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.

Reader Discussion

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.

on February 19, 2018 at 10:29:24 am

Oh that wonderful classical liberalism , only one's ability counts, not his color or religion. The trouble is that blacks since being "unshackled by desegregation" have under performed and that posed a problem for classical liberals. Hence bussing, black quotas, diversity programs, etc which is anti -classical liberalism was initiated to cover for the under performance of blacks . But alas those programs didn't work and we then got the irrational disparate outcome mantra . So what to do? Certainly doing the same thing and expecting different results is not the answer, in fact it is called insanity.

read full comment
Image of Otto
on February 19, 2018 at 13:39:33 pm

Unfortunately, today's "liberalism" is no longer classic.

read full comment
Image of LarryArnold
on February 19, 2018 at 15:33:49 pm

Its intellectual and emotional laziness to believe in identitarian ideologies and politics.
-We have had men refusing to marry, have children, have business meetings, mentor with women because of the identitarian ideology of women victimized by men and using it for special privileges in education, workplace, govt social programs, divorce court and family court, the laws
-We have had laws put in place against free speech by identitarian leftists
-We have people threatened with fines and prison for not using transgender pronouns by identitarian leftists
-We have radical antifa, bamn and black lives matter radicals using fascism and violence to further identitarian ideology
Its a thought disease. Its not new. Its a similar thought disease that murdered 60-100 million in Russia and Ukraine and 70 million in China.
Its odd that Hollywood would make a movie that says we should be judged as individuals and not by group identity. Maybe the Trump effect is waking the imaginary world of Hollywood to the real world but the black community has shifted from Martin Luther King's belief in being judged by ones character to being enslaved by the democratic party as an entrenched "black vote" by feeding them govt programs to pay them off while keeping blacks jobless and in failing schools. Once one becomes used to govt entitlements thru victimization its going to be very difficult to free their mind from the democratic slave plantation.

read full comment
Image of LouisM
on February 19, 2018 at 15:40:12 pm

Hmmm! I'm skeptical of this cheery review:

1) The reviewer appears to be grasping at "classical liberalism" straws in order to rationalize a preconceived desire to "like" the movie. Perhaps a bit of PC at work there, but maybe not.

2) More importantly, just as you you can reliably judge a man by his friends, you can safely judge the politics of a movie by its ideological advocates. And it appears that many of Black Panther's "friends" (Disney and Breitbart aside) are the same unsavory ideologues who a) inject into a racial divide into most public matters, b) demand (and often receive) preferential quotas and economic benefits for racial minorities in significant spheres of institutional and economic activity, including the world of film-making, c) seek both to impose group identity and racial politics and to deny color-blind individual rights as the intrinsic basis of myriad constitutional protections and d) espouse politically-correct parameters, most especially race and sex, for judging the intellectual, moral and artistic acceptability both of works of literature, history and art (including film and film criticism) and of those who produce them. That Black Lives Matter, the Congressional Black Caucus and many of their political kin are among those praising Black Panther seems to illustrate my second point.

3) I love fantasy and works of high imagination and moral insight, but I find the comic book hero movies (I've seen most of them) and the Star Wars films to be largely adolescent, movies for morons, films for the Peter Pans of life who lack a moral imagination and refuse to grow up. That's just my bias.

Yet, I'll wait and see for myself.

read full comment
Image of timothy
on February 19, 2018 at 20:08:31 pm

Haven't seen the movie but I have read many reviews of people who have. So on that basis, I offer an opinion that should be valued because it offers insights on this movie's impact on people, and society.

This article stretches to find what it wants from the movie, rather than what meaning(s) the movie reasonably convey to the audience. According to a Washington Post article and its comment section, the Black Panther audiences cheered and hollered when the white character was "shut up" by a black character. The audience also loved how the white character was not given the leading role in the film. One viewer had this to say:

"[Black Panther] did make me think about Kenya because many of the problems that we have in Kenya — and in most African countries — are a byproduct of colonialism. … Wakanda was not colonized, so they had a chance to build a society that was free of European influence, whether British or French. We call ourselves Francophone Africa versus Anglophone Africa. We categorize ourselves based on who our oppressor was. I always find that a strange thing. Our identity is so deeply tied to our oppression."

That's right... a Kenyan thinks "many of the problems ... in most African countries -- are a byproduct of colonialism." But Wakanda -- a fictional African society created by a white guy educated in Western society -- is a utopia because, unlike every other country in Africa, it wasn't colonized! Many commenters agreed with the Kenyan.

WaPo also quoted the same Kenyan as saying:

"So Wakanda looks like a place I want to be a citizen of, because it looks like such a beautiful, egalitarian society, where the women wear their hair natural and they are powerful warriors. It is beautiful in that sense, as a utopia of sorts. Considering the mess so many African countries are in, it’s an escape to see what we can be: the richest country in the world, everything, vibranium in excess. And if you just think, if you build a model for the perfect African country, Wakanda is that."

The comment speaks for itself. This same love for a utopian society is what led Marx and his socialist descendants to wage their social, political, economic, and cultural wars against all existing societies and institutions. It's the same sentiment that all reformers and agitators have who want to use the power of the state to create or build a better society. This isn't classically liberal and it certainly isn't inspiring classically liberalism among its audience members (the article's author being an exception, of course).

This article also seems to imply (wrongly) that state / national sovereignty is not a tenant of classical liberalism or conservatism.

The author also speaks too soon about the impact Wakanda's new openness will have on the people of Wakanda and the rest of the world. Per the author, the ruler of Wakanda wants to "introduce the nation’s technology to the poverty-stricken places of the world gradually to help solve social ills." Sounds a lot like what Europeans did when they colonized barbaric nations and tried to civilize them. But wait, that's exactly what modern Kenyans think caused most of Africa's current problems!

Also, Wakanda has clearly benefitted from the closed-off policies it followed after discovering and using vibranium. Wakanda turned into the greatest country in Africa (and the world) by being closed-off and protecting itself and its citizens. So why jeopardized all of that by trying to fix other nations' "social ills"?

I could go on.

read full comment
Image of JB
on February 20, 2018 at 14:42:41 pm

Besides racialist plaudits for Black Panther from Black Lives Matter and similar racist ilk, add this to my previously-stated reasons for skepticism about Mark Judge's "cheery" movie review:

Michelle Obama


Congrats to the entire #blackpanther team! Because of you, young people will finally see superheroes that look like them on the big screen. I loved this movie and I know it will inspire people of all backgrounds to dig deep and find the courage to be heroes of their own stories.
12:37 PM - Feb 19, 2018

read full comment
Image of timothy

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.