By: Katrina Brown
Marvel Studios’ movies are known for their well-rounded characters, intricate storylines, and quick paced action. In 2018, Marvel made waves with their new addition: Black Panther. Black Panther’s powerful cast of men and women of color, along with its tuned-in social commentary easily made it one of 2018’s most celebrated and culturally significant movies.
Wakanda, the fictional country in which Black Panther takes place, is a modern utopia in many ways—isolated, technologically and medically advanced, low in poverty, high in citizen satisfaction, and rich in natural resources. The main conflict of this movie is, at its core, about the future of Wakanda. Specifically, should Wakanda share their resources and technology with others, risking threat from other societies? Or should they remain isolated and let others suffer? For so long, the country had remained aloof, but had never recognized that doing so also had its consequences. When confronted by Killmonger, a native Wakandan abandoned as a child to the ghettos of America, the new king T’Challa and the rest of the country literally come face to face with the product of the poverty and desperation (endured especially among minority populations) that they had been trying so hard to ignore.
Black Panther, therefore, uses Killmonger as an embodiment of the suffering Wakanda had increasingly turned a blind eye to with the onset of the 20th and 21st centuries. A native Wakandan himself, Killmonger was abandoned, left to struggle as a child, alongside millions of others, all while Wakanda enjoyed peace and prosperity.
But it is just a movie, right?
Movies, along with the rest of pop culture, are not made in a vacuum –Wakanda serves as a metaphor for, and a critique of, modern American society. Utopian fiction in particular is often created as a way to hold a mirror up to the society in which the author lives, and also proposes a critique of the problems he or she sees in it. Black Panther’s vision of Wakanda creates a colonization-free narrative for black empowerment, one that serves as a model for what America, with its affluence and power, might continually strive towards—such is the nature and purpose of all utopia. This premise then actively avoids a white savior narrative as it makes its point, calling attention to the harm and dangers of ignoring persistent social inequality. Using this frame, Black Panther can give its audience some much needed perspective as it poses its central question: Is it right or wrong that some should have so much while others suffer so greatly? Is this inequality justifiable? Ethical?
The conclusion of Black Panther answers: no, it is neither justifiable nor ethical. As T’Challa and the rest of the Wakandans are forced to reckon with the fallout of their elite utopia, they conclude that the continued suffering of those without their wealth and technology falls squarely on their shoulders. In the end, they move to make amends through the distribution of their resources and technology, especially to those most in need.
As T’Challa tells the world the truth about Wakanda at the end of the movie, he drives home one of the main themes: the “illusions of division.” He says, “More connects us than separates us…We must find a way to look after one another as if we were one, single tribe” (Black Panther).
So, what critiques of our society has Black Panther made? Certainly, that there is unnecessary, unjust inequality. It points out the institutional racism in America, with black communities “overly policed and incarcerated” (Black Panther). But beyond that, Black Panther asks its audience to consider the true nature of separation and difference, and reminds us that the distances between races, classes, and even nations are man-made, not natural. It reminds the viewer that, just as the children of Wakanda were not inherently better than the children of the ghettos, those with resources in America are not necessarily more deserving of them than those without. After the credits have rolled and the bonus scene has played, what Black Panther then asks us to take away is this: the world is our community, and we must play an active part in taking care of each other, especially when that means bridging gaps of chronic inequality.
Black Panther. Directed by Ryan Coogler, performances by Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Andy Serkis, Marvel Studios, 2018.