The Marvel Decade: Black Panther

Angelique Smith works in marketing and regularly writes for Windy City Times in Chicago and Frameline Film Festival in San Francisco. She’s a Marvel girl all the way, but will entertain a good Flash movie if they make one. Find more of her work at https://www.clippings.me/angeliquesmith

 

“We are home.”

 

Black Panther pounced right down in the middle of Black History Month like a reprieve and a salve for my daily wounds of being a trifecta of marginalization in America: black, gay and a woman.

I didn’t know how much I needed it.

I chose to see it on the southside of Chicago the first night it was out, surrounded by people that look like me. I bought tickets for my mom and my aunts. I donated money to various elementary schools so more kids would be able to see it, too. I reveled in the camaraderie, the opening night attire, the over-the-top-ness that we, quite frankly, deserve.

It’s two months later and I have yet to stop saying, “Black Panther is out and y’all can’t tell me shit” in response to pretty much any topic not related to the actual film.

To be clear: You couldn’t tell me shit before then, either, but that’s not the point.

When asked to write this piece, I found it hard to think about what I would want to focus on when it comes to what Black Panther means to me. Do I talk about the importance of positive representation? Both behind and in front of the camera, people of color, women and those in the LGBTQ community remain grossly invisible and are often plagued by stereotypes. Mired in tragedy. Relegated to one-note sidekicks. When we are visible, black representation tends to skew in lighter skin tones. The films that do feature women can’t pass the Bechdel test. Gay folks die, like, So. Much.

Do I talk about how much I love Marvel and superhero films in general, and then focus on the fact that we very rarely get to see ourselves as heroes? When I buy baby shower gifts for friends of color, finding black or brown superhero baby stuff is akin to finding a unicorn.

Do I talk about how this film makes me feel strong and steady in a country where I am denied knowledge of my roots? The feeling of belonging, pride and honor that fed a longing I didn’t think I had? The unexpected chest swell I experienced at the sight of all of those different tribes represented alongside Warrior Falls? It took my breath away.

Is this what white dudes feel like every day? Validation is a hell of a drug.

Do I devote the entire piece to “black don’t crack”? Surely, Angela Bassett’s ageless beauty is worthy of at least 1,200 words? Chadwick Boseman’s presence — and swagger — as King T’Challa? The utter fierceness of the Dora Milaje? Sterling K. Brown just doing whatever because he’s a national treasure? The straight up regality of every scene, every costume, every stance?

Do I talk about Shuri’s ease with taking (debatably) good guys down a notch, from calling Everett Ross a “colonizer” to Bucky being “another broken white boy”? How I think Shuri puts Tony Stark’s genius to shame? Fight me on it.

Or do I offer the criticism that, as a reader of World of Wakanda, I’d hoped that Ayo’s lesbian love story would somehow be acknowledged? And how I toggle between chastising myself for expecting too much and fighting against the notion that progress has to be slow. It doesn’t.

Do I talk about the gratification I feel when I see Black Panther’s box office numbers and its overall record-breaking momentum? Do I talk about the trolls who didn’t want to see this movie succeed, who wanted to take over the Rotten Tomatoes score, to push out false narratives about being beaten up at the screenings, who felt so very threatened by just not seeing themselves on the big screen for once? Those who pooh-pooh “identity politics” while viewing absolutely everything through the myopic lens of their own identity — an identity they’ve been able to keep in a nation that regularly strips it from others?

Those. Who. Just. Didn’t. Want. To. Let. Us. Have. It.

Let’s not bother talking about them.

But can you imagine how refreshing it is to not have to see another white savior in a film about people of color, save for the minor blips of the “Tolkien” white guys? (Not my joke; still funny.)

Black Panther is political in a way I never expected a Marvel movie to be and washes away the bitter taste of respectability politics that Netflix’s Luke Cage left in my mouth. T’Challa is shown as a character changing course with the times and the current sociopolitical environment … and, really, it’s about time. The film tackles the flaw of assumptions made through underestimations on various levels, doesn’t shy away from confronting colonization (Boseman made a deliberate choice to avoid a British influence on his accent), and challenges the world’s distorted view of “third world” countries and the contributions of those nations’ inhabitants.

