Saturday, February 24, 2018

"Wakanda Forever!" If you can keep it....

So I saw "Black Panther" and yes, it is a paean to Africa and Africans (and African-Americans), and it is an almost all-black cast and women are powerful figures equal to men, and it has wonderful lessons about community and authority and even the idea of a commonwealth.

All of which the critics who sympathize with the villain in the film (he's so right but so wrong!) miss entirely.  The villain is a ruthless killer who thinks the world owes him a better outcome and deserves to have him in charge because his father died and he grew up in Oakland fatherless and poor in the 1990's.  The villain of "Black Panther" wants to rule the world and oppress anyone who disagrees with him, starting with the people of Wakanda.  He's not a savior of oppressed blacks around the globe, he's a tyrant, plain and simple, and he'll kill anyone he thinks blocks his goal.  Come on, people, this guy's certainly not Martin Luther King, Jr., but he's not even Malcolm X.  Malcolm X advocated justice by any means, but he understood he was leading people; the villain in "Black Panther" just wants to be in charge.

And worse, he wants it because he grew up poor.  It's the old middle-class stereotype of poor people wanting what we have, and if they can't get it, they'll destroy what we have so we can't have it, either.    In reality, poor people can't afford to be crazed ideologues:  poverty doesn't motivate anger and a passion to run the world; it enervates and crushes the soul.  As Patton Oswalt said when his wife died, his grief didn't turn him into Batman, committed to a cause unwaveringly.  It crushed him and left him on the couch eating tubs of ice cream.  Osama bin Laden was a rich kid who could afford his ideology.  Poor people don't scrabble to rise to the top and be in charge and punish the world; they scrabble to stay alive from day to day.  "Black Panther" romanticizes poverty and makes it clear the only life worth living is one with lots of technological toys and the power technology gives you.

That's an uplifting message?

But it's how it ends that's even more disappointing.  Wakanda is a paradise, made so by technology and a sharing of the wealth that keeps everyone comfortable and no one envious (the love of money really is the root of all evil).  It is hidden from the world precisely because it has access to the power to make a paradise.  By the end of the movie, our hero has decided to share that secret with the world.  He wants to bring the nations to his holy mountain (literally a mountain) where they will learn to live in peace and comfort as Wakanda does.

Which is a lovely idea, but it's built on an entirely false premise.  Wakanda has remained hidden for fear of what people with access to their source of power would do.  They were right to be hidden.  They should fear the future their king has decided they will have (in this, our hero acts like the villain, deciding what is best for the people because it makes him feel better).

The vision of Isaiah's holy mountain is of a place the peoples (read "nations" in the KJV translation) of the world will want to come to, because there will be such peace, harmony, contentment, and stability in living, in other words, such wisdom, the peoples of the world will want to learn from it.  Wakanda doesn't offer wisdom first, it offers power.  The nations of the world will descend on Wakanda like a plague of locusts, hungry for their power.  The first guy to steal their secret has it stolen from him in an earlier movie, and used to almost destroy the world.  He returns in this film to use that power for himself, proving people who have it will abuse it.  Well, people outside the traditions of Wakanda.

That's an uplifting message?

I mean, it's a comic book movie, I get it:  you can't have a comic book story without conflict, and the conflict needs to be external more than internal.  Nobody's putting Hamlet in a bulletproof suit and sending him out to fight bad guys while he stands paralyzed pondering his reasons for doing so.  "Black Panther" is a good movie, a serviceable entry in the Marvel canon (I still find "Thor:Ragnorak" and "Captain America:  Civil War" to be better stories), and it's certainly a pioneer in black films, shattering barriers and ceilings (glass and otherwise) that need to be shattered.

But the message is depressingly mundane.  The villain is not sympathetic unless you think violence and murder of everyone around you is the way to peace and prosperity for all (all who want your version of peace and prosperity, anyway).  The solution at the film's end, that material power will create wealth will create prosperity will create paradise, is so blinkered and hobbled and broken it's almost sad to imagine who quickly it will come crashing down, and how looted Wakanda will one day be.  Even in Wakanda there are political divisions, which are healed at the end only by defeat, not by consensus.  But the lesson of the film's villain is that the defeated are never disposed of; they always find a way to make their voice heard.

So will Wakanda lead the world?  If the film tries to be realistic at all, Wakanda will be pillaged by the world.  It is inspiring to see Wakanda as what Africa is capable of; it will be fantasy if the world becomes Wakanda, rather than Wakanda becoming the world.

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