I waited for an hour to see Black Panther, wondering why there was no black people to the front policy. My friend beside me was complaining that no black person in their right mind would wait in line to see any movie, a fact corroborated by the whiteness of the line. We were in Silver Lake, Los Angeles, and the only other black person there was pacing the block on his cell phone, every so often side-eying the line, which now indecently stretched around the corner. I was really, really excited, like when I went to Disneyland for the first time (at 28).
I’m a huge superhero movie fan and have been, and sitting so close to the screen, head bolted upright—when I’d mentioned that the line stretched around the corner, I meant because we’d added to it—it felt as though I was a kid in a darkness that crackled watching Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers: The Movie in ’95, which you probably shouldn’t watch now, because it doesn’t hold up. When I was a kid, I wanted to be Kimberly, the Pink Ranger, because nobody wanted to be Ayesha, the Yellow Ranger, who, in an odd stroke of racial incongruence (for the Power Rangers), was black.
Self-hatred, which I acutely felt throughout my childhood and teens, became something I was into exploiting for white discomfort when I’d moved to Los Angeles in my mid-twenties, mad at everybody. Once I framed a performance around asking white men in the audience to read a script of racial epithets I’d written back to me, just to see what would happen. I thought this was what they called mastering your fears. And yet.
There is a scene, close to the beginning of the movie, in which everyone surprises the other by revealing themselves to be Wakandan noblemen and/or royalty. It’s Oakland in ’92, the year of the Los Angeles riots. In a dimly lit, cramped apartment, two black men men are planning to attack the police. The scene does not linger on their motives, not yet—and it’s interesting the way Ryan Coogler, Black Panther’s director, plays with the cinematic tropes formed by the white gaze. It’s a gesture that mirrors the actions of the nation of Wakanda itself, which has also mastered the act of manipulating stereotype. Black men with guns—are they heroes, or villains?
It’s a sign of the movie’s deftness that, even when we see more of the movie, we still do not have the answer. But I am getting ahead of myself.
A man appears in that sleek panther suit, rippling power, revealing himself to be Wakanda’s current King. One of the conspirators reveals himself to be the King’s brother, N’Jobu, a secret agent sent to America but gone rogue. The Prince’s right hand man is actually Zuri, a Wakandan watchdog sent to report on N’Jobu’s activities. There’s a whole lot of unmasking in this scene—of proving one’s ancestral ties, of revealing one’s exceptionalness (gloriously in this film, the two are indistinguishable) through a glowing stamp on the bottom lip.
Superhero movies delight in exposing the folly of mis-identification. There is the simple joy of watching the bullied demonstrate his sudden physical strength at school, the bully incredulous; when the paper pusher plummets down the rabbit hole, proving himself to be more than human. Black Panther multiples this satisfaction infinitesimally, right at the beginning, because those incredulous are the whole world.
The movie returns to this cramped apartment again and again because many things happen there: a father’s love, a sneaking look outside the window, at first glance. Does the audience read this as self-servicing, or protective? We don’t know that N’Jobu has a son as yet; what do we believe instead?–a father’s death, the birth of a villain. However, at the beginning of the movie, when N’Jobu and Zuri and the Dora Milaje, the Wakandan warrior women (“Grace Jones-looking-chicks,” says Zuri, masquerading as just a regular guy), shed the ordinariness of any assumptions about them, merging special and black, I cried for my childhood self with her superheroes who never looked like her. But suddenly she was there again, and with another chance.
I saw Black Panther the weekend it came out, deeply suspicious.
I had tried as much as I possibly could to ignore the Hollywood machine, knowing that it could diminish my estimation of the movie before I’d even seen it. I tried to ignore the cries of this being the black superhero movie we all deserve, cries that seemed either prescription or mandate. I’m not quite sure why I was so irritated. I am generally wary of when black people and well-meaning white people seem to hold the same thing in unmitigated esteem–of knowing I’ll have to do the work of disentangling my criticism of the work with annoyance at the inflexible expectation of how I should feel about it.
I’m also aware of my difference, as a person who is black but from Trinidad and Tobago, and of things like faked accents pissing me off (especially when, traditionally, it has been so hard for my people to make it in Hollywood). Somehow, even to my black American friends, that feeling of being culturally disregarded is difficult to translate.
At an early age, I was able to grasp the difference in the way the world assigned importance to my country’s brand of blackness. I’d watch from home as musician friends, for instance, struggled to make it overseas, and then become decidedly bitter when it seemed that Rihanna’s breakthrough required an adoption of sound and slang that seemed more Jamaican than anything I’d experienced coming out of Barbados (in the Caribbean, as in Africa, these national and cultural distinctions matter).
It is interesting the way whiteness breaks all of us in two, the fact that it has taken me a long time to hold the right people responsible.
Black Panther is beautiful because of its unprecedented willingness to devote itself to Afro-diasporic concerns. I was wrong about the risk of it being flattened. The white characters in the movie, whose presence is minimal and uninteresting—largely serve to hinge it to other movies in the Marvel/Avengers universe, which I suppose tells you something about them.
Its cast reflects the diaspora, too, with roots in Zimbabwe, England, by way of Uganda, Kenya, the US, and multiple places in the Caribbean. M’baku, leader of a rival Wakandan tribe, is actually from my home country, resulting in the creation of memes that say things like, “Of course the Jabari tribe is late.”
