By Rachel M. Hartnett
Bukatman, Scott. Black Panther. 21st Century Film Essentials Series, Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2022.
The 21st Century Film Essentials Series strives for a collection in which each book “makes a case for the importance of a particular contemporary film for artistic, historical, or commercial reasons. This series is a study of film history in the making.” Although it can be hard to identify which films will maintain their status as cinematic milestones in the decades after their release, Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther has clearly already earned its place as an important film due to its artistic value (the film won Academy Awards for Original Score, Costume Design, and Production Design), historical significance (the film is both the first mainstream superhero film starring an almost entirely black cast and was the biggest opening weekend ever for a black director), and commercial success (earning over $1 billion globally). Beyond these criteria, however, Scott Bukatman’s main argument for Black Panther is that the film “is both great and good: a remarkably warm, even loving movie with spectacular world-building; a hero-villain conflict structured around ideas of Black liberation and social responsibility; strong women characters in varied roles; all the myriad pleasures of color, music, costume, and fight choreography; and sensational performances from gorgeous actors” (3; emphasis original). To prove this, Bukatman splits his book into four chapters, with his first chapter providing the history and context for the character of T’Challa/Black Panther, and each subsequent chapter discussing a significant aspect of the film. Bukatman’s book starts strong—his first two chapters are solid engagements with literary or critical aspects of the film—but his final two chapters are lacking in this focus and depth. Unfortunately, what could have been a detailed explication of arguably the most significant superhero film of the 21st century ends up scattered and unfocused due to inexperience with issues of race and intersectionality and the attempt to cover all the topics posed by the film instead of focusing on a select few.
The first chapter, “The Road to Wakanda,” serves as a broad introduction to the superhero genre, the character of Black Panther, the major writers and artists that shaped the Black Panther comics, and the overall success of the Black Panther film. Bukatman traces the history of superheroes back to 1938 and the rise of Superman, through the almost-immediate transmediality of the genre, into the CGI theatrical blockbusters of modern day. He describes the advent of the Black Panther in a 1966 two-part story in the Fantastic Four, created by comic legends Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Despite this initial appearance, Black Panther would not have his own solo arc until 1972 with Don McGregor’s “Panther’s Rage” storyline in Jungle Action. Bukatman then chronicles major writers and artists who left their marks on the Black Panther comics, including Christopher Priest and Ta-Nehisi Coates. This brief but comprehensive summary of the history of Black Panther comics provides a clear timeline for the development of the character and sets the stage for the film analysis, which Bukatman argues “incorporated narrative, visual, and conceptual elements from all of these iterations: high-tech Wakanda from Lee and Kirby, Killmonger and Warrior Falls from McGregor, the Dora Milaje and Everett Ross from Priest, a richer Wakandan history and politics from [Reginald] Hudlin, and strong female characters and an upgraded Panther costume from Coates (with artist Brian Stelfreeze)” (42-3). This informative and engaging chapter ends with a discussion of the overall success of the film, further supporting Black Panther’s inclusion in the 21st Century Film Essentials Series.
The second chapter, “Black Panther’s Black Body,” highlights the corporeality of the Black Panther and the long history of invisible, erased, or abused black bodies. Bukatman pulls from Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me and the discussion of the subjugated black body as, “variously confined, fragile, breakable, destroyed, shackled, erased, shattered, contorted, beaten, raped, robbed, and pillaged” (64; emphasis original). Black Panther, Bukatman argues, refuses this subjugation by being gloriously, visibly Black. Through analysis of the costume and the scene of T’Challa’s triumphant return near the climax of the film, the visibility of the costume and the body of T’Challa “emphatically” signal “a Blackness both corporeal (the black body) and conceptual (think of ‘darkest’ Africa). It is Blackness redoubled—the black of the costume and the dark skin beneath it—laying claim to its value and place in the world” (76). Overall, this chapter provides significant analysis of the Black Panther as embodied in the comics and the film. Missing from this chapter, however, is a discussion of the simultaneous invisibility and hypervisibility of the raced body, something that could be read as reinforcing the dichotomy of the superhero and the secret identity. For example, when discussing that T’Challa holds secret identities in the comics while refusing in Coogler’s film, Bukatman asserts that “Black Panther’s version of T’Challa is joyously Wakandan and gloriously a king. Being a superhero is so ordinary” (69; emphasis original). I would argue that it is not the commonality of the secret identity that Coogler’s Black Panther is rejecting, rather it is the idea of being forced to hide, shutter, or subjugate any portion of his identity.
