Black Panther (dir. Ryan Coogler, 2018) – T’Challa’s rising to the throne of Wakanda is met with opposition by a vengeful outsider, who challenges his claim to the crown.
Embodying cultural and political significance, Black Panther claws its way out of MCU’s formulaic plague.
The repute of Black Panther is, and will be for a time, inseparable from its notable majority cast of black actors. Such representation in the genre has been a long time coming. But what director Ryan Coogler has achieved goes beyond on-screen cultural progress. In a decade when superpowers continually call for walls and borders against refugees, his work also comes as a timely and thoughtful study in modern isolationism.
Black Panther follows the events of Civil War, as T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) comes to terms with his father’s death and rises to the throne of Wakanda. Under his reign, Wakanda continues to watch the world from the shadows, hiding her people in the cloaked safety of their beautiful secret sanctuary.
The hardened stance of Wakanda takes forms in our world, where defectors gets no reprieve from countries desperately trying to keep them out. What T’Challa’s confidante W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) proclaims is striking in its familiarity, “You let the refugees in, they bring their problems with them and then Wakanda is like everywhere else.”
Isolationism is a choice that comes at a moral cost, as the film does well to explore. The implications are weightier, when safety is a sliver than what Wakanda can offer. After all, the world’s most affluent nation does not just hide an invaluable inventory of vibranium, but highly advanced technology that could better the lives of many.
Aiding the secrecy is Shuri (Letitia Wright), who avails the meanest weaponry to his brother. Charming as she is with her humour and tech expertise, her work itself raises a point of contention: No one else but the elected has access to the arsenal. Why should the royals be given the sole charge of such resources, simply because of their birthright?
There are voices of opposition to the King’s way of rule. Working undercover against human trafficking prevalent in neighbouring African countries, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) chides T’Challa’s blind eye to the destitute and urges change, “You get to decide what kind of king you are going to be.”
T’Challa respectfully stands his ground. He has his reasons. To him, Wakanda thrives because of isolation, not in spite of it. Jabari Tribe leader M’Baku (Winston Duke) defies, but lacks the strength and reason. A more formidable protest rises by the hand of Erik Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), built upon anger at his father’s death and the likely institutional oppression that he grew up in.
The lost royal challenges T’Challa for the throne, justified in his own rage by his upbringing. But his ideals are violent. While T’Challa advocates for non-interventionism, Erik intends to lead Wakanda to a global uprising by letting loose her armament, even if the races end up divided in blood. Cynicism is apparent in his weariness towards humanity, unable to believe that change can come of peace.
Similar to the beliefs of Malcolm X, Erik’s radical politics is dangerous, if made sympathetic by his reasoning. After all, how can real change be effected from the refuge of the dark? Yet T’Challa is far from wrong. Means of violence may only beget violence. And once Wakanda opens up to the world, she invites peril to her people and risks exposure to the dangers of greed.
There are no easy answers to the conundrum. Black Panther dares take its turn on both sides of the fence, its layered script a treasured rarity. Even so, Killmonger does eventually turn abhorrent for the sake of resolution. As with the genre’s protocol, his unambiguous villainy soon shows – in his scarification of his body count and murderous avarice for power.
Civil war transpires against the lush visuals of Wakanda, made uniquely gorgeous by its embrace of the African culture. Flanked by an incredible band of women warriors, T’Challa earns a tough victory against his adversary. Yet despite his predictable defeat, Erik’s civil war leaves an impact. Breaking away from the shadows, T’Challa finally decides to share Wakanda’s technology with the world, finding the middle ground in diplomacy.
There is no telling if it is the right decision he makes, if there is any at all. T’Challa puts faith in the strength of his country and his reign, as he should. Having witnessed the lethal battle that the Dora Milaje forged alongside their allied tribes, it is safe to say that Wakanda is more than ready and well-armed to step into the light.