I enjoyed Black Panther. I enjoyed seeing strong Black characters (particularly the women), not reduced to the usual roles we are assigned. I enjoyed the detailed and beautiful references to African culture. I especially enjoyed M’Baku and the Jabari tribe silencing Agent Ross and Okoye snatching her own wig. I really enjoyed the experience, a showing co-organized by one of our Black studies students that bought out the community. The atmosphere in the cinema was electric. Everyone collectively gasped, laughed, applauded, and cheered with every turn of the movie.
But just as much as I enjoyed it, I have to recognize that it was ultimately not good for me. The writers, cast, and director did as well as they possibly could to make this a positive Black movie, but the problem is that the underlying politics undermined their efforts. The film had a Black mask but was still a White movie.
Wakanda, never ever
In all the hype around the movie, Wakanda has become some utopia, a place to be celebrated. But Wakanda is the biggest flaw in the concept of the film. It is whatever the opposite of a utopia is. Imagine if we actually found out that a country in Africa had the most advanced technology in the world but had decided to hide for centuries. A country that could have stopped the transatlantic slave trade, colonialism, the Rwandan genocide, the Congo civil war, apartheid, or prevented millions of children from dying every year on the continent. We would not be celebrating; we’d want to burn the place to the ground. Wakanda would become a byword for a completely next level of betraying Black people.
As poisonous as Uncle Toms are, at least you can understand why they sell out our people. We have no power, and they are drawn by the trinkets and security that are on offer when you make a deal with the devil. To sit by and watch hundreds of millions of Africans die when you actually have the power to prevent it would be worse than the acts themselves. Wakandans are not heroes to be celebrated. They are the worst kind of traitors to be condemned.
Wakanda plays into one of the worst lies told in the misrepresentation of African history: that we passively accepted the horrors done to us. In truth, we fought to the end against every injustice, and one of the main causes for the end of slavery was our resistance. Killmonger had the most important line in the film. Rather than sit in a Wakandan prison, he asked them to throw him in the sea to be with his ancestors, who knew “that death was better than bondage.” However, here he also nails the problem with the movie. Wakanda is the definition of a White concept. It is (hopefully) beyond the realms of the Black imagination to create such an awful, traitorous so-called utopia. But the movie hinges on our embracing Wakanda, with the narrative shaped around defending the nation.
Misrepresentation of radicalism
In defending the indefensible (Wakanda), radical politics are grossly misrepresented, as they usually are in Hollywood. We are given the option of either the go-slow, liberal change of T’Challa; or the burn it down, righteous anger, kill them all extremism of Killmonger. There have been parallels made to Martin and Malcolm, but that is such an insult to Malcolm that it should not even need to be addressed. Unfortunately, that tortured comparison is so common that they may as well have buried Malcolm on a spit the amount of turning he must be doing in his grave. The simplistic reduction of the choice to either reform or terror is a key tool Whiteness uses to delegitimize radical politics. In Marvel, we’ve also seen it with Professor X vs. the murderous Magneto.
The undeniable truth at the heart of Black Panther is that Killmonger is right. He’s right to be angry and could not possibly be any more right about the need to fight back against the oppression facing Black people across the globe. But unfortunately, the movie makes him into a terrorist rather than a radical. One of the deepest fears of Whiteness is that one day we will get the upper hand and be just as savage to our oppressors. That was the heart of Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech, the “Black man getting the whip hand” over White people. But Black radicalism has never been about oppressing White people. In fact, it’s not about White people at all. The point is to build an alternative free from the oppression of the West, but I guess that vision is far beyond what we should expect from Hollywood.
Instead, the violent, uncontrollable Blackbuck dies by the sword. We are supposed to be satisfied with T’Challa reaching out to the United Nations at the end. There’s a whole piece that could be written about the role of the UN in the oppression of Black people, but even Malcolm had faith in the organization at some point. But he wanted to prosecute America in the world court and use it as a mechanism to bring the Third World countries together in revolution. In complete contrast, T’Challa channels his inner Obama and gives the most tepid, post-racial speech possible in the situation, declaring that Wakanda will reach out to the world who, after all, is just one tribe. This scene was so ridiculous that it managed to make Malcolm wrong about something. He chastised the famous civil rights March on Washington in 1963 as a “farce,” a “circus with clowns and all,” a delusional fantasy scene that “Hollywood couldn’t top.” After hundreds of years of watching millions of Black people murdered and oppressed, T’Challa ending Wakanda isolationism with a Kumbaya, we are the world, post-racial appeal actually managed to best the dream that was 1963.
Style over substance
Due to the truly awful politics that frame the movie, we were left to find victories of style of substance. Wakanda was an antidote to the depictions of Africa as a backward shithole with starving children and nothing to offer the world. But we were also supposed to believe that the most advanced society in the world was utterly incapable of developing a sensible system of government. If a man can walk into your country and seize power by beating up another man, you are guilty of a serious poverty of political philosophy. Ultimately, tribe and tradition trump everything in Disney’s vision of Africa.
For all of the powerful representation of women in the movie, the fate of Wakanda rested on two men fighting. After Killmonger defeated T’Challa, Okoye went against all her instincts and hundreds of years of Wakandan policy to support the new king in tearing down the rest of the world. The only people who challenge the insanity of this system of government are related or have relations with T’Challa. Their only solution was to run to an even bigger man, M’Baku, to challenge for the throne. Okoye and the other women only come to their senses once they see T’Challa is alive and they can stand by their man again.
In the end, Black Panther is a Disney movie made to enrich the corporation whose history of racism runs deep. Even if the movie was revolutionary propaganda (it isn’t), paying hundreds of millions of our money to see it is a kind of reverse reparations. Celebrating Disney’s vision of Africa is like going in a dashiki and with African drums to watch the Lion King. Enjoy the movie for what it is, entertaining, funny, well told, and full of Black folk in great outfits. It may look and feel different, but it remains at heart a movie that perpetuates the status quo, which is defined by Whiteness. By all means, enjoy the cultural milestone, but look elsewhere to affirm your politics.