The newest Marvel film Black Panther explores a wider world of technology and ancient history in the MCU. However, there is no denying the underlying social commentary on the contemporary state of Black communities in America and throughout the world.
Most Marvel fans will go and watch Black Panther for the awesome action scenes and jaw-dropping special effects. But writers Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole have used this platform to spread an important message.
If you watch closely enough, you will see two stories being told. One tale is of T’Challa the succeeding King of Wakanda. The other is the untold narrative of the current state of affairs in America and the stagnant progress of human liberties.
You may be thinking, that’s a lot to put in a Disney film for families, right? And that’s where the brilliance comes into play. While the message is there loud and clear, it is by no means in the spotlight. So how is this story told?
The all important starting flashback.
Black Panther’s opening scene serves two important purposes. The first is to set up some of the film’s vital characters and a pivotal moment they shared in their lives. The second is to ‘timestamp’ the film. 1992. This date is important. And that’s not just because of the events that took place. It also functions as a magnifier of how much has changed – or rather, hasn’t changed – in 25 years.
The events that take place create the villain of our film, Erik Killmonger. His story, when you strip it to the bone, is all too real for many young Black Americans. Erik grows up in a country where incarceration rates can be more than 5 times higher for the Black population of America compared to the white population. African-Americans are also three times more likely to be killed by police than white people. Erik has seen the violence and death from the perspective of a kid living in the slums.
The role of Wakanda and what it represents.
A powerful nation with advanced technology and state of the art weapons. Many riches, resources and enough power to change the world. But am I talking about Wakanda or the USA?
See, like America, Wakanda possesses the resources to help people. Be it refugees, the poor, the hungry, or a combination of all of these. The unbalanced scale of wealth however has the rich living in luxury and the poor trapped in quicksand.
Ryan Coogler describes the film’s central theme as responsibility and identity. He then states, “What do the powerful owe those in need? It separates the good-guys from the villains. What value is strength unless you’re using it to help someone? Wakanda pretends to be just another struggling African country, but some of its neighbours are struggling for real. If Wakandans don’t stand up for themselves, who will? But if they stand only for themselves, then who are they?”
That last line is key: “If they stand only for themselves, who are they?” Erik Killmonger wants to use his newfound power of The Black Panther to take the power back for his people across the world. (Perhaps referencing the Black Panther Party of the late 60s, for which some people incorrectly thought the comic character was named after).
The message is there if you choose to see it.
While Black Panther may be a Disney Marvel film it sends an important message to open your eyes and see what is happening around you. Refugees, injustices happening to African-Americans – it’s all there.
While the music and culture changes from one cousin to another, the same underlying issue is present. What is their identity and what is it they need to be standing for.