Through my multiple viewings of Black Panther (four so far), I become aware of certain traits of the characters, their ideals and how the actors’ portrayals of them shed light on the struggles that black people and the world at large experience with tradition vs. technology, and other dichotomies.
They stand out to me because it illustrates that Black Panther—i.e., T’Challa himself—is contending with a double consciousness, which is not unfamiliar when it comes to blackness. While it’s great to have discussions on how important the film is to the African Diaspora and even the film industry, it can be just as important and fun to talk about certain aspects of it that shed light on how careful and successful director Ryan Coogler was in communicating the many messages that he used Black Panther to deliver.
Because I enjoy talking about film, and in particular this one, so much, I invited my friend and fellow writer Clarkisha Kent to chat with me about Black Panther and its characters. Below is part of our discussion, which I hope you will enjoy and use it to generate more dialogue with other fans.
Carolyn Hinds: For me the duality within Black Panther is first noticeable with M’Baku and Erik. In the beginning of the film, we’re shown M’Baku’s Jabari ancestors walking away from the other Wakandan tribes because the Jabari were afraid of where technology would take Wakanda, whereas Erik came to Wakanda not only for revenge against T’Challa but to use his country’s tech against him and the rest of the world and create what he calls an “empire” (boy, please).
Clarkisha Kent: But unlike his ancestors, M’Baku isn’t strictly against the use of technology—he’s just wary of it taking precedence over tradition. And fears that if that were to happen, Wakanda and her people would lose their way.
CH: During the challenge ceremony, M’Baku chastises Shuri (because what he sees as a child who is in charge of all the tech in Wakanda and thereby the future of Wakanda) for showing disregard for traditions that T’Challa himself is taking part in. What I also appreciated about that scene was when T’Challa told M’Baku to yield, he did because he realized that his people still needed his leadership.
Now, what Ryan Coogler did so brilliantly with the challenge scene is that at the climax of the film, T’Challa and Killmonger are practically in the same situation, but instead of yielding, Killmonger chooses death later on instead of yielding to T’Challa. When he said that he’d rather be thrown into the sea instead of being in bondage, I felt like someone had punched me in the gut, and started to cry because that imagery and history is so real to me that I didn’t pick up on his other reason. Over time, I came to realize that in his mind, Killmonger would rather be dead than owe T’Challa anything—including a life. He chose death over possibly being locked up for what he did.
CK: This shows that while M’Baku and Killmonger provide very useful foils to T’Challa, M’Baku is willing to put pride aside in regards to T’Challa for the greater good of Wakanda. This is not the case for Killmonger, who shows more and more throughout the movie that not only does he not care for Wakanda and sees it as a means to an end, but he is only in it for himself. Killmonger allegedly operates under the guise of liberation for what audiences assume to be black people all around the world, but we figure out right away that he’s really not for the people when he burns the fricking mystical herb.
Even with their tech, Wakanda is still very in tune with the traditional, the mystical and their ancestors in particular. What he did hurt me because it reminded me of Legend of Korra, where the Avatar at the time (Korra) screws up the whole cycle to where she severs the connection between her and the past Avatars.
In burning the heart-shaped herb, Erik does a few things that establish who he really is as a person and what his true motives are: 1) It lets you know right away that he doesn’t respect Wakanda or any of its traditions; 2) It shows us that what M’Baku and his elders feared would happen did, that in a sense the connection to the ancestors would be lost; and 3) By doing what he did, Erik also showed that he doesn’t even care about his own future and lineage.
CH: Yes, it makes you question what kind of leader would someone like Erik be when he has no clear goal for his own personal future. How is he going to create an empire when revenge against T’Challa (for something that [he] had absolutely nothing to do with, by the way) is all that Erik cares about? While the heart-shaped herb gives powers to whoever takes it, I also see it as a literal symbol for their lineage. As we have family trees, Wakandans have the heart-shaped herb, each bloom representing a branch in the royal family. By burning it, Erik is literally saying that “the family line ends with me; I’m the last.”
His actions also show that Erik isn’t thinking about the future of Wakanda; he was essentially saying that Wakanda as it was would end with him, and when he said, “We’re going to be an empire,” I was thinking, “In order to have an empire you have to be thinking about the future.” As the old saying goes, “You can’t understand your future unless you understand your past.” Erik didn’t want to understand or respect Wakanda’s past.
Speaking about the differences of M’Baku and Killmonger, there is a similar duality that occurs between Nakia and Okoye. In my opinion Nakia is the better version of Erik in that she advocates for using Wakanda’s tech and capabilities to help the world and those who have been disenfranchised. On the other hand, Okoye, like M’Baku, is about tradition. She’s for respecting and defending the throne with the Dora Milaje.
CK: I’m just fascinated with them because they mirror each other. For Okoye, her love manifests as what she considers to be her duty; to paraphrase her: “I am loyal to the throne, loyal to the country and give my service to the throne no matter what.” You can put a cactus on the throne, and Okoye would yield to the cactus [for] this reason.
