Black Panther: A Celebration of Classical Liberalism

Black Panther, the new blockbuster superhero film from Marvel, is a celebration of classical liberalism. This was the liberalism of John F. Kennedy, Daniel Patrick Moynahan, and the Ronald Reagan of the 1950s. It’s a belief system that rejects the isolationist nationalism of the Right and the anti-American, balkanizing politics of the Left. It affirms core truths while also being open to prudent social change if facts and a moral imperative demand it. Classical liberalism combines love of country with an openness to outsiders, particularly those who are in need or suffering. It defends the military, the family, strong visionary leaders, and it champions the common sense of regular people. It hates tyranny.

It’s a depressing sign of our outrage culture that Black Panther, a captivating, funny, and overly long film, is causing extreme reactions on both the Left and the Right. Liberals are praising Black Panther as the equivalent of Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on the bus, giving the film standing ovations before they have even seen it. Reactionary conservatives who can dilate for hours about Star Wars or Game of Thrones are dismissing Black Panther as fiction—even if, like the cynical social justice left they mirror, they haven’t even seen the film yet.

I have seen Black Panther, and I’m about to reveal some plot points in the following review, so spoilers are ahead.

Black Panther is a rousing superhero film with some sharp political and cultural points to make. The movie raises two questions. First: How much does a wealthy and advanced nation owe to the more impoverished rest of the world—who should it let in and how much should it be involved in other countries? Second: If a long-suffering group that has been mistreated throughout history suddenly acquires great power, how should it respond? With vengeance or with mercy and, ultimately, reconciliation?

In addressing these questions, Black Panther has a great set up. Billions of years ago an asteroid hit Africa. The rock was made out of vibranium, the strongest material in the universe. Rich in this magic substance, the African nation of Wakanda arose, creating a high-tech city that shields itself from the rest of the world. The king of Wakanda is a man named T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman, who became a star playing Jackie Robinson in 2013’s 42). T’Challa also becomes a costumed hero, the Black Panther, when his homeland is in need of protection.

As is de rigueur in Marvel comic movies, a threat soon arises. The villain this time is a man named Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (an intense Michael B. Jordan), a black ops solider who grew up in Oakland before going to war in Afghanistan. Enraged at what he perceives to be the oppression of black people around the world, Killmonger joins with a villain named Ulysses Klaue to rob a London museum that is displaying a vibranium relic. T’Challa, his love interest Nakia (Lupito Nyong’o), and Okoye (Danai Gurira), the leader Wakanda’s all-female Dora Milaje warriors, travel to South Korea, where the stolen vibranium is about to be sold.

In South Korea, they meet CIA agent Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman). There’s a high-voltage shootout that borrows a lot from James Bond, and the bad guys escape. Along the way, Agent Ross is badly injured while protecting Nakia.

Killmonger then arrives in Wakanda and challenges T’Challa for the throne, hoping that capturing the vibranium-rich country will allow him to impose a new global order of black supremacy. While Killmonger at first appears like an outsider, he actually has a blood connection to T’Challa; to reveal that connection would be to give too much away, but Killmonger’s threat raises questions about the problems that arise when a country tries to shut itself off from the world – including its own relatives.

As one critic has noted, Killmonger, with his rage and talk of revolution, is like the militant black leader Malcolm X (at least before he had a change in heart late in life), while T’Challa resembles the more peaceful Martin Luther King. The grace of Black Panther is that King’s vision wins out. T’Challah rejects violent revolution. A JFK-style liberal pragmatist, he believes that Wakanda should not have wide open borders, but should introduce the nation’s technology to the poverty-stricken places of the world gradually to help solve social ills.

While proud of its black aesthetic, Black Panther also reminds the audience that people should be judged individually on the content of their character. The film preaches one of the fundamental cornerstones of classical liberalism and modern conservatism: that as creatures who long for love, family, freedom and a connection to place, human beings have much more in common than the superficial things that separate us. We can also have a deep connection to our country and its people and traditions while living peacefully with others with their own distinct homes and traditions.

One of the funniest and most insightful scenes in Black Panther is when CIA agent Ross, who is white, is taken to Wakanda to heal his gunshot wound. Ross wakes up, amazed to be fully restored and astonished at the futuristic world he has entered. When T’Challah’s baby sister Shuri (a hilarious and scene-stealing Letitia Wright) sees Ross, she cries out, “Halt, Colonizer!” This gets a huge laugh, but the humor is based on common perceptions that all American share.

We laugh because we have gotten to know and like both of these characters as individuals, not as props. Shuri is a funny, smart and likable character. Her warmth makes her admonition seem less a threat than a punchline. She is an effervescent tech whiz who cares about her family and her country. Agent Ross is allowed passage into Wakanda because he bravely saved the life of one of their citizens without concern for race. The line is also a mild satire of the militancy of black power movements like the real Black Panthers of the 1960s. There was always something a bit ridiculous about the rage of demagogues like Stokeley Carmichael.

Black Panther director Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed) who co-wrote the film with Joe Robert Cole, does a steady job, even if the inevitable CGI battle at the end drags Black Panther down for its final 20 minutes. Supporting actors are all in top form, including Angela Bassett, Danai Gurira, Forest Whitaker, Sterling K. Brown, Daniel Kaluuya, and John Kani. One of the biggest stars off the film is veteran costume designer Ruth Carter, whose resplendent costumes are alone worth the price of a ticket.

While people on the political extremes will continue to argue about Black Panther without having seen the film, those who do see it will be elevated by its message, an answer to a plaintive question asked over 20 years ago: yes, we can all get along.