Black Panther: Some initial thoughts

Black_Panther_PosterJust back from watching Black Panther with family. One of the few films I’ve been to where audience members cheered and clapped at the end of the film, and some stood to applaud.

At one level, the film follows the standard trajectory for a Western hero movie sketched by Robert Jewett and John Shelton Lawrence in their book “The American Monomyth“:

A community in a harmonious paradise is threatened by evil; normal institutions fail to contend with this threat; a selfless superhero emerges to renounce temptations and carry out the redemptive task; aided by fate, his decisive victory restores the community to its paradisiacal condition; the superhero then recedes into obscurity.

In this scenario T’Chaka (Black Panther) falls into the role of the saviour/redeemer, and the film “plays by the rules” in terms of pacing, points of crisis, and redemption of various characters, and the overcoming of evil doers. It even has the hero leaving a legacy of hope.

But while I was watching, and observing the audience at the end of the film, I was struck by a number of initial thoughts. Firstly, while the movie ‘plays by the rules’ (and so ensures financial success and continuity with the Marvel cinematic universe), it also subverts the status quo in a number of ways. The majority of the cast are non-white, and the film has some quite blunt polical and post-colonial themes running through it. Perhaps its appeal to the majority of the audience in the cinema was an action film with African heroes in a decided non-Western setting – even when the action moves for a while from the Wakandan setting it’s set within a Korean context, rather than New York or London. America and the West become a place in need of redemption rather than the source of redemption.

It reminded me of this quote from African-American theologian, James Cone, on the importance for black people to view Jesus as black:

It’s very important because you’ve got a lot of white images of Christ. In reality, Christ was not white, not European. That’s important to the psychic and to the spiritual consciousness of black people who live in a ghetto and in a white society in which their lord and savior looks just like people who victimize them. God is whatever color God needs to be in order to let people know they’re not nobodies, they’re somebodies.

James H. Cone, interviewed by Barbara Reynolds, USA Today, 8 November 1989, 11A.

The other thing that came to mind were some of the reflections on the Whale Rider film, and in particular, whether the character of Paikea represented a redeemer figure in continuity with Western Christianity or one that challenged Western colonialism.

But the polymythic Christ-figure narrative in Whale Rider can be read another way—as validating Maori tradition over against Christianity. The customary way to read a Christ-figure narrative is as an overlaying of a Christological framework onto a story otherwise unrelated to Christianity, thus transforming the story into a Christian parable. Such a reading of Whale Rider would bring us back to the charge of cultural imperialism, as if my intention were to displace the Maori traditions portrayed in the film and treat the story as a parable of a truer and higher spiritual reality. But the portrayal of Pai as a Christ-figure may be read alternatively as a subversion of colonial religion. In portraying Pai as a Christ-figure, the film could be saying in effect, on behalf of Maori people, “We don’t need the white man’s Jesus—we are capable of producing our own Maori saviors.”

Fillingim, David (2016) “When Jesus was a Girl: Polymythic Female Christ Figures in Whale Rider and Steel Magnolias,” Journal of Religion & Film: Vol. 14: Iss. 1, Article 8.

At a personal level, I enjoyed the film and the character of T’Chaka. It generated some good talking points and ticked the boxes for a superhero film. I hope that some of the depth in this film won’t now be thrown under the bus when the characters come back in future Marvel films.

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