BLACK PANTHER OPENS THE DOOR, THEN ONLY HALF STEPS IN
Estimated reading time: 50 minutes. SPOILERS INCLUDED
There is no denying this cultural moment. The Black Panther movie has inspired the African diaspora with the vision of a Black and African superhero who leads an unconquered African nation that is the most technologically advanced on Earth that has built this from the ground up out of its ancient traditions. The movie has also assembled some of the most beautiful and gifted Black diaspora talents in front and behind the camera in an unprecedented big-budget Black movie epic about African subject matter set on the continent. Just on the strength of its trailers, its majestic art direction, and its strategic hype led by its beautiful diaspora-wide cast millions of Black people around the world have already been awakened to new possibilities of self and new imaginative frontiers. The vision of such a movie done on an epic scale by black writers, a black director, co-producer, production designer, and costume designer, and a storied multi-generational mostly Black A-list cast has inspired a groundswell of black diaspora arousal around the idea of an idyllic Black present and future. This article will attempt to critically assess the movie and the larger cultural moment that is cascading around it…
BLACK FILM POWER CONVERGENCE
To begin with the movie is a game changer in terms of Black access and representation. The movie marks the culmination of a series of Black generational assaults at the various glass ceilings of Hollywood and access to filmic language. Its Black co-producer, Nate Moore, has been working for years to arrive at such a position of power in Marvel where he already has leveraged his access to get the Black hero ‘the Falcon’ into the Captain America film. It was also his insistence that got the Black Panther as the main addition into ‘Captain American Civil War’ and his persistence that green-lit the Black Panther movie. These critical interventions are evidence of what having a seat at the table enables and is a clear argument for why Hollywood needs to diversify its boardrooms as much as its casting. Moore alongside his director Ryan Coogler then took this opening and made it rain by assembling a Pan-African team to the project that produced an artefact that is now re-writing the rules of Hollywood and larger Black representation. The writers are both Black: Joe Robert Cole is an Emmy award writer from ‘The People Vs OJ Simpson’ who has worked his way through the studio system, and Ryan Coogler is the director who worked his way in from apprenticing on Hollywood sets and through black independent cinema. The Production designer and costume designers—Hannah Beachler and Ruth E. Carter—are both Black and have worked in a host of Black-helmed productions over the years which have marked the rise of an emerging Black cinematic voice.
The principal cast itself is made up of 5 Africans from 3 nations born or raised on the continent (or one generation removed) which itself is a culmination of the rise of African continental theatre and film talent currently inundating the performing arts mostly facilitated through Britain. Three of the Black lead cast are Yale University graduates which says something about the power of Black leveraging of Ivy League alumni connections and the Black Americas in the cast are all alumni of independent Black theatre and cinema which has been in steady ascendancy for the last 2 decades. The team also chose to shoot sets in Atlanta and at Tyler Perry’s studio ensuring that the Marvel money circulated within the Black community and raised their capacity with it.
The movie itself then is the culmination of several strands of Black resistance to marginalization in Hollywood and testimony of the power of having representation in the boardroom and on the boards… The convergence in Black Panther also expands to the current Third Wave of Hip Hop through the inclusion of Kendrick Lamar’s late game-changing soundtrack that also brought ‘the noise’ to the Film and marked it as a must-see cultural event. The presence of the crowned king of the Hip Hop’s Third Wave along with all the other cresting Black talent represents a clear marker that this film is one of the tent-poles of a humming Black Cultural Renaissance.
THE LARGER BLACK CULTURAL RENAISSANCE
Black Panther appears exactly 20 years after 1998 when Hip Hop and Black American culture usurped White culture as the mainstream in America for the first time. 20 years is considered a generational transition. The film itself is the ‘tip of the spear’ (pun intended) of a much larger cultural transformation, evolution, and ceiling-smashing Black assertion whose themes are now centred around a revamped Black Social Justice and Black Economics movement, Black Futurism, and Black Excellence.
Smartly released during Black History Month the film is a beneficiary of the energies unleashed and coalesced around the profound humanistic force of the #Blacklivesmatter movement at a time of the threat of a Trump presidency and rising Right Wing fascism. The movie appears against the tapestry of such diverse strands as: the rise of the Black visual arts movement led by stars like Kara Walker and Kihende Wiley; the rise of third generation Black fashion models like Jourdann Dunn, Chanel Imam, and Winnie Harlow joined by a slew of young Black fashion houses along with seismic events like the crowning of ghetto superstar designer Dapper Dan by Gucci wherein it seems he won a moral and style battle between Black street fashion and White mainstream billionaire fashion houses. This is compounded by the coronation of behind-the-scenes Black talent like make-up artist Pat Mc Grath who has now been crowned undisputed global master in a once totally White-populated field.
This Black cultural moment is happening against the thousand wattage glare of mega-stars like Rihanna and her cross-media and business supremacy, Beyonce’s maturation into a conscious den mother of resistance and cool, the near billion dollar empires of P Diddy, Birdman, Dr Dre, and Jay Z, and the multi-million dollar lock on pop-culture of diverse talents like The Weeknd, Drake, and Bruno Mars. Even massive White stars like Eminem, Lady Gaga, and Justin Bieber are signed by Black management who are raking in their multi-millions. The rise of Black Independent cinema has been paralleled by the steady rise of Black blockbuster directors like F Gary Gray and Antoine Fuqua and the commanding pop-cultural lock of producer/actors Kevin Hart, Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, and Vin Deisel who occupy a unique position of dominance in global markets in the Hollywood firmament. This lock in pop culture in turn is bouncing off the stylish supremacy of Black sporting stars in most mainstream sports and the domination of such iconic figures like Serena Williams in tennis, Lewis Hamilton in F1 racing, boxers Anthony Joshua and Floyd Mayweather, and Le Bron James and Steph Curry in basketball. The moment also includes such iconic Black activism like Colin Kaepernick’s ‘take-a-knee’ protest in the NFL and Congresswoman’s Maxine Water’s resistance to Trump. Married to all of this are all kinds of Black advances and manoeuvrers in tech, business, and science where glass ceilings are falling monthly amidst the rise of generations of Black public intellectuals like Ta Nehisi Coates, Malcolm Gladwell, Theaster Gates Jr, and Melissa Harris-Perry. Taken against the parallel lead helm of the massive ‘Pacific Rim’ franchise by John Boyega and the production of Ava DuVernay’s A Wrinkle In Time, the main-streaming of Black agency in Black Panther is clear evidence that some kind of seismic browning of the mainstream is afoot… A real cultural moment is at hand.
