Note: At the outset I would like to acknowledge the profound debt this essay owes the work of Dr. Jared Ball, Dr. Todd Burroughs, and the website ImixWhatILike, all of whom have produced amazing criticism in the lead-up and on the release weekend of this film.
I began studying Africa and the diaspora, including African American culture, in my undergraduate studies at RIC. My exposure and understanding of white supremacy, racism, and the profound historical legacy of slavery in this strange republic has been painful, halting, imperfect, and the difference between me having a soul and basic humanity and not possessing these because of the terrifying neurosis of whiteness. It is one of the most painful and insurmountable failures of my life and I would never have it any other way since I have begun this journey. I say it is a failure because, while I earnestly wish I would one day that I might stop being a racist and white supremacist, I’m never going to totally overcome this.
Such a statement is necessary at the outset of a review of Black Panther because the film is a stunning, jaw-dropping work that defies every logical mode of analysis Your Faithful Critic would employ regarding any other film, including many other films made by Black directors and starring Black actors. Why do I say this?
I’ll try to explain by starting from the experience of just walking into the movie theater. I went on Saturday night to a screening at the Showcase Warwick Mall cinema. The municipality is a middle class suburb of Providence that was so viciously and blatantly red-lined to prevent African Americans from buying property in the city after World War II that its nickname was ‘White-wick.’ Going to see a film about a Black superhero in the third weekend of Black History Month 2018, the second under our nasty narcissistic white nationalist game show host president, in that movie theater is an experience that is totally different from going to see it in a theater located in Roxbury, Harlem, Providence, or any other majority-Black metropolis. The class and ethnic dynamics of the audience are fundamentally and undeniably different in ‘White-wick’ than they are in Providence. As I entered the theater, I took a rough and informal survey of the packed seats. There were by my estimate 25-50 or so African people in the house. The rest were Latinx, Asian, or white. How many of the people were in the house because this was a Black superhero movie? How many were there because it was the newest entry in the long-running Marvel Films franchise, a series begun in 2008 with the first Iron Manpicture starring Robert Downey, Jr., that has been produced by the Disney corporation and spanned cinema, television, and internet venues such as Netflix and YouTube?
As I took my seat, I recalled I have recently been reading the newest volume published by the amazing Dr. Gerald Horne. The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism: The Roots of Slavery, White Supremacy, and Capitalism in Seventeenth-Century North America and the Caribbean is the third in a loose trilogy Horne has been creating about the colonial era and war of independence from Great Britain. In this newest book he starts by discussing the biography of Roger Williams, the foundation of what would eventually become Rhode Island, and the birth of the chattel slave trade on this continent, an event which took place in this state and which Williams played an essential role in. At the end of the so-called Pequot War, it was the Englishmen living astride the Narragansett Bay that took captured Pequot prisoners of war and sold them into captivity with a destination of Bermuda. In this sense, the history of slavery in North America started within ten miles of the movie theater I sat in.
A brief side-note on the Disney corporation as the producer of the picture is also worth noting here. The company has a long and extremely problematic history when it comes to both how they portray African people in their media productions as well as how they have treated African Americans as employees and potential customers. Under the tenure of Walter Disney, the company produced multiple cartoon shorts and films that were blatantly and undeniably loaded with all sorts of racism. The apotheosis of this corporate practice, to my mind, was the 1946 Song of the South, a picture based on the Uncle Remus stories that included scenes with a so-called tar baby and sharecropping African Americans ‘whistling while they work’ as if one of the more dreadful episodes of American labor history was somehow a fine old time.
In the 72 years since then, the record has been a mixed bag, with slow but steady tacking to the progressive end of the spectrum since the 1970s while still maintaining representations of gender, sex, sexuality, and ethnicity that are conservative enough to not offend white parents. In real world employment and customer service practices, the company has been likewise a mixed bag. Walter Disney testified on behalf of the McCarthyite witch hunters during the postwar Red Scare and blacklisted as Communists anyone who had ever tried to unionize his studio shops regardless of whether the individual union organizer had any affiliation or not with the Communist Party USA. He built Walt Disney World in Florida, a Right-to-Work state with a long and brutal history of lynching and other domestic terrorist activities. That selection of Florida was very intentional and cannot be divorced from racism in terms of labor and general societal norms. Rather than choosing to build in Miami, a longtime Latinx community and destination for vacationers, Disney selected the Orange-Osceola Counties area in the middle of the state, which prior to the Magic Kingdom’s construction were olde time southern metropolitan areas where seersucker suits, white feminine virtue, and the Ku Klux Klan formed a kind of American apartheid triad. The resort itself has featured over the years different attractions and hotels steeped in nostalgia for the antebellum south, case and point being the Port Orleans hotels. It is true that, since the 1980’s, there have been efforts at the resorts to promote multiculturalism within their parks, perhaps most exemplified by the (in)famous Gay Days in the 1990s, but the class distinctions of those efforts, ones that are catered to middle and upper class vacationers, are noteworthy, particularly because such class distinctions form a major element of the current film under review and its main conflict.
