I’m incredibly late to the party on Black Panther, but I have two little kids so I’m late to literally everything. So I’m absolutely not the first one to say: that movie is a phenomenon. 6 weeks after it’s release I strolled into an 8.30pm session expecting it to be pretty much empty. Nope. Almost full. Could not believe it. It’s sitting very high on the all-time box office list, and still climbing. And for those who don’t know: this is a massive superhero blockbuster, directed by a black director, with an almost entirely black cast. It is a huge cultural milestone and moment.
Before I get properly started I’m going to insert a disclaimer: I am a very, very white person. When I start talking about other cultures, it’s very likely I will say things the wrong way, or use the wrong language. For example, I don’t even know if it’s okay to say “a black person.” So please, trust my intentions, and forgive any linguistic missteps. I’m doing my best, and I want to learn more about other races and cultures and find ways to celebrate them. So if I get it wrong, please power down your internet outrage cannons, and let’s get back to talking about how great this movie is.
You’ve probably picked up by now that I loved Black Panther, especially seeing as my intent with this whole blog is to only write about things I love. There is so much to talk about that is great in that film. But I just want to talk about one moment in particular: Shuri, played by Letitia Wright, is showing T’Challa a range of new gadgets and advances in tech that she’s developed for the mission he is about to embark on. And I suddenly stopped and went, “Hang on, this is a recreation of the iconic James Bond scenes when Q runs Bond through all this new gadgets.” There is even a line that Shuri says that seemed a direct quotation of one of Q’s classic lines (I’ve only seen it once, so my memory is fuzzy when it comes to precise lines. I’d normally wait for a rewatch before writing about a film, but I wanted to get this out while it was fresh in my mind). This scene is then followed by a stealth undercover casino mission attempting to intercept a weapons deal and bring in an enemy of Wakanda, which leads to a car chase through the streets. A series of scenes as Bond as Bond gets.
Now when this happens there’s a couple of responses you can have, one being to just go “Boring, they’re just copying Bond with black people.” But that is to give absolutely no respect to the director behind this film, Ryan Coogler. And he is a very, very good director. This is where the other response you can have comes in. When you’re in the hands of a very, very good director, always stop and ask why they made that choice. Ask what those choices could mean and what the intent behind them was. Because if you’re in the hands of an extremely talented storyteller, then everything is thought through, and almost everything has purpose and intent behind it. So, let’s start digging deeper.
First things first. Are these scenes intentionally a reference to James Bond? Did the director intend that at all, or am I just doing my own interpretive work that has no connection to the filmmakers intent? (Which is fine to do by the way, that’s part of the beauty of art and storytelling. Each audience member brings their own context, experience and worldview which individually affects their interpretation and what resonates with them.) So when I arrived back home at close to midnight, instead of going to sleep (as a person with a toddler who will wake them up at 5.30am really should) I googled “Black Panther James Bond,” and what did I find? A ton of articles of Ryan Coogler listing James Bond as a major influence for this Black Panther film. So we’re on the right track to draw those parallels. Now let’s start talking about what that all means, and why it’s so exciting.
So who is James Bond? What he is a symbol of? He’s English. He works for the government as a spy to take down the enemies of England, wherever in the world they may be. He’s wealthy, cold, emotionally detached, superior, and almost always right. And he’s a sexist who treats women like disposable objects. Actually he treats a lot of people like disposable objects, so maybe he’s not sexist, maybe he is just a universally bad person. There is a very long discussion to be had about all the things about him as a character that should repulse us, and yet audiences seem as drawn to him as ever. But that’s not for today. (For the record, I love Bond films. This is part of why I find the objective facts of him so fascinating. On paper he’s repulsive. In action he’s magnetic.)