It is in the third chapter, “The Wakandan Dream,” where the author’s argument and analysis lose focus and become less compelling than previous chapters. This chapter, which focuses on the importance of the nation of Wakanda in the film, interrogates “the complexities of Wakanda as myth, historical entity, feminist stronghold, and Pan-African fantasy” (17). This is simply too much to cover in forty pages, and it leaves the reader with only a superficial engagement with all these issues. First, Bukatman extrapolates on Black Panther’s identification as an Afrofuturist film. Although I agree that Black Panther is Afrofuturist, an argument could be made that it is Africanfuturist with its grounding in African culture, history, and mythology—something repeatedly highlighted in the book. Although the film, through the character of Killmonger, is centered on the Wakandan abandonment of the African diaspora—marking it as Afrofuturist—this section needs discussion of the differences between these terms, at least as a footnote. However, the analysis quickly diverts to a discussion of Wakanda as a feminist utopia. Here, I am struck by the lack of intersectionality in the analysis. The usage of the term feminist without acknowledgment of the racist history of the feminism movement, and without any discussion of womanism—a social theory based in the everyday lived experiences of Black women and coined by the African American writer and activist Alice Walker—is a serious gap in any discussion of Black women. Bukatman also calls the traditional physical contest for the Wakandan throne “an unabashedly masculinist ritual combat” (111), providing no evidence for this claim beyond that the film only shows men fighting for the throne. He uses Western gender norms—imposed onto African society through colonialism—that position men as the physical fighters; something the film rejects with the Dora Milaje, the all-female special forces. Additionally, this section on the strength of female characters chooses to omit Linda Johnson, Killmonger’s African American girlfriend who is also a former black ops mercenary, who he murders to prevent Ulysses Klaue from using her as a hostage. Bukatman ends the chapter with a discussion of Wakanda as a Pan-African utopia through the film’s use of color, fusion of tradition and technology, and the evocation of a never-colonized Africa. Focusing on just one or two of these issues to highlight the utopic positioning of Wakanda in the film would have allowed a deeper analysis and more concrete framework. Instead, this chapter feels disjointed, with the reader not having a complete understanding of any of the various topics.
Bukatman’s omission of Linda Johnson in the third chapter also highlights the primary weakness of the fourth chapter of the book, “The Killmonger Problem,” which is a misunderstanding of Killmonger’s character. The central argument for this chapter is that the film utilizes “rhetorical strategies [to] complicate our relation to its ostensible villain, Killmonger” (17). Bukatman foregrounds varied critical interpretations of the character before stating that his analysis “will turn on the problem of Erik Killmonger, but by other means, moving beyond the script (what it says) to think about Black Panther as a movie: an irreducible aesthetic, phenomenological, and rhetorical experience (what it does)” (138). Bukatman’s analysis of Killmonger primarily turns on the portrayal of the character by Michael B. Jordan. Bukatman highlights the “tragedy” of Killmonger through Jordan’s performance in the fight with T’Challa at Warrior Falls when he “expresses anger and guilt in equal measure,” as well as his trip to the Ancestral Plane where he relives the pain and grief of the loss of his father (164, 156). Instead of spending more time focusing on these important moments or delving into the pain and trauma that shaped Killmonger’s life—as a child of Oakland in the 1990s, as a black boy in America, as a man “weaponized by the US military” for their imperial wars in the Middle East—Bukatman focuses largely on the acting past of Michael B. Jordan, particularly his time as a child actor on The Wire (161). He argues that the “fundamental gentleness and decency that Jordan brings to Killmonger from his previous roles…complicates the audience’s reaction to this ostensible villain” (151). Bukatman continues that Killmonger is “a character who knows the streets but isn’t beaten down by them” arguing that Killmonger “is young, very cool, and way less brutal than Ulysses Klaue, his partner in theft” (145, 144). Killmonger is fundamentally shaped by being beaten and broken by the streets of America; this fact shapes his entire arc. Furthermore, the claim that Killmonger is less brutal than Klaue is easily disproved by the murder of Linda Johnson, who Bukatman himself says Killmonger “kills indiscriminately,” before only referring to her as “his vivacious girlfriend” (145). The brutality of both the murder of Linda and, later, Klaue himself, demonstrate that Killmonger is just as brutal. Although the rhetorical context of a film and the casting of actors—especially when playing to or against type—can certainly shape interpretations, Bukatman’s argument here is that because Jordan has played “decent” characters who struggle with these issues that this, then, is the same interpretative lens that should be applied to Killmonger. This is reductive, especially when the film itself provides so much visual and textual evidence to reinforce the deeper tragedy of Killmonger as a child abandoned by both America and Wakanda.
While it could have been a detailed look at a film that not only reshaped the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but also showed that audiences would support Black representation in blockbuster films, Bukatman’s Black Panther falls short of the legacy left by the film. Overall, scholars interested in a detailed look at the history of the Black Panther comics and superficial analysis of major themes of the film will find this an enjoyable read. However, problematic language and references will make this a difficult read for any scholar or movie fan well-versed in critical race theory. The 21st Century Film Essentials Series book on Black Panther could have provided a nuanced look at race, gender, and genre in Coogler’s ground-breaking film. Instead, it is a disjointed work that, while providing some value concerning the comic history of the character and the embodiment of the black body in film, fails to fully support the film’s place in cinematic history. In his preface, Bukatman states that it was the racial disparities of the COVID pandemic, the national spotlight shone on police brutality following the death of George Floyd, and the importance of Chadwick Boseman in the Black community that made Black Panther “an ‘Important’ movie” in which “[r]ace could no longer be just one element among others to explore; now it needed to be at the center” (3). Yet, race has always been the central element of Black Panther, whether in the comics or the film, and this fact should have always been what the book intended to showcase.