Black Panther: The Politics

So I’m a little late in posting something about this, the movie has been out for awhile now. But on the other hand, maybe that means that most people who wanted to see it in the theater have had a chance to, and so there’s less chance of me spoiling something for a movie fan. If you have not seen the movie, I suggest reading this after you have, although I actually am not going to reveal any major plot points or spoilers, except one that’s fairly obvious to anyone who’s been awake in the last two years watching electoral politics.

As someone whose politics lean sliiiiightly to the right of Hollywood, the blatant preaching and overt, ham-fisted messaging present in what seems to be an ever-increasing number of movies and television shows is a major nuisance to my viewing pleasure, and often detracts greatly from my ability to enjoy watching. It’s hard to lose yourself in the story and suspend disbelief when you can see a blatant, staunchly partisan message coming across in the dialogue or action like a banner behind an airplane, and always from the same point of view, of course. It doesn’t make it less odious to realize that most others who view it will not even notice, quite the opposite. It’s only extra aggravating to know that most of the viewing public will not consciously register it, and rather mentally bathe in it unnoticed, as a sort of background radiation of the social and political universe, the unspoken, unremarkable, universal facts, if you will. Which, of course, makes entertainment propaganda and indoctrination the most insidious of all. That propaganda works best which is not known as propaganda at all. At least in the 20th century, the propaganda had the “honor” and “transparency” of being out in the open, and publicly advertised. Now we pay lip service to opposing it, while it runs under, through, and out of literally the entirety of all entertainment we consume.

And quite quickly, just in case anyone’s wondering, no, I’m not wishing for the remedy of overt or covert political propaganda from “the other side” to balance it out. Frankly, I’m not even wishing it out of existence entirely, I’m not that much of a magical thinker. I just wish it was rare rather than common, good-humored rather than hissing, subtle rather than transparent, and maybe just once in a while only moderately to the left rather than from the dankest corners of the Social Justice Warrior cellar.

All that being said, I have to admit that Black Panther, despite its very existence having perhaps the most portentous and loaded political undertone of any movie I can remember, fulfills the requirements of my last sentence, if indeed political messaging must exist in a movie at all. It is rare, mild, good-humored, and subtle. In fact, the quiet politics of the movie only pop up all of three times that I can count. The first and most transparent time is when our hero is chatting with a close friend, and they are discussing whether or not to reveal the true nature of Wakanda’s existence to the world, which would necessarily entail putting themselves on the radar of some assumedly poorer and less developed African neighbors. King T’Challa’s friend warns him that if they do so, they will be sure to have refugees soon arriving at their door, and “Refugees bring their problems with them.” Before he even finished the sentence, I knew that this character was going to turn out to be a bad guy. And when a plot point like this is so easy to discern from one line of dialogue, you start to get an idea of how pervasive and blatant Hollywood’s messaging problem is.

But, this scene and dialogue flowed nicely and evenly after that line, so I was only happy that they didn’t belabor the point, only a trite cliché that “We must decide what kind of country we are to become.” Likewise, when the king’s love interest, who from the start has probably the highest moral position of the movie and is most likely the character that is supposed to be the vessel for the audience, says that indeed they must decide what kind of country they are to be, and they must be an open country that welcomes refugees, you know that she is the moral voice of the filmmakers and the moral anchor of the story. But again, the dialogue, while no Shakespeare, is good-humored enough and flows easily enough past this point that it does not grate much, if at all. It feels more like “Ok ok, I know you had to get it in there, whatever, not even mad.”

Finally, there is a scene at the end where the King is addressing the United Nations, and says that rather than continue their traditional isolationism, they want to open themselves up to the world. I cringed a little when an old white man says “But King T’Challa, what does Wakanda have to offer the world?”, because that’s a little obvious, but it’s not, how shall I say, more coarse or blunt than this boilerplate superhero movie is anyways.

