But Has Disney Been Revolutionized? The Paradoxical Politics of Black Panther
by Khaleb Khazari-El, CounterVortex
For some intransigent radicals, the movie Black Panther can only be seen as recuperation and exploitation of radical legacies by the capitalist Spectacle—specifically, Disney and its Marvel franchise. But the film is more morally serious—and morally complex—than simple blanket dismissal will allow. That Disney has decided that such a film is in the interests of its bottom line is itself a kind of victory. It reflects progress in mass consciousness won by the very social struggle that the Spectacle now seeks to capitalize on—from the real Black Panthers of the 1960s, to Black Lives Matter and the anti-Trump Resistance today.
First the good news…
With Hollywood peddling us so many dystopias that exploit our (totally legitimate) fears of technology and totalitarianism (from The Matrix to V for Vendetta to The Hunger Games), it's refreshing to get a flick that has an openly utopian element. Fictional Wakanda in some ways realizes the dream of African liberation leaders Kwame Nkrumah, Patrice Lumumba, Julius Nyerere and Amílcar Cabral, and their latter-day emulators like Thomas Sankara (mostly martyred). In Wakanda, Africans are in control of their own resources—especially the miracle-mineral vibranium—and therefore their own destiny.
And Wakanda manages to be futuristic while true to an indigenous African spirit—a vision of what a technological society could look like if free of the distorting forces of the global leviathan.
The contrast with the real world is sobering. Across too much of Africa, mineral resources merely fuel local wars, while the wealth flows to corporate headquarters in the United States and Europe—obvious examples being coltan in the Democratic Republic of Congo and "blood diamonds" in Angola, Liberia and Sierra Leone. And the idealistic liberation leadership was followed by figures who often exploited anti-colonial rhetoric and imagery for their own oppressive power—such as Idi Amin, and Mobutu Sese Seko, who renamed Congo "Zaire" in a bogus play to nationalism while conniving with ex-colonial power Belgium.
Wakanda is plausibly African right down to the language. Instead of gibberish as a stand-in for an African tongue, we get to hear a real one: Xhosa, spoken by some 10 million in South Africa. This isn't necessarily geographically correct—Wakanda is supposed to be in East Africa. The name obviously invokes Uganda and Rwanda, and a brief map shot confirms this location. But the dominant languages of East Africa are primarily Bantu, and Xhosa is also a Bantu tongue, if a distantly related one. Certainly a forgivable stretch. (Wakanda's written script is based on Nsibidi, a writing system developed some 400 years ago in the Calabar region of Nigeria.)
And the movie's several woman characters are all kick-ass warriors and brilliant scientists—not a scream-queen or vamp among the lot.
Now for the bad news…
Black Panther ultimately doesn't dare to deviate from certain acceptable moral precepts of the (white-defined) mainstream, and here is where it gets into trouble. Wakanda has survived by withdrawing from the world—an African Shangri-La. At the beginning, Wakandan secret agents are shown carrying out a mission to rescue abducted girls from Boko Haram in Nigeria. But it is portrayed as a deep-cover operation, and the Wakandan leadership at times sound openly xenophobic. The utopia is basically isolationist. And newly crowned King T’Challa (the eponymous Black Panther, played by Chadwick Boseman) accepts this.
The bad guy, meanwhile, is a pan-African revolutionary. Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) would have Wakanda export revolution—with technology and weaponry—across the continent and its diaspora. In an obvious nod to the real-life Black Panthers, he is born in Oakland, son of a rogue Wakandan agent bent on armed Black resistance in the United States. He challenges T’Challa for the throne, and to make clear he's a really bad guy, he talks about killing the children of his enemies—indeed, committing genocide. Even remotely implying that the real-life Panthers were such moral monsters is an unacceptable calumny.
The film's inevitable CIA agent character is on the side of the good guys—that is, fighting the extremoid pan-Africanists. And the big climax has Africans fighting Africans, in near-fratricidal violence. (T’Challa and Killmonger are actually cousins). In short: Black Panther seems afraid of its own vision, and therefore ends up vindicating the most cynical assumptions about the African continent.
But now for more good news…
Bad guy Killmonger is not intrinsically bad, but morally conflicted. He isn't Sauron or Blofeld or Obadiah Stane. (Klaue, the sleazy white South African arms dealer who Killmonger exploits but then kills, is the real thoroughly evil character.) Killmonger's death at the end can be seen as a self-sacrifice, as it provokes a moral conversion in T’Challa. The victorious Black Panther subsequently decides to open Wakanda up to the world, share its technology and resources, and use them for universal social progress—with an emphasis, if not an exclusive one, on Africa and its diaspora.
That's why the critics griping about Killmonger getting offed at the end, rather than living to challenge the hero in sequels (in typical Marvel manner), are missing the point. It's also why the death of the bad guy in this movie is reducing audiences to tears.
So maybe the sequel will deal with the contradictions and threats that will inevitably follow as a pan-Africanist Wakanda opens up to the world. Maybe the bad guys will be goons for the multinational corporation that is trying to grab the vibranium, and intelligence agents or mercenaries from neo-colonial powers bent on destabilizing Wakanda. Maybe the CIA agent will be with the bad guys—unless he has actually betrayed his own government and thrown in his lot with the pan-Africanists. Maybe a sub-plot will have Wakanda provoking imperial wrath by arming the militant, organized youth of Oakland and Ferguson with vibranium weapons to defend against killer cops. Maybe the pan-Africanists will declare their adherence to the Geneva Conventions even as they kick neo-colonial ass, while it's the neo-colonialists who are moral monsters (as often in real life, e.g. the ultra-brutal, diamond-dealing Jonas Savimbi insurgency in Angola, backed by the CIA and mercenaries from apartheid South Africa).
But that probably depends on whether activists can keep the flame alive here in real life. If Black Panther proves an inspiration that provokes real-world idealism, so much the better. But it was real-world idealism and struggle that brought Disney and Marvel to this point.
Keep the pressure on, and this cultural feedback loop could bring about some better movies—and a more interesting world situation.
Is Black Panther co-opting African struggles against oppression?
by Shihab Rattansi
Al Jazeera, Feb. 18, 2018
'Black Panther' Is Not the Movie We Deserve
by Christopher Lebron
Boston Review, Feb. 17, 2018
Wakanda Is a Fake Country, but the African Language in 'Black Panther' Is Real
by John Eligon, New York Times
King News, Feb. 16, 2018
How an Old Nigerian Language Inspired the Written Languages in 'Black Panther'
by Daniel Orubo
Konbini, Feb. 26, 2018
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Reprinting permissible with attribution.