By: Mike Reiff
As much as the initial three X-Men films, and especially X2, are evidence of Bryan Singer wrestling with issues facing gay and lesbians in our society (familial, social, governmental) it seems to me that a different “issue” is at hand in the Singer-produced but Matthew Vaughn helmed X-Men: First Class. By de-emphasizing the younger students and their adolescent identity struggles, fertile grounds for previous sexual and gender issues, and re-emphasizing the philosophical and ethical clash between Erik Lehnsherr (Magneto) and Charles Xavier (Professor X), Vaughn, it seems, is embracing a different, and more chronologically precise, social issue: black civil rights, specifically in the context of the Black Panther movement.
While the film doesn’t explicitly reference this movement, it does time the correlation of events well. As much as the film dwells on the advent of nuclear adventurism in the developed world in the 1960’s, this is also historically the initial years when the Black Panther political party was being formed (First Class of course takes place around 1962, while the Panthers were fully formed in 1966, but obviously black nationalism philosophy was evolving and developing far before the specific party’s iteration). And as much as the film may meditate on the way in which we treat, handle and exploit possibly dangerous new entities (nuclear weapons / weaponized people) it dwells even deeper, more astutely, and more clearly on the way a group protects its own.
In the same way that Black Panther party founders Huey Newtown and Bobby Seale initially established their movement to protect African Americans from real or perceived police harassment and brutality in the 1960s through political and philosophical means, we see Charles and to a lesser extent Erik acting in the same way in the beginning of the film. The two men work to protect their younger brethren from the harsh world surrounding them. In the same way that the Panthers attempted initially to engage with the government to better their situation, we see Charles and Erik working with the C.I.A. to both protect and legitimize their existence.
Of course, by 1968, as one of the founding members, Long, was jailed for murder (a charge initially denied but later embraced), the latent militarism became far more virulent and pronounced in the Black Panther movement, in the wake of perceived white American unfairness and conspiracy. In that same vein, we see Erik become far more militant throughout First Class, finally becoming the creature humans most feared when confronted with his own perception of human genocidal conspiracy, as much as the Panther movement briefly validated fears of Black militarism in the late 1960’s. Throughout the film Erik espouses, albeit quietly and over chess games, this violent methodology, while sporting the sartorial iconography of the Panther’s movement (black turtlenecks and berets; later, once convinced of his righteousness, Mystique also wears iconic Panther garb, notably the double-breasted black leather jacket, ubiquitous in Panther fashion.) By the end of First Class, “Magneto” has not only thrown off the shackles of moderation and peace, has not only denied his given name, but also becomes both a validation of Xavier’s worst fears, as well as the creature he, Magento, once most despised – a despot believing in racial superiority and genocidal methods. It could be argued that at its most violent nadir, the Panthers allowed themselves to become the same paradoxical enterprise.
Towards the end of the film, when Charles and Erik play chess by a crackling fire, they debate the merits of violent action vs. tolerant dialogue. It’s the perfect way to foreshadow the climax of the film. It is also a possible reflection of a debate that could have taken place within the Panther movement, between MLK Jr. and Malcolm X, between Cicero and Caesar. As much as First Class may act as a specifically good allegory for the Black Panther movement – due to its narrative / historic alignment with the actual movement, its aesthetics and its philosophical discussions – the film also lives in the tradition of the power of X-Men, and great comic heroes and villains in general. Through First Class, Vaughn is able to use these characters to achieve fresh perspective on an old meditation, and not simply the moral validity or criminality of the Panther movement, or the Civil Rights movement at large, but also the tension between violence and peace within the context of productive change and the protection of minorities. That the X-Men could provide such fertile allegorical ground for two distinct sets of groups within a decade of cinema is a testament to its lasting intellectual relevance.
Now if only Clint Eastwood would direct the The Dark Knight Returns and make it an allegory about ageism in Hollywood…