Black revolutionary writer Franz Fanon once said, “Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfil it, or betray it.” So let us again tip our hats to the power of African American generational cultural movements who continue to meet their 20-year cycles of regeneration with ten-year mini-cycles in between. Looking at these cycles we would clearly see 10 and 20-year outputs of Black film product that either puts forward the idea of a Black Superhuman and/or rehabilitates the mythology of Africa. Black Panther is the intersection of both cycles- and hopefully breaks from the past by not being singular, but one of many. Eddie Murphy’s ‘Coming to America’—which marked a game-changing rehabilitation of the portrayal of Africa—was exactly 40 years ago in 1988. 10 years later in 1998 ‘Blade’ marked the first serious Black superhero mainstream narrative film and the first time that any Black character went through the code of the Hero-myth in mainstream film! It also was the year that Hip Hop and Black American culture mainstreamed as the dominant form of culture in America—overtaking Country music and Rock. 10 years later in 2008 Will Smith’s super hero film ‘Hancock’ appeared and the real life hero Barack Obama was elected president- on the strength of the Hip Hop generation and its white female converts who were now of voting age! Now 10 years later in 2018 Black Panther arrives clustering generational attempts at rehabilitating the icon of Africa and resurrecting the idea of the black super-hero. This is the power of generational intent being fulfilled.
Black Panther also marks the main-streaming of Afro-Futurism- a form of enquiry and representation which stresses unrestrained Black Dreaming which includes Black science fiction and fantasy- forms of narrative that have been banned from Black access by White power brokers because of its capacity to emancipate the mind. Ever since the invention of pop culture Black mainstream narratives have been heavily policed by White overseers. Blacks are only allowed narratives that are ‘realistic’, debased, and tragic, and never fantastical, aspirational, or heroic. So in the white mainstream, Black narratives must always be helmed in by pain, loss, and limits. Whereas white men can fly in their fantasies black men must always be confined by stereotype, trapped under the lash of slavery whips, or restricted by the boundaries of the ghetto… Afro-Futurism—named by Mark Dery—has built a steadily growing following of consumers and creators that have revolted against such limits. They in turn have given a home to Black Nerds who have been alienated from the White Nerd kingdoms of Silicon Valley and Comic Con which rule the modern digital world. Black Panther has comprehensively mainstreamed the Afro-Futurist movement (a breach opened by Jordan Peele’s Get Out) and possibly destroyed the White-bred prison of Black representation with limits. Time will tell…
Black Panther bursts through these limitations in spades in its attempt to utter an Afro-Futurist narrative with a Black Superhuman at its centre. In so doing the film also has shattered a myth that White Hollywood has always used as a reason why Black fantasy films are not green lit- “because nobody else in the world cares about Black people and their stories”. The numbers are telling a different story: Black Panther is the fastest film to $700 million—$704 million in 1.4 weeks, outpacing every modern film ever made! It may be on pace to match the biggest films of all time in a fraction of the time- Box office Avatar: $2.8 billion in 34 weeks; Titanic: $2.2 billion in 41 weeks; and Wonder Woman: $822 million in 23 weeks. The NY Times on Monday said:
“In its second weekend, ‘Black Panther‘ demonstrated an astounding hold on audiences in the United States and Canada, collecting about $108 million and pushing its global total after only 12 days of release to roughly $704 million, according to comScore. As a point of context, Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” collected $773 million in 2014 over its entire five-month run.”
The film’s audiences have also been consistently diverse across the world. The Hollywood Reporter says that in the States audiences for the first week were about 37% Black, 35% White, 18% Hispanic, and the balance Native America and Other. The film has also been number one in most Asian, Latin American, and European markets. Yet the film is clear testimony of the power of Black co-operative economics and the power of the Black Dollar. Black collective enthusiasm for the film has summoned the Black Taste Maker crown that Blacks have in street fashion, music, and sports and brought it over to film. In other words “what Black people ‘like’ becomes popular”.
Black Panther then crowns a blossoming Black Cultural moment and profits by itself being a convergence of many of its strands. Coming exactly 20 years after the seismic main-streaming of Hip Hop culture, Black Panther is at the tip of the spear of another generational wave of Black Culture whose face may just be Afro-Futurist…
WHAT WOKE UP THE DIASPORA
This tsunami of cultural momentousness that Black Panther is riding could not have been possible without three things.
- The first is the conception of Black Panther in ‘Captain America Civil War’ where he was by far the most honourable, intelligent, and bad-ass character- brilliantly portrayed by Boseman.
- The second is the aesthetic power of the Black Panther trailers which gave a concentrated glimpse into Wakanda and further Panther ‘badassery.’
- The third is the marketing roll-out which cleverly featured the beautiful Black cast and crew hitting all the marks in every nook and cranny alongside a strategic trotting out of well designed posters and marketing photographs.
Of all of these elements the production design and costuming of Wakanda may have been the game-changers. Both were so exceptionally executed that they have set a new bar for world-building in and outside of the Marvel Universe. At every turn the movie’s Black designers worked scrupulously to bring Wakanda to majestic life. The sophistication of what they accomplished meant that the mere 2 minutes of footage that audiences saw in the trailers was enough to unlock the hidden need for Afro-Futurist representation to a global population.
CBC Radio said:
“[Production Designer Hannah] Beachler put everything into a bible, a giant book that defined the imaginary world she was creating. She documented African flora and fabrics and tribal differences, she embraced the people. She says they showed her how to value the details of their culture.”
According to the New York Times, production designer Ruth E Carter
“…borrowed from indigenous people across the continent. During six months of pre-production, she had shoppers scouring the globe for authentic African designs, like the traditional stacked neck rings worn by the Ndebele women of South Africa.”
It was the thoroughness of this vision of a Pan-African paradise glimpsed in the trailers that set off the alarm bells of interest diaspora-wide. From the telekinetically-piloted African-mask shaped Panther jets, to the cityscape of Wakanda which features skyscrapers married with traditional African village architecture, to the interiors of all Wakandan rooms which demonstrate architectural laws derived from African cosmology, to the Pan-African vision of the meeting of the Tribes at the Waterfall, the realization of the visual icon of Wakanda by the designers and director has been masterful. There simply has never been this type of benevolent and elevated representation of Africa, its people, and traditions in a mainstream Hollywood film product before- especially on an epic scale….
It is very unfortunate however that this kind of rigour and thoroughness wasn’t maintained in all aspects of the film-making and world-building, because the film itself features a series of dangerous lapses which compromise the very icons the film attempts to construct.
