FILM CRITIQUE: The Black Panther

FILM/BOOKS/ART CRITIQUES March 2, 2018

A CRITIQUE OF THE THEMES OF BLACK MASCULINITY, BLACK FEMININITY AND AFRICAN IDENTITY IN THE BLACK PANTHER.

By Jovita Akahome

Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther (2018) includes the themes of masculinity among black males, femininity among black females and black identity crises. Black Panther raises pertinent questions about the definition of the African identity and the African-American response to it. T’challa and Killmonger appear to illustrate opposite sides on the spectrum of the entire black male experience. Coogler also appears to use iconography to present the black woman and her femininity in a way that is different from the norm. Although the movie is set in the fictitious country of Wakanda, its core elements seem to be metaphors for the current condition of the African continent. The use of these metaphors inspire inquiry into the subjects of black masculinity, black femininity and black identity.

Black Panther[1] is about T’challa, who becomes King of Wakanda and assumes the role of the Black Panther after the death of his father, T’Chaka. One of his responsibilities is to maintain the tradition of keeping the presence of vibranium in Wakanda, a secret from the outside world. The sudden discovery of a cousin, Kilmonger, forces him to question the old tradition and the subsequent direction of his kingdom.

T’Challa expresses his masculinity with neither threat from female support, nor emphasis on the use of physical force. It is important to note how the women in his life play the most pivotal roles in his success as King, and Black Panther. His mother, Ramonda, plays an advisory role to her newly crowned son. His younger sister, Shuri, is a technology expert that is entrusted with creating the perfect Black Panther suit, along with its paraphernalia. His royal army are warrior women – the Dora Milaje, commanded by Okoye. Also, he earns the support of his former lover, Nakia, who never fails to express her belief that T’Challa’s kingship will bring about a new era in Wakanda. The people of Wakanda appear to thrive in a culture that transcends stereotypical male and female roles. It seems that in Wakanda, one gender thrives because the other does the same. One can conclude that “masculinity [is] socially constructed, created by social processes that reflect the various workings of power in the society.” [2] There is little doubt that Coogler wishes to portray T’challa as an alpha male because he triumphs in a ritual combat, assumes the throne of an African nation, Wakanda, and subsequently becomes the superhero, Black Panther. In T’Challa, Coogler presents a character whose masculinity is not threatened by female support. Also, T’Challa appears to use physical force as a last resort, instead of the sole method of resolving conflicts. He is seen in one of the first scenes of the film, after restraining M’Baku in ritual combat, appealing to him to submit to defeat, instead of finishing him off. Again, during his final combat with Killmonger, he consistently implores that they settle their differences peacefully. This type of expression appears to be reinforced by the socio-cultural influence of Wakanda. In other words, cultural influence is a core determinant of the expression of black male masculinity.

In contrast, Killmonger presents an expression of black male masculinity that is volatile and solely depends on the use of physical force. He is an image of black masculinity that is based on the prevalent stereotype of the volatile, black super-predator. He is portrayed as aggressive, angry and dangerous. From the first appearance of this character until his eventual demise, Killmonger consistently uses violence as the sole means of expressing his masculinity. In the scene where he orders the incineration of the heart-shaped herbs, he is not beyond using brutal force on a helpless woman to remind her who is in charge. This seems to be a product of his experience as an African-American male. His behaviour is consistent with the definition of “hypersexuality as a form of American masculinity based on racism, … marked by violent rapaciousness”[3]. However, it is just as easy to name Killmonger a villain, as it is to recognise him as a victim of cultural and parental abandonment. He, like many African-American males “constantly negotiate the delicate steps between ‘masculinity’ and ‘deviance’ [and] protect themselves by projecting and maintaining an image of ‘emotional invulnerability’”. [4] When T’Challa goes into a trance that allows him to communicate with his father and ancestors, he blames them for creating the menace that Killmonger has become. It is possible that Coogler uses this scene to point an abandonment of African-Americans by the past generations of Africans as the crux of division between these two groups, and the cause of black identity crises. This is because, during this confrontation, T’Challa’s ancestors appear just before T’Chaka admits to the guilt of abandoning the young Erik Stevens in America. It is also possible that Coogler implies that it is easier for Africans to brand African-Americans as “the outsider” the way Ramonda refers to Killmonger, than to bear guilt for their current predicament. T’Chaka describes this guilt as “some ugly truths too great to bear”[5]. In fact, this abandonment is the ultimate reason that Killmonger becomes a villain in the first place.

Nakia and Okoye offer a fresh perspective on the representation of the black female and her femininity in mainstream media with the use of the iconography of ‘the woman in red’. ‘The woman in red’ is an icon of femininity in the West, especially in film. However, Coogler uses this device in a way that is different from the norm. Along with the other female characters in this film, Nakia and Okoye particularly show a balance in the popular expression that describes the African and African American woman as “strong black woman.” In Black Panther, the black women are as strong as they are women. The red color is prominent in the uniforms that the Dora Milaje wear to perform their functions. Nakia wears a similar attire when she joins the rest of Wakanda to fight against Killmonger and the rebels. These warrior women are reminiscent of the comic character, Woman in Red[6] who is shown as covered from head to toe in red, and skilled in hand to hand combat. The most remarkable use of ‘the woman in red’ icon in Black Panther, is the scene at the Casino in Busan, South Korea. Okoye is wearing the classic red dress. One that does a series of dramatic whooshes, much like the signature whoosh of Charlotte’s red dress in The Woman in Red[7], which continues to reappear in American popular culture till date. It is significant that she tosses her wig before proceeding to combat. It appears that Coogler wishes to use this action to emphasise Okoye’s Africanness, that does not conform to the Western standard of beauty. In this scene, Coogler strategically exaggerates the movement of Okoye’s red dress to cause the viewer to not lose focus of her femininity, while she engages in combat. It hints at Coogler’s idea of a visual representation of the state of being strong, being black and being a woman simultaneously.

The relationship between identity and culture is powerfully illustrated in the arrival, and subsequent crowning of Killmonger in Wakanda. Killmonger appears to suffer from an identity crisis that makes him claim his identity as Wakandan, as medium to liberate ‘his people’ in diaspora from ‘the oppressor’. According to Mwakikagile, “not all of us but probably a large number of [Africans] have a negative attitude towards black people in the United States. Some people attribute it to arrogance among Africans who think they are better than American blacks, for whatever reason including cultural differences [and] loss of identity among black Americans since they no longer have their true African identity that was destroyed during slavery.”[8] Killmonger’s predicament inspires a discourse on the dynamics of African and African-American relations. This is because Kilmonger’s life experience has been of an African American before his arrival in Wakanda. It is possible that the secret presence of vibranium in Wakanda is an allusion to the current condition of the African continent as the richest in natural resources, and the most encumbered by poverty. Killmonger believes that vibranium is the key to the liberation of Africans in diaspora, and has dedicated his life to this cause. Although this cause is propelled by his desire to avenge the death of his father, his first agenda as King was to focus on the plight of Africans in diaspora. Even as the King of Wakanda, his loyalties appear to lie outside of it. Killmonger presents the dilemma of the African diaspora, who is not only labelled as an ‘outsider’ among both African communities and across the world, but also expresses a strong desire to identify with their African roots. The massive reception of this film among African Americans because of its Afrocentricism is evidence of this desire. According to a New York times article, “black internet was, to put it mildly, exploding… when the date of the premier was announced, people began posting pictures of what might be called African-Americana, … kente cloth du-rags, candy-colored nine-button suits, … alongside captions like ‘this is how I’ma show up to the Black Panther premier’.”[9] Coogler himself, being an African-American, presents a plethora of important aspects of the African culture in the film. These include the exhibition of textured hair of both men and women, the Xhosa language, the African attire, and most notably, the use of tribal marks. The most widespread and ancient method of identification among African tribes are tribal marks which members always bear on their bodies, and are specific to each of them. In Black Panther, the Wakandans bear the ultimate Wakandan tribal mark on the inside of their lower lips, which they use to confirm their identity in a fashion that can be likened to presenting identification cards upon request in the West. Killmonger also bears this mark which he uses to identify as Wakandan. However, he is still referred to as an outsider. His identity crisis is presented again in the final moments before his death. He refuses, T’Challa’s offer to heal him because he fears incarceration, and so, chooses to die as a free man like “my ancestors that jumped from the ships. Because they knew death was better than bondage.”[10] He consistently fluctuates between identifying as Wakandan, and as African diaspora to suit his circumstances. While it is obvious that identity is important to Killmonger, he appears confused about it.

In conclusion, Black Panther highlights the themes of black masculinity, black femininity and African identity. Although Black Panther is a work of fiction, Coogler uses his characters to represent important aspects of the African and African American experience in the real world. It presents these characters along with a conspicuous exhibition of African culture. Black Panther does not seem inclined to offer any resolutions to the subject matter that it unravels. Instead, it appears to aim for further introspection into the phenomena that it alludes to.

[1] Black Panther, directed by Ryan Coogler, (2018; Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures), film.

[2] Ronke Iyabowale Ako-Nai. Gender and Power relations in Nigeria. United Kingdom; Lexigton books,2013.

[3] McCarthy, Morrison, and James Baldwin. Hypermasculinities in the contemporary novel. United Kingdom: Rowman & Littlefield, 2014.

[4] Brittany C. Slatton and Kamesha Spates. Hyper Sexual, Hyper Masculine? Gender, Race and Sexuality in the Identities of Contemporary Black Men. London: Routledge, 2014.

[5] Black Panther, directed by Ryan Coogler, (2018; Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures), film.

[6] Woman in Red, created by Richard E. Hughes, (1940; Nedor Comics), Print.

[7] The Woman in Red, created by Gene Wilder, (1984; Orion Pictures), film.

[8] Godfrey Mwakikagile. Relations between Africans and African Americans: Misconceptions, Myths and Realities. Tanzania: New Africa Press, 2007.

[9] Carvel Wallace, “Why ‘Black Panther’ is a defining moment for Black America in The New York Times (The New York times; February 2018), Web.

[10] Black Panther, directed by Ryan Coogler, (2018; Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures), film.

Comment 1

  1. Briana says on March 9, 2018

    I enjoyed reading this critique! I’ve been having similar sentiments especially seeing so many people sing Killmonger’s praises. It’s quite sad that many weren’t able to see the negative aspects of what his character brought to the film. While I have no problem with people liking villains or finding them intriguing, it’s a little worrying when people excuse his violence or romanticize his actions in the name or black liberation.

    Liked by 1 person

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