If You Came at Night Like A Broken King

The only thing I can compare it to was American Art’s most seismic black moments. “Move On Up A Little Higher,” Mahalia Jackson’s single released in 1947 without a major modern label or street team, selling eight million copies. A Raisin in The Sun, a “kitchen sink” urban black play written in ornate black dialect, being a Broadway hit for a year and a half in 1959. James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, a brutally honest, achingly beautiful assessment of/warning on of race relations in America, selling millions of copies in the early 1960’s. “Respect” and the string of a straight platinum and gold singles that expanded the vocabulary of black expression in American pop music and made Aretha Franklin enough of a celebrity to get on the cover of time.

These works weren’t discoveries as much as they were explosions, healthy shocks to the central nervous system of American culture. They were also powered by black masses responding to cultural vacuums. I can’t tell you how Black Panther will shock the system or change the culture as we know it; the opening weekend is barely over as I write this. I have never been as convinced, however, that the culture will change from a work of art as I am after watching this movie. Ryan Coogler has given his people and the world a movie that is more a creation myth epic than a major box office vehicle. He has created the aesthetic cinematic equivalent of a late era Sam Cooke pop song, a gorgeous weaving of deep and complex cultural themes through constricted pop forms (Marvel and Disney) that is not overwhelmed by those forms for a second. Having a homiletic family scene one minute, then transferring to a fight scene worthy of Kurosawa the next, Coogler shows such a remarkable control of his medium that it almost seems pointless to point out its hokier moments.

If my head was dazzled by Coogler’s skill as a director, my throat had – and continues to have – a lump in it because of the themes and questions that come from the character and narrative dynamics. And Panther‘s are ones I have never seen or thought I would see in my lifetime. An African superhero/king so compelling and in such a gorgeous setting? The idea of an unconquered African nation and the potential of what it could do? Black people so grand and not slaves or in the trap? A Rolodex of symbols that introduces the audience to numerous great African tribes, cultures and customs? The Dahomey Amazons (fictionalized as the Dora Miljae) portrayed so gloriously on such a grand stage, and with such nuance? With such an all-star iconographic cast of actors? 

And Erik Kilmonger, the greatest bit of cultural brain surgery manifested in a character I have ever seen?

Many have written about his compelling presence as a villain and how it is intertwined with agony narrative of the middle passage. His abandonment along with the murder of his father (a prince and a spy haunted by what he has seen in America) is tied into both the survival of his country’s invisibility, and the abandonment of black people on the American continent. It also serves as the bedrock of his murderously Shakespearean revenge plot to kill T’Challa and ascend to the throne. The contrast between the highbrow-like survivalist sensibility of T’Challa and the sulphorus rage of Kilmonger/N’Djaka is the movie’s compelling cultural center, and it is so because it gives no “woke” answers but rather presents a complex series of questions about heritage.

Yet what left me breathless was how, in Kilmonger/N’Djaka, Coogler deconstructs Richard Wright’s Bigger Thomas. Published in 1940, Native Son was another one of those eruptive cultural moments, and Wright’s defenders point to the untouched arc of the novel — Bigger Thomas’ quasi-accidental murder of the woman for whom he was a family butler and his following trial and execution — as an example of political art at its most powerful. Yet lost in the dark, absurdist narrative was the story of Bessie, Bigger’s black girlfriend that he kills and puts in a furnace because she just irritates him. In the rush to declare Bigger a radically woke society’s child caught up in murder for political reasons, Wright and almost every straight male critic who has written about him have ignored her presence in the novel.

In Black Panther, Coogler turns the Wright archetype on its axis. He has Kilmonger/N’Djaka enact a simulacrum of the same activites as Bigger: killing a white woman in a political act, then disposably murdering his black girlfriend after Ulysees Klaw, a murderous trader, holds her hostage in order to kill him and finish out his plan to go into Wakanda. Instead of using the dead bodies as a political act, however, Coogler establishes them as the very first symbols that his antagonist’s revolutionary politics have no depth. After giving his Bigger Thomas archetype a haunted origin story, he “gives him no name in the street” for being consumed by his rage to the detriment of his humanity.

Kilmonger/N’Djaka’s death – coming after violent struggle on the city train tracks which itself comes after a violent civil war between the new kings violently patriarchal army and women of the Dora Miljae/equal gendered army of the N’baku – is foretold by T’Challa’s statement that he has become the monster he so wanted to vanquish. This statement – that black men destroy themselves when they destroy the women in their lives – has been touched on by brothers before, most notably in the works of Ernest Gaines and Edward P. Jones, and the later works of August Wilson. To see it being propagated on such an enormous stage, however, was nothing short of earth-shattering. The fact that millions upon millions of black kids are viewing a work of art where the humanity of black women is so insistent continues to bring me to tears of happiness.

And how Coogler turns Wright inside out again with Kilmonger/N’Djaka’s last soliloquy! After being killed by T’Challa, Panther’s villain has a haunting monologue about his childhood, culminating with his need to be buried in the water because his ancestors knew death was better than bondage. I recognized the resin of it in several adaptations of the ending of Native Son, in which Bigger gives a speech about his reasoning of who he was and why he did what he did. Most notably, in how wounded his character was, I recognized the Wright who starred in his own vanity project adaptation of the novel in 1950.

The cinematic version that starred Wright as Bigger is complete toxic garbage, the author desecrating his own novel, turning it from a Dostoveskian anti-parable to a pamphlet for murdering women as a revolutionary act. It culminates in abominably shot scenes where Wright in tears makes his recriminations about America that sound similar to Kilmonger/N’Djaka’s, only in the context of the self-pitying killer hero. What Coogler does, in flipping the American scene in the context of T’Challa killing his antagonist, is give his Bigger archetype both a benediction and bullet to the head at the same time. He shows the audience that his antagonist’s pain is real, and that he also had to die.

Who knows how the culture will respond to Black Panther? Ashy Twitter is already having their temper tantrums about the things in the movie that weren’t “woke” enough. A second Trump election might embolden a sort of backlash politics where people won’t be interested in such intellectually-pointed art. All I can write now is the shaken cultural ground beneath my culture nerd feet and the complex joy that pours in my heart as I type this. Panther is both a pop culture masterpiece and a fable that a people have been waiting for generations to watch. I never thought I would see something like it in my lifetime. Given the triumph of movie, the talent involved, and the environment we are in, I will never make that assumption about black people and art again.