** The following contains spoilers for Black Panther. **
Marvel’s Black Panther is a film of such importance that it will inspire think-pieces for the next decade. If there is one soft criticism of the movie, it is the inclusion of one character: CIA operative Everett K. Ross (played by Martin Freeman). Adam Serwer of The Atlantic writes, “Ross’s inclusion is perhaps the weakest part of the storyline,” adding his presence “feels like a kind of propaganda.” Brandi Miller says of Ross, “At no point is he a necessary character.” But as the film ages, and the inevitable sequels roll out, it will be Martin Freeman’s understated performance that will continue to enhance the original. No, Black Panther did not necessarily need Ross to be a compelling, visually stunning, and ultimately, moving film. Wakanda does not exist to heal “broken white boys,” as Shuri notes following Ross’s injury, but it just might do so in the process.
Martin Freeman’s quiet brilliance infuses every set he’s on, exuding an easy authenticity no matter the role. He has rarely been the lead actor, and when he does hold the top line on the marquee, as he did in The Hobbit trilogy as Bilbo Baggins, he is hardly an alpha male or master of his own fate. Freeman’s characters—like Tim Canterbury (The Office [U.K.]), John Watson (Sherlock), and Lester Nygaard (Fargo)—are all relegated to being under-appreciated sidekicks at best or resigned losers at worst. Black Panther does not need Everett Ross to exhibit the ingenuity or independence of Wakanda; the visual effects spark the imagination of what an African super-power might look like; the film’s subtext will provide ample material for college courses; the emotional heft of the story will persist far beyond the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Black Panther, however, does need Martin Freeman’s performance, precisely as a willing subordinate and even frequent punchline. He is a near-perfect complement to a stellar cast that has one non-villainous, yet nowhere-near-woke, white character.If we are ever to see difference as a gift, then we need a resurrection of sorts, but we would do well to remember that resurrection requires a death.
Freeman floats in the midst of Hollywood heavyweights: The film royalty of Angela Bassett and Forest Whitaker; recent Academy Award winners/nominees Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave) and Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out); television star Danai Gurira (The Walking Dead’s “Michonne”); scene stealers Letitia Wright (Shuri) and Winston Duke (M’Baku); Chadwick Boseman, Black Panther’s headliner and a one-man touchstone to black history; and Michael B. Jordan, perhaps the film’s peerless star, whose roles have basically chronicled the range of young, black male experiences in America (The Wire, Friday Night Lights, Fruitvale Station, Creed, and the upcoming Bryan Stevenson biopic, Just Mercy).
All of this to say, Freeman rests in the shade of Wakanda, and it should be just fine with us.
Black Panther writer/director Ryan Coogler’s inclusion of Ross actually enhances the movie, casting the archetypal steely CIA operative in a new light: foolish, near-bumbling, and ultimately destructive to communities of color. Ross comically misunderstands Wakanda and, by extension, believes he actually controls international affairs. He exudes confidence, and all the while, the audience knows better. Coogler and Freeman turn the all-knowing CIA trope into an embodiment of whiteness and empire, which becomes the film’s primary point of mockery. Because Ross does not control the situation in Wakanda (or anywhere else for that matter), his grasping becomes little more than a pantomiming of power.
Interestingly, the most accurate information about T’Challa’s homeland comes from the film’s only other white character, mercenary Ulysses Klau, whose description of Wakanda as a technological beacon befuddles Ross, who has access to the world’s best intelligence. Wakanda forces Everett Ross to have a moment where the old reality passes away for a new one. You can almost hear Marlo Stanfield whisper in his face, “You want it to be one way… but it’s the other way.” His racial and national identity have allowed him to exist under this illusion, and the leaders of Wakanda are about to open his eyes.
Every painfully awkward interaction Ross has with a character shows his ignorance or misreading of the present situation. Code-switching was clearly not part of Ross’s training and it shows: Ross addresses King T’Challa with respect, but never deference, which one would not deign for a ruler of herders and textile workers, plainly exhibited when he interrupts and touches T’Challa at one point—a clear gesture of control—drawing a near-lethal reaction from Okoye. Later, his attempt to “white-splain” Killmonger’s takeover to M’Baku is silenced through simultaneously hilarious and menacing barking. M’Baku also motions for Ross to avert his eyes during the revival ceremony as T’Challa lies near death. At least in this instance, resurrection is a family affair.