THE DREAM vs THE REALITY
I believe, in retrospect, that this period from the first trailers to the actual first viewings of the movie will be seen as the most important and fertile cultural moment when it comes to Black Panther. It is hard to be critical of a phenomena that is so universally loved by the diaspora, but it is precisely because the movie is occupying such a massive place in the re-jigging of the modern Black consciousness that makes it important that we interrogate the movie properly- for its triumphs and its missteps…
The movie itself is unfortunately very problematic in its portrayal of Black heroism and African exceptionalism- all the things that it claims to be championing. The movie’s conception of Wakanda is corrupted, as is its portrayal of the titular hero the Black Panther and the very institution of the Black Panther itself. What is more the movie creates a series of false conflicts between Africa and its diaspora, as well as between African mainland resistance to white imperialism and the Black resistance to white imperialism in the Americas. It complicates these narratives dangerously and even resolves these narratives in ways that may even be more White Supremacist than Black Conscious…
Let’s now explore the confusions of the Black Panther…
THE IDEA OF WAKANDA
On one hand the idea of Wakanda is the strongest thing about the film. One part of this is the result of its original conception by Marvel comic book powerhouses Jack Kirby and Stan Lee who already created this Myth of a sovereign African kingdom unconquered by the Imperial West, protecting the world’s most precious material, and being the most technologically advanced nation on Earth. This mythology has been built on by generations of great comic book talents particularly Black talents like Christopher Priest and Reginald Hudlin. We already spoke about how Black Panther movie’s production designer Hannah Beachler and costume director Ruth E Carter along with director Ryan Coogler’s vision transformed these 2 dimensional illustrations to IMAX filling 3-dimensional life. The fleshing out of that prophetic Zion-type dream of a Golden African City represents the highest distillation of a 2-century old Pan-African and African-diaspora Dream of a once and future Eden on the continent that is bigger than the movie. The idea of Wakanda teased by the trailers and the marketing is possibly even better in people’s imaginations than what is realized in the film. In this way the film has done its historical job and unleashed this possibility in people’s consciousness. The good news is that now that this vision exists it cannot be restrained. For this we forever would have to thank Coogler and crew…
It is tragic then that whilst the aesthetic conception of Wakanda is the film’s strong point, the film’s conception of the inner workings of the Wakanda is its major flaw. When the time comes to get closer to how the Kingdom actually functions it is clear that Coogler and his co-writer were not as rigorous as their designers and did not understand how African societies and traditions work. To conceive of the political and social workings of Wakanda Coogler and team actually rely on a series of Western stereotypes that subversively compromise the idea of Wakanda and also compromise the institution of the Black Panther itself.
The problems begin with the opening scene. The movie begins with the original Wakandan sin, the killing of his brother N’Jobu by T’Challa’s father T’Chaka- the previous Black Panther. There are several levels in which this scenario immediately begins undermining both the icon of Wakanda and that of the Black Panther. This original sin sets up a binary narrative in which Wakandan isolationism is set off against ‘assistance to oppressed Black people in the world’. But it goes further- T’Chaka’s brother is killed in Oakland, California- birthplace of the Black Panther movement! T’Chaka’s brother is even styled like the original Black Panthers with black leather jacket and turtle-neck. Thus the movie sets up the fictional Black Panther super-hero against the real-life Black Panther movement and by extension Black social progressive movements!!! The movie thus desecrates 3 holy ideas and holy sites- Black Sovereignty vs Black Revolution, the fictional icon of Wakanda vs the real Oakland birthplace of the Black Panther party, and Africa against the African American… This is an artificial conflict and is dangerous as it fulfils the divide-and-rule mission of White oppressor narratives… It would then take a spectacular resolution to re-harmonise these things artificially split at the beginning of the film- but this never happens…
BLACK PANTHER MOVEMENT vs BLACK PANTHER SUPER-HERO!
T’Chaka’s brother is also sold out by a Wakandan spy- the future Shaman of the Wakandan people! This actually mirrors the technique of surveillance and sabotage of the real life Black Panthers as well as many progressive American organisations by the FBI, CIA, and CONTELPRO- organisations that sent Black spies to infiltrate and sabotage revolutionary groups- only this time Wakanda is the ‘Big Brother.’ For many Black organisations this is too close to home. This opening sets up a dangerous narrative loop that pits Africa against its diaspora. This results in the ultimate sin- brother killing brother- in a death that could have been avoided and where no attempt is made to revive him using Wakandan medicine. In fact no Black characters are revived by Wakandan medicine in the movie. Only 2 white characters who work for western secret services- Agent Ross and the Winter Soldier- are the beneficiaries of Wakandan life-saving medicine…
The original Black Panther then compounds the situation by committing the greatest sin of leaving his brother’s body dishonourably unburied for his son to discover and abandoning his brother’s son to the wilds of the ghetto and the social services of the USA. For an African golden city and for a superhero these sins are near unforgivable- but it gets even worse!
UNDERMINING THE IDEA OF ANCESTORS
Even as an Ancestor T’Chaka does not even confess his sins to T’Challa when T’Challa travels to the Ancestral realm. This undermines the very conception of African Ancestor-hood and cheapens the lovely vision of the Wakandan Ancestral realm with its Serengeti Dream landscape with God Panthers in the trees. In African ancestral practice benevolent ancestors do not carry their sins with them, they guide the living from a place of purity. What good is Coogler creating all these shining African icons if they are all hollow and have no integrity? A way out of this narrative dead-end would have been for T’Challa’s father to confess the sin with a riddle that could have sent T’Challa on a quest that would have come to resolution with Killmonger’s appearance… But again Coogler and his team do not quite understand Africa and its traditions. They understand Ancestors as an aesthetic abstract, but not as a real living phenomenon with thousands-year old traditions that operate in a particular way… Nor do they utilize any filmic devices to ever lessen Wakanda’s or the Black Panthers’ crimes- and there are many more! The lack of confession of an Ancestor is not African in nature. Thus Ancestors don’t have integrity in Coogler’s conception! This is a very dangerous corruption of African tradition. So again, although the film’s depiction of Wakandan Ancestral communication (which mirrors hundreds of African Ancestral rites and Trinidad’s Baptist ‘mourning ground’ traditions) is revolutionary in its beauty and benevolence- it is undermined by depicting it with a lack of morality.
Some may argue even that in the final tweak Coogler’s Wakandan world-building is still too Western in its urban/rural split and certain obvious Western flourishes seen up close on the Wakandan street. It is possible that the cut scenes of T’Challa jogging with Lupita N’yongo’s Nakia through the various parts of the Kingdom may have fleshed out some of the major departures of a civilization based on African principles as opposed to one based on the White West. To see how world-building is done from the ground up I would direct readers to the Caribbean’s very own Nalo Hopkinson and her brilliant novel ‘Midnight Robber’. In the tour de force first half of the book Hopkinson creates a vision of a future world built out of a Caribbean world-view which transforms how people communicate, travel, eat, socialize, fight, and organize- all fleshed out with blow–mind tech grown out of deep-seated indigenous Caribbean and Resistance concepts. It does not resemble any White science fiction and is truly revolutionary and Afro-Futurist to the tenth power. Nalo truly does her world-building from the inside-out and from the ground-up. Coogler’s vision of Wakanda could have done with this kind of rigour, matriculating back into African source material for a more thorough understanding of African cosmology and social organizing and thus dreaming upwards with integrity.
A COMPROMISED CONCEPTION OF WAKANDA
The hollowness of the film’s conception of Wakanda continues with the film’s conception of a one-man decision-making African kingdom. This is a Western stereotype propagated to excuse and camouflage African military despots Western imperialists have planted on the continent for more than a century to facilitate their looting of Africa’s resources. Africa did not have absolute monarchies like portrayed in Black Panther. There are many checks and balances on any ‘kings’ power in traditional African societies- starting with councils very much like the Wakandan Inner Council (which seemed so cosmetic and ineffectual in the show) and a host of secret societies and other spiritual and political institutions that can question and corral a king. That complex reality of African societies- the checks and balances on a King/Oba’s power- is a truth that needs to be uttered or else we believe centuries of Western stereotypes of ‘absolute’ tribal leaders. Proof of the democratic nature of African societies is that countries all over the continent regularly overthrow despots foisted upon them by the West- despite the West’s ruthless facilitation of them.
