It’s already been said many times, but Black Panther is good. Really good. The film lives up to action genre expectations with nail biter fight scenes and fulfills superhero tropes with a science fiction angle and some cool ass costumes. By bringing the thrills, the sexy (seriously, everyone in the film looks like a sweet and savory snack), and the comedic relief, Black Panther has universal appeal, evident by the rave reviews and 98% score in Rotten Tomatoes.
But make no mistake about it: Black Panther is very, very Black. With its technological advances, tribal monarchy, and long-term sustenance, Wakanda and its leaders are archetypes for Black excellence. For all of its mainstream greatness, director Ryan Coogler has successfully made a superhero motion picture that is firmly rooted in Black culture. And spoiler alert: the core message of the film is not a unifying cry against white supremacy, but instead a necessary appeal to Black communities to reconsider our own internal prejudices against one another. The fictional land of Wakanda and the conflicts that threaten to overtake it in Black Panther are made for us, by us.
Wakanda is what romanticized dreams of Africa's past and future are made of. Bright patterns and bold prints are the uniform. Unsoiled by the brutally grubby hands of colonization, it is the birthplace of all humanity and the keeper of Earth's most precious secret: Vibranium. This metal, bestowed upon Wakanda by alien forces at the dawn of civilization, has allowed them to thrive on technology yet unknown to the rest of civilization. They've used the powers of Vibranium to hide themselves from the rest of the world, allowing Wakanda to be perceived as a sovereign, third world country. Even better than their scientific innovations, however, is a blessing by the Panther god that grants their leaders superhuman strength. Once Wakanda's supernatural version of a coronation is complete, the ruler becomes the Black Panther. Following the untimely death of his father, it's T'Challa's (Chadwick Boseman) turn to assume that mantle. At first it's business as usual: going after singular threats like a one armed villain who seeks to exploit Wakanda and its Vibranium supply. But the stakes are suddenly higher when a foreigner who looks like them, Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), infiltrates their land and challenges T'Challa's place on the throne — and Wakanda's practice of avoiding Black people elsewhere in the world.
Variety’s review of the film, written by Peter Debruge, a white man (that’s an important detail, I promise), takes care to note the internal turmoil set up in Wakanda: “Coogler revives the age-old debate between Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X — between passive resistance and the call for militant black activism. Think of it as ‘Black Panther vs. the Black Panthers.’” Half of Debruge's assessment is dead on. Erik enters Wakanda looking and speaking every bit like Huey P. Newton’s 20-something hip-hop love child, insisting that his people fight anti-Black violence around the world with more violence. As a Black woman, it’s hard not to agree with his cause.
“At its core, Black Panther is not a musing on the best method against universal racism. It is a mirror up to the fractures within our community.”
As well-informed and intentioned as it was, however, I disagree with the other half of Debruge’s metaphor. The response from T’Challa and his people to Erik's calls for action wasn’t a counterplea for peaceful resistance; it was indifference. As they sat, protected and prospering, the elders of Wakanda washed their hands of the plight of Black people in rest of the world, while refusing to accept Erik as one of their own. T'Challa's unwillingness to risk the safety of his own people for the sake of other Black people he felt they had no ties to was a strategy handed down to him by ancestors who took a similar position. At its core, Black Panther is not a musing on the best method against universal racism. It is a mirror up to the fractures within our community, calling notions of Black representation and identity into question while interrogating how Black excellence can sometimes fail us.
Black excellence has become a bit of a buzzword for all of the right reasons. Across all mediums, Black people are pushing back on representations of ourselves as dangerous, uncivilized, and useless to the fabric of this country. From television and film to journalism and education, we have taken up the call of Black excellence to uplift and celebrate the accomplishments, contributions, and talents of our own. It’s a tradition that by no means started with the advent of the internet. It is part of our family legacies, the mission of many of the organizations that serve our communities, and a barometer of personal success.
However, there are subgroups of Black people who use the concept of Black excellence to enact Black elitism. My family members call them bougie. On Black Twitter, they’re called ‘blavity Blacks.’ They represent a population of Black people who have either achieved or inherited a wealthy, or at least upper middle class position. They attend prestigious HBCUs or Ivy League schools, become members of historically Black fraternities and sororities, and involve their kids in Jack and Jill, an invite-only social organization for mothers with children. For this uniquely positioned group-within-a-group, these organizations and institutions are just as much about creating a space where their Blackness is affirmed and prioritized as it is about keeping other Black folks — those who are less educated and/or from the middle and working class — out. And just like Wakandan history, Black elitism runs deep and stings in its militancy.
A 2014 piece in New York Magazine profiling the racial segregation amongst the wealthy white and Black populations on Martha’s Vineyard ahead of a visit from the Obamas is a prime example of just how tight the circles of the Black elite are kept. Identified only as part of the Vineyard’s “high black society,” one resident noted that Obama had not expressed much interest in “affluent black people.” They went on, “His wife definitely doesn’t; she is basically a ghetto girl. That’s what she says — I’m just being sociological. She grew up in the same place Jennifer Hudson did. She hasn’t reached out to the social community of Washington, and people are waiting to see what they’ll do about that.” The message here is clear: two law degrees and a presidency be damned, the Obamas are not “one of us.”
In Black Panther, this was the final ruling on Erik by Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) when he demanded a shot at the throne and the chance to be the new Black Panther. There was one problem with Erik's interest in the throne: He was not one of them. Except, as it turns out (spoiler alert!): By blood, he was. Erik didn’t grow up under the comforts of Wakanda, but instead worked hard to escape his difficult childhood in Oakland. Along the way, he learned enough about Wakanda and the rest of the world to call the country out for leaving far too many people behind. In the end, Black Panther begs the question: What good is all of that access to wealth, education, and technology if it isn’t being used to help those without it?
It’s imperative to acknowledge that the blurred lines between Black excellence and elitism do not negate the presence of racism that inserts itself at every level in America. Black Greek letter organizations were formed in the early 1900s during a time where white fraternities and sororities refused to admit people of color. Jack and Jill offers a sense of community for Black kids who are the only ones who look like them at school and in their neighborhoods. HBCUs have become safe breeding grounds for the Black and wealthy because they are the only ones who can afford to attend them amid meager federal funding opportunities for these institutions. One way or another, white supremacy will try to win out, a fact that Erik was very much in touch with.
The beauty of Black Panther, however, is that it offers a more layered alternative to the monolithic representations of Blackness we typically see in films. The movie comes with an unspoken awareness that the struggles of Black people are not all the same. There’s something for everyone. It’s a movie for your brother that just got out of jail and your bougie aunt that graduated from an HBCU. You parents are going to use it as an excuse to demand even more excellence from you, and your friends are going to swear that every other scene is squad goals. The strength of Black Panther is ultimately the same thing that will strengthen African American communities. It's an entry point for Black people from every walk of life, not just the ones who’ve “made it.”