Unpacking Marvel’s Black Panther

Warning: This article contains spoilers and is an independent analysis of Marvel’s Black Panther.

BY MARIAH SMITH

On February 16, 2018, the highly anticipated movie, Black Panther, debuted in theaters across the nation. This was Marvel’s first film directed by a black director (Ryan Coogler), and it broke multiple records at the box office.

Black Panther brought in an estimated $201.8 million in revenue in its first three-day weekend, making it the largest opening for a black director in history, topping F. Gary Grey’s Fate of the Furious revenue of $98 million last April. BP also took the lead as the largest debut in February, which previously belonged to the R-rated Deadpool with $136 million in 2016. This is Marvel’s second most successful opening, just behind their Avengers film. This film was also Marvel’s 18th number one debut in a row.

Many people, especially in large cities, had to wait a few days to even see this film, due to movie theaters selling out of seats. Because of this, BP has maintained these astonishing sales beyond its first weekend, rounding $400 million within its second week. Critics love it too, having received a 97% on rotten tomatoes, the highest any superhero movie has ever gotten. Between the national and international markets, it is expected to reach a billion dollars in sales at some point in its run in the box offices.

However, even with such enormous box office numbers, some people are still upset. One of the most controversial topics has been the almost exclusively black cast. Black Panther is set in a city in Africa; so it should be only natural to have the demographics be accurately represented? But no… some individuals feel it is racist to purposefully cast roles that prefer one color over others.

To that, we can look at almost any movie ever made, and find a historically inaccurate representation of minorities, especially as lead characters or positive character attributes, within them. For example, take a look at The Passion of Christ (2004). We know historically, Jesus and his disciples were from Israel, so had accurate representation been the goal, then the cast should have been full of Israeli actors. However, the leads were all white.

Emma Stone as the Chinese-Hawaiian lead, Allison Ng, in Aloha. Jake Gyllenhaal as Dastan, the “Persian” prince, in Prince of Persia. Mike Rooney as Mr.Yunoshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Peter Sellers as Hrundi Bakshi in actual brownface in The Party. Jack Black as Ignacio/Nacho in Nacho Libre. I could go on forever.

And on the other end, when the POC characters are present, they often have a negative or inferior value, such as the villain (Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill, Despicable Me), the sidekick (Silver Linings Playbook, Indiana Jones & the Temple of Doom), comedic relief idiot (Shrek, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen), or domestic characters that reinforce the historical status of people of color, such as slaves (Twelve Years a Slave) or maids (The Help).

Hollywood is finally catching onto the trend of rightfully positioning people of color as leads, and celebrating diverse cultures with recent films like Moana, Hidden Figures, Fences, and Lion. With the massive success of Black Panther, it follows that this “trend” should only become the norm with more characters and storylines being introduced in Hollywood.

I think if these same people opened their minds a little bit, and appreciated the film for the storyline, it’s message, the soundtrack, its amazing writing, cast members and editing, even its representation of African cultures, or the nostalgia of the original comic coming to life, they might find something to appreciate about the movie beyond the skin color of the characters.

The writers and designers did a fantastic job down to the smallest of details. There was so much more to this film than the super-hero action that wasn’t exactly emphasized but should still be mentioned. You may not have picked up on it if you weren’t looking for it, so I will do my best to explain them as best I can.

 

African Culture

Ruth Carter, costume designer, and Hannah Beachler, production designer, were a large credit to the accuracy of the portrayals of African culture, spending months alone just researching these people, and their traditions. (tweet by the user, Waris, @diasporicblues)

Costumes

Lip plates are a ceremonial modification to the body found in many cultures, but namely Surma and Mursi tribes of Ethiopia

 

 

 

 

 

 

Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) wore Zulu headdresses a few times throughout the film. These were inspired by the reed Zulu flared hats (“Isicholos”) worn by married women in ceremonial celebrations

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The futuristic detail shown throughout many of the costumes of the film was inspired by the styles of the Masai people of southern Kenya and northern Tanzania

The Igbo mask that Erik Killmonger (Michael B Jordan) steals at the museum, and wears in a later scene is called a “Mgbedike.” These masks are characterized by masculine features and large size, and are designed to contrast the femininity and beauty of the female dancers in Igbo ritual.

 

 

 

 

 

 

W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) and the Border Tribe wore Basotho blankets around their necks, originally from the Lesotho people, but with markings found in Sesotho people.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Shuri (Leticia Wright) and the Dora Milaje wear costumes with a prominent collar or neck rings. These are called Ndebele neck rings by the South Ndebele people of Zimbabwe or South Africa. They wear these rings as a sign of wealth or status within part of their traditional garb.