There’s two aspects of James Bond I want to zero in on: him as a symbol of England and English power, and his treatment of women. England was one of the major perpetrators of colonialism, and the English were largely responsible for the plundering of the African continent, and the subsequent slave trade. This is the nation James Bond is, and has always been, a symbol of. And a symbol of it’s power. A nation that treated an entire race of humans as less than human. And he’s a character who treats an entire gender as being objects for consumption. So with that in mind, what we have in Black Panther is a black director explicitly and overtly referencing this character in a film where every leading character is black, and many are women. And also it is a film that is packed full of African culture and overt discussion about colonialism, oppression and racism…Are you starting to pick up that maybe this referencing of Bond is deliberate and part of what the film is saying? And how incredible it is that Marvel, one the largest blockbuster juggernauts on the planet right now, is making films this subversive and intelligent for a wide audience?
Let’s spell it out a bit further. So James Bond is replaced with T’Challa. Cold, emotionless, superior, powerful, sexist, white Bond, is replaced with an openly emotional, vulnerable, respectful of women, African King. T’Challa struggles. He struggles with the mistakes of his ancestors past. He struggles with what the right choices for leading his nation are to keep his people safe, but also with his responsibility as a global citizen to care for and help others. He fails majorly in the film, he doesn’t always get it right. He’s willing to submit himself for the good of his people. He’s almost the opposite of Bond in every way…only better. And Q is replaced with not just a black person, but a young black woman, Shuri. Who is a genius, and is so full of life and individuality and power. And she is not the only powerful woman is this film. It is packed full of beautiful, strong, women who are individuals: mothers, warriors, humanitarians and scientists. And here’s the big thing: not once in this film are they ever objectified. They are fully rounded characters who do not exist as eye candy or merely as motivation for the hero. The camera never lingers on them as objects for sexual pleasure. Not once does Ryan Coogler pull a Michael Bay and place the camera right where every pervy thirteen year old boy was hoping he would. He’s so much better than that.
And here’s where the pieces come together and I get really excited. I know I say that phrase all the time writing these essays, but I just love this so much, and when it’s done well, it genuinely gets me so stoked. One of my favourite things, and what I think is just top tier filmmaking and storytelling, is when the form of the film communicates the same message as the characters of the film. So within the story, Wakanda has the option to respond to hundreds of years of oppression of their people all over the world with violence, with anger and destruction. They hold technology and weapons that are vastly superior to the rest of the world, and that would give them the ability to rain destruction down on those who have enslaved and oppressed their people. And this is the stance the main villain, Killmonger, takes. They hurt us, we hurt them back, only even more. This is the same cycle our real world is endlessly trapped in. It doesn’t work. But by the end T’Challa decides Wakanda will come out of hiding, but not to retaliate against the world, but to help the world. They respond to the oppressive fist with an open helping hand. They are better than us, and they act better than us. This is how the cycle of violence ends, and this is how the world heals. And in the very story structure, the plotting, and the characters, and his cinematic choices, Ryan Coogler is doing the exact same thing.
He takes the familiar structures and scenes of an exclusively white hero character, and he just does it better. He strips away all of the objectification, the cold utilitarianism, the superiority, and the “cool” emotional detachment of the Bond character. Basically all the qualities of white colonialist culture that led us to slavery, and instead gives us a real human who hurts, and fails, and treats people as equals. Who even in the end forgives his enemy and offers to save his life. Wakanda and T’Challa find themselves in the position that white colonialists were in. In a position of advanced technology and wealth and power over a large portion of the world. White colonialists used it to try and take over the world. Wakanda chose to be better, and help the world. Ryan Coogler finds himself in the position of thousands of white directors before him, at the helm of a massive super hero blockbuster. And he takes the familiar story set up of Bond, one of the world’s most iconic white heroes that has injected a bunch of harmful ideals into our culture, and he chooses to be better. And helps the world.
Simply put, the oppressed find themselves in the position of the oppressor, and show all the mercy, empathy and humanity that they were never shown. The cycle of violence and oppression ends. This is storytelling that is making a huge statement, and is storytelling that our world needs.
As my kids get older I’m going to have to make choices about the movies they watch, and the heroes I introduce them to. They are white kids. But I will choose T’Challa over Bond for them every single time. I hope my blond haired, blue eyed daughter looks up to Shuri and wants to be like her. And I hope I hear my little white boy running through the backyard yelling out “Wakanda forever.” Because Wakanda is better than us, and is for all of us.
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