The Hidden Messages in 'Black Panther'
A Deeper Meaning
This article was originally posted on the Progressive Army website.
Hidden within the beautiful world of Wakanda, as visualized in the groundbreaking blockbuster 'Black Panther,' are deep and thought-provoking messages that will take months to unravel. Black Panther is a movie with a lot to say, but I think there are several aspects of the film that have flown under the radar.
The Relationship Between Africans and African-Americans
The two main villains in the film are Ulysses Klaue and Erik Killmonger. The former represents colonial imperialism and the literal robbing of African resources. The latter is symbolic of African-Americans and the justifiable outrage many of us have over being abused in America. However, Killmonger is also representative of how African-Americans, while hating the system of white supremacy that oppresses us, can be molded by said system and be used as a weapon against people from our ancestral homeland. People who look like us and share our blood.
Let us not forget that Killmonger is a product of U.S. imperialism due to his CIA training. He got his nickname because of all of the people he had killed in the name of American foreign policy. So Killmonger's takeover of Wakanda, his usurping of the throne, is highly symbolic of America's foreign infiltration of independent African nations in an effort to destabilize them. This destabilization of Wakanda would've certainly happened had Killmonger been successful in arming the world with high-tech weapons.
So as much as Killmonger may have thought inside his own mind that he was helping Wakanda and helping blacks of the diaspora, he would've done far more harm than good and Wakandans would've paid the greatest price.
The Rage of Erik Killmonger
Killmonger also represents the misplaced anger a young black male feels when he's raised without a father-figure in his life. Killmonger's anger, while justified in many ways, would not have been there had he not lost his father. When we see Killmonger travel into the spirit realm to speak with his dead father, we realize how radically different his life would've been had this father not been murdered by T'Chaka. However, his father bears some of the blame. Why did he have his son in America to begin with? Why not leave him in Wakanda? If you're in America arming black people (that is the underlying message of his agenda), why would you put your son in that environment?
I don't think it's an accident that Director Ryan Coogler chose 1992 Oakland to set the stage at the beginning of the movie. Oakland was a powder keg that year and '92 was the same year of the Rodney King riots. This is the context by which Killmonger was raised without a father. He was raised in a city going through a violent, turbulent time when police brutality was heavy and gang warfare was at a high point.
Lastly, there's a deep message about self-hatred within the African-American community that I cannot allow to go unmentioned. Killmonger was of Wakandan blood but didn't see himself as of Wakanda. Not really. He was more like the "colonizers" than he was a Wakandan. This is why, despite all of the positive stories his father told him of his homeland, the first thing he did when he got there was subvert them. Killmonger not only hated that his father was murdered and he was left behind (he was right to be heated about that) but he also deep down inside hated Wakanda itself. Killmonger mentions in the movie about how he learned to kill in other countries just to prepare himself for his eventual return home. His entire mental state when it came to his own people was highly antagonistic from the very beginning.
Wakanda as a Pre-Colonial African Utopia
Marvel's 'Black Panther' is a movie written with an African diasporan audience in mind (specifically I'd imagine the U.S. and U.K.). Originally created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, Ryan Coogler brings us a civilization straight out of the pages of Afrocentric history. Even though Lee and Kirby created the character and his nation originally in 1966, most of the modern influences for the film come from black writers such as Christopher Priest, Reginald Hudlin, and Ta-Nehesi Coates.
People say Killmonger represents African-Americans and I agree, but so does T'Challa. Not because we can sympathize with a royal character more than a character from the streets of America like Killmonger. T'Challa is the African-American (and black diasporan) vision of who and what we were before slavery. He's representative of the chivalrous spirit of the black American man who calls his woman his 'Queen.'
Despite the fact that Killmonger has a lot of hate for Wakanda, the deeper message is that Killmonger, the African-American, comes from greatness. Killmonger, the African-American, is descendant of royalty and can make claim to a great African civilization. It's important to note that Killmonger and T'Challa are cousins, which is not how their relationship was represented in the comics. Coogler and Co. went in that direction in the film for a reason.
Another aspect of the utopianism of Wakanda can be seen in the control of their own resources. Wakanda is a fictional reflection of how great African nations could have been, and could still be, were their resources not constantly taken from the continent to benefit people who are not from the continent. This is why in many ways, Wakanda's isolationism can't be viewed as a negative. I touch on that down below.
Wakanda's Isolationism and its Impact on the African diaspora.
The isolationist tendencies of Wakanda have been criticized because we view this from the POV of a nation like America, dominated by White men, that never would have had to face the global treachery that an African nation like Wakanda would've had to face. No nation dominated by Whites ever had to deal with colonialism. None of these nations had to deal with slavery. They were, in fact, the chief benefactors of both.
