Let me be perfectly clear.

Everyone should see the movie, Black Panther. It is an entertaining and ground breaking film with a nearly all black cast animating a comic book storyline full of social commentary on racism, colonialism and white privilege.  It wrestles with different visions of black empowerment.  It artfully uses nearly every scene to explore the challenges of being black in the world.  Even the Black Panther’s super powers are symbolic of the black struggle.  The more abuse the Black Panther takes, the more powerful he becomes.  As a white man, I was only aware of the most obvious narratives.  From what I am reading, black audiences are experiencing a deep catharsis while watching strong black men and women navigating the world.

I know my daughter did. I have never seen her more excited before, during or after a movie.  My wife found the movie – and watching our daughter watching the movie – emotionally moving.  They both left the theatre exclaiming, “That was awesome.”  I was less enthused.  When they asked what I thought, to their disappointment, I said, “It was good.”  Though I recognized the movie’s significance and power, I did not experience what they experienced. I didn’t connect with the movie emotionally.  Later, as I reflected on my response, I realized why.  This movie – unlike most – wasn’t about me.

It was not a movie about white men. We were barely present at all.  We were not the heroes.  We did not have super powers.  We did not save the world.  We did not get the girl.  Of the two white men in the movie, one was a crazy villain and the other a humbled and subordinate ally.  What I experienced in watching Black Panther was what people of color and women experience when they go to the movies.  Regardless of how compelling the movie may be, without the presence of strong characters that look like us, it is difficult to deeply connect.  We are watching someone else’s story.  This is what I disliked about Black Panther.

However, what I disliked even more was what that response indicated about me and our culture. As much as I’ve tried to become aware of my latent racism and sexism, this movie revealed how much further I have to go.  I am sympathetic to the plight of women and of people of color in our culture, but this movie suggested that I am not yet empathetic.  It is nearly impossible for me to fully appreciate or understand what it is like to be a person of color or a woman in a white male dominated society.  As with many aspects of our culture, I have been largely indifferent to how movies and media have excluded others and focused on me.

No wonder my wife and daughter have had no interest in the Star Wars movies that I’ve so enjoyed. If there was ever a black woman in any of the movies, I don’t remember her.  Until recently, all the heroes and villains of Star Wars were white men.  The central storyline was of the battle against the “dark side” of the Force.  Sadly, the Star Wars movies that I so eagerly anticipated have portrayed a future exactly like the present – one where people of color and women are marginalized and white men violently dominate.  More disturbing, these movies blatantly promote the “rightness” of such a world order.

Ironically, some of the critics of the Black Panther movie have attacked the movie for its undisguised social commentary and its lack of diversity. These critics seem hopelessly unaware of how nearly every other movie produced by Hollywood has an equally blatant worldview and a lack of diversity.  That these critics cannot see this intentionality in the movies they like, says far more about them than the Black Panther movie.  They, like me, aren’t used to the discomfort of being left out.

White male discomfort is a fairly rare experience. I seldom feel excluded and marginalized.  When I do, I am learning to welcome rather than resist that experience.  The only way for white men to learn empathy is if we allow ourselves to experience what so many others experience on a daily basis.  Movies about the exclusion of people of color – like Hidden Figures or Selma – do not accomplish this task.  Seeing how easily white men have dominated in the past may actually reinforce the normality of such a world order.  It takes a movie that offers a vastly different world order – one in which white men are evil, weak, ignorant and secondary – for white men to experience the discomfort we have so often created for others.

This is not the first time a Black Panther has made white men uncomfortable. Fifty years ago, hundreds of young black men organized as Black Panthers. They were condemned, harassed, arrested and killed.  Their movement was systemically destroyed because of its threat to white supremacy. Who would have guessed that fifty years later there would be a record breaking movie celebrating black power and reclaiming that title?  I find that hopeful.

Young black men are seeing themselves as super heroes and kings. Girls like my daughter are seeing themselves portrayed as never before.  White men, even though oblivious to the deeper storylines, may be affected.  Culture changes slowly and subtly.  Movies sometimes reveal tectonic shifts in the foundations of a culture, the shifting of assumptions and expectations.  What is being portrayed as fantasy is offered as possibility even though white men can’t see it.

One of the last scenes of the movie – one you only see if you sit through the initial credits – is that of a white man questioning how blacks from a poor African country can aid the world. It’s a laugh line, full of hope and irony.  The audience knows what that white man does not, that black men and women are capable of far more than he can imagine.  If given the opportunity, they can change the world.

I like that.

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10 thoughts on “Why I Disliked Black Panther

  1. I enjoyed Black Panther quite a bit, but became very aware that I was not connecting with all of it. This was most apparent for me during T’Challa’s first trial by combat scene. All those tribes and all that color. I saw it and mentally knew it was beautiful, but I did not connect with it emotionally. At least I recognized “why” and acknowledged it as a problem I need to work on. But, I’ve seen countless pictures of young people watching the movie, eyes wide open and with beautiful smiles on their faces. THAT I do connect with and it gives me hope for the future.

    Another, separate, thing that actually bothered me about the film. At the beginning when the museum is being robbed. One of the bad guys tells a security guard he’s free to go. Then he shoots him in the back. The bad guys tells a security guard he’s free to go. Then he shoots him in the back. This seemed gratuitous to me. Especially in light of the recent school shootings. As much as I think we need gun reform we also need to work on how we pick violence in films.

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    1. I’ve been thinking about your critique of the “gratuitous violence” in the movie. While I suppose any super hero involves some of that kind of violence, I also wonder if the scene was meant to remind of us all those situations where people of color were shot in the back. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but I am surprised at how much I missed that had a social commentary dimension.

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  2. James, superhero movies are not my favorite. I usually see them as little more than vehicles for special effects. Unlike you, I never got excited about Star Wars. I’ve only seen the first one–this despite the fact that many years ago I officiated at my brother-in-law’s Star Wars wedding (Yes, the benediction was “May the Force be with you”). However, your review has convinced me that I need to see this one. Thanks for sharing your response.

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  3. I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed a realization like this from a white male. To be honest, I am a young black woman and I cannot say that I’ve spent a good portion of my time with white males; but of what I have experienced, I would have never been able to fathom a reaction such as yours.

    Your words are…hopeful. There will always be this divide between cultures when it comes to media consumption, but you make me feel as though one day, we might be able to mix the pot and bring everyone together.

    Sure it may take an alien invasion for us to make that giant leap of realization that we are all human. But in the meantime, I’m pleased that a movie and even your words can change a few minds at a time.

    This was a very moving post. I appreciate the realism as well.

    Thank you.

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    1. Becoming a father to a black daughter has changed me in ways I did not expect…all positively. I recognize my situation is fairly rare for white males, but I do hope that my words can challenge other white males to think a little differently. Thanks for your encouraging words.

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