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March 22, 2018

Black Panther: Something Something Politics (Part 2)

I’m a little miffed right off the bat, because there was a Zero Punctuation video with a subject that was perfect for this Black Panther post -- but I can neither find nor recall where it is.  It’s a shame.  So I’ll have to speak from memory, and I apologize in advance if I get this wrong somehow.  Especially to Yahtzee.

Anyway, in the ZP video, there’s talk about character diversity -- and Yahtzee, true to form, takes it to task.  He jokes about how absurd it is for a character to only be relatable to an audience (or one person in particular) if they share a gender or race.  As if that’s all that matters, or failing to accommodate that means the game, or movie, or whatever is a failure.  It got a laugh out of me, but only because, like a lot of jokes, it hits hardest because there’s a kernel of truth to them.  Speaking personally?  I’m okay with main characters not being black (as an example) even though I’m black.  As long as the character is good, I won’t complain.

So given its nature, does Black Panther force me to recontextualize my opinion?  The answer to that is…not really.

SPOILERS for Black Panther incoming.  I know I normally toss in quotes from Marvel vs. Capcom here, but I did that last time, BP’s a new arrival without much material to pull from, and Marvel Infinite is on life support.  So have some Dragon Ball FighterZ memes instead.


Sometimes, you just gotta dunk a fool.

I get it, though.  I totally get it.  Black Panther is a movie made by an overwhelmingly black cast and crew, with an intense focus on African cultures -- at home and abroad, realistic and fictional.  It should be celebrated for that point, because if nothing else (which isn’t to say that that’s its only merit, of course) it’s different.  It’s fresh.  It’s distinctly flavored, but made and delivered in such a way that everyone, everywhere, every time can enjoy it.  That’s rad.

But does that make it political?  For reasons highlighted last time, yes.  But for other reasons, not so much -- at least not in my opinion.  Granted that veers into some sketchy territory, such as why we’re thinking of race and the inclusion of it in fiction as a political statement; arguments and counterarguments are easy to throw out with reckless abandon.  

For example, I could say that race doesn’t matter because no matter what our skin colors, we’re all part of the human race.  On the other hand, I could say that race does matter because skin colors are only a surface level part of nationalities, cultures, traditions, and experiences built into the consciousnesses of different peoples.  In that sense, it’s no small wonder why people just slap “political” on as a label; cut even an inch deeper into this hyper-layered cake, and you’ve got frosting spewing everywhere.

For the sake of focus, I want to direct your attention to this picture I spotted on Reddit a while back.  Two young black kids spot a poster of T’Challa (in costume, naturally) and Nakia, and point to the characters and say “that’s me”.  It’s a heartwarming gesture, and I get the intent behind it: to show that everybody has a hero who can represent them.  To be a champion, no matter what they look like.  You don’t need to have blonde hair and blue eyes to qualify for something greater in life -- which means that those fictional representations are inspirations for people who need them.  Again, that’s rad.

And yet, I can’t help but look at the sentiment -- even at something as innocuous as that JPEG -- and go “Hmmmmmmmmmmmmm.  Uhhhhhhhhhhhh.  Mmmmmmmmmmm.”  Think about it.  That little boy looks up to BP and says that “that’s me.”  First off, why?  And second off, no it’s not.  BP is T’Challa, the prince and eventually king (via birthright) of a hyper-advanced African kingdom.  He’s been enhanced to superhuman levels, has droves of loyal warriors at his command -- not to mention his love interest -- he’s wealthy enough to buy whatever he wants, has access to technology decades ahead of the competition, has a physique that would make Hercules jealous, and even while de-powered manages to survive getting stabbed and thrown off a waterfall.

How is that relatable to anyone?

That isn’t to say that T’Challa is a bad character because of it.  On the contrary; even if he is borderline godlike, his nature and circumstances, especially with respect to his kingly status, are what make him interesting.  It’s up to him to figure out how to bring Wakanda into a new world that’s weeks away from getting rocked by Thanos.  He has to endure the sins of the past, armed with the knowledge that his father and cohorts where complicit with murder -- and who knows how many other covert ops -- in order to keep their paradise hidden.  You couldn’t put more weight on him if you threw Mount Everest on his back.

