So I had my morning jolt today when a friend linked me to this article at, erm, Breitbart, which purports that the Black Panther is Donald Trump and Erik Killmonger is Black Lives Matter.
Well, that’s going to go over well.
Kudos to John Nolte for at least taking a positive look at T’Challa and admitting that he does, in fact, like the film. I just saw it yesterday and I can agree that it’s clearly in the upper tier of MCU films and has a lot to enjoy on many levels. But, T’Challa as a nationalist? Hold on there.
“Wakanda is ruled by King T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), who is also known as the Black Panther,” writes Nolte. “T’Challa is big on border security, believes Wakanda and Wakandans should come first, and fiercely protects his country’s culture from outsiders, including refugees. If this is all starting to sound familiar, it should. Also like President Donald Trump, T’Challa’s beliefs are not based on race. This is not a ‘black thing.’ This is a culture/survival thing.”
“Still,” he goes on, “Black Panther is not a movie about race, it is a movie about ideas and ideals, about our shared humanity. Our hero is not in favor of protecting ethno-nationalism, but rather a healthy form of nationalism.”
You’re going to have to forgive me for not taking a formal position on how T’Challa compares to the President–as a military member, I generally decline from making public statements about a sitting commander-in-chief. But the general concept that T’Challa is a nationalist? That wooshing sound you hear is the point going right over Nolte’s head.
“Nationalism” is certainly a dirty word in today’s culture, mostly because it’s almost always paired with the word “white.” Let’s back off from that for a second and look at the concept separate from racial elements (after all, any country can be nationalist–just look at North Korea). Merriam-Webster defines it as:
loyalty and devotion to a nation; especially : a sense of national consciousness…exalting one nation above all others and placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and interests as opposed to those of other nations or supranational groups.
Contextually, “nationalism” seems to go beyond “patriotism” and warps into a superiority about one’s own country versus others. There’s cases where this might be OK–I think we’d all rather be Americans than 1930s Germans or 1950s Russians–but generally speaking, there’s a risk of taking things too far.
I won’t deny that Wakanda’s leadership, at least, has nationalist tendencies. The border is closed, the nation is insular, and there’s a general Wakanda-for-Wakandans attitude about the place. As a counter-statement to colonialism, the MCU’s Wakanda is understandable and even tempting, but as the film progresses, T’Challa questions whether even that attitude is the correct one if Wakanda can do better for the rest of the world.
After all, the extreme end of Wakandan nationalism is illustrated when Killmonger usurps T’Challa and ascends the throne. Keep in mind, Killmonger’s ascension is explicitly done as entirely legal and proper in the Wakandan hereditary system. Killmonger is native Wakandan, royal blood, and bests T’Challa in fair combat which nonetheless humiliates him and his more idealistic tendencies. Accordingly, most of the Wakandan leadership bows to his new vision even as you can tell they dislike it on a visceral level. They’re loyal to the throne, for good or for ill, and by God, they’re going to follow a king even if he’s a supremely shitty king who makes a formal act of burning down the thing that makes the country what it is.
In other words, the corruption of Wakanda’s throne is a strike against the very concept of nationalism–it’s a very extreme take on “my country, right or wrong.” That attitude only works when your country is in the right, and under Killmonger, no it wasn’t. I suppose we can’t blame the Wakandan leadership too much for following the system which holds their country together, but you’d think they would have second-guessed things when Killmonger decided to turn the country into a staging ground for worldwide armed revolt. The Dora Milaje, at least, came to their senses and remembered there’s principles which make their country great beyond the throne and the man sitting on it.
So “Wakanda forever!”, the film’s rallying cry, is more than just a statement of national protection. It’s a statement about identity, not just about Wakanda as technology and borders, but who it is at the heart of its people. It’s not a man who sits on the throne, because those men are ultimately going to be flawed. Killmonger is very flawed, but as we learn in the movie, so was T’Chaka, the father of T’Challa and the previous king. We and T’Challa learn a painful lesson that even though T’Chaka was a good man, he still had a flawed, insular vision for the country that led to Killmonger being abandoned as a child, which, ironically, came back to haunt T’Chaka’s own son.
The movie pretty much closes T’Challa, restored to the throne, deciding that Wakanda is more than land, people, and borders; it’s an opportunity for betterment of all peoples, not just those with a hereditary tie and a geographic link. Limiting the movie and its message to one man kind of misses the point. Viewing Wakanda as a strong nation with some cool technology misses the point. If John Nolte had viewed Wakanda through a lens of patriotism, he might have been closer to the mark. In the words of the Bible, the MCU’s Wakanda has the opportunity to become “the city on a hill” which is an example to the rest of the world. That’s not really nationalism–that’s just good human aspiration.