Racquel Gates and Kristen J. Warner
Racquel Gates and Kristen J. Warner are colleagues and soul twins who enjoy applying their expertise in race and media to popular culture debates. One such conversation arose— inevitably—around the release of Marvel’s Black Panther directed by Ryan Coogler. The excitement around this film—especially with Black audiences—that has led folks to rent out movie theaters and to dress up like potential citizens of Wakanda—is compelling evidence for both of us of the film’s importance to Black communities. In addition, the close watching of box office numbers as the film nears the $1 billion mark suggests an audience determined to prove yet again that films featuring Black casts can be successful. We hadn’t even addressed the film itself, its characterizations, set pieces, and storylines that generated a host of conversations and debates on social media and in long-form writing. With all of this cultural production happening, where could we even begin?
After having read one too many think pieces that uncritically celebrated the film both as art and as the very embodiment of joy, without laying out the contextual stakes of these positions, we went to our Facebook pages and vented our frustrations. Taking notice of our takes on the film’s style, production origins, and audience engagement, the editors of Film Quarterly generously offered space here to share some of our thoughts.
I’m still working through my feelings on the film. I’m not entirely sure where to start, so I’ll foreground my own dilemma with trying to think about the film. “Am I analyzing this through the lens of a white film or a Black one?” How am I understanding matters of individual creative agency versus Hollywood logic (which has always been white-centric) in the relationship between Disney, Marvel, Coogler, the Black cast, the Black audience, the non-Black audience, the non-Black global audience, and so on? And which structural and narrative elements of the film should I choose to focus my attention on? There’s the Black cast, the inclusion of the white token character, the Black director’s body of work, the way that the soundtrack functions . . . so I’m grappling a bit with which lens of analysis to use to read this film.
Kristen J. Warner
One of the difficulties of writing about a film like Black Panther that has so apprehended and defined the cultural zeitgeist is that you’re afraid that anything you say will be perceived as a negative critique. Beloved texts that create such affective joy in audiences—and Black audiences specifically—certainly engender careful responses. With that in mind, before we get into some of the ideas we want to bring to bear in this conversation, I want to emphasize a few preliminary bonafides.
Kristen and Racquel
Both of us enjoyed the movie and thought that as a work it could be rated “fine to good.” (Ouch.) Both of us are happy that the film as well as the cast and crew have been supported so strongly by audiences. Both of us really do enjoy sitting in theaters with Black audiences who participate in communal film experiences. Both of us are deeply stirred by the vivid affective reactions Black audiences have after watching the film.
Whew. Now that we’ve established that we are not enemies of joy, I can continue trying to identify the feelings I’ve had while listening and watching all of the conversations around Black Panther this week. These feelings of excitement about being in audiences with other Black folk who were overwhelmed with happiness in seeing the possibilities of the splendor of Blackness are the norm and not the exception when I read and listen to descriptions of the viewing experience. I believe all of this, and yet I wonder if there’s not some sort of amnesia that overcomes us as viewers, because I know lots of folks also enjoyed the experience of watching Girls Trip (Malcom D. Lee, 2017) together, and before that, the experience of watching Get Out (Jordan Peele, 2017) and before that, Best Man Holiday (Malcolm D. Lee, 2013) and, before that Madea’s Family Reunion (Tyler Perry, 2006) and before that Coming To America (John Landis, 1988) and …well you get the point.
In other words, the communal viewing experience that has been so popularized and made iconic (think of Magic Johnson’s movie theaters as a cultural referent) is not new in the case of Black Panther. Rather, it is a continuation of experiences we have long shared. Black folks talking to the screen, talking to each other, singing along to the soundtracks that make us feel some kind of way, dancing (sometimes standing up and getting into it), and, yes, dressing up are not particular to this Marvel movie. They are part of a long tradition related to feeling at home in a space of like-minded and shared-identity folks.
But the responses all seem to want to insist that the feelings emerging around audiences in this case are new – and that is troublesome. What is at stake when we separate this film out from the ones that came before? What is at stake in strategically refusing to see the joy that Black audiences have in laughing at Madea do the bus stop in her front yard as similar to the joy the same audiences have laughing at T’Challa’s (Chadwick Boseman) brilliant younger sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) quoting a years-old meme to ask her brother: “what are THOSE” when he is wearing culturally-coded Black older-man-about-to-barbeque-on-green-grass-with-a-straw hat-and-a-toothpick-in-his-mouth leather sandals? What is at stake in not seeing the women warriors in Black Panther as similar (not equivalent, mind you, but similar) to the rose-petal women in Coming to America as some sort of homage, albeit evolved? What do we fear?
Some of the answers to these questions stem from how Black audiences tend not to think or align their viewing habits as parts of fandoms. Rebecca Wanzo has an excellent piece that draws out a genealogy of Black fan studies that helps to explain it: Black fans have always been present in popular culture but just did not take up the name “fan” (or were excluded from being able to do so) that would connect them with those traditions. What does this mean in relation to Black Panther? It feels so precious to so many partly because Black films that allow Black audiences to act like fans are often siloed off from one another, not seen as a continuation or expansion of any continuum of our viewing habits and tastes.
Rather than perform yet another version of film amnesia—when we act as if the ways we participate in being excited about the bodily experience of seeing Wakanda is a first—what if we acknowledged that with movies we love (even in the cases when they are narratively and aesthetically terrible) we often have those same bodily experiences, because those films (and television shows) generate fannish responses in us, too. If we did, we would see so much more richness in the scope of that Black fandom: comics fans, sci fi fans, the ones in search of Thirst Traps, as well as the cinephiles and, yes, the people who neither read a single comic nor watch Marvel films, often because they didn’t know to sit through the credits for the Easter egg scenes, but who just love seeing Black bodies on any kind of screen.
The interesting thing about the official amnesia that you describe is that it runs contrary to the ways that people, particularly Black peoples, have been thinking about and responding to this film even before its release. I’m thinking about all of those great memes and gifs and tweets about people’s anticipation of this release. Some even make explicit references to Coming to America which keeps popping up in social media in relation to Black Panther but doesn’t seem to get mentioned in any “official” coverage of the film (at least not that I’ve read). And that omission seems to point to matters of taste, and quality, and prestige. It reminds me of how some people were upset that Get Out entered the Golden Globes in the comedy/musical category rather than in drama. That indignation seemed more animated by the idea that its consignment to the genres of comedy or horror somehow diminished the significance of the film. I wonder if what we’re seeing with Black Panther is a similar type of double-consciousness reception, where people are affectively responding to both the film itself and the experience of seeing it in these joyful settings, but are also deliberately performing a type of fandom to signify the film’s prestige and importance as a Black representation on the global stage.
Yes, that, exactly! And the social media around the movie even before the first trailers were released last June always seemed poised to engage and prime Black viewers to get amped for the film. Twitter hashtags like #Blackpanthersolit had been floating about since the film was announced. But once the cast was revealed at Comic Con and once the artwork and the trailer premiered? You couldn’t get away from it. I can’t imagine how high the awareness factor tracked in focus testing for domestic Black audiences for Black Panther because it was everywhere. And what that marketing did was ensure that it wasn’t enough that you saw the film; you needed to show that you saw it. If anything feels novel about this viewing experience, that call to witness most certainly does.
To that last point, one of the things that I’m having problems with is disentangling the film text from the discourse around the film. Then again, maybe that’s not a project that I should even try to undertake as opposed to embracing it.
I saw Black Panther at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) on opening night. BAMcinématek screened it in an amazing restored movie palace. And there was so much energy, not just in the theater, but on the street outside of the theater. As I was walking down the block to the entrance, there were just droves of Black people heading in a very deliberate way towards the building with me. It was like we were on hajj, or marching. Like, there was no question where everyone was going. And that felt pretty amazing. And inside of the theater, there was so much excitement and anticipation. I saw people who were seriously dressed: some in African inspired garb, others in fancy Western clothing. I went to the bathroom and saw a woman in a fur coat. It reminded me of how people used to treat going to the movies as a special occasion: going to “the show” is still what my parents call it. Walking back to my seat everyone was complimenting each other on their hair. It was absolutely joyous. Kristen, tell me about your experience seeing the film.
