by Alvin G. Burstein
[Editor's Note: We are rerunning this review in memory of Chadwick Boseman whose untimely death from cancer is a loss for us all.]
Once upon a time, centuries ago, in sub-Saharan central Africa, a group of tribes discovered a miraculous source of radioactivity, Vibranium. The competition for control of the lode was resolved when the leader of one of the tribes imbibed a tea concocted from an herb that the mineral had affected, acquiring superpowers. He used those powers to unite the tribes into a kingdom, Wakanda, and to initiate high-tech capabilities, all carefully concealed from the world at large. He called himself The Black Panther.
The Black Panther superhero made his first literary super hero appearance in a Marvel comic book, The Fantastic Four, created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1964. There is a remarkable synchronicity in his sobriquet. A black panther—and the motto, “Come Out Fighting”—was the icon of the all Black World War I 761st Tank Battalion.
Although Lee has said that there was no intention of referencing any political group in using the sobriquet, The Black Panther Party, founded in the mid 1960’s by Stokely Carmichael and Huey Newton had chosen the same icon. That revolutionary protest party was described by FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover as “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country.”
The current film spin-off is set in contemporary times. Complex tensions beset Wakanda. One of the five tribes, the Jabari, has Luddite objections to technology, seeing it as reflecting weakness. The current king’s brother argues for eschewing concealment and emerging from hiding to support oppressed Blacks world-wide. The Great Powers, Russia and the United States, have gotten scent of a possible African source of atomic power and are competing for access to it.
As the film opens, the Black Panther arrives in the United States to confront his brother about the latter’s scheme to make Vibranium available outside Wakanda. In the confrontation, the brother is killed, and the king returns home. Hoping to avoid stoking the policy disagreements by revealing what has happened, he leaves his brother’s son behind. The nephew ultimately becomes a lethal mercenary, adopting the name Killmonger. He is a brooding presence whose insatiable demand for vengeance makes him like Moby Dick’s Captain Ahab. Like Ahab, his purpose is “an iron rail on which my soul is grooved to run.”
After the King’s death, his son comes home to assume the throne and its super hero mantle. The succession requires him to meet any challenger from the other tribes in combat. Unexpectedly, he is challenged by the chief of the Luddite Jabari tribe. He defeats the challenger but spares his life.
The new Black Panther interacts with a cast of characters that includes a CIA agent, one of the few non-Blacks in this tale; a Dutch mercenary, also White, seeking to steal Vibranium to sell to the highest bidder; and Killmonger, who burns to return to Wakanda and overthrow the new king.
The movie’s initial popularity is deserved. Its plot is vivid and compelling. The action is suspenseful. The characters are fascinating. The cinematography is beautiful and the special effects impressive.
The film is remarkable, too, in cultural terms. The perhaps unintentional echo with the violent anger of the 1960’s Blank Panther protest stirs up uneasiness that could be usefully explored. At the very least, the presentation of a film with predominantly Black actors in complex and varied roles is an unsubtle critique of Hollywood’s failure adequately to reflect cultural diversity. Wakanda’s epitomizing sci-fi high technology calls into question a stereotype of Africans as primitive. That country also has a highly disciplined military elite of women, the Dora Milaje, central to the story. These strong, powerful female figures endorse current cultural shifts toward women as subjects who act rather than as objects to be used. In the film the magnitude of that shift is unfortunately diluted by the fictional country’s strongly patriarchal tradition of authority, especially one validated by mortal combat.