Wednesday, March 21, 2018
March 21, 2018: Black Panther Studying: Everett Ross
[Few pop culture texts have exploded into our collective consciousness more than Ryan Coogler’s film adaptation of Black Panther. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy this film phenomenon, starting with an older post on the comic and moving into a handful of other contexts and connections!]
On an unfortunate change to a longstanding character, and its important role nonetheless.
As my friend and colleague Matthew Teutsch has detailed in a couple of thoughtful blog posts, the character of Everett Ross has been part of the Black Panther universe for a couple decades. Indeed, this Special Attaché for the Office of the Chief of Protocol (a US State Department position) wasn’t just a central character during Christopher Priest’s 1998-2003 run with the comic; he served as Priest’s narrator and the audience’s primary perspectival lens on T’Challa, Wakanda, and their stories. That Ross was overtly described as “the emperor of useless white boys” only makes Priest’s use of him that much more complex and compelling, a provocative way to engage directly with white (and all) audience perceptions of both a black African superhero like T’Challa, who the protagonists of superhero comics typically are and aren’t, and the issue of race in comics overall.
By the time he appeared in the film Black Panther, Martin Freeman’s Everett Ross had already been introduced to the Marvel Cinematic Universe with a role in Captain America: Civil War, and with one key change from his identity in the comic: he now works for the CIA. That change was perhaps necessary for Civil War, as a State Department functionary wouldn’t be in charge of a major counter-terrorism task force as the character needed to be in that film. But Marvel always thinks in terms of the big picture, setting up threads that will pay off many films down the road, and quite frankly making the one white good guy in Black Panther a representative of the CIA was a seriously problematic move. To put it bluntly, a major plot thread and theme in Black Panther is the relationship of the Wakandan nation and regime to the rest of the world; and to say that the CIA has a checkered history when it comes to America’s relationship to the international community, and particularly to regimes with whom we are not allied, would be to severely understate the case. While there’s no specific reason to believe that the film’s Ross is seeking to overthrow or undermine T’Challa’s regime, there are countless general reasons to think so; and in any case a knowledge of that history makes it almost impossible to see Ross (whom the film asks to contribute significantly to T’Challa’s final victories) as anything other than a potential threat to our hero.
I don’t think that’s an intended effect of Coogler’s or the film’s, but I would also say that the change in Ross’s character is not entirely a bad thing. After all (SCENE SPOILERS HERE), in one of the film’s most surprising and funny moments, Wakandan tribal leader M’Baku (the mesmerizing Winston Duke) and his underlings repeatedly silence Ross as he attempts to offer his unhelpful perspective on a situation, barking over him until he stops talking. To see a white character silenced by a group of black characters in this manner would be striking in any film; to see a powerful US government representative silenced by African tribesmen, and in a moment and way where the audience is entirely positioned to sympathize with the tribesmen and laugh at the CIA agent’s humiliation, is quite simply stunning. The moment wouldn’t have nearly the same power if Ross were a low-level bureaucrat, or if we didn’t have that overall historical sense of the CIA’s role in relationship to such African and world communities. Moreover, I might even argue that Ross’s helpful contributions to the film’s climactic battle are at least partly set up by this moment; that is, that the powerful American official has to be laid low before he can truly recognize and act upon what Wakanda needs from him, rather than the other way around (as has so thoroughly been the case in world history). One more layer to a film that’s full of them!
Next Panther post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Takes on the film or its contexts?