Given that, I have an easier time identifying with Thor than I do with BP.  And I don’t identify with Thor.  Or Iron Man.  Or Doctor Strange.  Or Ant-Man.  Or any of the Marvel heroes.  Not even my favorite, Captain America.  They’re all pretty much within the realm of gods by virtue of being superheroes -- and even without their powers, they’re already halfway there.  Tony Stark is a genius billionaire inventor CEO.  Natasha Romanoff is a world-class secret agent spy.  Even Spider-Man, the most “relatable” in the Marvel stable, is smart enough to be teaching college courses and having deep dives with string theory.  

These characters are all at the peak of human ability, so much so that they’re basically alien to guys like you and me.  But that’s fine.  I don’t need them to be relatable, or identifiable, or ready for wish-fulfilling projection, to enjoy or sympathize with them.  Their status is by design, and part of the appeal; if they weren’t quasi-gods, they’d have a much rougher time beating the baddie du jour.

The fact that BP’s circumstances and very nature aren’t very relatable extends to Wakanda in general.  The details around it in the context of the movie make it political, but only in that context.  Remove it and try to superimpose it atop the real world, and suddenly it becomes totally apolitical.  We’re talking about a country that uses what might as well be space lead to power everything, so much so that it’s effectively magic.  That “magic” makes it a cut above everything else in the world, and essentially a superpower if it didn’t bother with isolationist tendencies.  Is there a real-world analogue to that?  Probably not, since we’re talking about freaking space lead.

The only way Wakanda becomes political is by putting a different culture front and center.  Having lived in Texas for all but a few days out of my life, I can’t say I’m an expert on the different lifestyles and aspects of peoples across the pond.  Still, it’s not hard to imagine that the film crew put in the time and effort to learn in our stead, and present their findings in the best, most exciting, most lavish, most interesting way possible.  That is truly rad -- in case you haven’t noticed a pattern yet.

The success of BP isn’t necessarily that it allows people of all ages to go “Yeah, he looks like me!  Now I’m into it!”  Call me crazy, but it seems kind of reductive for only the movie with a specific race to “matter” -- like this one is validated, while the others aren’t.  I’m not saying that the circumstances, effort, and successes with the movie (on and off the set) aren’t important, of course.  They are.  It’s proof of what happens when you let anyone -- or at least those with talent and passion -- go full tilt, regardless of what they look like.  But it’s not as if there’s been zero effort so far to push the needle forward, MCU or otherwise.

Like, have people forgotten that we’ve had African-American actors in prominent roles before?  The Winter Soldier had Falcon (the first black superhero in mainstream comics) back in 2014.  Before that, we had War Machine.  Parallel to those two, we had Nick Fury working behind the scenes.  More recently, we’ve had Gamora (who’s green, sure, but her actress has some experience with technicolor skin tones).  

The counterargument here is that they were all in supporting roles, which is a fair criticism.  But the counter-counterargument is that A) they still matter merely because they were in the movie, B) they did a bang-up job each time without devolving into wacky, borderline-offensive stereotypes, and C) it’s important to recognize that everybody is doing their best with the material at hand, and doing pretty well because of it.  I’m not about to turn my back on one of the other heroes just because he’s a dead ringer for Sherlock Holmes.

I love jokes that work on multiple levels.

But anyway, I’ll be real.  I like BP.  I like him more than I ever did specifically because of his solo movie and Civil War.  But even if that’s true, he’s not my absolute favorite.  Nor has he jumped straight to the #2 slot thanks to his movie being the best one.  I still really like Doctor Strange because of the personal, dramatic struggles he goes through on his way to becoming the Sorcerer Supreme.  I still really like Black Widow because of her slow and certain evolution out of her super-agent persona (and also wrestling moves).  I still really like Captain America because…look, if I have to explain it at this point, you’ll never get it.