It should not be so easy for Killmonger to commandeer the decision making of an entire Nation. The Coogler conception of Wakanda is too fragile. Wakanda cannot be so sophisticated if it has no checks and balances on tyranny and dictatorship—being so quickly toppled by one man… By having Killmonger take the throne and make civilization re-making decisions that are immediately implementable the film makers have undermined the very icon of Wakanda they have created.
THE SELFISHNESS OF THE ROYAL FAMILY
The traditions of Wakanda also have been written as brittle and fragile and simply a fig leaf for first-family privilege. And this is dangerous. The reaction of the Royal Family and the Council to the Trial by Battle is flawed. It is either the Trial by Battle is a sacred ritual whose result is accepted as the law of God and the law of the land- or it is a rigged cosmetic dance where one family is supposed to win. If the former is the case then the response of the Family and Council to the outcome must be a divine understanding that the Gods have spoken and have sent a new King- no matter if your chosen champion has been bested and killed. That understanding of divine and traditional social sanction above family and personal opinions is everywhere in African society and is a defining characteristic of traditional African societies. As it stands the film’s conception of the Royal Family and Special Council looks like cry-babies and rubber stampers for their chosen King’s authoritarian rule. The Royal family then only supports traditions like the Trial by Battle when their candidate wins and not otherwise. There were ways for Killmonger to have won with an unfair advantage that could have been discovered after calling his legitimacy into question- but barring this if he wins fair and square then he must be King.
BREACHES OF TRADITION
The Shaman Zuri prevents Killmonger from killing T’Challa which is a breach of the ancient combat law. This narrative of the Royal family and the Chief Priest flying in the face of tradition and continually breaking their own divine laws just because their candidate loses undermines the integrity of the idea of Wakanda and also the real life traditions of Africa. If Wakanda’s traditions mean nothing to its greatest proponents then what kind of kingdom is it? Later T’Challa’s mother would administer the Heart shaped herb to him to save his life and give him the powers of the Black Panther in flagrant breach of the tradition again. The movie has created a series of scenarios that undermine the very icon it is attempting to construct. In the comic T’Challa survives the battle with Killmonger by himself and returns to take the throne when the Heart shaped herb is rejected by Killmonger’s body because he is unworthy… The movie instead makes 3 successive people ‘illegally’ save T’Challa’s life- Zuri, M’Baku, and his mother.
THE COMPROMISED ICON OF THE BLACK PANTHER
Despite his overall nobility T’Challa’s character also is drawn as less than honourable at crucial moments, as well as emotional, and impulsive. He is easy to anger, standing up to fight at the slightest pique. Again this is a Western stereotype of the impulsive African. In the comics T’Challa is more known for his cool and temperance. He also is an intellectual, a graduate from Oxford, a physicist, and one of the 6 smartest men on the planet. This is never portrayed in the film. When Killmonger comes into the throne room to challenge for the throne T’Challa at first refuses his request for audience- even though he knows he is his cousin and has a right to challenge! This is dishonourable. How much more powerful is this scene if all the rest of the Council denies the request as the ranting of someone who does not understand centuries long tradition but T’Challa reveals that the visitor has all rights to challenge for the throne because he is his cousin. Linked to a confession by his Ancestral father this would have been a redemptive moment for the Panther clan and would have elevated T’Challa as an honourable ruler. But Coogler and crew are continually very shaky in their depiction of the African side of the equation, but very clear of the African-American side. They constantly elevate Killmonger above the Wakandans, resolving scenes to empathise more with Killmonger, constructing him in honourable terms whilst undermining Wakanda, T’Challa, and the very idea of the institution of the Black Panther who are depicted as unworthy.
NOT UNDERSTANDING AFRICA- AND LETTING THE WEST OFF THE HOOK
It is clear from the movie that Coogler and crew understand African-American angst very much, and their anti-hero Eric Killmonger is very clearly drawn and has their aesthetic support. But their super-identification of him with Black revolution is also flawed because they make the enemy Africa and Wakandan isolationism and not the ruthlessness of the White supremist West who the film’s narrative continually lets off the hook, never mentioning White genocidal oppression by name. This is a serious problem in the movie and its evidence is that the film makers do not understand Africa’s history enough to articulate Wakanda’s ideological position of isolation in response to Killmonger’s challenge. This makes the Black Panther and Wakanda flawed icons as conceived by Coogler and company. Let’s get to the bottom of it:
THE FAILURE TO UNDERSTAND WAKANDA’S ISOLATIONALISM
The biggest flaw of the film is its reasons given for Wakanda’s isolation and thus it’s national philosophy. In the film the reason for Wakanda’s isolationism is confused- with different reasons being given by different characters. All of the reasons however have to do with some kind of national arrogance “We are smarter and more advanced than everybody else so why dilute the pool”, “we enjoy a quality of life better than anybody so why should we share,” and “we don’t want a set of refugees and the problems of the world within our borders”. These are all ‘white people problems’ and not realistically Wakandan or Black African reasons… The reason why Wakanda has isolated itself- as drawn out by generations of comic book artists- is actually because of a series of understandings closer to Killmonger’s but resolved in a more moral way. Wakanda in the comics actually has already dealt with Killmonger’s argument and has moved passed it- even though his urgency could still have challenged them. The failure of the film is that its conception of Wakanda has no moral argument to respond to Killmonger. This is an artificial flaw because the very answer to Killmonger is built into the very idea of Wakanda itself.
- The first reason Wakanda isolated itself was because they realized that they were made the guardians of a precious material that could be utilized for either good or evil- and they use it for good. So Wakanda isolated itself because they cannot trust humanity- especially the West -to use vibranium morally. Simple. They know that given access the West will create world-destroying and oppressive weaponry. SO WAKANDA IS ISOLATED BECAUSE GIVEN HISTORICAL PRECEDENT THEY CANNOT TRUST ANYBODY ELSE ON PLANET EARTH- ESPECIALLY THE WEST- TO USE VIBRANIUM WITH MORAL INTEGRITY. This argument is never put into the mouth of any Wakandan- far less the Black Panther who should understand this above all others. This results in a portrait of a flawed kingdom and a flawed leader who cannot defend their isolationism when challenged by Killmonger except in the most selfish, pathetic and bratty terms, “I am not King of the world, I am King of Wakanda…” This morally weakens T’Challa, the Black Panther institution, and Wakanda itself.
