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Herb Ruffin on Black Panther’s Historical Context and Impact
With buzz and excitement building for Marvel’s “Black Panther,” we asked some of our SU faculty who were planning to see the film to offer their thoughts afterward. Here is what they had to say (conversations have been edited for clarity and length).
Herb Ruffin, Chair of African American Studies department on Marvel’s Black Panther
Herb Ruffin is an associate professor of African American History and Chair of the African American Studies department in the College of Arts and Sciences. In the Introduction to African American Studies in Social Sciences course, Ruffin has taught students about blacks and their representation in Marvel and DC Milestone comic books.
01What was your first impression of the film?
Marvel’s “Black Panther” is a very good film that introduces the franchise’s first superhero of African descent. Where the film excels is in its look and aesthetic, which combined director Ryan Coogler’s Afrofuturistic direction with box office financing from Disney and Marvel Studios. Where the film still has room for development is in the area of Black political thought.
02To put it mildly, you are a bit of a comic book fan. Can you place this film into historical context in relation to the comic books?
As originally written in 1966 and ’73, the story of Black Panther and Wakanda explicitly goes against the Western stereotype of persons of African descent as primitive people. This is not to say that the original narratives did not have problems. Prior to Christopher Priest in 1998—Marvel’s first full-time Black writer—baked in the original Panther narrative where many marketing references to the jungle, M’Baku as “Man-Ape,” and in 1972, Marvel’s brief attempt to distance Black Panther from the actual Black Panther Party by renaming him “Black Leopard.” On this subject, the film did an excellent job in distancing itself from the jungle references (i.e., Wakanda as a “Technological Jungle”), “Man-Ape,” and in terms of gender, giving the Dora Milage a far more powerful role than as T’Challa’s potential queens.
03Differences in leadership style between T’Challa and Eric Killmonger caught your attention. What did you see?
“Black Panther” is an interesting examination of leadership inspired by the writing of Ta-Nehisi Coates—who has been studying T’Challa and relating him to U.S. President Barack Obama; although I would relate him more to South Africa President Nelson Mandela, who was much more of a change agent that had far more control over the change in the nation that he governed. For example, similar to Wakanda, since the fall of apartheid, Mandela and a collective of activists and political organizations played a critical role in the Republic of South Africa, becoming home to many official ethnic groups that have a seat at the table in governance and are actual citizens. Whereas in the United States there is always a question as to whether or not that is the case for ethnic groups that have been racialized, such as persons of African descent.
In the area of politics, the film has much room for growth, especially as it relates to the racial sensibilities of global Black people. If there’s a weakness in the Marvel cinematic universe it is that they don’t have too many good, complex villains. And the fact that they killed off N’Jadaka, aka Eric Killmonger, so fast, I was like, “Man, it’s a shame that he had to apparently die in the first film.” Most people talk about how much they enjoyed Michael B. Jordan’s performance in the role and that he did an excellent job in acting, which he did. My problem with his character is that Killmonger starts out complex, then somewhere in the middle of the film he becomes a two-dimensional antagonist or the embodiment of the stereotypical “black brute” that goes dark and desperate with a simple plan of revenge. This needs better fleshing out. Nonetheless, similar to most MCU films, it’s this type of turn towards darkness which allows for protagonists like T’Challa/Black Panther to become the hero that mainstream Western audiences clamor for.
04You were talking about the watercooler conversation you were having with colleagues after several of you saw the film and it got pretty heated. What sparked the debate?
While I was watching this, I was surrounded by white people and could not help but begin to wonder what the long-term impact of Killmonger may be for Black people, as he went to the extreme as a “reactionary suicide” agent—which according to Black Panther Party (BPP) leaders Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale, ran opposite to the actual empowerment struggle of the BPP from 1967 to 1975. In addition, I’ve examined white racial liberals online saying “I can understand where Killmonger’s coming from” and on and on; however, for white supremacists, whose voices seriously overwhelm racial liberal voices, what they have been doing is trying to ban, boycott and defame the film, while using the Killmonger character as justification as to why Black people need to be locked up for being violent, urban and change agents for first-class citizenship. That said, if Killmonger’s story is not further (and fairly) fleshed out, similar to the A-list treatment of Thor’s arch-nemesis/brother Loki, I can imagine the day when the name “Killmonger” becomes a verb.
05Having taught a course about Blacks and their representation in Marvel and DC Milestone comic books for several years what are your final thoughts?
Overall, “Black Panther” is a very good introductory film that does an excellent job in bringing new people, new concepts and new elements into the MCU. It ranks right up there with the first Iron Man and Captain America films. That said, it is not a complete story and leaves many questions unanswered, such as how will Wakanda politically-economically integrate itself within a neoliberal world and protect itself from Western imperialism, Doctor Doom, Prince Namor and Thanos? Will Africans have more of control over the exotic and imagined writing, production and acting in future Black Panther films, or will the film continue to be told as a supposed Afrofuturistic tale from Disney and Marvel Studios? Finally, in future films will T’Challa’s (and N’Jadaka’s as a Panther spirit) full story be told in the sociopolitical context of European-American imperialism and beyond the two-dimensional representation of African American communities as ghettos such as East/West Oakland and Harlem, New York? I am interested to see how this plays-out in the upcoming “Infinity Wars” and Black Panther films.