Am I woke now? I think I’m woke now!
by Thom Yee
Something I hear a lot around this time of year is “Happy New Year!” And not usually from Chinese people either, from people who, I think, feel a measure of personal progress when they say it to people who look like me. “Happy New Year!” they say to us. In the middle of February. Weeks later than January 1st. I’m not saying that I really mind when I hear it, I’m not trying to judge people when I hear them say it to me, almost any recognition and celebration of other cultures is a good thing, I’m just saying that when I hear Happy [Chinese] New Year, I can’t help but think to myself, “It’s not my New Year.” Sometimes with several exclamation points at the end.
You see, I’m one of those few and far-between Chinese Canadians who was born in Canada and whose parents were born in Canada. Even one of my grandparents was born in Canada, which I’m told is incredibly rare for people like me. I don’t really engage in Chinese cultural activities (nor am I really engaged by them) and I don’t watch Chinese cinema (besides the classics that we all, regardless of race, should watch [Jackie Chan, John Woo, maybe Wong Kar-wai]). I don’t even know what a Chinese fire drill is. And I don’t speak Chinese in any of its dialects. I can write my last name in Chinese and I can kind of tell what people speaking Chinese are saying (though a lot of that comes more from reading the overall context and non-spoken elements of speech), but that’s it. And when you don’t speak Chinese, and when the language is built so much on intonation, and when it comes in multiple dialects and the people in your family that do speak Chinese do so in a dialect that most others in this country don’t, AND the Chinese people you meet think you’re just about the worst, most backwards Chinese person in the world for not speaking the language and have nothing but disrespect for you when you’re trying to learn it at an age other than from birth, it can be a pretty hard language to pick up. You’re clearly a lesser being for not already knowing. You have no excuse for not knowing. There’s something wrong with you. Something very wrong. It doesn’t matter that you do speak the dominant language of the country you all are living in. And it certainly doesn’t matter how well you understand that other [dominant] language. After all, if understanding that other language did matter, then you wouldn’t see businesses with names like the “Mildly Chinese Herbal Centre” or the “Chin Kee Restaurant” or “Creative Gifts & Etc.”. What matters is you are Chinese but you don’t speak Chinese. That’s a wall that’s never going to come down. And, more than most, Chinese people know a lot about building walls.
When you’re rejected by your own race, it doesn’t seem so much that the outside world is racist against your people (no matter how much [or little] evidence you might see in media representation), nor does it feel like it’s your people that are racist against others (no matter how much they may seem to when they build their own little “China Towns” to spend time only with other Chinese people). That discrimination doesn’t feel like racism. It feels like people just hate you. You specifically. Your people don’t like you and other people think you’re like them. And when your attitude sometimes [maybe too often] reflects that sense of rejection from all sides, people just say you have a bad attitude. You’re a Negative Nancy. You’re being a crybaby. When the minority experience you’ve grown up with is so small, a subset of another minority entirely, most people don’t even try to understand, and, as a result, you’ve effectively been told that your problems don’t matter, not even to the minorities that are recognized. It’s always easier to categorize people and then put them aside rather than try to understand them. Everyone has their own problems, and the last thing they want is to hear about yours, at least not if your problems don’t reflect their own.
And it’s really interesting that they actually manage to capture that kind of outsider’s perspective in Black Panther. The best parts of Black Panther, the most inclusive parts and the most understanding, are what make it such an important movie, one that understands and builds its central conflict around the nuances of rejection, not just the rejections that occur between nations but the rejections that can occur within even the same culture.
I just wish it was also a great superhero movie.
What’s it about?
With the death of his father, King T’Chaka (that happened in a different movie!), Prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) of the mysterious African nation of Wakanda becomes the country’s new ruler. In becoming king, he must also take on the role of the Black Panther, Wakanda’s protector and guardian of their greatest natural resource, Vibranium, a substance that has allowed Wakanda to secretly become the most technologically advanced society on Earth. But when forces threaten to destabilize Wakanda, blah blah blah, the exotic Dora Milaje, blah blah blah, Michael B. Jordan and Andy Serkis play the bad guys, blah blah blah, everybody fight (!).
Something you may have heard about the Black Panther is that he’s the first black superhero, but as is the case with most sweeping and unexamined statements, that’s not exactly true. In the 1940s, Timely Comics (Marvel Comics’ predecessor) published Young Allies, which included a black hero named “Whitewash Jones” (a character later retconned into something notably less offensive). Gabe Jones, a black soldier, was one of the Howling Commandos of Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos that began publication in 1963 (and, if you’re wondering, yes, Sgt. Fury is Nick Fury, a character who started off as a white man only to be portrayed as a black man more recently). There was even a series called “All-Negro Comics” that was released in 1947 that… y’know, even just typing that title makes me feel a little uncomfortable, but there it was, a ‘40s comicbook written and drawn entirely by black people. It only lasted one issue. The Black Panther didn’t show up until 1966 (only months before the formation of the Black Panther Party). So he’s not the first black superhero exactly, he’s just the first one that mattered. And wasn’t directly disgraceful. Or a shameful reminder of our horrible past.
The Black Panther first appeared in the pages of Fantastic Four, the creation of writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby, and though he’s remained a recurring character in that title, he’s been more commonly associated with the Avengers since then, joining the Avengers on their adventures and eventually becoming a full-fledged member of the group. And it’s a very good thing that he’s more of an Avenger than a Fantastic Four member, because who knows what kind of atrocious, non-descript cloud thing we could have gotten if Black Panther was packaged up with the Fantastic Four back when Marvel sold those movie rights to Fox. Gifted with enhanced strength, speed, and endurance through ingestion of the Heart-Shaped Herb (and I always thought it was weird the official name of the herb is just a description of its shape) and wielding fantastic technology derived from Vibranium, Black Panther is sort of like Batman only more rich and with far more resources or like Captain America only literally rather than figuratively in charge of the country he represents. To be honest though, Black Panther has never really been that big of a deal until more recently, never holding down an ongoing series for very long until writer Christopher Priest’s run with the character that began in the late ’90s. As much as he’s a creation of Stan and Jack, it’s Priest who’s responsible for many of the character’s more well-known conventions, including the extensive use of Vibranium in his tech, the Panther’s American liaison Everett Ross (played by Martin Freeman in the movie), and the Dora Milaje, the all-female squad of warriors that protect Wakanda and its king. The good thing about that is if, after seeing Black Panther, you want to go back and read up on the character’s comicbook exploits, you can start with Priest’s far more contemporary run, all of which comes off as cool, self-aware, and still very modern even today, twenty years later.
With last year’s Wonder Woman in particular, superhero movies have taken on an added dimension of minority representation, and, as 2017’s Wonder Woman was to women, with a woman in the lead role and in the director’s chair, so to is 2018’s Black Panther, directed by Ryan Coogler and with an almost all-black cast. Unlike Wonder Woman, though, Black Panther has, so far, made a lot more money. Where Wonder Woman made just over $100 million in its opening weekend, Black Panther made just over $200 million in its debut last weekend on its way to breaking records for biggest February opening, biggest winter opening, and biggest Monday opening, all amidst some pretty stupid Internet phenomena against it and some pretty great Internet phenomena in support of it. Now we could try to work out the reasons why a movie about a woman wouldn’t have as much support as one about a black man, or posit that more black people go to see movies than woman (as if those were two clearly different things), but I don’t want to go too far down that… uh, panther hole? Does that sound right? Woman hole? Wait, no! No, definitely panther hole. Definitely panther hole. Anyway, the point is, these may just be superhero movies, but tackling these types of sensitive subjects in such a broad (if I can use that term) and entertaining fashion can go a long way in making them okay to talk about. At least for a little while.
Is it any Good?
There are a lot of ways to answer the question of “Is Black Panther good?”, it’s a lot of different things to a lot of different people and much more loaded than your typical superhero movie. The good news is that most of the answers to that question are in the affirmative, Black Panther is a good movie. If you’ve been paying attention to a lot of the more headline-grabbing reviews, however, I don’t think it’s anywhere near as good as the critics are calling it. “Revolutionary”? “Marvel’s first Shakespearan epic”? “The grown-up Marvel movie we’ve been waiting for”? It’s not that good. It’s just a good step (and I’m sure there’s some joke in there about black people having rhythm). And it is a little bit more than just another Marvel movie.
That doesn’t mean that Black Panther isn’t like other movies though. Its early scenes evoke images from jungle-set war movies, one scene feels like it’s ripped straight out of Skyfall, and when we first set our eyes on the full breadth and depth of the nation of Wakanda, it actually reminded me a lot of seeing Asgard for the first time in the first Thor. Its world isn’t wholly original and, as someone who’s read Black Panther comicbooks, it’s a world I’m already fairly familiar with, but what’s impressive about it is that it feels wholly realized. You don’t just see Wakanda from above, you see its streets, you don’t just appreciate its architecture, you’re taken inside of the buildings, you’re not just told of their technology, those technologies are used, seen and explained.
In fact, one of the central conflicts in Black Panther deals specifically with the power of its technology, the responsibility the Wakandans do or do not have in using it to help the outside world, and how much their potential participation in the greater world could call for assistance, interference, or dominance. Those are surprisingly mature concepts for a movie like this, especially as they’re real-world issues our nations face very day. Beyond their technology, though, Black Panther still takes place in a world full of people with superpowers, and yet through the positivity of its portrayals and the application of measured humour, the creators of the movie manage to sometimes make just being black seem like a superpower, something it does without ignoring the history of persecution black people have faced and without belittling people who aren’t black. One of its central messages is “Show them who we are”, a sentiment reiterated several times throughout, and it’s pulled off really well and really consistently. It’s prideful but not boastful. It’s those moments where the movie sings, when it earnestly shows us a way forward that lifts us all up with a message of equal parts positivity and inclusivity. It’s not “Kick his ass!” or “Beat him up!” or even “Win!” It’s not posing the world as heroic winners and villainous losers, not even in the end when the good guys win and the bad guys are defeated (spoilers?), a defeat that requires almost every one of our protagonists, especially Wakanda’s women — Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), a Wakandan spy; Okoye (Danai Gurira), leader of Wakanda’s army, the Dora Milaje; or Shuri (Letitia Wright), T’Challa’s younger sister and the nation’s greatest inventor. In fact, it’s easy to see this movie more as Wakanda rather than Black Panther, its central character often outshone by those around him. T’Challa still definitely receives his own arc though, and though he’s challenged by the people around him, it’s clear that they still respect him, that he’s earned their respect, and that they’re the people he chooses to surround himself with partially because they challenge him.