This film comes at a time when people somehow don’t know that Africa is a continent, comprised of over 50 countries with their own laws, dialects, landscapes, traditions and rhythms. A time when we have people-in-power-who-shall-not-be-named pushing the idea that some of these nations are shitholes without ever acknowledging how, among other atrocities, the theft of real precious resources, analogous to the fictional Vibranium, plays a role in the current state of said countries. A time when there is an absolute dearth of knowledge the average Joe has about the reality of life in Africa.

Director Ryan Coogler gifted to us a fantastical world based on Africa’s diverse topography, from snowy mountains to lush rainforests and grasslands, and set to a soundtrack that includes Pulitzer Prize-winning Kendrick Lamar and rapper 2 Chainz. But we’re also treated to a score featuring Senegalese singer Baaba Maal and scenes tinged with tambins and punctuated by talking drums.

The fashion of the film is majestic, like colors and patterns were invented just for us. Modern spins on ancient tribes — lip plates, red ocher body paint and stacked neck rings mixed with 3D-printed pieces, bespoke style and looks inspired by Afropunk.

There is so much reverence shown to upholding and understanding the importance of tradition and sacrosanct rites of passage in the face of Wakanda’s technological advances. Afrofuturism, for goodness’ sake, is showcased in a major motion picture; that’s important to note, especially because some visions of the future in film “forget” to include us, as do some convenient retellings of the past.

And there is so much symbolism, particularly for me, when two Black Panthers fought at the end — both products of their environments, a visual representation of the pros and cons of isolationism, shared and differing experiences between Africans and African-Americans, a fight between well-behaved elitism and black liberation by whatever means necessary. The rage and the pain that emanates from Killmonger? Black folks get that. The need to present your best self to outsiders watching while also hiding what you truly have to offer for fear of exploitation, appropriation and depredation? Black folks get that, too.

On the opening night of Black Panther, when my Lyft driver, also African-American, picked me up in front of the theater, the first thing he said was, “How was it?” as though even in a theater showing numerous other movies, he could easily assume Black Panther was all I could have seen. He talked about growing up reading the comics and how he was going to see it on his first day off.

Black Panther is so much more than a film for me, but not just for me. There’s a comfort and truth I’ve gotten from interactions with complete strangers, knowing — without having to say — that through this film we share a unified feeling of finally being home. And it never gets old.

Wakanda forever.

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And with this, “The Marvel Decade” comes to a close, as we look forward to the release of Avengers: Infinity War this week. We hope you’ve enjoyed each entry from a different writer — some familiar to readers of the site and some fresh faces handpicked by members of the group. Each writer chose a Marvel movie that inspired insights or personal connections that they highlighted in their piece.

The MCU is a franchise that’s popular largely because of what it means to so many people, and that’s something we aimed to capture with “The Marvel Decade.” 

If this happens to be the first “Marvel Decade” essay you’ve read, please check out the rest of the essays — linked below in order of when they were posted.

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“THE MARVEL DECADE” IN FULL

 

Iron Man (2008) — Evan Dossey

The Incredible Hulk (2008) — Nick Rogers

Iron Man 2 (2010) — Joe Shearer

Thor (2011) — Aly Caviness

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) — Sy Stiner

The Avengers (2012) — Craig McQuinn

Iron Man 3 (2013) — Rachael Derrick

Thor: The Dark World (2013) — Will Norris

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) — Salem

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) — Mitch Ringenberg

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) — Daniel Fidler & Evan Dossey

Ant-Man (2015) — Jeremy Cahnmann

Captain America: Civil War (2016) — John Derrick

Doctor Strange (2016)  Joel “Con” Connell

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017) — Dave Gutierrez

Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) — Sam Watermeier

Thor: Ragnarok (2017) — Heather Knight

Black Panther (2018) — Angelique Smith



Guest Writer


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