The gist of the story, if you’ve somehow not seen it yet, is this. Wakanda is a nation in eastern Africa. The rest of the world thinks it is another poor African country, which it uses to protect its deposit of vibranium, the coolest fictional metal since adamantium, and infinitely stronger. Wakanda is a vibrant, breathtaking techno-utopia.
Unlike the rulers of my own black/brown nation, one of the wealthiest in the Caribbean due to its reserves of oil and natural gas, Wakanda’s government seems to be managing and mining its resource with the ultimate care for its own in mind; the Wakandan people seem generally happy and cared for. Its culture–the result of the meticulous work of Hannah Beachler, its production designer, and Ruth Carter, who designed the costumes–is rich, varied, and proudly expressed. Ryan Coogler, who directed the film, as well as the cast, have stated multiple times that Black Panther represents an uncolonized alternate reality.
And it does seem that way. At least, until Killmonger arrives.
This isn’t entirely true. The ugly side of Wakanda’s isolationism is fully expressed by W’Kabi, T’Challa’s best friend, who is wary about refugees entering Wakanda and–I am paraphrasing–“bringing their problems with them.” I considered that for a second, the ways in which the word “refugee” is used in the film, while “immigrant” is not, and I let it go until I couldn’t. Erik Killmonger wouldn’t let me.
Killmonger is the prodigal Wakandan prince, son of N’Jobu, born in Oakland. In the ensuing scuffle resulting from that cramped room in ’92, Erik’s father dies, killed by his own brother. Killmonger has had to claw (pardon) his way back to his homeland by creating his own narrative of exception—MIT-educated, formerly special ops. Killmonger’s challenge to the throne is emotional, political, and cultural. He upends T’Challa’s esteem for his father. He tests the elders’ notions of respectability by showing up to the throne room shirtless. There is that “Hello, Auntie,” line. There is the turn the music takes when he takes over Wakanda.
Fears of immigration are also cultural fears. It’s what drove the white working class to vote for Trump—the question of what will happen to way of life. In Trinidad and Tobago, the concern over black and brown immigrants, despite its own brownness, is palpable; there are familiar narratives linking Jamaicans to crime, South Americans to prostitution—cultural fears that have worsened with the Venezuelan refugee crisis. I thought of the integrity of Wakanda’s cultural might, as displayed in its polished aesthetics. How would Wakandans feel if other cultures entered and settled? If a lack of colonization results in an unfettered ability to increase wealth (though I am still not sure what wealth means in Wakanda and to a nation which seems to trade with no-one), to develop civilization and accrue power, at what point in time does human nature, with its suspicion, desire, and fecklessness take over? Watching it, I felt all the discomfort of coming full circle.
I understood, through the repeated reference to Killmonger as “outsider,” despite being a literal cousin, despite winning the country’s only legitimate challenge to the throne, that Wakanda was neither the Afrofuture we deserved nor imagined. It was right now, in my parents’ fear of America radicalizing me, of my father’s repeated warnings to ignore race talk, in my grandmothers questioning why American black people “sound that way.”
I’ve been told (by some white people, actually), that this is the point of the movie, to reveal the ways in which black people are driven apart by misplaced contempt for each other. I agree that this is the case. But I do not agree with the ways the movie seeks to resolve this contempt. I wonder about the inextricable link between Killmonger’s villainy and his status as foreigner. I wonder if his dying line about slave ships (“Throw me in the ocean with my ancestors that jumped off the slave ships, because they knew death was better than bondage”), his joyriding, and the more bombastic details of his past serve as a kind of smokescreen to explain away his bloodlust, especially to white audiences. I wonder how we would have seen him if he more calculated, if his motives were better articulated. I wonder, all the time and in frustration, about the missing link between all black people and violence, of what collectively stops us from seeing it as justifiable. I wonder about the happy endings Disney movies must have, and whether the building of a community centre was supposed to be one. I wonder about the convenience of foreign aid, the way it helps keep a healthy distance. At the end of the movie, neither Killmonger nor Wakanda redeem themselves for me, but I wish one of those characters was given a better chance to do so.
I’m still unsure as to whether my criticism of Black Panther is a criticism of the movie or of the overwhelming need to see Wakanda as wish fulfillment. It is difficult to disentangle the two when the movie is a clear achievement for black cinema, when it has become so close to black people everywhere, embedding itself into our social and cultural lives. I felt relationships tense when I told people I couldn’t get down with movie, that the feeling of discomfort I’d experienced at the end of the movie was too palpable to be ignored.
Is Black Panther–or any piece of black art–allowed to mean different things to different kinds of black people? When I watched the movie I wanted to celebrate it, but another part of me felt my outsiderness affirmed by yet another nation’s inability to deal with the problem of migration. Must a collective desire for representation supersede all other considerations? Or can black people disagree–like T’Challa and Killmonger–without a silencing of one of those sides?
Amanda Choo Quan is a Trinidadian-Jamaican writer, performer, and cultural investigator currently based in Los Angeles. She is a graduate of the University of the West Indies, Mona, where she earned the Brodber-Pollard prize, and of CalArts’ MFA in Creative Writing, where she was a Truman Capote Fellow. She has attended Callaloo and Cropper Foundation workshops, the Juniper Summer Institute, and the Scottish Universities Summer International School. She was most recently awarded a REEF/CalArts residency. Her work can be seen in Callaloo or on various stages across LA. She enjoys writing about displacement, intimacy, and evil.