It was a throwaway joke in the middle of a car chase, but there’s a line in “Black Panther” that is as revolutionary as everything else in that groundbreaking movie.
It happens as King T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) and his loyal aides, the spy Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) and his general Okoye (Danai Gurira), are chasing the cackling arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) and his minions through the streets of Busan, South Korea. Klaue’s goons are firing their machine guns at Nakia and Okoye, a vain effort since their Lexus is armored with the bulletproof metal vibranium.
As the bullets bounce off the car, Okoye gives a disgusted look. “Guns,” she says. “So primitive.”
Of course, when you can throw a vibranium-tipped spear through a car’s engine block, you’re not going to be impressed with a gun spewing bullets at you.
But, in a week when schoolchildren are mourning their dead classmates after yet another school shooting — this time, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. — the discussion has again turned to confronting violence. Not the violence that actually happened, or the guns used to commit that violence, but the fictional violence depicted in movies and video games.
“We need to have an honest conversation as to what should and should not be allowed in the United States as it relates to the things being put in the hands of our young people,” Gov. Matt Bevin of Kentucky said Feb. 15, according to USA Today.
He wasn’t talking about guns being put in the hands of young people — like the AR-15 that suspected shooter Nikolas Cruz allegedly bought legally and later used to kill 17 people at his former high school the day before Bevin spoke.
No, Bevin (who, by the way, has an 86 percent rating from the National Rifle Association) was talking about movies and video games.
“I’m a big believer in the First Amendment and right to free speech, but there are certain things that are so graphic as it relates to violence, and things that are so pornographic on a whole another front that we allow to pass under the guise of free speech, which arguably are,” Bevin continued. “But there is zero redemptive value. There is zero upside to any of this being in the public domain, let alone in the minds and hands and homes of our young people.”
The argument that violence in media translates into violence in the real world is an old one, backed with precious little psychological research. It’s a distraction, usually thrown up by NRA-backed politicians to move the talk away from gun control.
It’s an argument Hollywood can take off the table, once and for all, and that scene from “Black Panther” shows the way.
Guns have been a part of the movies as long as there have been movies. When Edwin S. Porter made the first Western, “The Great Train Robbery,” in 1903, he ended it with the image of an outlaw pointing his shootin’ arn right at the camera and pulling the trigger.
From then to now, guns have been integral in movie entertainment, in Westerns and gangster movies and cop dramas. In science fiction, guns morphed into blasters or phasers or ray guns, carried by everybody from Buck Rodgers to Han Solo.
When carried by John Wayne or Humphrey Bogart or Gary Cooper, guns conveyed a sense of toughness, of justice, of moral superiority. Might made right, but right made might.
But bad guys carry guns, too, and when they do, the message changes. Weak men don’t suddenly become strong when they hold a gun; they just look more desperate. (Consider the diner scene in “Pulp Fiction,” where Amanda Plummer and Tim Roth train their guns on Samuel L. Jackson. Who holds the power in that scene? Jackson, not the ones with the guns.)
Hollywood has made this psychological switch in props before, with cigarettes. In old movies, Bogart could leave a cigarette dangling from his lips as a sign of nonchalant toughness, or Charles Boyer could light two cigarettes and hand one to Bette Davis as a prelude to romance. Now, a character with a cigarette is fidgety and anxious, the nicotine addiction a sign of weakness.
In “Black Panther,” the good guys don’t carry guns. T’Challa fights hand-to-hand, with vibranium claws and a vibranium-lined suit (designed by his technology-obsessed sister, Shuri) that deflects bullets and throws their kinetic energy back against the people shooting at him — turning his enemies’ gunfire against them.
With “Black Panther” breaking box-office records over the Presidents Day weekend, other filmmakers will be trying to draw lessons from director Ryan Coogler’s success. Maybe one lesson will be in taking action movies out of the debate over gun violence, so policymakers can perhaps focus on direct causes of violence — like the guns themselves.