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The Importance of Identity Shaped Marvel’s ‘Black Panther’

by Serina Gousby
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Marvel Studios ‘Black Panther’ has been out for a month now, and it has already proven to be one of the most influential and successful films of all time. This is the first time we see African influence at such a high regard and respect, a majority black cast and crew with a $200 million budget, and the first movie (that I ever seen since Roots) that draws the discussion about how African Americans deal with identity and their departure from their homeland. For many of us, this movie represents our culture and views of the world, despite it being a superhero film. It is also more than just a “black film” because any race and ethnicity and culture can see themselves in one of the characters.

The first time I watched it, I was with my best friend and it was within three weeks of it being out. However, my overall reaction of the movie was less than impressed because of my expectations. I mistakenly built up a high level of expectation, due to social media’s reactions of the movie, seeing pictures and small clips of the movie, and finding out the African American / African discussion regarding Erik Killmonger, played by Michael B. Jordan. I loved the movie overall, but because I focused too much on Killmonger’s story, I overlooked other characters and their complexities in the film. So, I decided to see the movie again a week later on my own, with a notepad.

Watching the film for the second time was a great decision. Everything that I felt about the movie the first time around changed because I was more open to all of the characters. How I felt about T’Challa (played by Chadwick Boseman) is completely different than the first time, and the women in the film, especially the Dora Milaje who were represented as these beautiful, loyal, and strong warriors and didn’t need help proving so. The second viewing also made me look into Erik Killmonger more deeply, and I’m still not sure if he was ever a villain.

The topic of identity hit home for me in many ways. A few months ago, I talked about my mother’s AncestryDNA results, and how that only represented a small step in this journey of African Americans finding out where they come from in Africa. In Killmonger’s case, he knew the exact country, family, language, and culture he was connected to, but he was still lost. I found it interesting when Killmonger took the “ancestral plane” when he was given the heart-shaped herb after being crowded King of Wakanda, and he was sent back to Oakland, California to see his late father. N’Jobu (played by Sterling K. Brown) told him that he was somewhat lost as well. Even with the Wakandan knowledge that Killmonger’s father bestowed on him with pictures and stories, that wasn’t enough for them both to be connected back with the ancestors, in the way T’Challa was.

When we saw T’Challa take the herb the second time, we see his father T’Chaka (played by John Kani) and the ancestors behind him welcoming T’Challa, since he was near death at the time. This particular scene, I was proud of Boseman’s character confronting his father because before that I looked at T’Challa and T’Chaka as villains. As kings, not only did they want Wakanda to be hidden and separate from the rest of the continent and universe, but they used their privilege of culture to dismiss Killmonger and his father, because they chose to honor the world outside of Wakanda (with Killmonger wanting to honor the ancestors from the Atlantic slave trade and give resources to the oppressed, and N’Jobu giving Vibranium to Ulysses Klaue, played by Andy Serkis). Also, I was annoyed that T’Challa refused to reveal Killmonger’s Wakandan name, N’Jadaka, until the leader of the River Tribe asked who he was in the native language. Between the scenes of Killmonger and T’Challa meeting for the first time, and when he burned down the herb garden, I did not see Killmonger as a villain. 

 “My pops said Wakanda was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen, he promised he was going to show it to me one day. Can you believe that? A kid from Oakland running around believing in fairy tales.” – Erik Killmonger

I felt emotional especially at the end, when Killmonger’s anger slowly turned to sadness and pain when he lost the final fight to T’Challa. He mentioned he always imagined the beautiful world of Wakanda that his father promised to show him, and T’Challa brought him there before he died. In that moment, I felt bad for Killmonger because it would have been nice to see these two men act like cousins and create a relationship, but at the end, that just couldn’t be possible. On the bright side, a “villain” like Killmonger is what T’Challa needed in order to lead Wakanda differently than his father.

The way this movie connected to my African-American identity is that I could visit some countries in Africa if I wanted to, but I would still be disconnected.  There are 54 countries in the beautiful continent, and I’m oblivious of the many traditions that I should know, and how my family in the states connects to it. I wonder sometimes how beautiful it would be to know the native languages and traditions my ancestors have, but because my ancestry is mixed and most or all of West Africa has been colonized, that I will never know my actual family members still living there. It’s unfortunate to face that reality and the conditions of slavery still has an affect on me, but it’s important to have these conversations. Plus, there are so many other people from different backgrounds who are facing that reality of being disconnected from their culture, language, rituals, religions, and more. Identity really shaped this movie and may have inspired people to start their genealogy searches, or connect more with a culture that they hindered themselves from.

From my experience in seeing the film, it helps people visualize true African traditions and culture, and how to connect with it without being ignorant. At the same time it also teaches people who have the privilege of knowing their heritage, the sense of understanding and compassion to those who lack that privilege.

I have more thoughts on the movie regards to the actors and another example of identity that I recorded here:

 

The importance of identity is what I took away from the movie, and I’m so grateful that this movie even exists. In Hollywood, there is history of films and television depicting the motherland continent inaccurate or mockingly offensive, and it’s sad that it took until 2018, to have a movie honor the many countries that made up the elements of Wakanda, that are filled with grace and opportunity.

I’m pretty sure that in a few days I will watch this movie one more time, and I might just walk out trying to imitate the dialect of M’Baku.

Please let me know in the comments or on social media how you feel about this! There are so many points I couldn’t get to in this piece, so I would love to know what you learned from the film. Wakanda Forever.

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