Second Thoughts on “Black Panther”
But there is much more about Black Panther than this analysis offers. First, let’s consider what the beginning of the plot says about the movie. It presents us a fictional city-state called Wakanda, which, by no coincidence, is located in Africa. About Wakanda? It is a resource-rich (namely vibranium) polity with a highly advanced technology and a profoundly vibrant culture. Here, we must pose and reflect how close to reality this depiction could be. With such an image, Black Panther is partially right. Africa is immensely rich; at any rate, the African land is immensely rich in precious natural resources. But Black Panther is also wrong since none of the African states has hitherto succeeded in translating its natural wealth into real, functioning economy. Indeed, the undeniable truth is that natural resources have been more of a curse than a blessing: Congo is just an example, Sudan is another; and the list could go on, endlessly. They bring human tragedies rather than abate them, induce violent conflicts, and open African countries to (foreign) exploitation.
Also interesting about Black Panther is the image of Wakanda that never suffered the brutality and exploitation of colonialism. And here is where Black Panther succeeds in accommodating its targeted pristine-Africanists audience, which sees in the movie what Africa could have been like today had it not suffered the fate of colonization. Yet, Black Panther also embodies a dangerously irreconcilable paradox and a misrepresentation of a crucially important historical development: the struggles for decolonization in Africa.
Wakanda opted for isolationism and turned a blind eye to the suffering, in the hands of colonial oppression, exploitation, and subjugation, of other African nations. Nonetheless, this is a misrepresentation of the historical development surrounding the process of decolonization in Africa. What is true is that, in their struggle for emancipation and self-determination, African independence leaders sought and found support from one another. The Organization of African Unity (OAU) was not established on 25 May 1963 out of a vacuum; nor is Ethiopia (one of those two countries to have never suffered colonialism) on the way of becoming the Capital of Africa out of sheer coincidence. These are historical facts and facts of history available to all who want to know—but, of course, facts are no longer needed.
In that regard, Erik Killmonger should have been the hero of the movie, not its terrifying villain; his claim that ‘death was better than bondage’ conspicuously echoes Patrice Lumumba’s words in his letter to his grieving wife: ‘I prefer to die with head high, with indestructible faith and profound belief in the destiny of our country than to live in humility and renounce the principles which are sacred to me.’ But not only does Black Panther agonizingly fail to give Killmonger his deserved image (heroism); even more excruciatingly, it also fails to get the historical facts about the struggles for Africa’s liberation right. Yet, that did not prevent Black Panther from capturing the “hearts” and “minds” of its African audience. The bargain seems something like: ‘you can get the facts (about Africa) wrong as long as you give us a black super-hero, lionize our blackness, and satisfy our futurist imagination’. After all, it is an intriguingly scintillating movie with an excitedly quenching thirst for “black recognition”. It seduces the long-dispossessed people in their long for assertive empowerment; yes! Albeit fictional, it conveys a hope-bearing message to “a people” whose existence has been intermittent frustrations and disappointment. Indeed, the warmth reception Black Panther has witnessed is a glaring proof that the world is in need of something new, something better. But self-deceived, it seems, will be those assuming such a change to have begun with Black Panther: a startling ambition with an enduring hope?
Also problematic is the system of government in Wakanda. It is an absolute monarchy with no elections to be held. In fact, we are presented with a situation whereby the leader must eliminate his (her?) political contenders to assume the reign. Given the fact that the fictional Wakanda is believed to be in Africa, however, one wonders if Black Panther is not more of a cinematographic legitimization of authoritarian and dictatorial rules that characterize many African countries, for these leaders would certainly be pleased with the movie for granting them a free card of international recognition.
Perhaps more disturbing, however, is the central role Black Panther gives the CIA agent (K. Ross) in the fight against Erik Killmonger: it is a manifest way of reifying the expansive overreach of the American empire. Moreover, the scene clearly seems to legitimize America’s interference and (even military) interventions in other countries’ internal affairs, considering the notorious role the Agency has been playing in countering revolutions and overthrowing governments in foreign lands since its inception in 1947; and the demonization of Killmonger and the involvement of K. Ross in operations against him show that Black Panther is not, in fact, the kind of Black Panther we were waiting for. More than anything, it is a counterrevolutionary movie that effectively reiterates white supremacy. It is a continuation or, rather, a recreation of the status quo by other means.
But we were waiting for an emancipating, a freeing Black Panther. ‘Why’, Žižek rhetorically asks, ‘is [K. Ross] selected to shoot down Killmonger’s planes? Isn’t it that he holds the place of the existing global system in the film’s universe?’ Indeed, not even in a fictional world would it be conceivable to challenge this mainstream narrative. Yet the world is in dire need of a new global system; a system essentially concerned with justice and equality; a system in which the weak is not squashed to make the mighty mightier.
The (commercial) success of Black Panther marks also its greatest failure. Hélas! It is a missed opportunity: though it is breaking records in the cinematic world, it did little to offer something different, something right. But, wait! What if that was exactly the aim, a business strategy? What if the objective has never been to get things right for once, but reinvent the status quo in a different guise? What if Black Panther was to accommodate all, to represent all, and to speak for all and none, simultaneously?
Whatever the stance one chooses to take, one thing seems clear enough: Black Panther is not the type of Black Panther we were waiting for. And as Russell Rickford observes ‘Black Panther has captured our attention. But it cannot constrain our imagination. We must transcend the film’s conceptual boundaries, restoring a politics that valorizes all black life while demanding the salvation of oppressed people everywhere.’ That is, we may rightly extol the film for its fame, but we must not fail to pinpoint its shortcomings. That is the ultimate task!