One of the reasons Black Panther is such a brilliant movie is because it invites so much conversation, debate, and analysis. One point of contention has been the portrayal of Everett K. Ross, a CIA operative played by Martin Freeman who’s redeemed for his participation in vibranium trade by helping T’Challa and company stop the spread of deadly weapons across the world. The criticism comes from the fact that some of the movie’s revolutionary rhetoric is tempered by the fact the Wakandans’ choose to work with a member of an American organization with a history of destabilizing countries — many of them black — across the world. The arguments against the portrayal of Wakanda’s relationship with Ross are worth exploring because the partnership does come as a letdown, especially for those who support of Killmonger’s radical stance. But under the surface, director Ryan Coogler goes out of his way to use Ross’ perspective as a means to subvert Hollywood’s expansive history of silencing black voices.
One of the oldest literary devices in fiction involves using a central character as a proxy for the audience. The tactic offers a way for the person consuming the art to get caught up to the world that’s been built in a story by using dialogue and a lot of questions from the proxy instead of Star Wars-like crawls at the beginning of movies or fourth-wall-breaking monologues. Think Nick Carraway as the naive outsider in The Great Gatsby, for instance, thrust into new surroundings and sharing the same questions and curiosities as the reader. This trope appears often in superhero movies as a way to get viewers into the action as quickly as possible. In the first X-Men movie, it’s Wolverine and Rogue who enter Xavier’s mansion and are taught the ways of the school and the state of mutants and introduced to the world the rest of the audience needs to understand. Their wide-eyed reactions to what they’re seeing are windows into our own befuddlements. Get it? Good.
Unfortunately, the newcomer-as-audience trope rears its head far too often in movies about black culture, and Hollywood loves making that newcomer a white person. So what happens is the black culture is seen through a white gaze, silencing the black perspective. Think about movies like Save The Last Dance where the black clubbing and dance lifestyle is seen through the eyes of a white woman. Or The Constant Gardener where black genocide is depicted as a means to show its impact on white people. Or consider what’s probably the most famous example, Mississippi Burning, where the real-life murders of Civil Rights workers are just vehicles for a movie of white salvation stories. The list is, sadly, almost infinite.
That’s where Black Panther comes in.
Coogler takes this Eurocentric trope and turns it on its head by giving a unique introduction to Everett Ross. Instead of using him as a conduit for the viewer, he becomes something far more palatable for black audiences. But first, to understand Ross’ role in the movie, we have to look at the way he was portrayed in the Black Panther comic book.
Everett K. Ross is introduced on the first page of the first issue of Christopher Priest’s 1998 Black Panther comic run, in a full-page spread (brilliantly drawn by Mark Texiera). He’s sitting on the back of a toilet, in his underwear with a gun pointed at the audience on a page that features a refrain common to Priest’s Panther books: “the story thus far.” Much like in the movie, Ross is a US government official, but here he’s been tasked with making sure T’Challa has a scandal-free visit to America while on a diplomatic trip. Priest’s entire Black Panther run is written from Ross’ perspective, and I remember reading criticisms in the letters pages in the back of the book (which was the closest thing I knew to a message board or social media back in 1998) about the choice to make the narrator white. Priest would later explain his decision in a February interview with Newsarama:
“’Black’ comic books traditionally do not sell well, another reason I was reluctant to take on Black Panther. Comics are traditionally created by white males for white males. I figured, and I believe rightly, that for Black Panther to succeed, it needed a white male at the center, and that white male had to give voice to the audience’s misgivings or apprehensions or assumptions about this character and this book.”
The decision to include Ross in order to sell comics may have been a necessary evil for Priest, however his characterization of Ross’ gaze was unique. Ross has a distinctly American perspective on T’Challa and Wakanda, using stereotypes and borderline racism to color his narrative. He quips that Black Panther might “order ribs” at his hotel and references the “tribal” nature of Wakanda and utter surprise at T’Challa’s competence. Ross is used to build up white preconceived notions of blackness and Africa only for T’Challa to constantly break them down.
Ross’ perspective also demonstrates how so far ahead of Western governments T’Challa is intellectually. Ross is, quite frankly, a dope. He’s always playing catch-up with T’Challa’s plans, as is the audience. As was America. Priest understood that his readership was primarily white males and he used a white male proxy to show how T’Challa was constantly five steps ahead of the white men who thought they understood him. Still, despite Priest’s own ability to subvert tropes on white perspectives, we do gain most of our insight (or lack thereof) into T’Challa’s world through the gaze of a white guy.
The cinematic Black Panther has a different audience than the comic book. Coogler knew he was making a movie to be consumed and loved largely by black people. With a different perspective, Coogler is able to dismantle the trope of the white gaze, and do so thoroughly and enjoyably. In the movie, Ross isn’t introduced until about 30 minutes after the opening credits. By then, the world of Wakanda has already been built for the audience. We’ve seen Wakanda. We’ve seen the Dora Milaje and T’Challa’s whole family. We know the technological advances and we’re in on the secret that’s been kept away from the rest of the world. Even when Klaue explains vibranium to Ross, the audience already has a pretty good understanding of the metal and its role in Wakandan excellence. The white gaze is no longer a proxy for the audience because the audience, like T’Challa in Priest’s comics, is now five steps ahead of Ross as well. And it’s so fulfilling.
If Black Panther were to follow typical Hollywood tropes, the first time we see Wakanda would have been Ross waking up from his coma in a foreign country only to have the foreign land’s machinations laid out for him and the audience for the first time. Instead, Ross in awe at Wakanda upon waking up from his coma and the people in theaters can laugh at his ignorance. He’s in disbelief at the country’s technological advances and we’re already accustomed to it. We see his disbelief and know what’s coming next. The audience perspective at that moment, and throughout the movie is such a rewarding feature for black folks — because we are so used to our white counterparts constantly underestimating our abilities, mouths agape whenever we “transcend” our perceived limitations.
Ross travels to an African nation and expected poverty and dilapidation. We see his expectations of Wakanda in real time and know he’s wrong. It’s a feeling black people know all too well, looking into a non-black person’s eyes and knowing they have low expectations for us is a staple of the black experience. The beauty of seeing Ross’ dismay in Black Panther comes from seeing Shuri and the rest of the Wakandans’ assured and confident reaction to Ross — it’s the same knowing smirk T’Challa gives in the post-credits scene when the UN asks what a country like Wakanda can offer the world. T’Challa and Nakia know they possess abilities beyond anyone in the room’s wildest expectations and aren’t even necessarily concerned with impressing anyone. Wakandan black excellence is so removed from white approval that even Ross’ acknowledgment of their greatness leaves them unmoved.
The rest of the movie is largely unconcerned with Ross’ perspective. He’s there, of course and plays a pivotal role in the climax but his gaze doesn’t represent anybody but his own — and it’s the gaze of an outsider who’s simply trying to catch up while getting summarily mocked at every turn. Black Panther is a movie that is bursting at the seams with black pride, tradition, and love. The white gaze of Everett Ross is only used in the movie to reverse centuries of colonialized treatment of black culture. It’s a brilliant pivot that’s a slick reward for black audiences who came to see black people, black perspectives, and black stories. Judging by the way the movie has been received and the records it’s broken, it’s past time that black perspectives represented in art without the white colonial gaze become the norm instead of a cherished anomaly.