I should step back and say the aggravation of political messaging in a movie seems to have an inverse relationship to the quality of the movie itself. In a movie that is really high quality, even of the superhero genre, moments like this might detract from otherwise high-level, subtle, even exquisite writing. Think about moments like this if they happened in The Dark Knight, or the original Avengers movie. It would have been jarring and taken me out of a movie that I was lost in. Here, I never felt elevated beyond the popcorn-level experience, so a handful of political messages of a subtlety on par with the rest of the movie is not very shocking, nor is it ruining what otherwise could have been a delicate artistic experience. That’s not to disparage this movie as a bad movie, but it’s not a great movie either, not even a great superhero movie. So there’s less to lose or spoil with these little pieces of the writers’ politics.

There is another reason I was pleasantly relieved at the manner in which the politics of this movie were displayed, and I’m not sure if it’s an objective measure, or simply a barometer of low expectations and how far we have sunk. But to me, the politics of this movie were, astoundingly, fairly moderately liberal, and better yet, fairly timeless. Should I confess multiple sighs of relief that this movie, near as I can tell, took no direct jabs at our current president, in any manner, on any topic? Is it objectively good, or simply that I expect so little, that there were no messages related to any of the polarizing identity politics topics that have been the focus of moral panic over the last few years, regarding race, gender, or trans-anythingism? Is it right to almost feel like I should applaud Hollywood movie writers, and, dare I say it, black Hollywood movie writers, producers and directors, for not throwing some dreary, obvious stones at Donald Trump or firing some quivers from the bag of racial identity politics arrows that have been filled to capacity recently?

Is there some kind of award for that? Maybe there should be…

razzie-award1

To restate it, I felt like the relatively mild and unobtrusive political messages in this movie could have, and very likely would have, existed and had meaning ten or twenty years ago, or twenty years in the future. They felt like very universal campfire feel-good sentiments that could be part of any movie Hollywood might have ever made. Again, context matters, and considering the political baggage around the very fact that this movie happened, not even to mention the time it happened in, I have to say I’m genuinely very, very pleasantly surprised with how the creators of this movie handled the politics contained in the story, and honestly very impressed that they did not succumb to inserting obvious, boring political messages that would no doubt have been hailed and huzzahed as “brave” and “resistance” to…..whatever.

So frankly I think that this speaks very highly of their artistic integrity, if not their business sense. I suppose there is some cynical possibility that they were chomping at the bit to do just that, but refrained for fear of alienating potential audience members, but I think this would have just as likely rallied those inclined to see this movie anyways, certainly the critics, and certainly would have given them some free media buzz and soundbite attention. And then there’s the fact that they did insert some politics anyways, so if there were cynical business motives involved, you would think they’d have the sense to scrub those as well. No, my sense is they handled this just the way they wanted to, and all-in-all, with the entirety of the context considered, including the social and creative world they live in, I think they handled it pretty impressively and with an admirable amount of restraint from where you can be virtually certain their political views lie.

So why do I write this? Because I think art matters, both when it’s political and when it is not, both when it’s intentionally or overtly political, and when it’s political only as an unavoidable consequence of context, such as the first virtually all-black blockbuster popcorn movie. (Isn’t it funny, by the way, that it took us ten years after the first black president to get such a movie? Perhaps a subject for another essay…) Regardless, I view art as meaningful and essential to the human condition (Rubinstein plays Chopin in the background as I write this), and how it gets created and what it conveys, overtly and indirectly, matters. It is important whether overt politics has taken over the fictional getaways of our storytelling, and whether and when it has not, or has not much. Thankfully, this movie, as well as the other comparable popcorn movie Wonder Woman, handled this pressure well, handled it with grace, and did not succumb to easy virtue and cheap praise for cheap shots in the midst of what is, after all, supposed to be entertainment. And I applaud all involved for that. I can only pray they manage to keep it up and resist the temptation to “be brave” and “resist” by scoring easy applause and points in their creations going forward.

But so far, as of now, we can say: so far so good.

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