The central conflict of the picture is based around a battle for the throne and soul of a fictional African nation called Wakanda that secretly has in its national reserves both a powerful ore, vibranium, as well as futuristic technology manufactured from it. This aesthetic element is a clear and powerful illustration of what literary critics today describe as Afrofuturism, a classification and analytical framework that defines science fiction/fantasy written by Africans. A clear antecedent of this was a short story titled The Comet written by W.E.B. Du Bois and included in his 1920 anthology Darkwater while, according to Dr. Lisa Yaszek, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man can be described as “proto-Afrofuturist.”
She continues by defining the term as such: “Afrofuturist artists fight these dystopic futures [predicting catastrophe for future Black/Brown lives] in two related ways. First, they use the vocabulary of science fiction to reconfigure the relations of race, science and technology. Noting that ‘science fiction has long treated [alien] people who might or might not exist,’ author Octavia Butler argues that the genre provides an ideal language for artists interested in the seemingly fantastic possibility that there might be Afrodiasporic subject relations that exist outside those most commonly described by the discourses of the futures industry… Second, Afrofuturist artists disrupt, challenge and otherwise transform those futures with fantastic stories that, as Ruth Mayer puts it, ‘move seamlessly back and forth through time and space, between cultural traditions and geographic time zones’ and thus between blackness as a dystopic relic of the past and as a harbinger of a new and more promising alien future.” In simpler terms, it is a science fiction/fantasy vision of the future where not only Black Lives Matter, they thrive and define a better tomorrow. In this sense, Black Panther is not necessarily the first Afrofuturist film ever made but it certainly strives to be the one with the largest budget, greatest production values, and most stellar cast.
However, here is where the film’s politics go far to the right in a fashion that is repulsive. For over a century, Black politics has been defined by two different polarities, accommodation with white supremacy as opposed to liberation from it. This was at one time personified in the confrontation between Booker T. Washington, who had set forth a program of African Americans surviving under the auspices of white nationalism via his Tuskegee Institute and their industrial education programs, and Du Bois, who spent his long life trying to shatter forever America’s racial apartheid system. Du Bois said in his classic polemic about Washington “His doctrine has tended to make the whites, North and South, shift the burden of the Negro problem to the Negro’s shoulders and stand aside as critical and rather pessimistic spectators; when in fact the burden belongs to the nation, and the hands of none of us are clean if we bend not our energies to righting these great wrongs.”
In the film, the protagonist and antagonist engage in brutal hand-to-hand combat owing to the debate that Washington and Du Bois carried forth in. For generations, the kings of Wakanda have maintained an isolationist policy that keeps their advanced vibranium technologies from being distributed to other African nations and members of the diaspora living worldwide. The protagonist desires to maintain, at least at the outset, this tradition of isolationism. By contrast the antagonist desires to distribute the technology worldwide so Africans being brutalized by imperialism and white supremacy can fight back and shatter forever the colonizers. Furthermore, the class distinctions in this conflict are worth noting. The protagonist is the head of Wakanda’s royal family and bourgeoise. The antagonist is a working class African American hailing from Oakland, California. As such, anyone who understands even rudimentary Africana studies comes to the conclusion that they must root for…the film’s villain?
This is what is so despicable about the script. The villain has as a political program in essence the culmination of over a century of anti-imperial pan-African thought. He embodies every single amazing idea promoted by thinkers like Du Bois, Malcolm X, Patrice Lumumba, Kwame Nkrumah, Paul Robeson, and many others who sought to build an international working class movement of African solidarity that would lead the world to a better tomorrow, the political philosophy serving as the basis of Afrofuturism.
But then on top of this astounding vision of victory over white supremacy, the filmmakers impose the classic comic book villain psychosis. Our pan-African champion is a pathological sociopath akin to the Joker in the Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy. At one point, he says with no hint of irony “The sun will never set on Wakanda,” an obvious tribute to the infamous motto of the British empire. Such a pronouncement is loaded with meaning and deeply reactionary. Pan-Africanism as an ideological program of action never was about being a doppelgänger or crude inversion of European imperialism in any sense. Rather, it was about the total and complete negation of it in all forms. Suggesting otherwise is equivalent to the alt-right argument that Black Lives Matter is trying to foment race war or that we currently are seeing a campaign of ‘white genocide’ in the West.