There we many costumes or characters with a bold earthy red tone, originally a characteristic of the Himba people of North-Western Namibia. They apply a red ochre paste, called “otjize”, to their skin and hair.

Zuri (Forest Whittaker), the spiritual leader of Wakanda, wears an ornate robe called an Agbada. These are worn by men and women in a lot of Northern and Western Africa.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Erik Killmonger’s ritualistic tribal bump markings on his skin resemble the scarring tattoo techniques that the Mursi and Surma people of Ethiopia use.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

T’Challa wears something called a Kente scarf on his first day on the job. Kente (“nwentom” in Akan) is native to the Akan people of Ghana. It is a silk and cotton fabric made from interwoven cloth pieces

Some close-ups of the characters’ clothes reveal Adinkra symbol patterns. Adinkra clothes were traditionally only worn by spiritual leaders of the Asante tribe in Ghana for special occasions.

 

Other Cultural Artifacts or Traditions

The Wakanda people spoke Xhosa, a language spoken by over 19 million people in the Southern African region.

At the beginning of the Challenge Day scene, you see the people gather and celebrate on boats. This represents the Kuomboka (‘get out of the water’) Ceremony found in Zambia. The idea is that whoever gets out of the water alive will reign as king, similar to how the challenge scene between T’Challa and M’Baku (Winston Duke) went.

The drums played in the same boat/challenge scene are called Burundi drums. They are sacred drums played at royal ceremonies that link the neighboring Rwandan tribes- the Tutsi and the Hutu.

 

The Women

Although the main character is T’Challa, he is surrounded by and relies on strong, wise women, even more so than men. Black Panther has been compared to last year’s smash hit, Wonder Woman, quite possibly giving women even more positive characters. Wakanda’s social structure allows for women to have equal agency to men. Lupita Nyong’o stated in Vanity that “Wakanda offers us a glimpse into the world as it could be — self-determined and developed on their own terms without the interruption of colonialism. [It] has figured out how to make the most of all its citizens.”

 

Okoye & the Dora Milaje

With a name meaning, “adored ones,” the Dora Milaje is the all-female army that protects the king, and they are not shy to flaunt their strength and badassery. It is said that the Dora Milaje was inspired by the historical all-female African military corp of Dahomey, West Africa. They were fierce, confident, had some killer costumes, and could hold their own in a fight — they weren’t looking for their prince charming to come save them. They could actually fight better than most of the men, even saving T’Challa on multiple occasions. Okoye, played by Danai Guriri is the general of the Dora Milaje, and loyal to Wakanda, even when her boyfriend, W’Kabi, was ready to fight with Killmonger to bring the city down.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Shuri

The crazy intelligent baby sister of T’Challa is Shuri (Leticia Wright), my new favorite Disney princess. She is fun, playful, stylish, and according to the original comic, she is the smartest person in the entire Marvel universe. She works in her lab to advance the technologies of Wakanda and explore the uses of vibranium. She has this upbeat, youthful personality, while still making so many breakthroughs for the Wakanda society and the Black Panther suit and gadgets. During the challenge day scene, she was offered the chance to challenge her brother for the throne, further emphasizing women’s equal role in society. She declined, but only while making a joke about her corset.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nakia

T’Challa’s on-again-off-again love interest is Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o). She actually left Wakanda to travel Africa and save enslaved women and other distressed people. She is a firm believer in social justice and wants to convince T’Challa that opening aid to the world could help so many people in need, but he refuses out of fear of compromising the peace within Wakanda. T’Challa makes many attempts to get her thinking in the long term of their relationship- as in getting married and becoming the queen, but she is headstrong. She puts her responsibilities to the world in her activism before her romantic relationship and being queen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Honorable Mention – Romonda (Angela Bassett)

The woman who raised T’Challa and Shuri, kept order in Wakanda and stood as the family’s solid rock in the wake of T’Chaka’s death. Her part was small, but her influence was great.

 

The Hair

The hairstyles of the Wakandan people is essential because of its natural and traditional qualities. They wore it either natural or in traditional braids or designs from ancient standards. In no place were there wigs or weave, a trend that didn’t start within black or African people until the Western beauty standard was established. This fits into the storyline as well because, if Wakanda was never colonized (which it wasn’t), they would not have that influence to disrupt their traditional norms.

