Black Panther and the LA Riots
#WhatBlackPantherMeansToMe — “Me” being a Korean-Chinese-Mexican-American “hapa” of sorts
I am not Black, but the Black Panther movie still got me shook. In my opinion, it was in all respects, the best superhero movie by far. More than that, it was a masterfully made film that deserves many accolades not only for its entertaining, action-packed scenes, but also and more importantly for its beautifully veiled allusions.
What captivated my attention most was the scene in Busan, South Korea. T’Challa, Nakia, and Okoye arrive at what seems to be an entrance to a hole-in-the-wall restaurant. Nakia then begins speaking to the “ajumma” (or auntie) in fluent Korean. The exchange begins tense, with the ajumma questioning Nakia about her two companions, but ends with a joke, smile and beckoning nod from the ajumma. This seemingly random location and exchange tied together with the fact that Killmonger’s father is killed in 1992, the year of the LA Riots, leads me to believe that these details could not be mere coincidences. Underneath the action and flashy lights of Busan, I postulate that there is a hidden homage to the LA Riots and the historically tense relationship between Korean-American and African-American communities.
Being half Korean, I learned about Rodney King and the 1992 LA Riots growing up. However, I did not fully understand the context of the Riots until I studied it in my Asian American Studies course in college. To give a bit more context, below is a timeline of events leading up to the riots.
1980s: Many Korean-owned businesses sprout up in traditionally African-American neighborhoods in Los Angeles. Korean-American shop owners become the targets of protests, armed robberies, and theft. There are deep cultural gaps and misunderstandings, which lead to intense racial conflicts between the two communities (Park 60).
March 3, 1991: Intoxicated, paroled felon Rodney King attempts to evade police officers in a high speed vehicle chase. As the officers try to arrest him, King resists and is badly beaten by the officers even as he stops struggling. The confrontation was caught on camera and sparked tremendous outrage around the US, triggering a national debate on police brutality (History.com Staff).
March 16, 1991: Latasha Harlins is shot and killed in a South LA Korean convenience store by its owner, Soon Ja Du (Park 58).
April 29, 1992: In the Rodney King case, the officers are acquitted on all counts, except for one assault charge. This verdict sparks the L.A. riots, which is regarded as the most destructive U.S. civil disturbance of the 20th century (History.com Staff). Violence radiates through the city of Los Angeles with intense rioting and looting centered upon Korean American businesses. In the five days that the riots lasted, more than 60 people were killed, almost 2,000 were injured and the disorder amounted to nearly $1 billion in property damage — $400 million of which came from the looting and burning of 2,280 Korean American businesses (Chang 1).
Keeping this complicated and volatile past in mind, I noticed a similar complexity reflected in the Busan interaction between the three Wakandans and the ajumma. Nakia speaks Korean and pleasantly greets the ajumma, calling her “auntie” Sophia. But instead of warmly returning the greeting, the ajumma attempts to make a dry humored joke, which is sorely lost on Nakia and her companions. Whether this is a type of cultural boundary or just an unfortunate misunderstanding, the Black Panther scene is wrought with tension.
This tension and misunderstanding reflects a similar reality between African-American and Korean-American communities. Much discord and violence has occurred between the two groups in LA, NYC and across the US, however, the inclusion of the Busan Black Panther scene gives me hope for two reasons:
- The fact that Busan was selected for such an intense fight and pursuit scene out of many other cities/countries without any tangible link into the storyline affirms the connection to the LA Riots, as well as provides a mended bond between the two communities’ cultural homelands.
- The inclusion of precious script lines around Nakia’s conversation with the ajumma in Korean joins the two together by a common tongue, dialogue and body language (smiling from both Nakia and the ajumma in the end).
While this is all speculation, I see the inclusion of this Black Panther Busan scene as a reconciliation of sorts. And while it rests in fiction, I hope we can look to Ryan Coogler’s powerful messages in Black Panther for our own reality.
Note: this is my personal interpretation of Black Panther and is not meant to detract in any way from how other people might interpret the movie. I realize that I may be reading into this way too much… but I just thought I’d put it here since I found hope and happiness in the inclusion of this scene!
Chang, Edward Taehan. “Confronting Sa-i-Gu: Twenty Years after the Los Angeles Riots.” American Studies, 2012, pp. 1–28.
History.com Staff. “Riots Erupt in Los Angeles.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 2010, www.history.com/this-day-in-history/riots-erupt-in-los-angeles.
Park, Carol. Memoir of a Cashier: Korean Americans, Racism, and Riots. Young Oak Kim Center for Korean American Studies at the University of California Riverside, 2017.