Wakandan isolationism has to be viewed in the context of all of those factors. Could they have defended themselves against one of these nations alone by themselves? I'd imagine from a fictional comic perspective, definitely yes. Could they have defended themselves from every global power in the world for hundreds of years? Even with vibranium, that is much harder to ascertain.
At the beginning of this article, I mentioned the lesser villain Ulysses Klaue. The creators missed an opportunity to delve into his representation of colonial thievery on the continent. Our first interaction with Klaue and Killmonger occurs at a London museum where Killmonger looks upon the scores of items that represents stolen African legacies. Killmonger even mentions this before the Curator falls to her death from a poisoned drink.
I don't blame the creators as much as I do the format. There's only but so much story one can tell in a little over 2 hours. Netflix has spoiled us definitely. But this too makes me sympathetic about Wakanda's isolationism. They didn't isolate themselves because they hated other groups of people, so can we please stop with the Donald Trump references? They isolated themselves as a way to protect themselves from the so-called "colonizers." What happened over time is they got lost in their isolation. They became attached to it, to the detriment of other groups of oppressed people who could've used their help. This is the source of Killmonger's dislike of Wakandans and why his father was overseas in America in Oakland during one of the city's most turbulent periods in the '90s.
However, whereas you might expect Klaue to be the one trying to steal vibranium out of the country - it's actually Killmonger we see trying as hard as he can to smuggle weapons abroad.
The Metaphysics of T'Challa and Killmonger
Both Killmonger and T'Challa are right - in their own way. Killmonger is chaos, T'Challa is order. Killmonger is the rage of black America, T'Challa is the harmonious calm and love of tradition in black America where nothing seems to hurt us no matter how hard people try to. Killmonger is who we are at times, T'Challa is who we'd like to be. If there was ever a metaphysical Taoist representation of the yin and yang in the MCU, it's clearly Killmonger and T'Challa. They represent the dualities of light and dark, fire and water, hot and cold, etc.
T'Challa, in my opinion, is actually representative of the feminine principle of Yin. He is compassionate, caring and leads a cloaked and hidden civilization. All elements of so-called "yin energy."
Killmonger, on the other hand, is definitely representative of the masculine principle of Yang - in that he is aggressive and dominant. Instead of being concealed and hidden to the world, Killmonger is open to the world. He is of the world.
Yin and Yang, when combined together, is thought to bring about balance in nature. You can't be balanced without both the feminine and masculine principles of which T'Challa and Killmonger represent. It is only after their interactions that change occurs when we see in the first post-credit scene, T'Challa opening himself up to the world because he now has some of Killmonger's "yang energy" inside of him. He's been influenced by Killmonger.
You can also see this duality in the fact that Killmonger somehow got ahold of his own Panther-style suit. So we literally see two Panthers fighting each other at the end of the movie, both representing the Panther duality. Killmonger's color is gold (the Sun is associated with Yang so that fits perfectly), while T'Challa's color is purple-blue (the Moon is associated with Yin so that also fits).
The Progressive Role of Women in Wakandan Society
In Wakanda, women are very much in positions of dominance and leadership. So much so that in the comics, Shuri becomes the Black Panther and rules as Queen in the short-lived Volume 5. An argument can be made that without his panther suit and the essence of the heart-shaped herb, Okoye of the Dora Milaje could beat T'Challa in combat.
Don't let the Kingship fool you, Wakanda is easily one of the most socially-liberal nations in the Marvel Comic Universe. In the new volume written by Ta-Nehesi Coates, we see women portrayed as saviors and as leaders of legions of men. We see a society that allows women to freely choose their loved ones. Women (like Aneka and Ayo) who are so powerful that they can defy the throne of the Black Panther, steal the most advanced tech in the country, and start a revolution among women. The only one who can bring them back is a reborn Queen Shuri herself, not T'Challa.
In the movie, at no point do we see T'Challa commanding women to do anything. They sit as equals at the table of power when it comes to making decisions in the nation. T'Challa comes to the point of almost begging Nakia to return home and it's clear that she doesn't have to if she doesn't want to. We see Shuri giving T'Challa the middle finger, not in a hateful way, but a playful way. However, again it displays the freedom of women in this society to say "f*ck the King" if they want to. We see women holding their own in combat and not needing men to come to their defense. To the point where Okoye tells W'Kabi that she will kill him to protect Wakanda...and who seriously thinks she would've lost that fight?
In Wakanda, men don't control women and probably couldn't even if they wanted to. So don't call Wakanda a patriarchy. Let's not forget about Ramonda who literally carries the title of Queen Mother. She is the most revered and respected person in Wakanda outside of T'Challa himself.
There are likely things I am still missing and not including in this article. I will likely discover more "hidden messages" in the movie with further viewings.