Furthermore, the villain’s portrayal is completely one-dimensional as compared to a literary contemporary, Magneto in the X-Men series. In that multi-film series, we have been given a scarred, embittered survivor of the Nazi holocaust whose enmity towards humanity is not just logical, the audience jumps back and forth between supporting his side and his opponents several times in a given picture. While it is true that the X-Men franchise is the one remaining property that has yet to be produced under the Marvel Films label that has given us this Panther film, both pictures are not produced in mutually-exclusive vacuums, they both are made in Hollywood (and in all sincerity, the success of the X-Men franchise, starting with the original 2000 film produced by Fox, is the exact reason for why the Marvel Films franchise was created in the first place).
As such, we must compound our understanding of what the script tells us about such pan-African ideology with the understanding of what happens when Ian McKellen espouses the exact same ideas in precisely the same fashion. (Perhaps at this moment it bears mentioning that the original X-Men comic was in fact a rough analogy of the Washington-Du Bois feud staged by white teenaged super heroes, as well as carrying a flavoring of the debate between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. over violence.) The fact that they use Black actors to articulate this is completely removed from the reality of the script, which is produced by a white-owned movie studio with a history of racism.
This is what I mean by the claim that Marvel Films has grown up. They are, like any normal white American, now at a point where they are steeped in a white supremacist ideological framework that actively antagonizes Black liberation struggle and the Black radical tradition.
Yet despite this very profound flaw, there is a deep level of contradiction. In the aesthetic and design of the film we find a clear and present celebration of pan-Africanism as a mode and system of liberation. With a deep level of Afrofuturism embedded in the set design and costuming, we are presented visually with a polar north directed toward the complete obliteration of white supremacy and imperialism. It is the vibranium and its technologies that will liberate all Africans despite the best intentions to the contrary of the film’s hero, who closes out the picture by handing the fantastic and powerful weapons to none other than the CIA, the penultimate agent of imperialist espionage in the postwar world!
Navigating this contradiction as the denouement of the picture is a tremendously difficult and even painful. I have seen lots of my African friends and comrades exclaiming online that this film was so deeply important, satisfying, and fulfilling to what is clearly and obviously a longtime yearning for a big-budget all-Black comic book superhero film that is taking on front and center some of the most important and relevant issues in Black politics and society today.
Personally, I cannot help but recall the moment when my own heart exploded with glee during a key sequence of the second X-Men film. Back in 2003, during ye olde days of Bush the Dumber, gay marriage and male homosexuality was a front-and-center debate topic on the news. The nastiness and homophobia of the Republican Party was so pronounced and blatant it really hurt being a closeted kid at a Catholic all-male high school. And so in the midst of all this, during an election year, X2 had a brief but earth-shaking moment for my closeted self. In one scene, a teenaged mutant superhero literally sits his parents down and comes out of the closet to them (as Iceman). The mother goes as far as asking “when did you, uh, first, um, know that you were, uh…” (complete with typical suburban WASP fragility and confusion) before querying “Have you ever tried not being a mutant?” It was not exactly like Superman was doing a stint at The Birdcage but, for the time and political climate we were in, it sure was something I needed despite the obvious issues in X2 regarding militarism, race, and gender that cannot be excused.
Just like I know my Black friends need this film. We’re living in a space-time continuum under a president whose entire political career has been defined by anti-Black racism and fostering it in the political landscape. Police murder Black people without restraint or challenge by any civic institution in such a regular fashion that the white public has gone beyond numb into general apathy, if not outright celebration in public spaces and venues. Black women are forced to subsist on two fungible dollars a day in the midst of urban landscapes wherein their European contemporaries are living in luxury. Public schools in Providence with majority-Black student bodies are using facilities that are as old as my grandmother in several instances while majority-European student bodies use facilities that look like the Google campus. There is so much pain, so much hardship, so little sense of hope on the horizon. We are living in a Black political renaissance, the wellspring of which comes from documents like the policy platform of Movement for Black Lives, but there has yet to be and embrace in toto of that document as a praxis for electoral politics by anyone, including the Green Party. And so seeing videos of school kids dancing on cafeteria tables because they are going to field trip screenings of the picture is astounding and amazing.
How do I write a review of this movie?
A version of this review previously appeared on RIRelevant.com.
Andrew Stewart is a documentary film maker and reporter who lives outside Providence. His film, Aaron Briggs and the HMS Gaspee, about the historical role of Brown University in the slave trade, is available for purchase on Amazon Instant Video or on DVD.