The Power of Black Panther

Katherine Kim ‘18, Entertainment Editor

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Barely a month since its release, Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther continues to smash records and dominate theaters worldwide. The film already surpassed both Deadpool and Wonder Woman for biggest solo superhero movie of all time and has raked one billion (and counting) in global box offices, not even a month after its release. It also got a nod at this year’s Oscars, with host Jimmy Kimmel stating that the night’s plan includes “shin[ing] a light on a group of outstanding and positive films, each of which got crushed by Black Panther.” Simultaneously, critics and fans alike acclaim the film as a masterpiece, which may surprise some film fans; it’s not often that you see IMDB and the New York Times agreeing with each other over a movie.

But such an impressive path does raise curiosity for more than a few people.

“I thought it was a decent movie,” Katie O. ‘21 declares. “But it definitely fell short of my expectations. Why does this superhero movie gain success so quickly while others flop on their first weekend?”

One answer lies in the fact that Panther distinguishes itself from other superhero narratives in thematic material. Instead of relying on old superhero cliches such as unified strength (sorry, Justice League), Black Panther concentrates on themes ranging from black diaspora, power struggles, and international involvement. The film mainly concentrates on the struggle between the need to preserve peace and sacrifice such peace in helping others in need—a very relevant problem that countries across the globe face every day.

It also includes a hesitant individual taking the mantle of a superhero in a place that does not need saving, a rare concept to see in superhero narratives. Protagonist T’Challa does not daringly proclaim himself Black Panther and his home Wakanda needs no saving. In fact, Wakanda prospers both economically and culturally, with advanced technology that would make Tony Stark weep waterfalls. In addition, the antagonist—Erik Killmonger—comes from a charged background that audiences can empathize with. Killmonger attacks T’Challa with perfectly understandable philosophies, to the point where some audience members would agree with his perspectives.

“Erik grew up knowing of Wakanda’s existence, but never saw the nation extend its resources to save him or others like him from oppression.” Emma Aird ‘18 comments. “This makes him the perfect representation of radical black men in America, with their tendency to lash out with violence instead of compromise; his anger is absolutely comprehensible and results from a lifetime of oppression and racism.”

Not only do the effects of black diaspora exist in Killmonger’s motivations, the cast of Panther provide evidence of its consequences. Despite their unifying blackness, every member of the cast comes from a different cultural background, showing just how far diaspora has spread black people across the globe.

Furthermore, the film provides crucial black representation, something noted by many stars and audience members. Will Smith, Beyonce, and Oprah Winfrey only make up a few of the black moguls who praised the film for its positive representation on their culture, while many black moviegoers thanked the Black Panther team for providing a wonderful example for future black kids to look up to. Many especially praised the role of black women in Panther, and for good reason. The women in this film refuse to limit themselves into simple love interests or moral support; from Queen Mother Ramonda to secret agent Nakia, these black women exhibit multifaceted behaviors and prove that their strength does not just exist in fighting, staying single, and showing ‘sassy’ attitudes.

General Okoye illustrates this concept perfectly; from first glance, she seems the typical ‘strong black woman’ with her ability to fight and her refusal to let men suppress her authority. However, she does indeed have a love interest and possesses an extraordinary loyalty to her country, regardless of who sits on its throne—a sign of her dedication as a Dora Milaje (the elite team of black women who defend and serve Wakanda). Okoye also rejects social norms in subtle manners instead of the typical ‘calling out’ that pop culture expects out of black women—notably in a scene where she complains of having to wear a wig for an undercover mission. Much later, Okoye snatches the wig off her head and throws it in the face of an attacker, an understated but highly symbolic move of a black woman rejecting Eurocentric beauty conforms and allowing her natural self to shine.

The film also focuses on Afrofuturism, a cultural aesthetic and philosophy that combines black culture with highly developed technology and sci-fi elements. Afrofuturism subverts the misconception that black culture invites impoverishment, and Black Panther certainly delivers on this philosophy. The film portrays black culture providing social advancement and prosperity, exemplified in Wakanda’s immense success as an independent country. The prevalence of Afrofuturism in Wakanda makes little things in Panther much more significant; near the end of the film, one UN politician asks T’Challa what Wakanda has to offer as a third-world country, and T’Challa (with all Black Panther audiences) just smiles knowingly.

While the film’s narrative shows powerful representation for its audiences, the often overlooked elements of a film provide great exposure as well. The accompanying music of Panther exhibits immense amounts of black talent, celebrating notable artists such as Kendrick Lamar, ScHoolboy Q, and SZA. It simultaneously promotes underrated black artists not on the official soundtrack but featured in the film—Mozzy, DJ Bhepepe, and Babes Wodumo, to name a few. The resulting combination of black artistry can dazzle even the stingiest of music critics. In addition to music, the costume and hair design behind Panther puts a bright spotlight on the richness of black culture. Ruth Carter, main costume designer, and Camille Friend, hair department head, provided immense amounts of detail to show the world a proud display of black culture. The Dora Milaje’s Ndebele neck rings, the use of Mursi lip rings, and the all-natural Afrocentric hairstyles all proclaim black culture just as strongly as Panther’s characters themselves.

Black Panther’s appeal stems from the celebration of black culture and its positive representation. In a caliber of its own, its effective storytelling methods promote unique philosophies and themes for audiences to examine. The film’s upward trajectory in records and praise clearly illustrates the success of these techniques, paving the way for future films to do the same.

Wakanda Forever.

Black Panther is now in theaters everywhere.

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