I’m not saying that BP’s race doesn’t matter in the equation.  It matters tremendously, because it’s an intrinsic part of his character that informs his nature and decisions.  Killmonger is a dark reflection of that, having seen the lowest of low points from the depths of his Oakland home, only to claw his way out and into respectable positions at MIT and eventually the CIA -- without relying on any birthright shenanigans.  

Take away his supervillain status, and suddenly Killmonger is more relatable than the hero -- partly because I imagine his rags-to-riches story is a lot more plausible (and true to life, however grisly the fact) than being the up-and-coming king of of a hidden utopia.  That’s…rad?

I guess the big issue I have here is a personal one.  For whatever reason, I can’t really reconcile having a character on a screen in front of me -- even if he has my skin tone -- and saying “That’s me!” or thinking “I’m included now!”  That hasn’t stopped me from giving a little nod to well-done black characters whenever and wherever they appear, but that’s about it.  

I’ve never begrudged a story for lacking the blackness if it has plenty of quality to its name.  It’s never been a big deal to me to have African-Americans -- or Africans, period -- in major, leading roles every single time…because even if that’s appreciable, it’s not like it’s never, ever happened before.  We’ve had a a spate of black Power Rangers before, after all -- some of them acting as the team leaders in the trusted red spandex.  Also, remember Captain Sisko?

BP as a character, using BP the movie, is important.  He’s important because he (and his crew, in-universe and out of it) is black.  But he’s important not because he’s black.  Only good can come from the fact that there’s more representation coming into Hollywood and the public consciousness in general, because the alternative is to get much more boring, generic stuff in the years to come…as if we aren’t already.  

At the same time, this is a shift that demands more than just good intentions.  BP is proof of that.  There’s more going on with these characters than their melanin concentration, which is why the movie is the best the MCU has to offer right now.  Adding in diversity is great, but it’s crucial to make those characters more than just their race, or gender, or other qualifiers.  There needs to be substance.  Nuance.  Something for the audience to absorb -- and they will absorb it, whether they’re aware of it or not.

So on one hand, I hope that BP opens more doors than just the one for different races.  And don’t get me wrong, it’s great that that door’s open; I’m eager to revisit Wakanda someday.  At the same time, it’s important that we approach superheroes, and characters in general, with a more thoughtful, balanced approach.  

BP has shown us what you can do if you give everyone a fair chance at stardom (though as a reminder, it’s not the only one to have ever done so -- just one of the biggest to do so, ostensibly).  Now we need to think deeply, and critically, about all characters.  About what their attributes, natures, and circumstances bring to the table.

Now, I’ll be real here.  When I was a kid, I didn’t care about whether or not a character looked like me.  There was a time in my life when I was amped up over The Centurions, which was generally as whitebread as it gets.  These days, I still don’t care.  I just want a good character.  With that in mind, I recognize that I might be the minority, or even the only one on Team Needless, Pedantic Objectivity.  I know that there might be, and likely are, kids out there who need to see that representation.  Who need to see someone who looks like them.  Who want to be able to say “that’s me” without reservation.

I get that.  I absolutely get that.  I may not buy into that mindset completely, and I certainly hope it’s just a temporary thing, but it makes sense.  Not everyone is willing or able to put in that level of critical thought, least of all tykes that can’t even reach the top shelf of the fridge.  So I hope that those who are buying BP masks and strapping them on are having the time of their lives -- learning to love the character for superficial reasons, so that one day they can be introspective and find genuine reasons to love the character (biases notwithstanding).  I hope that’s the case for everybody, everywhere, at every time -- regardless of age, race, gender, or those ever-divisive, “political” qualifiers.  And I hope that stories like BP make that transition a whole lot easier from here on out.

Political or otherwise, let the kids have what they can.  Because the way things are looking, we’re gonna take a big step forward someday soon.

Okay, but for real, though?  Hollywood, seriously.  WHERE THE HELL IS MY CENTURIONS REBOOT?



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