‘Black Panther’: Watersheds and Cultural Constants

I was thinking Oscars ceremony when I saw “Black Panther” at a studio screening. While by some measures, “Black Panther” is one of the best movies of the Marvel-verse, it is also fits into an uneasy pattern of covert racism.

Let’s go over the positives first. “Black Panther” features great CGI although it does go overboard on just how big everything has to be. The city where we see joyous Wakandans is a mix of old traditions and new, one where the tribes of Wakanda give honor to native animals, but only one animal really plays a part in the film (and not one used as a totem or spiritual avatar).

Marvel-verse Introduces Black Panther

First, in case you haven’t seen “Captain America: Civil War” let’s recap or you won’t properly understand where we are in the Marvel-verse. “Civil War” begins in 1991 with the brainwashed super-soldier and Captain America’s former BFF James “Bucky” Barnes on an assassination mission. Bucky is after an automobile that carries the super-soldier serum. Elsewhere, in the present-day, Captain America/Steve Rogers, Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow, Sam Wilson/Falcon, and Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch prevent bad guy Brock Rumlow from stealing a biological weapon from a secret lab in Lagos, a city in the Nigerian state of Lagos. During this deed, an explosion ends up killing several Wakandan social workers.

What creates the Civil War between Team Captain America and Team Iron Man is the Sokovia Accords. The UN wishes to established a panel to oversee the Avengers after the destruction caused during all the battles we witnessed in “Marvel’s The Avengers,” “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” and “Avengers: Age of Ultron.” The name Sokovia comes from the fictional nation where the Avengers defeated Ultron and the Lagos incident is one year after the defeat of Ultron. Team Iron Man is all for the UN panel while Captain America would rather make his own decisions. At the UN conference in Vienna, a bomb explodes, killing the King of Wakanda. The king’s son, T’Challa vows revenge.

The killer is poor Bucky who is being controlled by trigger words, words that we learned the villain Helmut Zemo stole. With the authorities after Bucky, Rogers  decides to save his BFF, and taking Wilson with him,  he tracks Bucky to Bucharest, Rogers is confronted by T’Challa. Bucky, Rogers, T’Challa and Wilson are captured.

During this captivity, we learn just how slack the security is among superheroes in the Marvel-verse. Zemo impersonates a psychiatrist sent to give an evaluation of Bucky and instead of unlocking Bucky’s intentions, Zemo uses the key words to spark a Bucky big-time rampage (and the word wasn’t “Super Bowl” so we don’t know what team Bucky wanted to win). Post-rampage, Bucky realizes Zemo is behind his roid-rage episodes and that other Winter Soldiers in Siberian hibernation are Zemo’s next logical targets.

Rogers, Wilson and Bucky with Maximoff, Clint Barton/Hawkeye, and Scott Lang/Ant-Man  go after Zemo while Team Iron Man (Romanoff, T’Challa, James Rhodes/War Machine (Don Cheadle), Vision, and Peter Parker/Spider Man) goes after them. There’s a big battle at Lepizig/Halle Airport in Germany. Rogers and Bucky escape but the rest of Team Captain America are captured.

In the end, Zemo, Stark, T’Challa, Rogers and Bucky end up at the Siberian extended-stay housing and Zemo reveals what Rogers and Bucky have known: Bucky killed Stark’s parents. Stark goes crazy, and takes apart Bucky’s bionic arm, but Rogers and Bucky escape. T’Challa prevents Zemo  from committing suicide now that he, Zemo, has avenged the deaths of his family in Sokovia by destroying the team-unity of the Avengers.

During the credits of “Civil War,” we see Bucky in Wakanda where he has been granted asylum. Until a method for curing his brainwashing can be found, Bucky chooses to hibernate (cryogenic sleep).

If you see “Black Panther,” you’ll thank me later for this synopsis.

Black Panther 

“Black Panther” returns us to Wakanda by way of Oakland, California but first we are given the background of Wakanda through visuals that simulate shifting sands. Wakanda was hit by a meteor containing vibranium, the same metal used for Captain America’s shield. The vibranium caused a local plant to mutate into a heart-shaped herb with a glowing blue flower which is ground up to make an elixir that gives the Black Panther superhuman power, but that power is amplified by the high tech bodysuit and weapons of vibranium. This herb is supposedly a gift from the panther god.

The five tribes of Wakanda decided to keep the secret of vibranium from the world. Their technology becomes the famed lost advanced civilization of Africa, except in so many adventures those cities were populated by white people. Here the people are five black tribes–four of which live together in harmony and one tribe, the Jabari,  that lives in the high cold mountains, eschewing usage of vibranium. Their spiritual animal is the mountain gorilla.