I saw the film twice: once in Alabama and once in Louisiana. In Alabama, on opening night, the audience was largely made up of Black folks and the theater was full. I saw some folks wearing kente cloth but largely clothing was understated. There was excitement but it didn’t have quite the same fervor as you experienced. The second screening in Louisiana was smaller. Folks did dress up though–including my own sisters who went and bought some generic African print fabric from the local Walmart and made headbands (they asked me if I wanted them to cut me a piece and I politely declined.). So I missed out on that energy you described but I did get to experience the joy and excitement around the movie via Instagram and Twitter. Looking at videos of folks at an Atlanta screening, for example—where the projectionist accidentally (I am assuming it wasn’t on purpose) started playing Fifty Shades Freed (James Foley, 2018) instead of Black Panther and the audience was vociferously shouting that down—or of the many, many, many poses snapped in front of the posters and displays at various levels of cosplay let me know this was an event.
Kristen, you said something really great on Facebook: you described Black Panther as “Coogler icing and rosettes on a Marvel cake,” and that’s such a perfect way of describing not only Black Panther, but any director with a unique sensibility who makes a film for a big studio like Disney/Marvel. Even though the films themselves are quite different, your statement made me think about Watermelon Man, the film that Melvin Van Peebles directed for Columbia back in 1970, and how he had to find all kinds of strategic and sometimes downright deceitful ways to ensure that the film bore his perspective, as opposed to Columbia’s original vision for the film. And isn’t that the definition of an auteur anyway, as originally conceived by the French New Wave theorists and filmmakers, and translated by critics like Andrew Sarris? It’s the idea of a filmmaker who doesn’t have full control over their film, but finds a way to put their identifiable mark on a studio project.
So, in that respect, there were lots of signature Coogler touches that I appreciated: the Oakland setting, throwing in the Too $hort track, the theme of fathers and father figures that he did so beautifully in Fruitvale Station (2013) and in Creed (2015), his inclusion of multidimensional women characters, even his inclusion of minor white characters … all of those elements felt like signature Coogler.
But the obvious question—for me, at least—concerns what kinds of concessions Coogler had to make in order for this film also to be recognizable and legible as a Marvel, or more broadly, as a Disney, product.
The point about how auteurism operates in the Marvel/Disney universe is a good one. Marvel has had a record of inviting directors with a particular kind of pedigree to work on their projects because, of course, they add legitimacy and credibility to the brand but also because there’s a sense of intimacy – the personal touch – that someone with a signature style can offer an audience. The Iron Man (2008, 2010, 2013) movies displaced their auteur: the films were never about Jon Favreau the director but about Robert Downey, Jr. the actor. But many of the films that came after those – directed by Kenneth Branagh and Joss Whedon and James Gunn and Taika Waititi – all include some of the filmmakers’ DNA to make these massively-scaled epics feel simultaneously specific and personal.
As you said, Racquel, that auteurism is still operative in Coogler’s approach to Black Panther. When I said the film was Coogler rosettes and icing on a Marvel cake, that was my thinking: that, of course, his taste and sense of paradigm would influence the direction and shape of the film. There’s an autobiographical aspect to opening the film in Oakland that sits alongside its significance as the birthplace of the Black Panther Party. And both are important to note.
But authorial influence and authorial control are not the same thing. And, if we noted anything from the high-powered position Joss Whedon held at Marvel for so long—that he relinquished after directing his final Avengers film for a multitude of reasons including fatigue—influence is often trumped by control. While noting all the beautiful mise-en-scénes and very specific casting choices as part of Coogler’s influence, we cannot afford to overlook the control that Kevin Feige exercises as Marvel’s president and producer of all its films.
So, to your last point: What concessions do we think Coogler has had to make in order to ensure that his film is legible to Black audiences while also maintaining a standard that allows Feige to sell this film around the world? I find myself thinking about a phrase I’ve heard Black filmmakers use to deflect the idea that their work necessarily needs to be classified as created solely for Black audiences: “universal yet specific.” That is, they let the broad frame of the film be universal in terms of themes, characterizations, and world building but create culturally specific narrative devices or dialogue or visuals that enable the film to serve multiple audiences at once. There’s a culturally specific story for domestic Black audiences, another for South Korean audiences (I mean, ask Michael Bay about shooting Transformers in China and hiring their big stars to appeal to a specific audience), and others for everyone else.
