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I’ve rarely been struck by a superhero film like this. At multiple points watching Black Panther, I found my emotions stirring and could feel my eyes tearing up. Moments in the Captain America films came close, but they still lacked what this movie had in spades.
I don’t want to minimize the racial importance of the film, but as someone who has no personal experience the struggles of American and worldwide Black culture, most of those concerns do not strike me so profoundly. Killmonger does a good job of embodying the righteous anger, tragically devolving into hateful wrath, of a widely oppressed people, but it will only have its greatest effect on those who are personally feeling the struggle. A weakness of the film is in just giving Killmonger this motivation and not seeing him develop into it, and so those like me who do not have the experiential material to easily fill that in are not able to feel it as profoundly.
Devotion to Wakanda, to the Nation
Instead, what really struck me, was the emphasis on self-sacrifice for the community, of recognizing it as a greater good than oneself, and laying down one’s life in service to it. Okoye’s call of “Wakanda Forever!” rings with a truth and honesty that is rarely experienced today. To cry “For the the Republic!” or “For America!” always has a taste of either selfish propaganda or irony.
Now, Wakanda is an idealized setting in the film. We see no inner corruption or struggle (though it would have made the third act all that much stronger). It is assumed that it’s people live in society where technology, infrastructure, bureaucracy, economics, politics and spirituality are carefully structured so as to bring about peace. There is even a strong martial culture which fosters devotion to the throne in its defense of Wakanda’s welfare.
But this isn’t a movie about the corruption of a nation, of dealing with the inner rot. Wakanda is. Period. No qualifier needed. This may make it boring to some, but it allows the nation to be just that. It is the greater-than-I which drives the heroes to their acts. It is a movie about patriotic-piety.
The Virtue of Patriotic-Piety
Patriotism, in traditional virtue ethics, is a species of piety. It is devotion to and respect for one’s fatherland. Our glimpses of Wakandan spirituality are tied up in the ritual around the kingship of Wakanda – ritual combat is constitutive of inheriting the throne, the powers of the Wakandan king (the Black Panther) are granted him by the gift of a goddess, taking the throne entails a mystical experience with one’s ancestors. And the king, of course, is devoted wholeheartedly to Wakanda, to the nation. He is the tangible servant and even icon of the nation.
Wakanda is, again and again, made the greater-than-I which the heroes must serve, an almost divine thing. Thus they practice true piety in sacrificing for it.
Wakanda’s (Wo)Men for All Seasons
Two women, beyond T’Challa himself, come to mind. His sister Shuri and Okoye.
Shuri is the comedic center of the film. It thankfully sidesteps the bathos the other films have leaned on, but she still offers a comedy which humanizes the stoic T’Challa. Little sisters are the same the world over.
However, when the demands of patriotic-piety come to her, she stands up to take them on. She gives herself to prayer, to the struggle for her nation’s heart, and even arms up and puts herself in danger for it. Her comedic personality, which will good-naturedly cut down and humanize T’Challa, bows before the seriousness of this matter. She’s no Rocket Raccoon (of Guardians of the Galaxy) or Korg (of Thor: Ragnarok) that finds the joke by uncutting the moment.
But this living out of piety truly finds its greatest model in Okoye, of “Wakanda Forever!” fame. When confronted with the choice of devotion to a dead king or devotion to Wakanda, now under the leadership of a villain, she elects, painfully, to stay devoted to Wakanda. She is not an ideologue or one who demands to serve only the pure, but is one who serves the community, the nation. It is a Man for All Seasons moment, and only the tropes of superhero movies keeps her from that same end.
Realities, not Ideas
It is important to realize that this greater-than-I is something real and tangible for the heroes. It is Wakanda, this people, this nation. It is these ancestors, these who came before us. It is not some idea – there is no abstract freedom or justice that guides them. The movie even helps this by having a few shots of T’Challa and his entourage among the people of Wakanda. This is what they serve. It is what T’Challa has, in a matter, already died to – becoming Black Panther involves a very real burial and travel to the spirit world.
The importance is made all the more visceral in Killmonger’s tragedy. He has been broken by the horror of the world – of watching his fellows of African descent oppressed throughout the other nations. This has made him a devotee of liberation and of justice, but only as ideas. He speaks of a Wakandan Empire, but he cares not for Wakanda. He subjugates Wakanda and it’s might to an idea. Justice and freedom are goods, but separate their incarnation in a time and place, in a people, they become tyrants. So Killmonger plans to become a tyrant for the sake of justice and freedom.
Wakanda and the World
Perhaps there is a wrinkle in my emphasis. Perhaps I’m ignoring the final developments of T’Challa – the rejection of the errors of his ancestors and the opening of Wakanda to the world.
The rejection of his ancestor’s error, especially that of his father, is by no means a rejection of the ancestors or of Wakanda. If anything, it is a recognition that the ancestors, in their errors, have failed Wakanda. He recognizes that he must serve Wakanda, not some abstract idea of separation-from-the-world.
The world has moved on – the strict protectionism of the past is no longer an option for Wakanda. The choice before them is whether to subjugate the other powers of the world – the path outlined by W’Kabi – or to use the might and power of Wakanda to aid and uplift the world – the path outlined by Nakia. In Killmonger, we see where W’Kabi’s path will end up. In T’Challa’s ultimate decision, we see the fruition of Nakia’s.
But it is still devotion to Wakanda – Wakanda as subjugator on the one hand, or Wakanda as peace-maker on the other. Anyone can guess which wins out.
Some Caveats on the Film
It’s not perfect. The real pathos it could have achieved is cut-down by the business model of needing characters to survive. Seeing a real sacrifice-to-the-death would have strengthened the film immensely – Okoye being a prime candidate as Thomas More to Killmonger’s Henry VIII.
Further, Wakanda could have been made stronger if we saw more development of it’s own people. Getting to know some of the other tribal leaders beyond their visuals would have been nice. Further, by the end of the film, there’re traitors among them and getting to see them as more than idea mouthpieces would have been great, and gave real weight to the final civil war struggle in the third act.
And while Killmonger is probably the strongest of Marvel movie villains, he’s not yet the Joker, Bane, or Ra’s the Marvel films are looking for. He has all the right motivations – a twisted righteous cause – but his scheme is only sketched out and plays second-fiddle to T’Challa’s personal struggles. He doesn’t become the kind of existential threat Batman faces in the Joker, or Daredevil does in the Kingpin, or Kilgrave becomes for Jessica Jones. Closer, but still far off.
Still, as I think I’ve made clear, the movie’s great.
Some Caveats on my Thoughts
My praise of the film’s devotion to the nation, dare I say, the state, may terrify some. My Catholic brethren, especially, may worry I’ve been drinking too much Alt-Right Kool-aid.
Firstly, patriotism, a species of piety, is an especially human virtue. That we’ve sought to throttle it in favor of ideas – freedom, justice – does both damage to those ideas and to our own humanity.
Secondly, it’s a breath of fresh air to see a movie expounding a path out of nihilism and relativism that isn’t individualism. Most attempts to deny our culture’s lack of idealistic aims is some species of nietzscheanism – either of the darker “overcome all barriers” form or the kindlier “follow your heart” sort. Ever since the Revolutions, we’ve given up, at least explicitly, on the old path of self-sacrifice for the greater-than-I – self-sacrifice for family, nation, and God.
Black Panther is by no means a full-throated return to such, but it’s possibly the closest thing that has come to it in popular entertainment. It is unabashed in it’s devotion to family and nation. Even devotion to God, in the deformity of paganism and ancestor-worship, is just below the surface.
For that, it should be celebrated.