Now that we got the background, we end up in California. In Oakland (1992), two men in an apartment are accosted by “two Grace Jones looking chicks.” Here is where we first meet Black Panther but the identities of those two men are part of the tragedy that fuels the film. We will come back to Oakland later, but alas, not with Sterling K. Brown.

Flash forward to Wakanda, just after the king’s death. His son, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) must face a challenge at Warrior Falls to become the king. First we meet his family–mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett) and Shuri (Letitia Wright), his younger sister who is second-in-line to the throne.

Outside of his family, T’Challa also has trusted confidantes. W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) head of security for the Border Tribe is both a friend, but also a warrior with a different view how Wakanda should interact with the world. T’Challa’s mentor and friend Zuri (Forest Whitaker) is the spiritual leader of Wakanda and the keeper of the Staff of Bashenga and the overseer of the sacred heart-shaped herb crop.

In Wakanda there are a lot of Grace Jones-looking women. They are warriors and spies. Nakia (Lupita Nyong’O) is a War Dog from the River tribe. She has skills to match the Dora Milaje, the elite all-female security force, which is headed by Okoye (Danai Gurira).

T’Challa interrupts Nakia’s project–freeing women and girls captured by some group of rebels, in order to ensure she’ll be at his crowning ceremony. They are old flames and T’Challa “freezes” up in her presence–she may be his kryptonite.

Yet it is not Nakia nor Okoye who challenge T’Challa when Zuri asks if anyone challenges T’Challa’s ascension to the throne.  After a potion has stripped T’Challa of his special powers, M’Baku (Winston Duke) of the Jabari, fights him for leadership in a splish-splash M’Baku’s ego is taking a bath fight and T’Challa earns the right to be Black Panther at the magnificent Warrior Falls.

Inspired by the Oribi Gorge in South Africa, the actual set is 120’ x 75’ in size and 36’ tall. At the falls, there is a pool where the warriors must fight for the kingship. The pool is actually six feet above ground level, making the practical cliff faces 30’ tall, but with CG enhancement, the cliff wall of Warrior Falls is made to look 100 feet high.

Once leadership is settled,  Zuri gives T’Challa the potion again and in the Hall of Kings, T’Challa goes into a trance and meets his father on an Ancestral Plain. T’Challa has doubts, but his father, T’Chaka, has secrets. Within his kingly council, there are differing viewpoints. Like Nakia, W’Kabi feels Wakanda should no longer be a secret and continue an isolationist national policy.

Matters abroad force T’Challa away from his kingdom and will eventually force this issue to become central to T’Challa’s consideration. In London, at the beautiful Museum of Great Britain, someone has recognized the value of an artifact.  A young man informs the curator that a weapon dulled with dirt and a patina of age is actually made of the rare vibranium. Having poisoned her, the young man with the illegal arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) steal the weapon. Using his bionic weapon-arm, Klaue gives the weapon a quick polish and is off, but to where? Klaue appeared in the Marvel-verse movie “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” so he’s an old bad guy with a new gang. (I can’t actually say “Klaue” without thinking of an old “Get Smart” episode, but that’s another story. )

Shuri is also Wakanda’s top scientist and gives her brother the low-down on new equipment, weapons and a new suit before he goes off on his mission. Where are Klaue and his gang? South Korea.

In Busan, Korea, T’Challa, Nakia and Okoye find themselves working with a CIA agent Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman). Audience members who saw “Civil War” will recognize him as the man who interrogated Zemo. Klaue is captured, but also escapes with the aid of Erik Killmonger, a former SEAL and current mercenary with a mission. Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) isn’t just a hired thug; he has knowledge of Wakanda and from the incident in Oakland, one suspects he has some connection to the betrayals that found vibranium crossing the borders.

The realization of Wakanda is deeply nuanced. The production team did a lot of research, using one of the official languages of South Africa, Xhosa, as the language of Wakanda. For the Jabari, Nigeria’s language of Igbo was used for the Jabari and Serkis’ Klaus uses Afrikaans. The script used in the film titles that then transforms into English is based on an existing Nigerian language.

The costuming is colorful and wonderfully detailed although there’s a moment when the movement of a particular earring is more distraction than detailed decoration.

Cultural Watershed versus Major Asian Diss

While Brian Lowry writing for CNN has declared “Black Panther” to be something like “a cultural watershed,” because like “Wonder Woman” it goes beyond “an under-represented group belatedly receiving its super-heroic due.” Like Wonder Woman, Black Panther is not only superhero, but royalty.

