September 22, 2022

‘Black Panther,’ white critic

Diverse film critics, at publications big and small, have already begun the immense work of unpacking this cinematic text and examining its meaning to a variety of communities.


I’m a human being with two eyes and a heart, which means that naturally I loved the movie “Black Panther.

However, like every single person who saw that film, I brought my own unique set of expectations and experiences into the movie theater with me. In my case, that includes being a straight white male, a fan of both Marvel Comics and the previous Marvel movies that set the stage for “Black Panther” and a pop culture historian/critic/scholar with an inability to just appreciate the surface level of a narrative without ceaselessly picking it apart.

Which means I have Very Strong Opinions about “Black Panther” ranging from the story to the aesthetics to the cultural importance of the film grossing more than one billion dollars in less than a month.

Some of these Very Strong Opinions are ones that I feel no qualms about expressing in a published article. For instance, I feel that “Black Panther” stands up as one of the three best films in the MCU (the “Marvel Cinematic Universe,” a term used to describe all of the films and TV shows produced by Marvel Studios from “Iron Man” onwards that share a continuity in the same story-world). I say this because it’s one of the few films in the MCU that’s actually about something in the real world, rather than just being a fun romp, a character study, or a mess (sorry, “Thor: The Dark World”).

For the record, the other two movies that, to me, are actually about something, are the first “Thor” (which is a Shakespearian exploration of the cultural clash between ancient dynastic rule and the modern world) and “Captain America: Winter Soldier” (which is a critique of how empires fall not to outsiders but to corruption from within). These aren’t even necessarily my favorite of all the MCU films, but as much as I love the first “Avengers,” it’s ultimately a movie about what it means to be a super hero, and (as we’ve all learned in the past two years) super heroes don’t actually exist.

In the case of “Black Panther,” more so than any of the other MCU films, the movie is bursting with real-world resonances, from the history of worldwide white colonialism to the damaging effect of imprisoning/murdering so many black fathers and the responsibilities of a global superpower to the rest of the world.

For me personally, though, the most powerful storyline in “Black Panther” is about what it means to not only be a leader, but to be led, as embodied by the struggles of the people of Wakanda to decide what they will do in the wake of a massive shift in leadership. We see the deep pain it causes loyal patriots to betray their current leadership in order to save their country, and it is certainly a pain that echoes in the hearts of many Americans at the moment.

Chadwick Boseman stars as the superheroic T’Challa in “Black Panther,” Photo credit: Matt Kennedy/Marvel Studios/Disney, via Associated Press

However, that’s also a pain, and a storyline, that resonates particularly strongly with my own experiences. And my own experiences are worlds away from the black audiences viewing “Black Panther” so the beats that hit me the hardest are far from universal.

So, yes, “Black Panther” is as good as you’ve heard. And it’s also as important as you’ve heard, and as meaningful to the African American community. But I’m not the person to talk about that.

I’m a white guy in his mid-thirties, and I will never, ever know what it means for a black child to see a regal superhero who looks like him for the first time. I’ll never know what it’s like to enjoy a dozen other Marvel movies that each have one or two characters like me, but never as the focus of the movie, until now. I’ll never feel the impact of being an inner city kid forced by society to keep my head down in order to simply get through the day alive, only to finally be given a reason to look to the skies.

Shortly before “Black Panther” was released, I fell into a discussion with some of my friends about the advanced reviews of the film. They were cringing at the ways in which white critics were stumbling over themselves to praise the film in order to show how woke they are, like the Daily News review that starts out with the tone-deaf sentence, ““Black Panther” matters.” I played devil’s advocate for much of that conversation (which, I cringingly admit, included stepping into some unintentional white-splaining), because I know as a theater critic in Austin I’ve often been tasked with reviewing shows about black culture and politics that I can only ever write about from an outsider perspective.

What we came to agree on was that the biggest problem is not necessarily well-meaning, if clumsy, white film critics, but the relative dearth of black film critics at major media organizations, much as there is also a dearth of black theater critics in Austin. If somebody more qualified is available to review a play, I will happily step aside and eagerly read their review. I would like to think that a lot of white film critics would do the same.

However, when nobody else is available — due, no doubt, to an institutionalized system of racism that encourages white dudes like me to have Very Strong Opinions about every last piece of popular culture while black people are expected to stay quiet — I do my best (which is never enough) to unpack the meanings of a particular production for an audience composed of a diverse group of viewers bringing different expectations and experiences to the theater.

Fortunately, “Black Panther” isn’t a piece of local theater, and, devotee of the MCU and “comics scholar” though I am, I don’t need to spout off my Very Strong Opinions about what the film means to a diverse audience. Diverse film critics, at publications big and small, have already begun the immense work of unpacking this cinematic text and examining its meaning to a variety of communities.

For example, Olive Pometsey at GQ explains how, ““Black Panther” is the superhero film we need to remind ourselves that all races are capable of greatness and that there’s room for everyone’s stories to be told.” The Daily Beast’s Ira Madison III proclaims that the beauty of “Black Panther” is that, “It’s not just a film, it’s a universe. At the end, I felt like I went on the best sojourn of my life and I can’t wait to travel to Wakanda again.” And Marc Bernardin at Nerdist beautifully notes that, “What it means is everything, especially to any kid who has never put the words ‘African’ and ‘king’ together in the same sentence.” (I also highly recommend the roundtable discussion hosted by Bernardin for the “Fat Man on Batman” podcast, which you can find on YouTube.)

These are the critics whose voices we should be paying special attention to, whose opinions on this film matter the most. You should definitely check them out.

Andrew J. Friedenthal
Andrew J. Friedenthal
Andrew J. Friedenthal is writer, an editor, a cultural scholar and historian, based in Austin, Texas. His book "Retcon Game: Retroactive Continuity and the Hyperlinking of America" is published by Univ. of Mississippi Press. He is regular contributor to Time Out Austin and the Austin American-Statesman.

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