonizer!”

This one got quite a chuckle out of me! This was the statement that Shuri made when a white man she was healing in her lab woke up from his slumber and approached her while her back was to him. There was something provocative and satisfying about that line. The way she so poignantly labeled him for how she saw him, as a representation of individuals who had systematically pillaged Africa for all that it was worth. There was a sense of agency and entitlement to her statement that many African women who were victims of colonization would never have been able to utter against their oppressors. It was a bittersweet statement.

“Does she speak English?”

“When she wants to.”

In this scene, Okoye and T’Challa have a conversation in their native Wakandan in front of an American. The American asks if Okoye speaks English and she quickly retorts “When she wants to.”

I loved this scene for the quick and witty retort and for the way that Okoye was able to reclaim her power in the situation quickly. I can’t recount the times that I’ve seen poor or broken English be used as a way to denigrate or chastise the African migrant women that I grew up with. I’ve seen so many strong and capable and intelligent African women knocked down several pegs by (often) white women who felt that adhering to their language was the hallmark of intelligence. It was wonderful to see a quick retort to an offensive question that is often thrown at African women. I felt like Okoye was saying it for all African women.

“They knew that death was better than bondage.”

Eric Killmonger uttered this statement as his dying words. After losing in a battle with T’Challa, he chose to die from his wounds instead of being healed and imprisoned. This statement was explicitly stated in recognition of the many enslaved Africans who decided to drown themselves in the Atlantic instead of being condemned to bondage.

The beautiful thing about the Black Panther film was the complexity of it all. The movie felt like a rose with thick layers of petals around its pistil. You could peel behind the obvious expositions and find more in-depth statements below.

There’s been a lot of critiques of the film that center on its projections of the dichotomy between Africans and Black Americans. This piece by Christopher Lebron in the Boston Review does a pretty good job of highlighting some of the failings of the film in that respect.

That being said, I think it’s important to recognize that Black Panther doesn’t have to be the perfect film for Black people, it just has to be one. In a world where African narratives are consistently subjugated, ignored, or whitewashed, a story that is authentically African is essential. Is the movie going to get every fine detail right? No, it doesn’t have to. Does it mean we have to enjoy it any less? No, of course not. Should we make room and opportunities for more films that focus on African narratives that can highlight some of the things Black Panther overlooked? Yes, of course.

The next steps for us moving forward as a culture and a society? To give opportunities for Black directors, photographers, actors, and others to produce films like Black Panther. Heck, the films don’t even have to be as good, the people and the narratives have to be given a chance.

Let’s enable more people to tell their stories.