CH: Now, I had to question what Okoye said. How can you swear fealty to someone just because they’re sitting in a chair, especially when it’s obvious they are possibly unhinged? Yes, the throne is important, but it’s what it symbolizes that really matters.
This particular plot point reminded me of Donald Trump, and as I sat there in the cinema, all I could think was, “Don’t be like the GOP, Okoye.” You have to see the person you’re serving for what they really are, especially when they’re not fit for the position, and thankfully, she saw Killmonger for what he was in the end.
For Nakia, her love manifests in helping everyone. Whereas to me the Dora Milaje is about helping one, while Nakia’s personal philosophy is “one for all,” and the perfect example of this was shown in our introduction to Nakia. In showing her helping young girls who were held hostage in a caravan by men (who I believe were representative of Boko Haram), we learn that she will put her own life on the line to help others who are in danger, even if they’re not Wakandan.
There’s a line that Okoye says after T’Challa “dies,” that her “duty is to serve Wakanda,” and Nakia said her “duty is to save Wakanda,” and I said, “Ladies, it is literally one and the same.” But to Okoye and Nakia, they saw saving and serving as two separate actions.
CK: This comes to a head when Okoye sees T’Challa is still alive later in the film, and she thinks that that is enough for everyone to realize the challenge is not over and that everyone would yield to that tradition. But when Erik basically says that he ain’t ’bout that challenge life, she sees that tradition isn’t going to be enough in this situation to fix it because this fool doesn’t care about tradition. And she then decides that “I’m gonna save my country, too.”
With all of the talk about claiming and protecting thrones, I drew parallels to Game of Thrones. People who love Game of Thrones will make the connection between the dilemma that Jamie faced when the Mad King was on the throne. It’s one of these things where technically, as the Kingsguard, he should’ve been 100 percent down with the Mad King no matter what, but after seeing all that the Mad King was doing, he just said, “Fuck it, you’re corrupt, so you gotta die.” So with that in mind, I wondered what would’ve happened in the middle of the movie if Okoye just said “Fuck it” as well prior to finding out T’Challa was alive.
CH: Following on the GoT reference: Killmonger reminds me of Cersei; they both want the throne but actually know nothing about ruling. Cersei has proven on multiple occasions that she’s not fit to rule, doesn’t respect the position and also doesn’t engender respect from others.
CK: Cersei literally blamed the Dothraki for the lack of food her people had, and I wanted to know how they were even connected and what do they have to do with anything.
CH: Essentially, she pulled a Donald Trump—blame everybody but yourself, which is again like Killmonger, and that’s one of my biggest issues with him. Killmonger wants to rule; he “wants it all,” but my question was: What’s his endgame? How are you going to improve the economy? Once the wars he helps to start are over, people will be starving and will need aid. What is his plan to provide food?
He says he wants to liberate, which is what people are getting all caught up in, but you can’t “liberate” unless you have a plan of what your end goal for liberation is. There’s a line from a Bob Marley song that goes, “Release yourself from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds,” and to me, Erik has himself so enslaved mentally with the idea of revenge that he can’t see past it.
On the contrary, with T’Challa, I’ve been seeing people say in tweets that he discredited what Nakia was saying, but then listened to what Killmonger said. But that’s simply not true. The way I see it, T’Challa understood what Nakia was saying, but initially he just wasn’t in the right frame of mind to deal with what she was asking. I’m not sure how often T’Challa leaves Wakanda, but in the MCU, the first time we see him outside Wakanda, T’Chaka dies, and when Nakia is telling him that the world needs help, T’Challa is still grieving for his father.
CK: Wakanda has been so insular for so long, and the moment that his father tries to get involved in the outside world, he dies. I can understand why T’Challa is like, “You know what? The ancestors had the right idea all along. Maybe there are benefits to staying isolated.” He then goes from burying his father to dealing with the whole Klaue situation, so he hasn’t had time to breathe. Give the man a break. He’s been through a lot, and it’s why his anger at T’Chaka is so palpable.
CH: That’s why I love what Rachel Morrison did with the visuals, because she translated T’Challa’s emotions beautifully. When T’Challa first sees his father in the ancestral plane, everything is all hazy and dreamlike, with the shades of blues and purples, the colors synonymous with Black Panther. But then when T’Challa becomes disillusioned with the mythology of the former panthers, he took off his purple-tinted glasses—so to speak—and sees his ancestors for what they were.
If you notice in that scene, they’re in their human forms, and this took place during the daytime, so he finally sees them for who they were and not mythological panthers, as in the first scene. I have to give credit to Rachel for that because it was subtle, but very powerful. The way I see it, what was done in the night was revealed in the light. T’Challa no longer saw them as being on a pedestal; they were level and on the same ground as him.
CK: And perhaps those ancestral scenes in themselves function as the perfect extended allegory for the film. With all the dichotomies at play in the film, it’s easy to get caught up in hidden and/or deeper meanings. But in the end, this film at every level functions as an example that there is always going to be a different way of looking at things or a different way of doing things. And oftentimes, things that we may see as oppositional may, in fact, be two sides of the same coin. Of course, this would mean that both Black Panther, life and blackness at large is layered and ultimately complex. And what is blackness if not complex?