It is finally out; Marvel’s “Black Panther” premiered on Friday and was met with a fanfare of excitement and praise. Despite massively organized social media campaigns to derail the film’s reception, Black Panther has been received by both critics and general public as the best project brought forth by Marvel Studios. For many, especially black viewers, this film represents Hollywood’s first down-payment on turning the tide of a legacy of casting bias, misrepresentation, and general racism. Black Panther represents the first major superhero blockbuster under a black director (Ryan Coogler), a majority black cast, and a black executive producer.
Around the world, black peoples fostered a groundswell of excitement, collectively vowing “to do the most” at viewings of the movie. Some swore to wear traditional African garb while others opted to dress up like the Black Panthers of the American Civil Rights era. Regardless, it seemed like black peoples across the entire diaspora were ready to display that culture on a level rarely seen in this day and age.
However, this sense of excitement also brought forth a thinly veiled cultural disparity, a cultural cold war of sorts between Black Americans, Africans, and the children of Africans. A cold war centered on the concept of “Africanness”, something more acute than blackness, and a sore spot for some Black Americans who feel locked out of their roots. On the surface of this cultural misalignment was the issue of “cultural appropriation” and whether or not children of the diaspora can appropriate African cultures. In the case of Black Panther, the conversations of cultural appropriation were centered on the dawning of African garb, headdresses and body modifications. Many Africans viewed this as inappropriate and disrespectful, stating that blacks were no better than hipster whites entering a space nonnative to them. While Black Americans argue that they are children of Africa and therefore should be afforded access to these cultural caches.
Before anyone saw Coogler’s Black Panther, these discussions and arguments swirled around social media, and many think pieces were constructed on both sides of the debate. One thing however was revealed the diaspora has yet to unpack trauma caused by our past. For many Africans in America, their worst experiences attempting to make a way in the west have often been at the hands of Black Americans. Bullying and harassment born from the assimilation of racist ideas of what it means to be African and to be from Africa, have serious implications for Africans new to the over-racialized dynamics of the Western society. These experiences have fostered resentment in the hearts of many Africans and their children, this resentment translates into distance and avoidance. In this space, cultural chasms are created, maintained, and widened, and the diaspora suffers for it.
Many Black Americans view Africans as cultural elitists and often purveyors of anti-blackness and racism. Furthermore, resentment may be found in the fact that Africans are not stripped of their native culture, albeit most will not admit to that point. On this side of the debate, many Black Americans state that Africans treat them as if they are less than or unworthy. The term Akata comes up; Akata is a word of Yoruba origin that refers roughly to a wild cat. Within the context of Black Americans, it is employed in a derogatory voice; in short, being called Akata is not a badge of honor. Akata carries with it an expectation of wildness, unreliability, and instability. It is often uttered with an air of pretentiousness and pity, in passing sucking their teeth. Almost in the same vein of “forgive them for they do not know of what they do”, a biblical statement riddled with pity.
Michael (Erik Killmonger) and Chadwick’s (King T’Challa) characters embody this real world dynamic; their shared tension is visible . Killmonger is quite literally the lost child of Wakanda, abandoned by an uncle (King T’Chaka) and obsessed with honor and tradition. This trauma is at the root of the development of Killmonger; he carries this pain and hate as fuel for his eventual arrival in Wakanda. Erik views Wakanda as cowardly and complicit in the suffering of black peoples across the world; he even describes them as “comfortable” with a voice rattled with righteous anger and indignation. When asked what he wants, he replies “I want the Throne”– there is no moment more representative of Black Male hypermasculinity than this. Killmonger here is impulsive, strong, and resilient, yet ignorant to the culture and traditions of the people he seeks to rule.
Although his bloodline and wardog designation afford him entry into Wakanda, his lack of knowledge and understanding block him from true cultural acceptance and it is very apparent. Killmonger views Wakanda as the answer to all of his problems, yet fundamentally misunderstands Wakanda,and his lack of strategy and inability to learn are his downfall.
T’Challa, like his father before him and his father’s father, prefers a closed Wakanda; it is their tradition since Bas tasked the first Wakandan king with protecting the Great Mound. Due to this royal ,T’Challa views all outsiders with extreme suspicion; as stated in the throne room scene, his first duty is to protect Wakandans, not the diaspora. This reflects sentiments often expressed by Africans in the West; because of their roots on the continent, the racial identity of black is at times a foreign concept. This is because in Africa everyone is black, and distinctions follow ethnic lines (nation, tribe, clan). T’Challa literally feels no responsibility to the rest of the diaspora because he is Wakandan before he is black. Being Wakandan, he honors tradition before anything else, and in the case of Killmonger, this respect of tradition is a mistake. T’Challa assumed that he would easily defeat his lost cousin and, in believing that, he placed Wakanda at risk. T’Challa’s obsession with honor prevents him from doing what would have been the wisest choice– killing Erik on sight.
Coogler created this dynamic deliberately ; by introducing Oakland (birthplace of the Black Panther Party), he is forcing the diaspora to have a conversation and to confront some of our deepest issues. This alteration of formal Black Panther canon also makes the film specifically relevant both politically and socially to today’s climate. Now it falls on our collective to continue this conversation about culture and healing. If Black Panther has taught us anything, it is that we are more powerful as one, and that shallow disagreements can have very detrimental effects on our present and future.