Black Panther’s plot, which features a battle for a new king in the mythical African nation of Wakanda, is a discursive on the nature of power itself. Ultimately, the film’s vision of black power rests as much on wireless technology and gold sneakers as it does on Pedagogy of the Oppressed inspired critiques of leaderships, identity, history, and restitution (minor spoilers, but if you haven’t seen it yet, you better get on that).
There are only two major characters who are white in the film. One of them is Ulysses Klaue (pronounced “claw”), a South African mercenary who steals Wakanda’s resources and considers them savages. The other is Everett K. Ross, a CIA-turned ally played by Martin Freeman. One might cringe at the idea of a white CIA operative becoming a fervent black ally, especially considering the historic role the US has played in destabilizing black liberation movements at home and abroad. Taken scene by scene, however, Black Panther offers a step-by-step guide for even the most systemically entrenched white folks (like white male CIA agents) to become allies.
Step One: Begin by understanding that white power is unconscious.
The first major scene between T’Challa, the Black Panther, and white CIA operative Everett K. Ross, is set in an interrogation lab. T’Challa and Ross are acquaintances, but the mistrust between them is palpable, and intensifies as Ross taps T’Challa in a paternalistic gesture of white overreach. The film uses humor to tackle the moment, and ends with T’Challa firmly placing his hand on Ross’s shoulder. The unspoken power dynamics are clear to the viewer, but Ross is oblivious of his role in them. Our future ally has no idea he’s not a true ally yet.
Step Two: Acknowledging white ignorance of the black experience is uncomfortable and necessary.
Ross is confused after interrogating Ulysses Klaue. He was certain that Wakanda was a destitute third-world country with no resources, but Klaue reveals that Wakanda is resource-rich and that T’Challa himself is a powerful king. The idea of a thriving black nation confuses Ross, and challenges his idea of the stereotypical ever-needy black nation and people. Our ally is learning that everything he thinks about black people might not be right.
Step Three: Allyship with white people starts from a point of shared humanity.
Ross takes a bullet for T’Challa’s love interest Nakia, played by Lupita Nyong’o. Rather than let him die, Nakia argues to repay the favor by taking him back to Wakanda for treatment. In the midst of shared struggle, politics and identity take second place to survival. Ross acted from a point of shared humanity when he chose to save her. This is a prerequisite to becoming an ally.
Step Four: White allies are strategically important.
Back in Wakanda, Ross shares a succinct and eerily accurate explanation of how the CIA operates around the world in terms of arm trading, destabilization tactics, and black ops, effectively outlining the shock doctrine. Ross’s insight, information and analysis about the internal workings of white power structures helps the Wakandans determine their plan of attack. A sense of trust is forming between him and the Wakanda leadership. Ross becomes an ally by being useful.
Step Five: White allies need to shut up.
When four members of the Wakanda nation seek help from M’Baku, King of the Jabari tribe, Ross is in the envoy. The three others are black women. When Ross tries to speak during this meeting, he is immediately silenced and M’Baku threatens to feed him to his cannibalistic children if he speaks again. In perhaps the most humorous scene of the film, our white male ally shuts his mouth and lets black women speak first.
Step Six: White allies need to create and respect safe spaces.
Ross realizes that he is not welcome at a ceremony that involves calling on the Wakanda ancestors. Instead of protesting, or asking why, he steps out with M’Baku until the ritual is over. In yet another awkward but amusing scene, Ross accepts that his exclusion is sometimes necessary to create a safe space for others. Our ally is well on his way.
Step Seven: White allies need to use their skills, damn it!
Towards the end of the film, as Wakanda devolves into full-scale war, our burgeoning ally Ross, a former fighter pilot that excels in subversive warfare, seems uncannily lost. For many white people, the process of recognizing systemic racism and the subtle ways that we benefit and contribute to them is shocking to our sense of agency. If everything we do is complicit with racism, then what can we do? Luckily, T’Chall’a’s younger sister Shuri breaks through Ross’s existential crisis. She tells him to fly the plane like he’s always done – only for Wakanda this time.
Step Eight: White allies help enable systems change.
As Ross gets in his virtual plane and begins his mission, he realizes he has agency and skills that are useful to the Wakonda struggle. He’s a pilot that knows how to shoot and win. What’s changed is that now, rather than spread destabilization throughout the world, his goal is to contain it. As he comes to understand his new purpose, there’s a brief moment of collective wonder: what if the CIA and white people like Ross wielded their resources and skills and power for the collective good? The re-imagination is a powerful one.
Step Nine: Black power needs white sacrifice not white saviors.
Everett Ross is a minor character in the grander scheme of Black Panther. In the end, it’s not clear what his ultimate fate is, but it is clear that he chooses to stay and fight. He’s not a white savior – the struggle is not about him, but he has a role to play, and it’s a strategic one. By the end of the movie, he’s still a white male CIA operative flying a plane. What’s changed is his awareness of the real enemy. We should all be a little bit more like Ross. Imagine the future we could build if we too followed the path of the Black Panther.