Okay, I lied- there was ONE wig- worn by Okoye (Danai Gurira), in Korea to go unnoticed at the Vibranium exchange with Klaw. But she didn’t enjoy wearing it- she took it off at the first opportunity.

 

Barking

Throughout the movie, there were scenes that poked fun at the American CIA operative, Everett Ross. The first time, Shuri wittingly calls him a colonizer when he scares her. The second time points to a deeper meaning. While Shuri, Romonda, and Ross were visiting M’Baku in the Jabari territory to ask for help saving Wakanda, Ross tries to insert himself into the conversation. M’Baku and the Jabari people start to bark until he is silenced. This essentially tells him that he has no business in the discussion, and, therefore should not be speaking on it. Let me tell ya, he was shook. He, like many of the dominant “standard” intersection of identity in American (a.k.a. the straight, cis, white male, especially higher class, with a degree, etc.) wypipo, has probably never been forcibly silenced before, so felt his voice is valid everywhere. This was not the case in the Jabari tribe, and if you picked up on that notion, you probably pondered it as well, no matter what side of the issue you would have found yourself on.

 

The Villain

Erik Killdaddy- I mean monger. Killmonger.. (Played by the gorgeous Michael Bakari Jordan). Wow. Yum. Ahem but yeah — so he used be in the military, racking up so many kills that he got his nickname, Killmonger. Come to find out, he is the son of N’Jobu, a Wakandan War Dog secret agent placed in America. While there N’Jobu fell in love with an American woman and they had Erik. He shared stories of Wakanda with his son as he grew up. While observing the oppression of blacks in America, N’Jobu became convinced that Wakanda’s isolation was selfish, and they should help raise the African descendants around the world. He thought that since Wakanda wouldn’t help them, he would take matters into his own hands. He employed the help of black-market arms dealer, Ulysses Klaue, to slip into Wakanda unnoticed and steal a sum of vibranium. N’Jobu wanted to distribute that to the blacks of America to help them gain a leg up in society, but he was caught by his brother, T’Chaka — that’s right, T’Challa’s dad, the previous king — before he got the chance. Things got violent, and T’Chaka actually killed N’Jobu, leaving the son Erik without a father, but all of his research and plans.

 

 

 

 

 

Some thirty years later in the present, Erik is a grown man with a personal vendetta against Wakanda, American black-ops training below his belt, and physical scars all over his body as trophies of his kills. He “returns” to Wakanda with his father’s continued mission, identifies himself as N’Jadaka and his bloodright to challenge the throne, and overthrows (quite literally) T’Challa’s reign, becoming the new king and Black Panther. He immediately begins his traditional rituals of the black panther, as well as preparations to release Wakandan weapons to the operatives around the world, so the African descendants can use them to fight against their oppressors.

Now that you have the backstory, you can understand why this character is so important- his objective is logical, even relatable. Unlike other superhero villains like the Joker, Bane, and Ultron — he is actually coming from a place of humanity. He wants to help the people outside of Wakanda gain equality. The other villains seem to just want to end the human race, or simply find pleasure in destruction, Killmonger has an endgame that almost anyone could come to the same conclusion. He is a villain that you just can’t hate, some people (me included) even sort of rooted for him after a while, wanting to see him succeed. I will admit, he went about it in a very violent way, but he made his point and almost got where he needed to be. I would have loved to see him and T’Challa work things out and find a compromise, but he was stubborn and out for blood, which eventually leads to his (spoiler alert) demise.

 

The Quotes

This movie is chocked-full with great quotes. I’ll just add the ones that were specifically relevant to the plot, memorable, or just woke in general.

“You are a good man, with a good heart. And it is hard for a good man to be a King.” – T’Chaka

“I never freeze.” – T’Challa

“The real question is.. WHAT ARE THOSE” – Shuri

“Just because something works, doesn’t mean it can’t be improved.” – Shuri

“A man that has not prepared his children for his own death has failed as a father.” -T’Chaka

“Does she speak English?” – Ross (to T’Challa)
“When she wants to.” – Okoye

“Is the Wakanda?” – Ross
“No, this is Kansas.” – Shuri

“I would make a great queen because I am stubborn-if that’s what I wanted.” – Nakia

“You get to decide what kind of king you are going to be.” – Nakia

“More connects us than separates us- In times of crisis, the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers. We must find a way to look after one another as if we were one single tribe.” – T’Challa

“Guns: So primitive.” – Okoye

“Is this your king?” – Killmonger

“Great, another broken white boy for us to fix.” – Shuri

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

“Hey Auntie” – Killmonger

“Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors that jumped from the ships. Because they new death was better than bondage.” -Killmonger

“Wakanda FOREVER!” – Okoye

 

The Soundtrack

Before this movie came out, I was imaging the soundtrack possibilities. I actually remember thinking ‘Just give it to Kendrick or Cole, and let them run with it.’ Crazy enough, that’s basically what happened! This is almost a bonus Kendrick Lamar album, spinning off of his latest release, DAMN, with five credited songs on the soundtrack. I’m pretty positive that Kendrick features his voice in almost every other song as well. Joining him, we see the likes of some up and coming names like SZA, Swae Lee, Vince Staples, Khalid, Jorja Smith, Ab-Soul, Anderson.Paak, Zacari, and Travis Scott.

The album includes some energetic rap with sick beats (King’s Dead, Opps, X, Big Shot and Black Panther) as well as quirkier R&B ballads showcasing the artist’s talents (I Am, Redemption, The Ways and Seasons) and pop sounds with Pray for Me and All the Stars. So much diversity in 14 tracks, and that’s why I am obsessed. Most single-artist albums offer a strict genre choice of one- sometimes two, but this one gives you a little taste of everything. I’ve listened to it probably a dozen times through, and have found something new each time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Own Experience

Since I have a spiritual connection with this movie at this point, I thought I’d close with my experience seeing it the first time. I was out of town the weekend it opened, so I wasn’t able to see it until the following Monday (President’s Day). Excited was an understatement. I wanted so badly to participate in the dressing up with traditional African garb, but I am fresh out of those, so I had to settle for my favorite pair of shoes.

I was immediately invested into the story as soon as it began. I had a hard time understanding the timeline in the beginning but got over it as soon as we met Shuri. I was captivated. I felt like she’d be a good time, and we could be great friends someday. I started to think about my cousins and all the little kids who will look up at the poster in their rooms and see themselves. How my cousin might look up to Shuri, Nakia or Okoye and imagine herself leading research in STEM, as an activist making a difference, or as a fearless soldier. I welled up with a mixture of pride and joy and hope. Pride that I was living to see this day. Joy that all these kids have some awesome superheros to pretend to be. And hope that I get to see minority representation become the norm in American media, beyond a trend.

And then we met Killmonger, and I was confused again when they revealed his identity, but he was pretty, so it was fine. He challenged T’Challa, won, and took over in dictator fashion, but I understood him. His anger, frustration, passion. His plight and his objectives. I got it. It was a weird feeling to have a sense of loyalty to the villain for once.

I laughed at the appropriate times, but I found myself reverting back to a deep thought- just in awe of how significant a film like this is, and the smashing successes it is seeing. Being aware of the process of media creation, I was amazed at the detail that was made. The symbolization. The positivity. I could physically see all the hard work playing together so beautifully in this storyline. I could see the decades of tension amongst the POC of Hollywood culminating to this historic climax of celebration of diversity, equality, and excellence. It’s like I could feel how huge this was with my entire being.

I continued like this until the end, when Killmonger was fatally stabbed. T’Challa graciously carried him to the edge of the cliff overlooking the sunset across the Great Rift Valley. I was sad he had to die, but still in this la-la land in my headspace. T’Challa offered to save him, but even Killmonger knew that he would be trusted. I was momentarily paralyzed when he said “Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors that jumped from the ships. Because they knew death was better than bondage.” It hit fast and cold, and I wasn’t ready to hear it. I was flooded with emotion again. The depth of that sentence. The truth of that sentence. And how many people, myself included, who live on to now be the legacy of these ancestors. There was so much behind that quote, and I couldn’t think of anything else the rest of the movie.

If you were a pro, you knew to stay at the end for a few more scenes. The post-credits revealed T’Challa’s speech with the rest of the world. The second one showed a clip of the Marvel character White Wolf with Shuri, feeding viewers into the plot of the following Marvel film, Avengers: Infinity War set to premiere April 27th of this year. This movie brings back all the classics from prior films like Iron-Man, Captain America, Thor, Black Widow, and now the Wakanda heroes, Okoye and Black Panther.

I went back again the next evening. And it did clear up a lot of those concepts that didn’t quite hit home to me the first time. I went back a few nights later, still so pleased. For 2 hours I was in a perfect world where things were in the right places. The government wasn’t perfect, but morally competent. Society didn’t have these innate inequalities and double standards. The environment wasn’t in severe jeopardy. It is a reality I hope to see in this country one day. My only hope at this point for the Black Panther franchise is for a sequel. I need to see how they function post-Killmonger. I need more Wakanda.

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