I start this week with a confession: I watched Black Panther twice. The superhero comic from the Marvel stable about a mythical and prosperous African nation called Wakanda, home of the superhero Black Panther, is an extraordinary production.
The film, with its all-black cast (save one character, more on him later), black director and writers, is a phenomenal feat. Wakanda is a gorgeous country; it boasts rolling hills akin to western Rwanda or KwaZulu-Natal, epic snow-capped peaks à la the Himalayas, and most importantly, a futuristic Afropolitan city of skyscrapers topped by rondavels, magnetic levitation trains, talon fighters and dragonfly helicopters, far ahead of anything of our time.
The film boasts an “Africa” like you’ve never seen it – the utopian possibilities of what could have been had its land and people not been exploited by centuries of colonisation.
I watched it for the first time and I loved it. I cried out when the Black Panther earned the throne, felt butterflies when the drone camera swept over vast swathes of landscape that I call home. I smiled like a child when I recognised bits of isiXhosa and heard my fellow audience members gasp when they recognised themselves on screen.
Wakanda is a nation connected to nature; its powers are a curious mix of organic technology, startling innovation and tradition. The beadwork of the Maasai, the blankets of the Ndebele, the splendid collars of the Yoruba; a sci-fi story it might be, the film was one that represented and thrilled like nothing before.
I was impressed that the film took on the topic of the terse relationship between African-Americans and Africans. I suspended all disbelief, and allowed myself to be swept by the moment.
When the villain, Erik Killmonger, made his entrance, I felt uneasy. He was complex, but his anger so visceral. His cause so understandable. But I made the conscious choice to stand by the hero. His voice gave me hope. I wanted to believe.
I then made the mistake of watching it again. And realised I had been duped.
Were these issues marginal to the film, perhaps it would be silly to raise them. But taking away the glamour and the symbolism, the film is, at its core, an African neo-liberal fantasy parading as a “woke Af” film about revolution and decolonisation.
Let’s begin with the depiction of the villain, which ultimately serves as a means to undercut legitimate movements of resistance.
Killmonger – a descendent of Wakanda – grows up as an African American in California where he is witness to tremendous injustice on black lives. His motive is to return to Wakanda, avenge the murder of his father, and use Wakandan technology and resources to wage war against presumably Western colonial powers to not only save his black brothers and sisters battling structural racism, poverty, and mass incarceration, but also, all oppressed peoples around the world.
This is against the touted values of the Wakanda nation who “only wage war when they need to.” When he takes over Wakanda, the Black Panther, the rightful King, together with his ex-girlfriend, mother and sister and a (white) special agent from the CIA, fight to get his country back.
I found myself wondering how a film touted as a breakthrough for people of colour could be so primitive when it came to questions of justice and legitimate violence.
The movie positions the dichotomy as follows: armed resistance vs “dialogue” and “exchange.”
The former can only be depicted through the personal story of Erik’s revenge. This is intentional: armed resistance can never be a collective "rational" strategy of the oppressed. It can only be mediated through the ‘irrational’ aims of a personal vendetta.
In the end, dialogue-exchange defeats the former, and thereby, the scope of resistance becomes restricted to symbolic words of the need for “brotherhood” at a UN-like agency. Here, the lines are drawn in favour of the colonized, who ultimately only stand to gain from Wakanda’s entry into the world economy.
The future that the Black Panther envisions for Wakanda is actually one that the colonising powers can gladly live with. In this world, throwing money at “causes” and “development” can solve everything.
Relentless technological growth, which results in surveillance, military technologies and biopolitics that far surpass anything the CIA (and Foucault) could have imagined, is an aspiration. We cannot forget that technology undergirds the neoliberal order, and not only cements its economic and social compulsions but also its inherent authoritarianism.
I should have realised the deeply problematic politics of the film within the first few minutes when we witness the quintessential fight against a Boko Haram-esque group. Of all the villains in Africa, it is the villain most visible to the harbingers of the War on Terror that gets depicted. Really?
And then there is the presence of the CIA official. The CIA remains one of the premier institutions for demobilising legitimate movements in the US and across the globe; the proximity to Wakanda was bizarre and warped. It is as if the film thought it was going too far with its critique of power that it had to redeem America, ultimately the “good” guys on the world stage.
To tear into Blank Panther gives me no joy. I recognise the hurt as being the same type of pain we all felt when it turned out that US President Barack Obama had just added some sheen to American imperialism.
Obama did little for African-Americans. He was a black front for a white cause. He granted back people acceptance from white folks; he didn’t emancipate the disenfranchised from the violence of poverty or prejudice. And so, it is no surprise that the film emerges in this moment when we continue to be duped by symbolism over substance, and too much fanfare. The recent enthusiasm at the Kehinde Wiley portraits of the former “drone president” is a clear example.
One needn’t look further than the reactions of black or brown audiences to the film.
When I watched the South African film Inxeba a few weeks ago, I recall how the audience reacted to this plot concerning gay love between three men in an initiation station up in the hills of the Eastern Cape. The audience gasped and let out demeaning remarks at the scenes depicting love between the men. They mocked when the boys stole glances.
This, a story about black men living on the margins of a majority black society, wasn’t enough to blunt an elite black audience from shaking their heads in disgust.
In contrast, when Black Panther took to our screens, many of the same black elite easily connected with the film. It was identified as a symbol of black pride and representation.
The anti-colonial quips brought down the roof; the “barking” of certain mountain tribals towards the white CIA operative was seen as a pushback. A husband bowing down to his wife was seen as the defeat of patriarchy. We were deceived that this had anything to do with the underdog. If anything, a black hero and his ability to harness whiteness only had one motive in mind: manufacturing consent.
Consent that the King T’Challa is the good guy, while the villain who actually wants to serve mankind is a vile creature that must be destroyed. Consent that Wakanda needs to “cooperate” and “exchange” technology, and create “community and outreach centres” as a means to build a better world. Consent that Wakanda must give up its technology and work in partnership with the United Nations in order to build a better world.
Unfortunately, this is a film that is about belonging and inclusion into an existing template. Not justice.