- The other reason Wakanda kept isolated is because they actually have battled the same White Imperialism that had invaded the entire African continent and subjugated every other nation (except Ethiopia) with 500 years of genocidal wars, plantation slavery, killing tens of millions of people on the continent, stripping them of sovereignty and their natural resources, and straddling them with dictators that maintained European and American control of African nation’s resources. THE THREAT OF THE WHITE WEST IS A HUGE REASON WHY WAKANDA REMAINS ISOLATED. To protect itself. To pretend this history does not exist is straining the bounds even of comic book fiction… But this film never really calls out White Supremacist imperialism by name except through the voice of Killmonger and through snide little one-liners like Shuri calling Agent Ross ‘coloniser’. This is not enough in a film that attempts to interrogate Black Revolution and Social Justice. The film acts as if Wakanda has never dealt with the threats of White Supremacist imperialism. In the books Wakanda is isolated because even if they could defeat one imperial invader- which they have- what are their chances of defeating all of them? Such a battle will result in nothing less than a world war! With hundreds of millions of deaths… Does Killmonger not think that Wakanda has never fought battles and wars itself to defend themselves and others? Does Coogler? Does Coogler think Africa abandoned African-Americans and must pay for it? Is this a common African American sentiment? Do they understand that Africa waged 3 centuries of slavery wars with the West and 2 centuries of colonial wars with the West at the cost of tens of millions of lives and the loss of its mineral riches? Do they know Black divisions exist because they are fanned by colonial oppressive forces? Do they know who the real enemy is?
These 2 reasons: the first reason that Wakanda has remained isolated is because it has remained unconquered and sovereign against a ruthless racist and inhuman conquering empire and is strategically engaging it in limited skirmishes; and the second reason that Wakandans are guardians over a resource that the world (the West) is not morally fit for are serious compelling reasons to maintain isolationism.
Killmonger could still have battled for his Empire-killing plan against this equally compelling Wakandan idea of moral isolationism. Instead Wakandans in the film are drawn more as entitled brats, more interested in maintaining their privilege rather than share the wealth. Again these are very ‘White’ problems and a great commentary on Trump and right-wing isolationism, but they are not realistic reasons to put into a Black nation’s mouth. Especially a Black nation who has witnessed Western genocide on all its borders for centuries…
The one character who resolves all these arguments is Lupita N’Yongo’s Nakia who uses her spy missions and Wakandan tech to intervene positively all over the continent and diaspora in limited skirmishes emancipating people from oppression- as was evidenced by her liberation of the girls at the film’s beginning. Her precedent foreshadows the very role that the Black Panther will play in the future as a superhero operating in the shadows balancing the scales of social justice. But this conclusion is not even claimed at the end- because for Coogler and company the icon of the Black Panther was treated too much as an afterthought and is left too unresolved.
THE FILM TEARS DOWN THE ICONS IT IS MEANT TO BUILD
The failure to draw the moral and historical reality of Wakanda out strongly is the weakness at the heart of the movie. The power of the movie- the power that people had bestowed upon the movie without even seeing it apart from trailers- was built out of an Afro-Futurist imaginative vision that bounces off of real-life global African history with a presumption that here was an African Kingdom that resisted White Supremacy and emerged unscathed. The presumption is that the nation and the superhuman that leads them has done this with Integrity- not by cowardice or selfishness. It seems the only people who did not work out all what this meant were the film makers themselves. By choosing to let the White Imperial West off the hook in the narrative and instead making Wakandan isolationism the villain is a travesty, a perversion of African history, and a corruption of the actual mythology of the Black Panther comic itself.
These profound flaws in the movie: the mis-portrayal of Wakandan philosophy and African traditions and social structure; the brattiness of the Royal family; the ineffectualism of the Council of Elders; the moral weakness of T’Challa; and the refusal to point out the larger context of Western Imperial threats to Wakandan life and sovereignty has weakened the movie and undermined the very icons the movie erects. If one tenth of the rigour that was placed in the creation of Wakanda’s externals were invested in its internals then the cry, “Wakanda Forever!” would mean more and raise pores long into the future…
A WEAKENED BLACK PANTHER ICON
This erosion of the icon of Wakanda is nothing compared to the erosion of the icon of the Black Panther institution. And it is never repaired in the film. From father to son at each stage the Black Panthers make wrong-headed selfish decisions and betray traditions at the drop of a hat and are willing to sell out their global Black family for personal privilege and security. And this moral weakness is not the only one the Panthers have…
T’Challa as himself and as the Black Panther is never really seen as a brilliant fighter; he hardly beats M’Baku in the first challenge, and he is comprehensively beaten by Killmonger, and is saved from death illegally by the Shaman, then by M’Baku, and then by illegally being given the heart shaped herb — even though he is not the legitimate Black Panther — by his mother to revive him. He also is regularly knocked over and out in battle — first by Klaw, then Killmonger, then by the border tribe army. It thus seems that the Panther is too dependent on the heart shaped herb for his power and is not a superlative warrior. The dependency of a black hero on a drug to have power is also a dangerous narrative for Black people… This depiction flies in the face of the character established in ‘Captain America Civil War’ where Panther held his own against every single Avenger and the Winter Soldier and in the comics where the Black Panther is one of the Earth’s greatest fighters, beating such adversaries as the Fantastic Four, the Super Skrull, Captain America, Wolverine, and others. In this movie’s conception he is nothing without his drug and is never allowed moments of battle glory as are given to heroes like Thor, Captain America, and others in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). In fact his defeat by Killmonger is one of the most painful moments in Black movie history and one that betrays the fact that for Coogler and company their real hero is actually Killmonger… The final battle where T’Challa’s Black Panther defeats Killmonger’s Golden Jaguar is never elevated by film making to that level of visceral power and thus does not carry the catharsis of redemptive victory for T’Challa and the audience as it should.
ELEVATING KILLMONGER AT THE EXPENSE OF THE BLACK PANTHER
In a conversation hosted by Ta Nehisi Coates at Harlem’s historic Apollo Theatre on Tuesday 27th February Chadwick Boseman makes the startling confession that he thinks that Black Panther is the villain in the movie, that Killmonger may be the hero, and that when he read the script he identified with Killmonger and believed T’Challa was born with a “vibranium spoon in his mouth”! This confirms the fact that the movie that Coogler was really making is called ‘Killmonger’. It is clear with a dispassionate look at the movie that Coogler has made Killmonger the hero- having him retrieve stolen African artefacts with moral righteousness, shooting him heroically, and consistently giving him the most poetic and telling arguments and last words. All this at the expense of what drew hundreds of millions around the planet to the movie- the icons of the Black Panther and Wakanda. This is a tragedy of the highest order. There were many ways to have Killmonger represent the pressing themes of Black Revolution and Black Social Justice without sabotaging the Black Icons of Wakanda and the Black Panther, and by actually building them up to be an equal countervailing moral force (think Batman vs the Joker in ‘The Dark Knight’) However, like Killmonger, Coogler has ‘burned everything down’. It is a very dangerous game he has played in his script- and lost. Once the euphoria wears down many people may begin to question the contradictions in the movie. Unfortunately they may not be able to articulate themselves out of the confusion and may just take away an artificial blood feud between Africa and its diaspora and a verdict that Black Revolution is a dead-end. This is dangerous.
What is tragic and ironic is that the conception of T’Challa in Captain America ‘Civil War’- as written by two white writers- was an infinitely more honourable character with more of an understanding of morality, tradition, inheritance, and ritual. A lot of the expectation for the Black Panther movie was because the character Black Panther was the athletic, gladiatorial, and moral centre of ‘Captain America Civil War’. The version of T’Challa in his own movie is much weaker whilst artificially bolstering Killmonger.