But Ross’s miscalculation of who Erik Killmonger has become stands out, calling him “one of ours,” misunderstanding that Killmonger has not belonged to anyone or anywhere for quite some time. Killmonger could be easily quoting Kendrick Lamar’s “XXX.” when he launches into his anti-colonialist screeds throughout Black Panther:
Hail Mary, Jesus and Joseph
The great American flag if wrapped in drag with explosives
Compulsive disorder, sons and daughters
Barricaded blocks and borders
Look what you taught us!
Our nation’s rendering of “law and order” has meant every people, every nation knows their place as determined by whites. But Wakanda’s resources offer the promise of a violent, re-creation of empire under the auspices of “liberation” with Killmonger as the dictator. The Wakandan orphan, wholly without community, learned well the ideals of the empire: control, submission, racial hierarchy underwritten by violence. Killmonger may be an orphan but he’s learned the ways of Uncle Sam.
Black Panther is proving to be a deeply moving film, evidenced by the cultural event viewings have become for people across the world. The movie’s existence exposes the broad reach of privilege, as it likely never occurred to many of us that seeing ourselves in a comic book hero could be so important. The moving tributes and images emerging from cineplexes around the nation transcend the normal cosplay of fan-boys geeking out over the next installment of one obscure character after another coming off of Marvel’s deep bench. But movements like The Black Panther Challenge show that such big-screen representation is no trifling matter, and might even be crucial to boys and girls of color developing an imagination unburdened by all the toxic Hollywood caricatures foisted upon them and their parents. For example, we all grow up wanting to be Superman, but no one dreams of becoming Bagger Vance.
But Black Panther is also incredibly popular among my high school boys, where I teach ethics at a private school to mostly white students. For this reason, Everett Ross is a crucial inclusion to the film. My students get to see a movie that is not really for them. Oh, Marvel will take their dollars, but there is a degree to which the full meaning of Black Panther—like Wakanda itself—will forever be veiled to viewers like them and me. Yes, the fictional Wakanda is cloaked from the outside world for the sake of self-preservation; however, Wakanda remains veiled because some do not possess the vision to truly see and then experience community. At risk of making an obvious DuBoisian reference, you either have the second sight or you just do not.
Even still, Black Panther has generated opportunities to process race and racism with white students in deeper ways from what they perceived to be mere entertainment. If they are looking for their likeness in this movie, then they have one of three characters they can turn to excluding an expendable museum curator: Ross, Klau, and the Winter Soldier (in a post-credit scene). Instead, whiteness itself exists as a kind of character, an occasionally named power, but still a subterranean force that seeks to invade and control. Precisely for this reason, Wakanda becomes the site of healing for broken white boys Ross and Bucky Barnes (aka the Winter Soldier, or the “White Wolf”). Ross and Barnes are bit-players in Black Panther, beneficiaries of Wakanda’s hospitality, and their inclusion offers us whites (perhaps) an occasion to recognize the extent of our soul’s injuries, many of them self-inflicted, to say nothing of the ones we have caused. Ross and Barnes are warlords of different stripes, but their resurrections are acts of grace by Wakandans. The story is not yet written as to whether or not they have embraced or will reciprocate the true community that Wakanda offered them.
The week of Black Panther’s release I decided to drive home the point. I wrote “Wakanda Forever” on the board with a countdown to the premiere. I also assigned an excerpt from Brian Bantum’s excellent The Death of Race, where he writes about the community created by Eve joining Adam:
We are not singular, sovereign, independent individuals. We cannot be like God by ourselves. And this difference is a gift that allows [us] to love and live within God’s life. Our difference is a gift because it reminds us that we have need, that we are not independent.
Too many of us have learned that difference is a threat that needs to be tamed and assimilated into the dominant culture. Difference is contrasted constantly to the white virtues of sovereignty and individuality. But if we are ever to see difference as a gift, then we need a resurrection of sorts, but we would do well to remember that resurrection requires a death.
Ross remains an agent of the empire by film’s end, a man not quite orphaned like Killmonger but still captive to a supremacist ideology that has left him isolated from real relationships. We do not yet know if being a provisional member of the most extraordinary community on earth will be enough to save him, but if history (actual history, not Marvel history) is any indicator, he will eventually do what is best for his homeland and himself. Still, there remains a chance for Everett Ross and maybe all of us.
I was reminded of this one morning when a student popped into my classroom to let me know that he had finally seen the movie the night before. We chatted for a bit about the kind of stuff fanboys talk about—special effects, fight scenes, authenticity to the source material, etc.—before I asked him what he thought about Killmonger: Is he a villain or not? He offered a pretty sophisticated response, expressing points where he agreed with Killmonger, until he asked his own question:
“Hey, so what’s a colonizer?”
So glad you asked. Let’s keep talking.