Black Panther has to maintain a balancing act in the most extreme way though. Unlike any other Marvel film, it is expected to “feel” Black at the same time as it has to be accessible to a plethora of audiences. A $200+ million dollar film budget is not created for the altruistic purpose of making one subset of an audience feel good; rather, if they are expecting $1 billion profits, they have to strike a very clear balance between influence and control. After all, Marvel is not Wakanda!
But let’s talk about the kiss at the end between T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) and Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o’s character). That felt very much like an awkward attempt to tie up the story with a conventional love story.
The love story and the kiss at the end of the film did not work for me either, because the conventions of the Marvel film just did not blend with how these characters operated under Coogler’s script. So it felt awkward and not terribly earned. I felt similarly about the sometimes ambivalent, sometimes all too sure political ideologies sutured into the movie. I think it’s more than fine that Black folks feel ambivalent about the existential question of Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), because there’s an openness in the story that lends itself to a multitude of interpretations about the character’s intent and motivations and emotions. But some of that ambivalence is due to a rather top-heavy script that takes a lot of time showcasing its master set piece Wakanda, which then doesn’t leave much time to develop Killmonger. So it ultimately results in his being written as a Marvel foil – an often-underwritten kind of character.
Listen, I know that developing Killmonger more would mean that something else gets left on the cutting-room floor. And I know the movie is already two hours long and still manages to mostly feel like a lean, economically smart story. And, listen, my wanting more depth to Killmonger would probably make Black Panther feel less MCU, less like a comic, more like Christopher Nolan’s style vis-a-vis The Joker in The Dark Knight (2008) , and ultimately more like Coogler’s own earlier work – but I still do want that.
Do you see what I mean? That’s a lot of water to carry and balance, and it is hard when there’s billions of dollars and a global corporation with its own political values and ideologies as your overlord.
Right. This is what I was getting at when I asked: “Am I analyzing this through the lens of a white film or a Black one?” As a Marvel product, these concessions are expected and largely benign. But what about when you’re dealing with a medium like film with more than a century of racist imagery? I’m still working through my feelings about the African/Black American subtext in the film. I’ve been thinking a lot about what it signifies to have the sole Black American character (not counting Killmonger’s briefly-encountered girlfriend) in the film also be its ruthless and cruel villain, one who doesn’t seem to approach the level of humanity or complexity of even a character like Michael Fassbender’s Magneto in X-Men: Apocalypse (2016).
If a white director had made this film, I would be quick to point out that the juxtaposition of T’Challa and Killmonger seems to invoke some troubling “model minority” discourses. For instance, I was really bothered by the fact that Killmonger ends up wearing the gold panther necklace/suit that T’Challa initially rejects because it is too ostentatious. I mean, I know that the comics specify that Killmonger loves gold, so we can argue that this is about adaptation fidelity, but can we also acknowledge that framing Killmonger as the angry, loud, violent, yellow-gold-wearing Black man who is introduced in every scene with hip hop is just a little too close to a racist trope? When I say that I don’t know which frame to use to analyze this film, I mean that I want to give stuff like this a pass because, after all, it’s Ryan Coogler, but I also know exactly what I would say about it if a white director had included these elements.
I hate to do that thing of “let me tell you what the director should have done instead,” because I completely understand that it’s unfair and too easy as a form of critique, but . . . let me tell you what I wanted Coogler to do differently.
Ideally, I would have loved a bit more fleshing out of Killmonger’s backstory. I don’t need his character to be redeemed from his violence and aggression against women, but I want some more character background and motivation beyond the platitudes that the character offers. Some people read Killmonger sympathetically, but I think that a lot of that is the result of audience labor rather than a sentiment explicitly supported by the film’s narrative elements. Marginalized groups often do the labor of “writing themselves” into the text when they are not explicitly called. And hell, that’s always been part of the joy of the black viewing experience. But it has largely been a pleasure born of necessity, the price of watching films that were not designed around black audiences. I was disappointed to see how much of that same work seemed to be required in this case. Similarly, queer audiences have projected queer readings of the characters onto the film, even though Coogler cut the explicitly queer scene from the film. But not all films require that audiences do that labor, and I was surprised to see the rather conventional, cliched ways that Black Panther provided “buffers” for its more provocative elements.
