SPOILER ALERT: Hey, you. It’s got “Black Panther” in the title. If you don’t want spoilers, what are you doing here?
I’m a huge fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I was excited to see the latest installment, Black Panther, at the theater this weekend. I’d read numerous reviews of the movie, with many calling it the best MCU movie ever.
Indeed, it is, for all of the reasons reviewers are citing – a black superhero movie with a black director, a vision of black empowerment, shattering barriers in Hollywood and prejudices about what “kind” of movies will be successful, and more.
I saw the movie this weekend, after traveling to a second theater in the adjoining county, as the first was sold out all day. It lived up to all my expectations. It is as visually stunning, dramatically compelling, and culturally relevant as advertised.
And yet, and I hate my compulsion to have to say it, but are we going to just gloss over the point that King T’Challa, ruler of the most technologically advanced nation on Earth, is an unelected absolute monarch?
The movie is being praised as depicting this advanced African society, not just for its medical and technological miracles. Black Panther is praised because women feature prominently as warriors, spies, and tech wizards. They’re full characters with agency and arc.
Yet the government of this advanced feminist society is run by an unelected absolute monarch? Actually, a patriarch. King T’Challa takes over government, not Queen Ramonda, the widow of King T’Chaka, following his death at the UN blast.
There is no indication in the movie that there is any sort of governing party of the people except for the scenes where King T’Challa is challenged, first by a rival tribal leader (M’Baku), then by the bad guy, Erik Killmonger.
Even then, however, the challenges can only come from those of “royal blood.” The Wakandan dedication to this elitism is so strong that it’s the sacred rule that allows Killmonger to challenge T’Challa. This “allegiance to the throne,” as Okoye puts it, is so revered that nearly all of Wakanda’s leaders let a total stranger kill (they think) their leader and take control of Earth’s most powerful technology.
When Wakanda recovers from the short reign of King Killmonger, do they learn a lesson that perhaps concentrating supreme executive power in the hands of one person by accident of birth and mixed-martial arts ability on a waterfall cliff isn’t a very advanced way to run a society, especially the world’s most technologically-powerful one?
Nope, they learn a lesson that it’s all okay if a good king is in charge.
Worse, a major point in Black Panther is that even good kings make mistakes. It’s T’Challa’s dad, King T’Chaka, who makes the mistake of leaving little boy Erik abandoned with his slain father. The good king killed his own brother then abandoned his nephew, who grew up to slay (he thinks) his cousin to usurp the throne.
This is some Shakespeare 101-level shit. Good people can make tragic mistakes. It’s better to have checks and balances. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Yet there’s no call to convene a Wakandan Parliament with MPs from the Panther Tribe, War Dogs, Border Tribe, Priests of the Heart-Shaped Herb, Mining Tribe, River Tribe, Merchant Tribe, and the Jabari.
Wakanda has been hiding from the rest of the planet for generations. We saw how quickly powerful factions of the society were willing to follow King Killmonger, no questions asked, some out of duty (Okoye) and some because they want to emerge from the shadows and dominate the “colonizers” (W’Kabi).
Now, Wakanda has its good King T’Challa, so nobody’s concerned an evil king could happen again in a generation or sooner? Nobody’s concerned that maybe T’Challa’s decision to emerge from the shadows and engage the rest of humanity is his tragic mistake?
I know, it’s just a movie. But in the MCU, both the magically-superior Asgardians and the technologically-superior Wakandans rule themselves through patriarchies. Come to think of it – theocratic patriarchies, to the point of being ruled by actual gods, with disastrous results!
With an unchecked Trump running roughshod over the planet, I don’t know if that’s the right message of empowerment for this momentous milestone in history.