A lot of these problems with the film could have been solved with a little more film making rigour by the writers and director- if they were interested in it. T’Chaka could have killed his brother accidentally by the bullet bouncing off his suit and hitting his brother who then could not have been revived by Wakandan medicine. T’Chaka could not have known about his brother’s son and carried his brother’s body back for burial which would have made Killmonger’s existence a real surprise and more an accident rather than a sin. The film could have done more to draw out Killmonger’s psychopathic character– his extremism- which then would have allowed T’Challa to present a moderate moral balance to him by presenting a convincing Wakandan argument for isolationism. That’s a compelling film: Killmonger’s extremism versus Wakanda’s more measured interventionism. The countervailing idea that could have been advanced by T’Challa is: “Global war? At what cost? If we do as you say how many tens of millions will die? What will be the state of the world when this conflagration ends? Will more people now invade us for Vibranium and set off a chain of events that cannot be stopped? Will vibranium then fall into the wrong hands? Is there another way?” However T’Challa and the elites of Wakanda are denied this type of sophistication… It also means the audience is bereft of this type of debate as well…
The film thus is fundamentally flawed. It promised the diaspora to erect an Afro-Futurist Icon but instead it has undermined that very icon, the idea and traditions of Africa, the idea of black progressive institutions, and Black revolution. Nothing Black comes out unscathed. It also has undermined the very nature, honour, and primacy of the very Black super-hero it says it is here to unleash. More dangerously the movie has pitted African exceptionalism against Black revolutionary action in a false conflict whilst letting White Western Imperialists off the hook.
HANDING OVER EVERYTHING TO THE WHITE WEST
After all the debasing of African ideology and tradition the movie ends even more weakly making concessions to the very White Western powers that would have been the cause of Wakanda’s isolationism in the first case. T’Challa goes to the UN to share the very vibranium and tech with the Whites (not the African Union). His one concession to the Black struggle is to open a ‘Wakandan Outreach Centre’ in the ghetto. He does not even name it after Killmonger’s martyred father, his dead uncle, which would have been redemptive. The movie ends with Shuri, the flower of Wakanda, flirting with secret service agent Bucky who is now conferred with the magical title of ‘the White Wolf’ with the promise to show him more secrets… So at all turns Wakanda’s secrets are being handed over to the White West whilst the call to Black Revolution remains unanswered — murdered with Killmonger…
ORPHANING BLACK GLOBAL REVOLUTION & SOCIAL JUSTICE
Because the film over-identified Black Revolution with Killmonger and removed ALL such agency from Wakanda, and by having Killmonger pay for this ambition with his life, the movie then leaves the issue of global Black Social Justice completely unanswered and dead as a pressing issue. This is a massive betrayal of the current global moment. At a time when Africa’s resources are again up for grabs with Western, Russian, and Asian powers circling the continent; at a time when the world’s wealth is being sucked into a funnel by a rapacious 1%; and at a time when the question of Black Social Justice is a pressing issue with Black Lives hanging in the balance the murdering of the voice of Black Social justice and revolution and its replacement by weak integration-ism without moral integrity is a hard load to bear. To have the film that was supposed to herald an unconquered African Kingdom and a moral, intellectual, Black super-human be the vessel for this message is a tragic act of betrayal- or failure of artistic rigour…
Anybody doing a checklist? In Coogler’s conception here are the things that do not have integrity: African Ancestors; the original Black Panther; the African Shaman/High Priest; the Royal Family; the Special Council; Wakandan traditions; Wakanda as a whole; and finally T’Challa… Here are the things defeated- Wakandan social structures, the Wakandan air force, the border tribes, T’Challa, and the idea of Black Revolution. Quite a checklist!…
AFRICAN CREATORS REQUIRE MORE RIGOUR BECAUSE OF THEIR RESPONSIBILITY
None of the betrayals I have mentioned should be surprising- except for the fact that they have seemingly been authored by seemingly well-intentioned Black people. I am pretty sure many of those participating in the film were unaware and probably still are that these are the real lessons to be derived from their movie. This again stresses to us that African creators need a superior form of aesthetic rigour with our artefacts and a real matriculation in our Traditions and History so we do not betray them. If not we end up doing our enemies work for them and invite our people into a Red Wedding… It also underlines the need for Black audiences to be more sophisticated and discerning. If we have been alert we would have recognized Disney and Marvel’s record in the portrayal of Black people which has exceeded Hollywood’s damning record of marginalized and debased Black representation.
HOLLYWOOD RACISM IN THE COMIC BOOK AGE
Comic book movies are the premium type of cinematic story form on planet Earth at the moment generating more than $20 billion in ticket sales to date in a short space of time. The comic book source materials of Marvel and DC feature an overwhelmingly white-male slate of heroes with a very small handful of Black heroes, most of insubstantial power and most relegated to fighting crime within their own communities, keeping the battles black-on-black (Luke Cage, Black Lightning). Black characters in comics are mostly bystanders and villains- so thus in many ways they mirror exactly how Hollywood has operated for a century. Black Panther- the first black single comic-book super-hero- is probably the most exceptional of comic book Black Heroes- so the responsibility resting on him to be done well is enormous. This has now failed…
In the rest of comic book movie-dom we have been faced with an accelerated pace of destruction of Black life and iconography. In the otherwise exceptional Dark Knight nearly every single Black man who appears in the movie is killed and their death (sacrifice) is the lever for another action for the antagonist the Joker. In Marvel to date- on both Disney and Sony’s side- a whole slew of the most celebrated Black actors have portrayed villains and/or have been killed in humiliating fashion: Jamie Fox’s Electro in Spider Man; Djimon Honsou in Guardians of the Galaxy; Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje in Thor: Dark World; Chiwetel Ejiofor in Dr. Strange; Donald Glover in Spider Man; in DC Will Smith is Deadshot… In Black Panther, Forest Whittaker and Sterling Brown are killed. A veritable A-list of Hollywood Black talent thus has already been villainised and dispatched in the Marvel Cinematic Universe at the same time when nondescript White boys named Chris (Pratt, Evans, and Helmsworth) have been elevated to Gods and Super Heroes. These White heroes are continually portrayed as triumphant impervious icons where their honour and power has remained inviolate.
Hollywood is the value keeper of White Supremacist cultural values and the greatest global enforcer of the White supremacist caste system of White over Brown over Black with clear reduced power and agency given to black and brown people and women. Black Panther marks a revolutionary blow against White Hollywood and has ushered in a seismic cultural shift- as an industrial product- but not as a movie text where it actually betrays the values it seems to be about. The limited remaining comic book source material in terms of Black, female, and minority heroes does not bode well for the future of ethnic representation in what will continue to be the premier form of storytelling on the planet… With a depleted slate of A-list Black actors to draw on and depleted Black superhero source stories, Black and Brown people do not have much more to look forward to within the comic book pantheon… Unless we engage in a wave of hero-creation of our own and maximize the remaining Black Marvel/DC etc. super-hero pantheon. And it is up to us to keep Marvel and DC honest with our representation from here on in. However to do this we must be dispassionately critical and rigorous with the narratives that foreground our representation. And we will all have to wait longer again for a movie that fulfils the potential of the Black Panther icon…
The debacle in the telling of the Black Panther story means two things- Black people need to be more discerning about the agendas behind the stories being told about us, and secondly we need to own the factors of production so we can risk, create, and own our own heroes and stories…. We also need ‘many’ as opposed to ‘one’ so that we are not dependent on the ‘one story’. The good news is that the movement created by the Black Panther may just be the lever needed to make this happen!
