Black Panther should humble us all
Marvel Studio's massively successful Black Panther is wrapping up its second weekend, and it's still on top. Cynical voices might say that the film owes its success more to its cultural novelty than to its quality. And while there are no doubt scads of black Americans delighted to at last see their physical qualities mirrored on the largest cinematic platform the world has to offer, to attribute Black Panther's ascendance to indiscriminate, race-based approval is to willfully ignore the film itself. This is a complex film with much to offer, and I contend that it is successful not because it exalts, but rather because it humbles.
Who is the villain of Black Panther?
While Black Panther does feature actual flesh-and-blood villains, like Killmonger and Klaue, these characters are actually the products of the film's true antagonist: the philosophy that we should protect ourselves and our resources at all costs, though the rest of the world burns around us. The former's moral formation is clearly spelled out; and while Klaue would clearly fall on the wrong side of the law no matter the situation, he is nevertheless Wakanda's problem specifically because of the extent to which it values its two most precious resources: vibranium and secrecy.
If the villain of a superhero story is whomever (or whatever) must be defeated in order that good may prevail, then Black Panther's villain is "Wakandan exceptionalism" specifically, and exceptionalism of any kind generally. We can take the easy way out and say that writer/director Ryan Coogler must be taking a shot at the prevailing philosophies of right-wing American politics, but I think he's hitting at something much more fundamental about human pride: pride entitles us all—those who have and those who have not, those who would hold tightly to what they have or those who would violently take that which they do not possess.
A call to humility
Black Panther calls us all to examine ourselves—to lay aside our pride and recognize that our virtuous convictions do not absolve us of the responsibility to express those convictions through equally virtuous action. Killmonger is right about Wakanda's callousness toward the rest of the world, particularly displaced African descendants in the West; but an accurate assessment of his motherland does not vindicate him in the final analysis, because his plan is a monstrous one. Likewise, T'Challa and his people desire peace and shared prosperity—a society of mutual effort and proportionately mutual benefit. But the fact that he is a good man does not excuse him from his responsibility toward the world around him.
Humility about ourselves is perhaps the easiest sort to come by, or at least to impersonate; but humility toward others eludes most of us. In this age of internet community, we have lost all distinctions between people and what they believe. We have set our ideological opponents up as irredeemable villains—philosophy made flesh, devoid of any and all humanity. Black Panther—intentionally or otherwise—attacks this notion at its core. Black Panther gives us a nation of heroes and otherwise good people who have long maintained a callous indifference toward the suffering world outside its borders. If we can celebrate the beauty of fictional Wakanda in spite of its misguided philosophy, perhaps we can do the same with our opponents. And if T'Challa can humble himself enough to find humanity in the man who sought to destroy everything that he held dear, perhaps we, too, can humble ourselves enough to live graciously towards those with whom we disagree—especially those that seem beyond hope.