How Would James Baldwin Review “Black Panther”?

Or, alternatively with minimal witticism, “I am Not Your Wakandan”.

Note: Most of these “educated guesses” come from Baldwin’s writings, especially Notes of a Native Son, The Devil Finds Work, The Cross of Redemption, and Evidence of Things Not Seen. I do realize writing this up is a solid show of arrogance and that I am best a white-washed Tony Curtis figure in this regard (Baldwin’s not too high on Mr. Curtis). This makes me miss the days of graduate school when similar arrogance was not just welcomed but applauded.

And… ***SPOILER ALERTS***

Having recently challenged myself to read all things James Baldwin, and after having already finished two thousand or so pages by the man, I found myself watching Black Panther with an eye toward his perspective as opposed to my own eye, one of a Black Panther fan (and comic book fan in general) since my youth. For what it is worth, I would say that I think that Black Panther is the smartest if not the best superhero film to date.

And I think Baldwin, a sharp film critic though one passed on long before a superhero craze, would find much to love about the film and would, in fact, laud it. I believe he would find it a well-deserved alternate to Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” if not at least the beginning of a remedy to The Birth of a Nation (the original Griffith work and not the counter-memory of Nate Parker).

First, I believe, Baldwin would welcome a vision of a fantastical Africa far closer to the truth than most attempts at truth. Wakanda, seen by most of the world as a primitive nation is, beneath a necessary shield and veil, the most advanced culture in the world. Not unrelatedly, as he would note that “there are no diamond mines in America”, there is no place in the United States that produces Vibranium- this making the perceived West again into the mot progressive nation that still harbors some romanticism of colonialization.

Second, Baldwin would welcome (again within fantasy) a well-rounded and deep depiction of African (if not African-American) women. Nyong’o’s Nakita dismisses, with joy, the Mammy of Gone with the Wind. No longer the servant, here is the subtle spy and powerful up-ender of culture. Likewise, Danai Gurira’s Okoye is, unlike all the good work of Pam Grier, too powerful (both in character and acting) to be shackled by a Jezebel sexuality catering to the eyes (and more) of the audience. Not that Gurira eludes beauty, it is the opposite. Her ferocity demands it.

Third, Baldwin would find some amusement and perhaps vindication in the ridiculousness of the film’s only two major white characters- Andy Serkis as Klaue, a villain too shortsighted to ever be a real threat and Martin Freeman as Everett Ross, a secret agent too futile to really be much help. Freeman does have one scene of heroism, but it is utterly forgettable in the grand narrative.

Finally, and most importantly, Baldwin would, I think, express great joy if not surprise, that a nearly all-black cast is breaking box office numbers worldwide- a fact that is quite important but not as important as how children are finally seeing on the big screen a hero that looks just like them.

However, if my reading of Baldwin is any approximation of his truth, the great division between Baldwin and the Black Panther audience en masse is the name of the hero.

It helps to liken both Chadwick Boseman (T’Challa) and Michael B. Jordan (Killmonger) to Baldwin’s favorite actor (and beloved friend) Sidney Poitier, specifically Poitier in The Defiant Ones. They are scene stealers. They are, and this is important because for long it was so rare, virile. And finally they are both too good, each in his own way, to rest easily within the context of the superhero plot without asking- what else is going on here? What are they, knowingly or not, accomplishing?

Chadwick Boseman, and via Boseman T’Challa, is the uptown Manhattan reception of Poitier in The Defiant Ones. We as the white audience, quite frankly, are relieved that T’Challa risks his life to save the world (as Poitier leapt from the train to save Tony Curtis) because implicitly in saving the world, T’Challa is saving us, wherever we fall within a hundred shades of guilt or innocence. T’Challa assures us that he, alongside Captain America and the American way, are preparing for a universal battle on behalf of all humanity (finally, though not at first- which we will get to in a moment). It is important to note that Boseman is himself a South Carolinian and thus a product of the unwanted migration but T’Challa is not. He, beautifully in a way, sits upon a throne that has been his inheritance. However and here is the crux of the issue for Baldwin, always claiming to be an interloper in Africa, T’Challa (unlike Boseman) is not black (a white construct- and Baldwin would charge us to accept this point if no other) but with an identity always intact, he is Wakandan.