According to Merriam-Webster, a watershed is “a crucial dividing point, line, or factor: Turning point.” “Turning Point” was, of course, also a movie about women, ballet and heterosexual male dancers. The movie about ballet was painfully aware of the unreasonable stereotype of male dancers as gay. “Black Panther” attempts to re-define Africa using a single nation, but still uses the hypermasculinity associated with tribalism, Africans and, in turn, African Americans and the formidability of African and African women.  Yet is also emphasizes the ineffectuality of the Asian male, an infantilization and emasculation that was pervasive in the original Marvel-verse.

Certainly, director Ryan Coogler’s visually stunning realization of Wakanda will transform the meaning of Black Panther from an animal to a sociopolitical organization to comic-book hero. Kyle Buchanan writing for Vulture feels the movie should earn Marvel Studios its first Oscar for Visual Effects and even Best Costume Design (Ruth E. Carter’) categories. Buchanan also suggests Jordan for Best Supporting Actor.

Yet my Oscar image was of three East Asian ethnic kids trotting out to be a the punchline for Chris Rock at the 2016 Oscars.  Asians and Asian Americans are good with numbers. That’s a stereotype not associated with Africa or African Americans. In the simplistic hierarchy explained in a Goldilocks analogy–Asian men are too cold, African men are too hot but White men are just right.

Why does Klaue end up in South Korea (Busan), a city that is 9,303 km or 5,780 miles from Mogadishu, Somalia–the closest African city. London, where the vibranium weapon was stolen, is about a 15-hour flight to Busan. There were a lot of other countries closer to both Great Britain and Africa. Busan isn’t particularly close to Oakland, California either. Busan to Kitakyushu is 137 miles air miles, jumping over the Sea of Japan. Busan to Seoul is farther at a little over 175 miles.

In the production note, Coogler is quoted as explaining, “The city has an amazing energy, and provides a great mix of modern architecture and historical buildings all against this beautiful coastal backdrop. It instantly reminded me of my home in the Bay Area.” The demographics of San Francisco is 48 percent white , 33 percent Asian, 6 percent African American and 15 percent Latino (of any race). Ethnic Chinese are 21 percent of the population while Koreans make up only 1.2 percent. The largest foreign population in South Korea are the Chinese, but the Korean ethnic groups account for 96 percent of the South Korean population.

Coogler chose the Jagalchi Fish Market as the front for his hidden casino, but let’s consider what having a large, high-tech high society casino means. It likely means organized crime,  Geondal or Jopok.  It likely means protection–body guards and bouncers. Protective forces should be easy to come by because since 1957, men between the ages of 18 and 35 are required to serve two years of military service.

The reason should be obvious: South Korea is a divided country. The Cold War between democracy and communism continues. North Korea is not only but run by an unstable Kim Jong-un, the third supreme leaders of the Kim dynasty.  North Korea has nuclear weapons. Between 1977 and 1983, North Korea kidnapped Japanese nationals. According to the National Association for the Rescue of Japanese Kidnapped by North Korea, North Korea has abducted people from 12 countries.  Think of how the threat of North Korea would result in a vigilant society, one that would notice a convoy of large black SUVs rolling into the largest fish market in South Korea and would certainly take note of black people, particularly tall and weapon-bearing.

But East Asia also has a specific characteristic in the Marvel-verse that makes it an attractive location: No super heroes. Central Asia (Tibet) was the base for the Ancient One who provided training and guidance for Doctor Strange (Doctor Strange did pop up in “Thor: Ragnarok.”). K’un-Lun is the mystical city where billionaire Danny Rand/Iron Fist trained to be a Buddhist monk, learning the Chinese martial arts of kung fu, wushu and tai chi along with an unspecified Buddhist philosophy. Kunlun (崑崙) is a mythical mountain range, but also the name of mountains on the Tibetan Plain. 

There are ethnic Asians in the Marvel-verse. “Agents of SHIELD” has human Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen). Captain America had human James Morita (Kenneth Choi) as a member of the Howling Commandos (“Captain America: The First Avenger,” “The Avengers” and “Agents of SHIELD”).Chloe Bennet (who is half-Chinese) does play Daisy Johnson in “Agents of SHIELD.” Daniel Henney appeared as Agent Zero or David North in “X-Men Origins: Wolverine.”  “X-Men United” had villainess Yuriko Oyama (Kelly Hu). The X-Men has become the diversity project of the movie Marvel-verse; while “Agents of SHIELD” is the diversity project of the TV Marvel-verse.