There’s a whole lot Black Panther gets right, from representation to portrayals of power to its themes and how well they’re delivered, and that’s enough to get most people more than on board with it, but as a superhero movie I, unfortunately, found it lacking. The action, in terms of volume, is appropriate (though a little light), but there isn’t one single fight or action scene I feel like I would pick out to watch over and over again or say “That was great!” or “F*ck yeah!” about. There’s usually at least one of those in every Marvel movie, even in The Incredible Hulk, the forgotten Marvel movie! At least compared to what we’re used to, the effects often look unfinished, and when it comes time for the climactic final battle, it’s a fight between the hero and his evil counterpart and they look almost exactly the same. One of the most common complaints with Marvel (and superhero) movies is that the bad guy is nothing more than they’re evil duplicate, and here, but for a few minor differences, they’re both wearing exactly the same thing! And it’s boring to watch!
Killmonger, the main villain, is well conceived and generally well-played by Michael B. Jordan, but once he achieves his initial goal in fighting back against T’Challa, he almost immediately goes off the deep end, wielding his power for what’s pretty much direct super-villainy, and it’s a turn that robs the character of the essential intelligence he earlier displayed. He very suddenly falls on the side of wrong and vengeful, and it points to a weakness in the script that they just needed their guy to go bad and have a big fight because superhero movie. Critics have compared Killmonger to Magneto, but with Magneto it’s easier to understand that he’s lost all faith in humanity because he’s witnessed firsthand the attempted genocide of his people and watched his family die, once as a child and again as an adult (at least depending on which X-Men continuity we’re following at this point). I’m not saying you have to witness a global-level atrocity and the death of your entire family to be mad at people, but I just don’t feel Killmonger’s background warranted his later actions. It’s also just kind of weird in a movie like this, with such powerful figures, beliefs, symbologies, and titles, that the main bad guy’s name is just “Erik” (I think he’s only ever referred to as “Killmonger” once [and in passing] during the movie).
And then when you break down the story itself, some parts just don’t hang together very well given the level of intelligence and care of the rest of the movie. We witness a major shift in the Wakandan government in what feels like a matter of days (possibly less than one!) when such power moves should take far longer if only because how advanced can this culture possibly be if it’s that easy to overturn the entire thing? They don’t have, like, democracy or at least ways to prevent sudden upheavals? They’re supposed to be above these things!
So should I see it?
If it were just a question of if the movie is, on balance, more good than bad, then yes, you should definitely see Black Panther, and if you’re measuring a movie by the quality of its themes and how much you believe in what it’s saying, then, again, yes, you should see Black Panther. It’s an undeniably positive movie with messaging that we all need to hear and that we all need to hear now given the state of the world we’ve found ourselves in (i.e., Trump). It portrays black people in a positive and aspirational light while representing all people, minorities or not, as powerful and capable, it’s got cool characters and explores an interesting mythology, and its thoughtful enough that you’ll leave the theatre with good feelings and maybe even the desire to do good.
I’ve always taken issue with the idea that one must see themselves — their gender, race, or however else one identifies — literally represented for what’s happening in a story to really mean something. After all, when I read about or watched Superman or Captain America or even Iron Fist, I saw them all as heroes, and it didn’t matter to me that they were white, it mattered that they did their best to help other people and do the right thing. They didn’t need to be Chinese for me to follow their example or for me to think that a Chinese person like me could do whatever I set my mind to. But the more I’ve thought about that as I’ve grown, the more I’ve realized that that’s something I’ve had the luxury of feeling because I’ve never really experienced racism personally. But I have experienced rejection from my own culture, so much so that I don’t even self-identify as Chinese (at least not any more than I literally have to), and seeing somebody else on screen who experiences something similar at least got me to think about these things a little bit more and to consider that maybe I don’t have a problem with not seeing (Naziing?) Chinese people in movies or on television because that’s not what I consider myself. That might be best things about Black Panther is that it’s smart enough and considerate enough to get you to think about these things.
But as a superhero movie? It’s okay. I’ve seen better.
Thom’s Black Panther final score
On the Edge
- “T’Challa-Coachella”. “Coachella-T’Challa”.
- It was heartening for me to watch the post-post credits scene (i.e., the one after ALL the credits) and see the general crowd reaction. People really are following these movies! Continuity does matter! You guys really care about this stuff! We’re all in this together!