Agent Ross' identity as a white, American supporting character within the world of Wakanda is an important example of white allyship.
It’s no stretch of the imagination to say that Black Panther is one of the best—if not the best—of the films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Much attention has rightly been given to the reasons for this: a compelling villain, a noble hero, and three (three!) main female characters who kick butt from here to next Tuesday. The movie is about them.
There’s a supporting character whose role I think is an interesting one, as well, because—though he goes through a journey of growth—he remains a secondary character. This is Agent Ross, one of the two Americans, and one of the two white characters, in the film.
While some reviewers have felt that Ross doesn’t fit into the overall structure of the movie, actor Martin Freeman said in his interview with Den of Geek’s own Don Kaye that Ross is intended to be a stand-in for many movie-goers, all of whom are as new to Wakanda as Ross is. He also moves from being a good guy, but only sort of supportive of the Wakandans, to risking his life for their cause. That momentum, from being a man determined to follow his own course to being someone willing to take the back seat (or the pilot’s seat) and follow the guidance of another voice, is a journey toward becoming a good ally.
What is an ally?
While in the MCU, talking about an ally could be discussing whether you’re on #TeamCap or #TeamIronMan, in this case, I’m working with the real-world term as I understand it. As someone who’s working on being a better ally, I know my own understanding and performance don’t always live up to my goals, so I’m linking a lot of these tips to articles of others. You should watch and read what they have to say, too!
According to YouTuber chescaleigh, “An ally is a person who wants to fight for the equality of a marginalized group that they’re not a part of.” While fictional Wakanda may be self-marginalizing due to its isolationist policies, the fact that so many articles are discussing how Black Panther as a film is busting Hollywood myths about black culture-centered films, and how among the records it holds are the biggest opening weekend for a film directed by a person of color, it’s clear that the media and the studios are considering the film’s impact on real-world, marginalized people of color. So Ross’s relationship with Wakanda isn’t just a stand-in for the every-person movie-goer, but also a stand-in for a person from a privileged background (white, cis, male, American) becoming an ally to marginalized people (including the African diaspora).
When the film begins, Ross isn’t a Wakandan ally. He’s quite clear that T’Challa needs to get out of the way of his operation, and that the CIA has plans of its own for arms-dealer Ulysses Klaue. When the chips are down (a little casino humor there), Ross does come to the aid of the Wakandans, but in that tone that they’ve messed up his little operation, and the way to salvage it is by working together.
He does, however, continue to hold a superior first-world vs. third-world attitude. When T’Challa and Okoye are discussing whether to let him interrogate Klaue on his own, Ross asks, “Does she speak English?” Okoye replies, dryly, “When she wants to.” Ross’s assumption is that they’re speaking Wakandan (real-world isiXhosa) is because she can’t converse in English.
The relationship between the Wakandans and Ross is completely upended, however, when Ross takes a bullet to save Nakia from being shot. He still isn’t a good ally at this point—but he’s a good person. Anybody who pushes someone out of the way so that they don’t get hurt, risking themselves in the process, is a person who is worth saving in return.
“Don’t scare me like that, colonizer!”
Ross’s real journey toward being an ally begins after he’s healed. He maintains his dry sense of humor, but he’s starting to realize that he’s out of his depth, and he needs to take stock, listen, and change his attitude. When Shuri greets him as “colonizer,” he corrects her with his name… but he doesn’t argue the point or defend the United States by default. He asks for respect, but he moves on when Shuri does, because he clearly has so much to learn.
Listening is one of the core skills of working as an ally. So is confronting your biases. Ross realizes that, in the case of Wakanda, everything he thought he knew was wrong. So he steps back, listens, and watches.
He speaks up again when he has information that’s useful: Killmonger’s background. Then he’s left locked in an office (where, presumably, he doesn’t uncover any state secrets he’s not supposed to, even though he’s a spy) until Nakia lets him out again and he, along with Nakia, Shuri, and Queen Mother Ramonda, journey to the Jabari lands, hoping to raise an army against Killmonger. In approaching M’Baku, Nakia speaks first, and when he doesn’t listen, Ross tries to intervene. And when M’Baku commands him to stop speaking, he shuts up.
Allies amplify marginalized voices, which Ross seems to be attempting to do in supporting Nakia. Allies also “shut up and listen,” as said by Mia McKenzie on her site (now a book) Black Girl Dangerous. Maybe that’s due to the threat of being fed to children (to Ross’s credit, the women from the Golden City also seem to believe this threat from the marginalized Jabari before M’Baku reveals the joke).
But maybe he’s starting to get it. For better or worse, he’s in to help take Wakanda back.
For the rest of the film, Ross listens. He follows directions. He uses his expertise as a pilot to serve the cause. And when there’s a personal risk, when continuing on his mission puts him in danger of being killed, he doesn’t give up. This is another one of those ally skills: not taking a break from supporting the cause when it gets hard, and when it’s you at risk along with the people you’re supporting.
Ross never takes the spotlight, which may be why some critics view him as pointless to the narrative. But that support role is the point. That’s good ally behavior, too.
This isn’t to say he doesn’t have room to grow. Being an ally is a continuous process. You don’t “become” one. You work at it. You educate yourself, and you “stop expecting others to educate you,” per Christopher Laurence’s article for Huffington Post. In Black Panther, Ross is relying primarily on Shuri to fix him, not just medically, but in giving him the instructions he needs to be a good ally. To grow beyond that, he’s going to need to do some of his own research (and this is an area where, like Ross, I need some work).
In the meantime, those of us (like me) who are hash-tagging #WakandaForever and coming from a background and position of privilege? It’s probably time for us to do some research, too.