This brings us to Michael B. Jordan and his role as Erik Killmonger, an unfortunately biased name that deserves its own essay. Jordan is the East Harlem reception of Poitier in The Defiant Ones (and thus Baldwin’s own)- let Tony Curtis go from the train. After all, what has Tony Curtis done for you lately?

While Killmonger is Wakandan by birth, Killmonger is raised as and thus very quickly becomes the black American. Killmonger lives in Oakland (a not-so-subtle nod to THE Black Panthers) and at a very young age suffers the death of his father. This latter piece is not, Baldwin would assert, an aberration but rather “the price of the ticket”. Killmonger (played by Michael B. Jordan, born in California himself, and with perhaps some hint of irony took the role of Oscar Grant in Fruitvale Station) does by virtue of this ticket inherit the Middle Passage. And one can safely assume (if we are allowed to use our imagination and as this is the genre of flying men, we should be able to use our imagination) that as Killmonger inherits the Middle Passage then between this youth we see playing basketball and the young man who is our antagonist (or is he- this being the point), we can claim that Killmonger learned more than one or two things about police brutality, more than one or two things about the failed war on drugs, more than one or two things about the real fantasy of colorblindness, more than one or two things about growing up in Oakland which (according to Baldwin) is not much different than growing up in Harlem or even pick-your-cozy-Midwestern-town. We have no reason to believe that the royal Wakandan bloodline offered the boy and much less the young man very much at all. No more, certainly, than our shores ever offered any “princes there but chattel here”.

It is this reality, I believe Baldwin would assert, that makes Killmonger (despite the Manhattan audience) the protagonist as well. Baldwin was well criticized by Stokely Carmichael (THE Black Panther) but never hid his admiration of him, nor hid his admiration or Bobby Seale or his unflinching support of Angela Davis. Though he marched with King, he knew they all had something right as well and Killmonger, unlike T’Challa, grasps this from his first appearance on screen. Everything was taken from him and nothing will be given back unless he takes it himself.

Yet finally, here is where Baldwin I believe would inevitably align with Killmonger instead of T’Challa if such a dichotomy must exist. T’Challa, for almost the entirety of the film, sits in power in Wakanda, the most powerful nation in the world. Baldwin, despite a weighty status, sits rather without power in America, the most powerful nation in the world. And both these kingdoms make a very loud claim by both word and action that they act within (and only within) clear self-interest.

Killmonger makes the case (and is shunned for doing so) that the struggle of the Wakandan is the struggle of the African diaspora around the world. And there most clearly is Baldwin’s voice. Get off your throne, Baldwin called to many a leader of the free world, for Rhodesia’s suffering is your own, Algeria’s suffering is your own, and until the day he died- he promised Desmond Tutu that this was someday a fight to be won- South Africa’s suffering is your own. What good is your freedom, asked both Killmonger and Baldwin, when your sisters and brothers are in chains?

Well, we are happy to see that at the end of the film the Manhattan Sidney and the East Harlem Sidney become the same Poitier. Somehow the death of Killmonger (and here again, “the price of the ticket”) makes T’Challa understand that the Wakandan-American was right all along. He proudly announces that the heroic cause becomes universal.

This is all well and good but the final question is an old one. With every progressive upgrade in place, can we do better than just seeing the Black Panther as John Wayne and Killmonger the rather faceless and nameless yet clearly evil “Indian”? Can we step back from the desire so deep for a villain that we can admit Killmonger (and James Baldwin for that matter) had a point?

Human Development Project

A disruptive digital storytelling project supporting humanitarian initiatives, freeing shackled minds, and amplifying the voices of the oppressed.

Jonah Smith-Bartlett

Written by

Fiction Writer, Minister, Occasional Optimist, Realist by Birth

Human Development Project

A disruptive digital storytelling project supporting humanitarian initiatives, freeing shackled minds, and amplifying the voices of the oppressed.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade