The following does not count as a proper movie review. The film impressed me as mediocre. Up until the car chase scene, I felt bored enough to want to leave the theater. The movie improved somewhat thereafter, but not enough for the movie to stand out from other Marvel movies.
While pondering the film more deeply, I realized that I only liked two of the characters: Ulysses Klaue and M’Baku, the prince of Wakanda’s mountain tribe. My interest in them comes down to them being the only two characters who gave me a sense of propinquity, character, and interest. (Killmonger had the first two, but it’s hard for me to care about a black supremacist.) Most of the characters struck me as pretty dull: they lacked either propinquity (T’Challa) or character (Agent Ross). The African characters were too dignified and exotic for me to actually like.
What do I mean by propinquity? I was trying to come up with the right word for what I felt the characters lacked. At first, I thought identification or sympathy might work, but neither words precisely hit the mark. The Oxford College Dictionary defines propinquity as “the state of being close to someone or something.” If you imagine propinquity as existing at a cultural level, you’ll understand what I mean. Propinquity can arise from kinship or the passing down of history and culture, such as between Americans and the English, French, Australians, or Italians. Sometimes, this happens by mere proximity, as between America, Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean. Political goodwill like the kind we have with Poland and Israel can effect this. Cultural exchanges can happen through immigration and living together, like with the Chinese and Indians. It can even be fostered by peace after vicious wars, such as with the American Indians, Japanese, Koreans, Germans, or Russians. (Well, with the Russians, the war was cold, but who will deny that the threat of nuclear annihilation on both sides is vicious?)
At any rate, situations arise which cause us to learn about other cultures and bring them into our frame of reference–the American box, if you will. (Every culture has its own box–just watch this video if you don’t believe me.) Putting other cultures into the American box helps American citizens’ affection to grow for them. Where there is little cultural engagement or exchange, there is little to no love or understanding between two cultures. America may be a great power with economic interests across the globe, but there exist large swathes of South America, central Asia, the Pacific islands, Southeast Asia, and most of Africa which Americans neither know nor care about–save in a vague humanitarian sense.
But, wanting to send some people food, water, and medicine doesn’t do anything to increase our cultural propinquity. We have far greater propinquity to Japan than Mauritania–even though the latter is closer geographically. Regarding Japanese culture, anime is almost mainstream, samurai swords are cool, martial arts dojos can be found in every city, and many Americans have a taste for sushi, sake, and hibachi. Have you ever even seen a picture of someone from Mauritania? If you have heard about it, you only know that it was the last country in the world to abolish slavery in 1981.
Here you see the problem of Black Panther: Wakandans defy being placed in the American box. We don’t even share a common religion with them. If they lived on Pluto, they could hardly inhabit a cultural zone further from ours. In my case, the uber-dignified bearing of the Wakandans reminded me of a couple of African Catholic priests I once met. (Their celebration of the Mass also exuded a rarely imitated dignity and sense of the sacred.) But, Fr. Royd and Fr. Mwanamwambwa also had a sense of humor and joy rather lacking in the people from Wakanda. Yes, these two Catholic priests gave M’Baku a sense of cultural propinquity in that M’Baku could fit in my personal frame of reference. Most of the Wakandans struck me as far too alien.
Whenever one crafts a movie like this with a completely alien culture, it helps to have an ambassador of sorts from one’s own culture. Agent Everett Ross could have fulfilled this role, but he is not given much screen time. I noticed that the Avengers’ movie featuring Black Panther did not cause me to feel as alienated from this character. This was achieved by placing T’Challa in an American setting surrounded by American characters: the fact that T’Challa needed to operate in an American box with Americans helping to bridge the gap between him and the audience really helped.
If you want an example of a good use of an ambassador, think of Passepartout in the novel Around the World in Eighty Days. This French servant comes to work for the eccentric Phineas Fogg and becomes a real “passport” into the “fog” of the English mind. So, my hope for the next Black Panther movie is that it either provides us with an American ambassador or puts Black Panther in an American box.