I also wonder what it does to the audience to locate the source of Killmonger’s resentment and anger exclusively in personal loss and the psychic trauma of slavery, and not in the reality of the cultural and socioeconomic privileges of his Wakandan relatives in comparison to his own life and experience. Is there a way that we could begin to really talk about the tensions between Africans and Black Americans without reducing them to either an absent father or the original sin of slavery? And I know that it sounds super basic to bring up respectability politics, but can we talk about how that runs throughout this film?
I just kept thinking about all of the cinematic and media tropes used to represent the supposed pathology of Black American men, and how those seemed to get reanimated and deployed at times (perhaps unwittingly) in Black Panther. I know what Coogler says that he was doing in the film, and what the film itself keeps telling me that it’s doing, but honestly, at times it felt really similar to the problematic racial representations that I’ve seen and critiqued before. And there’s so much to love about this film, but I keep feeling disturbed by this particular aspect.
The film has Killmonger raise the notion of a type of radical redistribution of power among the oppressed people of color around the globe, which is noteworthy. But the film also narratively undermines his sentiments by never showing what that oppression looks like (in contrast to some of the X-Men movies with scenes of mutants being discriminated against, harassed, and tortured) and by adding unforgivably cruel aspects to his character (like his shooting his girlfriend). I’m not asking for any film to depict the entirety of Black oppression, though. Just give me an example of what it is that is animating Killmonger’s rhetoric and explains why he wants to arm the oppressed people of the world.
So, yes, I had a problem with the film reducing a rightful critique of colonialism to “he’s just mad because his daddy died.” I’m fine with his being angry, because he should have been angry – but I also wanted more moments of softness with his character, something that Coogler and Jordan have been able to accomplish together in their two previous collaborations.
I wanted more showing than telling about Killmonger’s supposed grand education. (Okay, I am a professor.) Show me what he learned at MIT and Annapolis. All I saw was what happened when he became a soldier for the CIA. Clearly he’s brilliant and skilled militarily but the movie failed to show me the evidence. And for a character like Killmonger, who embodies the idea of the racial moment and the power of the ability to code-switch (his “Hey Auntie” line read is perfection), I wanted to see at least some of that in action.
Finally, I want to talk about how the power of the visual can overwhelm all this other knowledge. How much weight can this film bear in terms of expectation? I’m thinking about its advance publicity with the stars of the film doing magazine spreads posed as such historical Black militant figures as Huey Newton and Malcolm X. My sense is that there’s a burden on the film that, if we are not careful, will weigh it down to such a point that whatever coherent meanings it does allow for will, at this point, be deemed insufficient. Also, it places such a burden of performance on the actors. And that in turn forces audiences to forget some of the wild and not-so-great statements that some of the cast (I’m looking at you, Michael B. Jordan) have made in the past. Maybe putting him in a Huey Newton or Malcolm X costume for GQ is, well, troubling.
I worry, too, about the burden placed on the film. In so many ways, this film feels like the Barack Obama of movies: all of the weight of representational history is being mapped onto it, and we’re celebrating its very existence more than its actual work. And with that metaphor in mind, I find the grandiose claims being made about the film and its power to change both Hollywood and society to be not only problematic but also dangerous. it reminds me of the calls for Michelle Obama to run for public office. People rightly pointed out that nobody who cares about Michelle should actually want her to join public office, because the stress on her shoulders and the hostility directed at her would be out of this world. Similarly, I wonder about how much weight Black Panther, Ryan Coogler, and its stars are bearing right now. It’s one thing for the film to be a site of pleasure. It’s another for it to have to answer to such hyperbolic language as “changing the face of Hollywood forever.”
To be sure, there are so many aspects of this film that are powerful. Take Shuri, for instance. I loved seeing the combination of little-sister playfulness with a genuine kind of tech-nerd joy. Young black girls are so often portrayed as sassy, or mature beyond their years, that it was really refreshing to see a young black woman be playful, and loving, and brilliant. I found all of the supporting characters to be compelling. Danai Gurira was fabulous, not only because she was so kickass, but because the film also allowed us to see a glimpse of her emotional interiority and inner conflict. For instance, I loved her scenes with Daniel Kaluuya, and in the scene where Killmonger kills one of her warriors, Gurira’s anguish immediately suggested the closeness and intimacy that those women must share. It would have been nice to see that explored a bit further (as in the excised lesbian flirting scene), but I digress.