THE GHETTO OF BLACK-ON-BLACK VIOLENCE
Black Heroes- in mainstream comic books and in films- exists in a White Supremacist universe with a built in hierarchy of White over Brown over Black. In that set-up Black people are not allowed to fight, beat, and especially kill White people. One solution to this for White power brokers has been that Black heroes- in the rare occasions they are allowed- are only allowed heroism once their field of operations and villains are also Black- or other minorities. So most Black hero narratives in pop culture feature Black-on-Black violence. A constant battle of black people fighting over the spoils in their small corner of the world. Black Panther is no different and takes this even further. Black Panther extends black-on-black violence diaspora-wide pitting the mother-land versus the diaspora. Then it takes its depiction of Wakanda and allows the Kingdom to descend into civil war with the slightest provocation- another Western stereotype. And this betrayal is brought on by Black Panther’s best friend(!) W’Kabi the leader of the border tribes… This refusal of white power brokers to give Black characters agency to confront and defeat white characters means that most Black mainstream narratives exist in these tiny ghettos of operation in isolated black communities where black heroes are only allowed to police other Black bodies and where black on black civil strife and violence is reinforced… This keeps the status quo in place and ensures that White Power is never threatened…
THE CONSERVATISM OF COMIC BOOKS
The Black Panther movie has also shown the essential conservatism of the super-hero genre- as one commentator says, “Superheroes cannot lead world revolution.” No matter what power a super-hero has, he or she are never allowed to fundamentally change the world as we know it- or else the illusion that they exist in our world disappears. It means that superheroes essentially support the status quo. They battle for a broad idea of Good but do not create revolutionary change. Black Panther with its initial promise of a world-altering African reality epitomizes this as it brings Black Revolutionary Dreams crashing down to the ground around the diaspora… The letting off of the hook of global White Supremacy is one reason White audiences feel comfortable watching this film… Apart from some slight one-liners, the history and present tense of Western oppression is let off the hook…
ARTISTIC BRILLIANCE- THEN THE CGI FAIL OF THE SUPER-HERO THIRD ACT
However as a formal cinematic whole the Black Panther is a well-constructed movie. The opening scene is traumatic and sets up the movie, the next act features world-building, the next scene introduces our villains, the next act features an excellent action sequence which moves from the nightclub to the streets of Korea- all the pieces are actually well placed. The film also introduces more than a dozen memorable characters who have immediately become iconic. Coogler is a brilliant film maker whose first two features Fruitvale Station and Creed are powerhouses and like ‘Black Panther’ feature compelling frames, movement, and storytelling. However Coogler suffers from the same third act collapse that has plagued most super-hero narratives- an over-reliance on CGI action over human choreography and emotional pacing (Wonder Woman, the X-Men, Avengers, and Iron Man movies, etc.). The climatic fight between the two Panthers features badly composed fight scenes and even worse CGI not worthy of the Coogler fight-oeuvre. What should have been a definitive battle between two warriors embodying two different principles instead becomes an anonymous CGI video game graphic exercise.
ICONS OF BLACK FEMALE POWER & AGENCY
The other monumental revolution of the film is its portrayal of Black Women. From the conception of the Dora Milaje and their patriotic General Okoye to that of the super-spy and T’Challa’s independent ex-girlfriend Nakia and her rescue of the girls in the opening, to the brilliant conception of Shuri the irreverent prodigy inventor of Wakandan tech, to the matriarchal presence of Angela Basset’s queen mother and her love for her son, there is a diverse manifestation of black female-hood completely outside of male definitions. Each of these women is self-contained, beholden to different ideas, powerful, intelligent, and full of agency. These are Black women who are definitively beautiful and uncompromisingly African, in language, in their rejection of Westernised beauty modes of straightened hair and clothes, and in their undiluted love of their sovereign country. The fight scene in Korea also features these women beating White men with martial skill, and command of intelligence, espionage, and technology. This is revolutionary and puts an exclamation mark to this #MeToo moment, the natural hair moment, the Wonder Woman super-feminine moment, and the rise of Black female agency. Behind the camera as well Coogler has empowered female talents through his production designer and costume director, as well as his cinematographer Rachel Morrison, a White woman who is one of only a handful of female cinematographers in the business. Coogler and team draw the female characters so strongly that audiences are demanding that they have lives outside of just the Black Panther narrative. The Black Panther women also have solidarity and never descend into female sabotage even when they have profound disagreements- which again is revolutionary. They never relinquish grace and nobility. They have already inspired women around the world- of all colours. It is a pity that the narrative they appear in is so compromised…
M’BAKU AS THE SOLE AGENT OF HONOUR IN WAKANDA
The character of M’Baku of the Hill Tribes as played by Tobagonian Winston Duke is probably the greatest revelation and the character that emerges with the most integrity. His character adheres to the tenets of tradition to the letter, he challenges when all others prefer to rubber stamp Royal rule, he is magnanimous in defeat, and lives by honour defending the sovereignty of his people. He rescues T’Challa and saves his life repaying T’Challa’s mercy. He has zero tolerance of White invaders. He also rescues the kingdom of Wakanda in the end. His is a character and a kingdom with a clear moral and philosophical centre which allows his character room to play in- as contrasted with the confusedly written T’Challa and the Wakandans. All this is bolstered by Duke’s performance- probably the most unified performance in the entire movie. He is a compelling presence and his accent and idea of the character never wavers- it is imperious, empathic, witty, and has a great dramatic arc. Duke even introduces Trinbagonian beats in his acting that make M’Baku a surprisingly funny character at dramatic moments… It is a pity that the characters that were supposed to be heroic- T’Challa, the institution of the Black Panther, and the Wakandan nation itself were not written in such clear moral tones or with such redemptive arcs…
I am not saying that Ryan Coogler ‘sold out’ or was a victim of some conspiracy- although some contend that corporate boardroom directives might have shaped his narrative… I actually think he took it as far as he could carry it, and we are the better for it as it has awakened something and broken down doors- despite its real flaws. I think the thing that tripped up the clarity of the narrative was the intensity of Black Pain. I think the major lesson is that we must recognize that Black Pain is very real, and for those anointed with the opportunity to be the community’s voice the difficult duty is to transcend that Pain to emerge with Truth. And that’s hard. The internalized traumas of being Black in this racialised present built upon 500 years of genocide and inequity, at times makes us confused and prone to self-sabotage. Sometimes it’s difficult to navigate from under and through Black Pain. Probably moreso for geniuses who ‘feel’ more than the average person. I think that was the case here. The background of this movie is profound Black Pain and it is the thing that muddied some of the filmmaking decisions of Coogler and fellow screenwriter Cole. The feeling of diaspora abandonment, homelessness, and loss is real- especially for African-Americans- and our most sensitive artist pick up and transmit these innermost currents. And sometimes when these erupt in Art it ends up being not resolved all the way through. You hit out, and sometimes you don’t strike the correct target…
Black Panther represents an artefact where the trauma being articulated overwhelmed the Art and a moment was lost. The thing is Art is unforgiving. After the hype passes the Artwork will stand up to judge its maker- and be judged. Transcending Black Pain to work from a place of clarity is supremely important when the opportunities for us to have a global audience are so rare… Unlike White people we do not have the luxury of failure. We must hit our mark. As the battles intensify over the distribution of the world’s resources, and as media expands and we acquire more opportunities the need for us to be more rigourous with our creative language will only increase. The stakes are too high. The work Black creative artists author in this Afro-Futurist #Blacklivesmatter present has the responsibility not only to be entertaining, but also conscious, liberating, and unified in intent and execution in order to construct a better future.
