An Intersectional Approach to Filmmaking

My reaction to Black Panther (Spoiler Alert)

The “Black Panther” film strives to do superhero and science fiction cinema the right way. By putting black and female characters in legitimate, central positions of power; by depicting a non-Western nation with technological genius; by challenging and ridiculing the U.S.’s role as “world police”; and by delving into debates within communities of color rather than displaying minorities as monolithic, this is effectively done.

Cartoon by Cate Johnson

“Black Panther” is set in the fictional African nation of Wakanda, perceived by the rest of the world as poor and undeveloped, but which has secretly created a prosperous society built around “vibranium”—a fictional substance with unlimited technological capability, used to create technology far more advanced than that of any other nation. Beyond this, Wakanda has never been conquered by any outside force. The nation is ruled by the Black Panther, portrayed throughout the movie as a benevolent monarch, who possesses superhuman strength and is selected through a combination of familial right and ritual.

The film follows T’Challa, the Black Panther, as he struggles to protect his country from his own cousin, who seeks to use the power of vibranium to arm oppressed communities globally. At the same time, T’Challa must decide whether to keep Wakanda hidden from the outside world or to share its technology, resources, and the power that comes with it in a classically sci-fi struggle between tradition and modernity.

I was impressed by the production team’s effort to remain intersectional while highlighting black power, black actors, and avoid the whitewashing typical of action movies in Hollywood. Though the film’s protagonist is male, and Wakanda is ruled by a male king, T’Challa is guided by female advisors who exude their own strength and confidence. These female characters exist not as sidekicks or to give emotional intuition, but to offer their own valuable and unique skill sets: T’Challa’s  teenage sister, Shuri, is responsible for Wakanda’s technological program; his love interest Nakia is a spy; Okoye, one of his protectors, is the best warrior in the nation. At times, T’Challa is laughably incompetent before them. We watch as he proves utterly unable to compose himself in front of Nakia and needs to be rescued by Okoye. We also see Shuri poking fun at his inability to understand her technological inventions.

We come away from the film aware that T’Challa’s success depended as much on the women surrounding him as on his own strength. That, in conjunction with its often witty, visually beautiful, but more importantly, unwavering, portrayal of black power was refreshing, and a massive step in challenging the Hollywood status quo.

“Black Panther” explores the choices  rulers of Wakanda must make within the framework of international relations as well: the dilemma T’Challa faces is less between tradition and modernity than it is between isolationism and global interconnectedness. What responsibility does Wakanda have to liberate oppressed communities outside of its borders? Is it the duty of a government to accept refugees, to invest in humanitarian aid, if doing so may impact the security of its own citizens? That those questions arise from the perspective of a nation not at all modeled after the United States challenges viewers to let go of their preconceptions of global power, and was an underrated, but genius, move on the part of the filmmakers.

However the development of that narrative felt rushed. The movie ends with T’Challa in Oakland, Calif., explaining to his sister his plans to open the first Wakandan International Outreach Center in a local African-American community. As they watch a Wakandan airship descend unrealistically onto an American basketball court, viewers are tempted to conclude that so has begun a new era of international cooperation—that Wakanda’s knowledge will be used to benefit black people across the world and to advance humanity as a whole. In doing so, “Black Panther” becomes yet another proponent of neoliberalism in an industry saturated with the same.

Meanwhile, the skeptical viewer is given little reason to believe T’Challa’s cooperation will be reciprocated by the United States, and little reassurance that yet another person of entity will not seek to use Wakanda’s power for purposes far more sinister. There is no hint of the fear, confusion, and chaos likely to arise in any real world after such a discovery. I left feeling far from confident that the story wouldn’t continue to repeat itself, with others attempting to exploit Wakanda’s resources now that its value is known.

In grossing over $900 million worldwide, “Black Panther” may have permanently changed the strategy of the movie business—or so have said many who know more than I. Its success showed that big-budget films focused on women and minorities can be both profitable and well-received. I do wish its ending had been more nuanced, but I can forget that in comparison to its strong and timely condemnation of inequity in the entertainment industry.

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