Black Panther and the Case of the Reverse Racism
If you’ve been under a rock and somehow missed it, the movie Black Panther was released recently. It has made quite a splash on social media and a good portion of this is due to it’s being one of the few (not the only, but certainly one of few) super hero action movies to feature a black hero in the lead.
I was always going to see this movie because it’s a superhero movie. I love super hero movies. The only thing I love more than a superhero movie is a MARVEL superhero movie – which this is. And then the backlash began and people started saying the movie was reverse racist and anti-white and the idea of that made me sad. I live in New Zealand so I’m somewhat removed from America’s racial tensions (although New Zealand certainly has its own) but fueling those tensions seems unnecessary. As a sensitive white guy who believes in equality and fairness, I figured I should get to the bottom of it. So I did.
Be warned – there will be some minor spoilers ahead. (Also, for the sake of this discussion, I acknowledge there are two definitions of racism: the commonly understood definition of any prejudice based on someone’s race; and the other, the more academic definition, that the prejudice and disadvantage must be systemic in nature. Reverse racism therefore would be either of those against white people.)
First up, I gotta say, this is a great movie. There’s plenty of action and intrigue. The characters are interesting, smart, funny, and flawed in ways that make sense – I loved the conflict within Okoye when her loyalty is tested. The costuming and scenery are beautiful. The story itself is interesting and engaging. Are there a couple of elements that could be interpreted as digs at white folk? Sure. And I’d like to address them along with some of the concerns people (who hadn’t yet seen the movie) raised on social media.
The cast is all black
This is one that showed up in social media very early on and people reacted strongly to the notion that the movie could have unfairly cast only black actors so that the cast was all black. Here’s the thing: it’s not. It’s mostly black by a vast majority, yes, but not entirely. There are white people in the scenes in London and Asian people in the scenes in Korea. They cast what made sense for the settings. In Wakanda, a fictional country in Africa, yes, the people are all black because Wakanda has been mostly isolated from the rest of the world and…you know…AFRICA. Is it reverse racist? Nah. It really would make no sense to cast white Wakandans. It would be like casting white men as geishas in Memoirs of a Geisha. It would be distracting and dumb.
Wakanda’s technology isn’t real
Well, duh. It’s a fictional country. Hogwarts’ magic isn’t real. Asgardian technology isn’t real. Neither is the tech in Star Wars, Star Trek, Guardians of the Galaxy or any other sci-fi. It’s a superhero movie!! I actually have no idea why this could be offensive to anyone, racially or otherwise, but I’ve seen it raised on social media so here I am addressing it. If you don’t like awesome imaginative technology, don’t watch sci-fi. Wakandan technology is freakin’ awesome. Get over it. It’s not racist that fictional black people have cooler tech than you.
Shuri calls Martin Freeman’s character “coloniser”
(See? Martin Freeman. White guy. Not all black actors. Okay, we’ve moved on from that one so back to the current point.)
This moment does feel like a little dig at white folk and, to be honest, is also a funny moment that I’m sure indigenous audience members the world over will appreciate. It’s a bit unfair since Martin Freeman’s character, Everett Ross, never personally colonised anyone and Shuri, as a member of the Wakanda royal family, never experienced the effects of colonisation herself so at first glance it seems a bit out of place. However, when you look a little deeper, Shuri is a witty, intelligent, irreverent smart-ass who teases everyone in the movie. It fits her character that she would do the same to Everett and, let’s be honest, given world history, that was some low hanging fruit. There have certainly been meaner jokes in other movies. She then goes on to show him respect and trust by giving him access to her lab and the tech within. So aside from that little joke, she does nothing to hinder or disrespect him based on his race and is actually very accepting of him.
So is it a reverse racist comment? Maybe a tiny bit? If someone called me a coloniser just because I’m white, yeah, I’d be a bit annoyed. But it’s more a quick and humorous nod to the reality of world history and given that it’s not repeated and doesn’t hinder the character at all, it’s pretty minor really. Not like being called a rapist because you’re Mexican or being turned away at the border because you’re Muslim or come from a “shithole” country, for example. Frankly, if Everett can shake it off, surely the rest of us can too?
The villain wants to subjugate white people
Sorry – big spoiler. The bad guy wants to use Wakanda’s technology to overthrow the powers that be and put black people on top because he grew up in incredible hardship and saw first hand the unfairness of the way people like him were being treated. So yeah, this guy would be big on the reverse racism if he were to win out at the end – both personally and systemically. But the thing is, he’s the VILLAIN. You don’t take a film’s philosophy from it’s villain, you take it from the heroes. Black Panther and his allies fight to save all our lily white arses from this guy. So no, this does not make the film reverse-racist. Incidentally, this bad guy’s motivation is basically the exact same thing as Magneto throughout the X-men comics and movies. It boils down to, “Those in charge treat us bad so we should overthrow them and be the ones in charge.” It’s understandable because he HAS been treated badly and yet by taking it to the extreme he becomes bad himself. If we can understand this motivation in Magneto (and many others throughout film history) we can understand it in Killmonger.
The Jabari won’t let Everett Ross speak
I found this moment to be the most personally confronting of the whole movie. When Martin Freeman’s character tries to speak to M’Baku, the leader of the mountain tribe, he is quickly and ruthlessly shut down. His voice is stripped away by members of the tribe and he is told in no uncertain terms that he has no right to speak here. It is never specifically said that this is because he is white – it could simply be that any outsider would be given the same treatment – but certainly in that moment, as the only white character present and the only one so completely shut down, the unfairness and disrespect of it are shocking. The movie cleverly follows it up with a hilarious joke but Everett still doesn’t get to speak. He might be a good guy but he is not going to be the one to save the day.
This moment is brilliant. I can’t even begin to count how many times I’ve seen characters of colour or female characters shut down in some way from having their voices heard by those in power and no matter how wrong and unfair I think it is, there’s a part of me that just didn’t get it. There was always a subconscious voice in my mind that said, “Well that’s just the way things were/are and sure it’s wrong but at least it wouldn’t happen like that to me.” This moment drove it home what that must be like for people who face it in the real world. Here was someone like me, a good guy, a reasonable guy, a guy trying to help – and it didn’t matter. This happens to people of colour and women a lot (and yes, to white men sometimes but not nearly as much). It was horrible and confronting for me to see it happen to a character who was like me. How much worse would it be to happen to me? And for there not to be ways to escape it?
So despite it not being explicitly stated that this moment was about race, is it reverse racism? I’d say probably yes and GOOD! It’s a cleverly crafted learning moment and the best stories teach us what it’s like in another’s shoes.
So if you’re a fan of superhero movies and worried about whether Black Panther is reverse-racist, what should you do?
Honestly, just get over it and go enjoy a great movie. And if you can’t do that…think about why. The racism that’s blocking you might not be reverse. This is a really good movie on a number of different levels so don’t let the hyped backlash fool you. Go enjoy it for yourself.