Coming down the pipeline are: Ryan Coogler’s next movie on battles over public education in America; Steve Mc Queen’s ‘Widows’; Viola Davis and Lupita N’Yongo’s ‘The Woman King’ about the Dahomey Amazon warriors; Viola Davis’s untitled Harriet Tubman movie; and dozens more we would have thought unreachable ten years ago! It is not enough that these films exist- they must exist with Integrity! It’s a steep learning curve in winning back the sovereignty of our Narrative and Voice. And Black Creators are going to have to be performing at genius levels- without the training wheels period. This requires emotional Healing from larger racial hurts, a serious immersion in History and Legacy on a Pan-African level, and a mastery of storytelling technique so that we do not mess up our messages and perpetuate folly…
PREPARING FOR THE WHITE INDUSTRIAL BACKLASH
The other serious thing that all Black people must prepare for now in this moment of elation is the inevitable White backlash. It is coming. It happened after Eddie Murphy’s series of revolutionary movies wherein people were looking for a second wave that never came. It happened after ‘Blade’ and the rise of the new generation Black Independents (the ‘Black Love’ filmmakers- ‘love jones’, ‘The Best Man’, ‘The Wood’, etc era) who ushered in talents like Nia Long, Morris Chestnut, and others- a movement that paralleled the 1998 Hip Hop Revolution. That moment too seemed like the beginning of a mainstreaming of Black film sovereignty, financial independence, independent distribution, etc led by Hip Hop’s power. Instead White backlash and systems smothered the movement in a few short years, co-opted many of the stars, and derailed real momentum.
For Hip Hop they had a special kind of revenge- within 5 years of appearing as young Black gods in song and videos in 1998, most Hip Hop principals had been cast as criminals and killed in a series of Hollywood high profile films- from Monsters Ball to Copland to Scary Movie 3. It was a show of force of White Power to put the upstart Black Insurgency in its place and Hollywood was the main staging ground… For this reason this current Wakandan ‘gladness’ should be greeted more with strategy and sobriety whilst waiting for the other shoe to fall… The real question that must be answered in this Afro-Futurist insurrection is ‘How can this Revolution be sustained? How can collective action create capacity? How can Wakanda be made manifest? And where is the Silicon Valley for the Black Nerds?…’
THE GLOBAL WAKANDAN MOVEMENT MUST TRANSCEND THE MOVIE
The power of this present global African-diasporic Afro-Futurist moment hopefully is bigger than the Black Panther movie, bigger than the Black Panther myth, and bigger than Marvel, Disney, Hollywood, or anything else… The power of Wakanda the icon hopefully is that it has unleashed an Afro-Futurist Pan-African Garveyite vision of a self-determined African Future. Hopefully this now ‘more lucid Dream’ leads to ACTION based on the recognition that a Wakandan future is reachable. We have an African continent that contains resources that must be made sovereign. We have Black talents and Black excellence on the continent and in the diaspora that can accomplish anything we set our minds to. We have the license to dream a future that is morally and socially better than the one that exists now. We have a right to demand and claim resources equal to anyone else. With integrity. One also hopes that Black Panther sends people searching for an authentic vision of Africa and its traditions as opposed to the flawed ones of the film. One also hopes that the idea of a Black super-human with power, agency, intellect, and integrity takes root in a generation, blossoms, and inspires them in life. One also hopes that this moment inspires a generation to create a new pantheon of heroes owned and determined by ourselves…
BLACK STORYTELLING IN THE POST-WAKANDAN AGE
The undisputed brilliant thing about the Black Panther movie is that it has publicly destroyed the lie that white and global audiences do not want to see films and art made by and with Black people. The way that the film has destroyed box office totals has been a lesson of what Black creativity can do when unleashed, if only a little. Ryan Coogler has remarked that it struck him that at one time just 60+ years ago many mainstream sports were completely white with the argument that no white person would ever pay to watch a Black athlete. Fast forward 60 years and most of those sports are predominantly Black with mostly White audiences, with White children and adults of all ages living vicariously through Black athletes. Are we witnessing that shift beginning in film and TV? Black Panther has already compelled an unprecedented statement by John Fithian, the head of America’s National Association of Theatre Owners endorsing the need for more big budget Black, ethnic, and female films- so it is very possible with activism that the moment may be here.
Black Panther also demonstrates the power of the Black Dollar and its ability to change the culture if it is harnessed communally. How many community-changing objectives could be accomplished by progressive single minded spends like this? The film also mainstreams Afro-Futurism which emancipates Black storytelling and imaging and has facilitated a revolutionary cultural shift in Black diasporic imagination. For all these things Black Panther must be praised and thanked. However, if you want a film about an inviolate Black Hero that triumphs over White Power one still has to return to the first ‘Blade’- brilliantly shepherded by Wesley Snipes- for satisfaction…
So. Black People seizing Black power. Black ownership of real estate, history, business, technology, resources, and ideas. Black People seizing autonomy and proprietorship of their Dreams. Black People seizing authorship of their future. Black People knowing more about their past, their enemies, and their resistance so that they cannot be fooled or manipulated. Black People interrupting centuries of oppression to live successful lives born out of alternative models of being and harmony… Thousands of Wakandas await our construction- in Dreams and in the real World…
Part of this review asked the diaspora to be wary of the inevitable Hollywood/White Industrial backlash to the success and power of Black Panther and also to pay attention to Marvel/Disney’s treatment of the Black Icon- past, present, and future. The warning has already had its first ominous sign with the fate of Black characters in the otherwise outstandingly made ‘Avengers Infinity War’- the first Marvel movie after ‘Black Panther’.
In the movie not only is Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther summarily killed by Thanos as a statistic of the villain’s Infinity Gauntlet- but the Kingdom of Wakanda suffers untold deaths with alien invasion, all to defend the life of the android The Vision. Not only this, but most of the Black characters in the movie meet untimely deaths. The first death in the movie (normally the ‘blood sacrifice’ that opens a hero-myth) is Idris Elba’s Heimdall. This is followed by the deaths of Zoe Saldana’s Gamora; Anthony Mackie’s The Falcon; and Samuel Jackson’s Nick Fury… The casual blotting out of T’Challa so suddenly after his elevation is a reality check on the fate of Black bodies in White narratives and is the most self evident reason as to why Black sovereignty over our own storytelling is a must…