Like the rest of the world, I loved Black Panther. It’s innovative, exciting, funny, and perceptive like no other superhero flick, if you ask me. Ultimately, my favorite thing about the film is the way in which it addresses one of the more pressing issues of our current political landscape. I issue my warning for spoilers about the film now.
Black Panther steeps itself in delicate, volatile, and dangerously contemporary topics -- both social and political -- from its very title (daring to unearth the comic after a very prominent rebranding of the term as the mascot of the famous political party). Knowing only that it was inevitably going to deal with race relations and that it was a fantastical genre, I walked into the theater very jaded. I did not want to see a romanticization of the epidemic plaguing us at the moment, but I’d been advised to give it a chance. Indeed, I was impressed with the tact and the honorability with which they handled the issues. Now, the critics have had a field day debating the success of the portrayal of race relations (which I maintain was brilliant), but I was more drawn to the allegory shown in the diplomatic procedures of the fictional nation of Wakanda. Perhaps it is arrogant to assume that the movie, despite the universal nature of the topic, was speaking directly to the U.S., but nevertheless we can apply it to the American climate without difficulty.
The moral quandary of the film is thus: Wakanda is the wealthiest and most advanced nation in the world (one cannot help but think of America, at least in our attitude), but it has kept this a secret, and kept its technology from the rest of the world in order to protect itself. Should they change centuries of tradition and use their resources to aid a struggling planet, and if so, by what means? While the U.S. is not shrouded in a reality-bending barrier that makes it appear third-world, and is never shy about boasting its technological and military accolades (cough, cough, FDR), it does have a history of vacillating between different approaches to foreign policy, typically coinciding with elections. We have been interventionist, just as we have been isolationist, and one would assume that Wakanda represents the latter. To be sure, the Wakandas aren’t entirely hands-off; they do send special operatives to undo certain criminal operations, but the rest of the world continues to deteriorate.
The matter in the film is particularly ignited by a terrorist attack on the United Nations which killed Wakanda’s sovereign ruler, T’Chaka, leaving his son T’Challa (the primary Black Panther) to be crowned king. The source of the nation’s great power comes from its clandestine, yet massive stock of a substance called “vibranium,” which has a myriad of applications from healing even the most fatal of injuries and granting super human abilities to devising technology in the realm of science fiction such as hover vehicles and holographic communication devices. Throughout history, Wakanda has reserved the substance for its own use alone, and T’Challa seems primed to follow in his father’s footsteps. However, he encounters subtle, and then not-so-subtle dissent. Nakia, a special operative, having witnessed firsthand the suffering outside the country’s borders, is staunchly in favor of using the country’s resources to aid refugees all over the world. W’Kabi, the leader of one of the five tribes of which the nation is comprised, believes bringing refugees will only cause Wakanda to deteriorate like the countries which they fled, and instead advocates for using the military to impose Wakandan rule on the suffering countries (sound familiar?). Erik Killmonger (a character whose origin will take too long to explain, but let’s just say ends up usurping T’Challa for a time), is the most radical in his immediate, but long-planned maneuver of arming oppressed people all over the world with advanced weapons so that they can overthrow their oppressors and unite under Wakandan rule. Needless to say, T’Challa is in a moral quagmire.
While each of these approaches to foreign policy is common in the U.S., none of them are cut and dry solutions. What’s more, we cannot simply assign political parties or figures to each of the characters -- and that’s exactly what I love about it. The matter is clear, but not so on-the-nose that we are inclined to dismiss it as tactless. The film presents the many facets of each ideology, and stresses that, for most people, they stem from good intentions. Objectively, loyalty to and protection of one’s country and aiding those in need are both very noble causes. But, as they say, the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. The problems arise when a character is so overcome by strong emotions that they can no longer see any possible ramifications of their actions, and are therefore endangering themselves and everyone else. This is ultimately the catalyst for Killmonger’s demise (that, and a kickass battle scene). His unwillingness to compromise and drastic measures plunge Wakanda into a sudden, and acute civil war. In light of the nature of the current presidential administration as is most evident in the recent bombing in Syria, are we really very far from such an outbreak?
The best part of Black Panther, I think most would agree, is the ending. T’Challa, back on the throne, decides that it is, in fact, time to end Wakanda’s history of isolationism and deliver aid to the world without invoking military engagement. The stance seems clear, but besides building outreach centers, the country’s next exact moves are mostly ambiguous. Instead of articulating them, T’Challa devotes his post-credit speech to the United Nations to calling for only one thing: compassion. He communicates this in so many lovely ways, but I will choose just one to quote here -- “More connects us than separates us. The wise build bridges, the foolish build barriers.” Wow. What a voice of reason -- and I believe it is the only voice in which the film means to speak to us. As I have said, every belief about the best way to go about foreign policy portrayed in the film is treated with respect, and the exact method chosen is somewhat unclear. Black Panther is not telling us how our government should be interacting with other governments; it is telling us how we, as human beings, should interact with other human beings (the answer being with love and respect). We often forget how similar we all really are, distancing ourselves from others because of cultural differences that are ultimately minor in comparison to our biological and experiential similarities. We could take a page from Wakanda.
I will leave you with a line from the Wakanda’s head of technological development and T’Challa’s spunky younger sister, Shuri. It is spoken to her brother regarding updates to technological advancement, but I believe it is also the film’s preemptive response to the prevailing idea in the country before T’Challa’s reign that Wakanda has prospered for centuries by avoiding foreign contact. “Just because something works,” she says, “does not mean it cannot be improved.”