There have been black X-Men mutants and also Latino mutants (Mexican actor Adan Canto played Sunspot in “X-Men: Days of Future Past”). Chinese actress Fan Bingbing plays Blink in the same movie while part Asian Booboo Stewart is Seth Clearwater in the same movie. There’s also Alexandra Shipp as Ororo Munroe / Storm, Guatemalan-American actor Oscar Isaac  and Vietnamese-American actress and dancer Lana Condor in “X-Men: Apocalypse.” 

Agent Zero, Lady Deathstrike and Morita are dead. Zero and Deathstrike were villains. There was also Ghengis Carnage (Tom Wu), the villain from “Kick-Ass 2” (also deceased).

In the Marvel-verse movie “Iron Man 3” the villainess Mandarin was played by Ben Kingsley as a faux villain, a drug-addicted actor approached by Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) to portray a world-class terrorist.

While the TV character Dre looks at how too many white heroes are “Captain Unrelatable,”  but in Los Angeles County, African Americans are a minority at almost 10 percent. Latinos of any race represent 47 percent with Asian Americans at 10 percent. African Americans are 12.1 percent of the population in the US, the population is largely concentrated in the southern states (54 percent) where they might not be the minority (e.g. Atlanta they are 54 percent; Birmingham, 73.5 percent; Detroit, 82.7 percent; Memphis, 61.4 percent and New Orleans, 60 percent).  Asian Americans are 5.6 percent of the national population while Latinos make up 17 percent and largely populating the Southwest and Pacific Coast.

There have already been black superheroes in the Marvel-verse. You have Don Cheadle’s War Machine, the Falcon (Anthony Mackie)  as an Avenger and Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury.

Tessa Thompson was a Valkyrie in “Thor: Ragnarok” last year, joining Idris Elba (who has played Heimdall since 2011) in Asgard. Michael B. Jordan was Johnny Storm in the 2015 “Fantastic Four.” Wesley Snipes played Marvel character Blade in three vampire movies (1993-2004). For the kiddies, there’s Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson again) in “The Incredibles” (2004). There is “Nick Cage” on Netflix.

Outside the Marvel-verse there were other black heroes. During the 70s, there was Tobar Mayo as “Abar, the First Black Superman” (1977). Robert Townsend was “Meteor Man” (1993). DC had a 1997 movie, “Steel” with Shaquille O’Neal. Ray Fisher was Cyborg in “Justice League” just last year.

Where is Asia, particularly East Asia in the Marvel-verse? The Avengers in the movie Marvel-verse draw from East Asia. According to the fight coordinator Jonathan Eusebio  Black Widow and Hawkeye do not have super powers or super suits so the actors Scarlett Johansson (as Black Widow) and Jeremy Renner (Hawkeye) have to train and “A lot of their training involved them working out together quite a bit. We cover a mix of different martial arts, but more practical martial arts; a mix of karate, jujitsu, judo, Filipino martial arts and Muay Thai boxing. It’s a bunch of different elements of a bunch of practical martial arts.”

Karate, jujitsu and judo are Japanese but you won’t see a Japanese superhero although Wolverine went to Japan in the 2013 “Wolverine” and fought a Japanese villain (Silver Samurai played by Haruhiko Yamanouchi).  The yakuza existed in that part of Marvel-verse along with ninjas. With Korea’s history of being dominated by Mongols, Chinese and Japanese, you’d think South Korea would have something or someone worthy of fighting at a casino or during a car chase.

Korea also has martial arts, including taekwando which is, like judo, an Olympic sport.  South Korea is populated by men with military experience. South Korea is closer to China and Tibet than North America, yet somehow no one within South Korea or East Asia has learned from the Ancient One or from the masters of K’un-L’un to become the superhero savior of Asia. Busan is only an exotic background, a place where black power can be displayed without the expectation of interference by the local authorities as if the old stereotype of Oriental officialdom incompetence was in effect. Japan in “Wolverine” at least had a villain, organized crime and ninjas. South Korea is known for archery and Korean women are a force in archery, but there is no Hawkeye female equivalent Korean superhero to monitor Busan. South Korea’s Busan had nothing.

Instead of the punchline, the fight scenes and car chase in Busan are used to punch-up the action for “Black Panther.” Ironically, Korea is a real country with phenomenal technology and a real association with a big cat–the tiger.  For Asian Americans, Black Panther is like the rest of the Avengers–Captain Unrelatable. “When you see a hero that looks like you, it helps you find the hero inside you” Dre commented, but as for the movie Marvel-verse, Asians are still waiting for that hero.

 

 

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