Yeah, all that was nice to see. For all my lack of belief in Chadwick and Lupita’s romance, it was still nice to see a romance with two Black leads in a global blockbuster film like Black Panther. And it was good to see Lupita be allowed to carry a lead-actress role by playing a thoughtful and sexy character. I also enjoyed the natural camaraderie among all the women – especially Nakia and Shuri. I did feel for the young Black woman who was in love with Killmonger, who died after saying only two lines of dialogue, but hey: you win some and you lose some. But … can we talk about that “wig” moment real quick?
You know, I thought about you when that moment happened during my screening, because we spend so much time offline chatting about the optics and politics of hair. So, yeah, I felt ambivalent about that moment. On the one hand, I loved the overall celebration of natural hair and bald-headed women in the film. And, the wig toss moment was one of those places where the celebration of black beauty really shone through, from Okoye’s initial disdain for the wig to her eventual weaponization of the wig. But at the same time, something about the style of the wig itself gave me pause: it evoked, for me, a hairstyle very much associated with Black American women. To have Okoye show disgust for that hairstyle did bother me a little. And, since I was already examining the African vs. Black American subtext that runs throughout the film, the wig fit into that context.
The wig scene.
Yeah this definitely was a moment that evoked a multitude of conflicting emotions for me. On the one hand, I laughed because I wondered if this was in some small meta way Danai (Gurira) being punchy about having to wear that huge braided wig on The Walking Dead (AMC, 2010 –) . Being able to snatch it off and throw it toward her opponent in the name of Michonne (her character on TWD) would certainly be reason enough to enjoy it. However, I also had similar thoughts about the kind of wig she wore and the near-repulsion she demonstrates for its style. The film most certainly is ambivalent about African vs. African American relations which, to be sure, is okay. But small moments like this make me a little nervous because such details seem deliberately pointed towards an entire populace.
Any final thoughts, Gates? For me as a film and media studies scholar, I am always fascinated by the mediated texts that invoke ownership by audiences. Black Panther is assuredly one of those texts. Yet I am anxious about how the wholesale buy-in, complete with what feels like a demand for the audience’s blind faith and love, leaves little room for the film to ever be self-reflexive about its existence––or held to account for any aspect of it. In its earnestness at the level of story as well as in its reception, the movie cannot remark upon itself playfully lest it be seen as non-serious and risk being dismissed as illegitimate. And, yeah, that bothers me a little. Wakanda joy and all. (I ain’t doing the gesture, lol.)
Now that the film has been open for a few weeks and the initial intensity has died down a bit, I’m really curious about how the film will reverberate in the industry and in the Black popular imaginary from this point forward. Moments like these are always so hopeful, as they should be, and it’s tempting to believe that each big release, each box office success, each gorgeous representation of blackness on screen is going to be The Moment that changes film forever. But institutions are slow to change, if they ever change at all.
I think about the Black women who have won Academy Awards and are struggling to find regular work. And I think about the box office success of Waiting to Exhale (Forest Whitaker, 1995) that “should have” ushered in a change in how Hollywood thought about the benefits of diverse casting (if we buy that story that box office receipts are the things that convince studios to diversify, which neither you nor I do, of course), but it didn’t.
In a lot of ways, the significance of Black films—at least in a cultural sense—doesn’t become evident until later, when a particular film or its elements get taken up in other spaces of black popular culture. Would we have ever predicted that Sofia’s lines would end up being the most cited parts of The Color Purple (Steven Spielberg, 1985) back when that film was first released? Would we have predicted that Randy Watson’s drop-the-mic moment in Coming to America would eventually occupy such an iconic place in black culture? For me, while I do celebrate this moment of excitement and joy with the release of Black Panther, I’m more interested in seeing how future filmmakers, critics, scholars, and audiences engage with the idea of Wakanda.
Header image: A view of Birnin Zana, the capital city of Wakanda in Black Panther (2018).
Copyright: © 2018 Film Quarterly. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.