The Contradictions of Black Panther

Black Panther salute, Marvel Comics remix.

Like a whole lot of people around the world, I went to see Black Panther during its four-day opening “weekend”. Although I am not usually that keen on superhero comic books or the movies made from them, I absolutely loved the experience of watching the film. But it wasn’t just for the admittedly awesome hand-to-hand combat scenes. From the opening minutes, I wanted desperately to debate it.

As I walked out of the movie theatre with my friend, the film critic Kim Nicolini, I declared that I couldn’t imagine a better demonstration of the relationship between Neoliberalism and identity politics. Kim, who had already seen the film once, concurred, noting that, while she had thoroughly enjoyed it the first time, she had also been hoping that the narrative would reach a compromise between Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa, king of the hitherto concealed African kingdom of Wakanda, and Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger, a charismatic challenger for the throne.

On second viewing, the fact that Killmonger dies struck her as even more problematic. And we both agreed that, while the film pays homage to Oakland, California as the home base of the real Black Panthers, it ultimately appears to reject their insistence that inequalities of race and class must always be tackled together. Instead, the story ends up fusing technological futurism with a reactionary vision of society in which the right of kings is vigorously defended.

Even as I was excitedly participating in this conversation, though, I started to second-guess its validity. Although discussing popular culture in this manner is something we love, dating back to our days contributing to the pioneering electronic zine Bad Subjects: Political Education for Everyday Life, this was the first blockbuster release that didn’t prioritize the concerns or investments of white Americans. That’s why, the more I thought about it, the more wrong it felt to critique the film in that manner, as if it were simply a piece of the Marvel puzzle, however justified that approach might have seemed intellectually. Taking advantage of my structural privilege to find fault with it began to seem problematic, like when a man explains to a woman how feminism can be “improved”.

Black Panther was proving to be deeply meaningful, not only to African-Americans but other people of colour as well. The simple fact that its only two white characters of consequence were confined to a supporting role was both a big relief and a bigger source of pride to viewers who had spent decades seeing people who looked like them consigned to the margins of mainstream narratives for far too long. I was struck by the fact that almost every person of colour on my social media feed – and their friends as well – had queued up to see the film as soon as possible and then enthusiastically discussed it afterwards. Even ones who otherwise have little use for superheroes seemed deeply moved by its existence, less because of the narrative itself than the fact that so many people of African descent had worked on it.

This simple yet powerful fact also made me recall my own introduction to African-American culture, when, after growing up in a portion of rural Pennsylvania where “diversity” was measured almost entirely in terms of class, I found myself in suburban Prince George’s County, Maryland, attending a historically white elementary school that was in the process of integrating students from another school, which has been 85% black, in order to comply with a Federal court order. Because my academic records had gone missing and because I had been slated to attend the latter school, I was classified as a “black” white kid and placed in the lowest-ranked sixth-grade class, with a teacher who had also come from the school that had been shut down.

Mrs Clarke was a wonderful woman and particularly kind to me, understanding that I was experiencing massive culture shock. But even though I know that some of the parents of the white children in her class complained about her approach to teaching, she treated every one of us equitably. She handled the racially charged environment – some long-time teachers at her new school barely concealed their contempt for non-white students – with extraordinary grace. And she accomplished a great deal of good in the process. We spent a lot of time on culture, giving equal time to the study of Europe and Africa.

She also took us on a memorable field trip to the first incarnation of what would become the Smithsonian Museum of African Art, housed in the Capitol Hill townhouse where Frederick Douglass had lived for most of the 1870s. I remember very well how some of my white classmates had grumbled about this excursion beforehand, yet rapidly changed their mind once we were seeing the collection itself. And I also remember how carefully she explained to us Douglass’s importance and the delicate and complex relationship between African culture and African-American culture.

Because my mother eventually became friends with this teacher, I was invited to a play in which she was participating. Although it was held in a nice theatre in a relatively well-off part of Washington D.C., my family constituted just about the only white people in a full house. Everyone we met was very welcoming, reinforcing a message that Mrs Clarke had been communicating to us throughout the year: the heritage of black Americans was every bit as worthy of study as that of any other demographic and, while especially meaningful to them, had something to offer all of us. Much as I loved her class, I never felt a desire to act less “white” or more “black” around her. But she did awaken a powerful desire to learn more about other cultures, including her own, because they all contain special treasures.

The extraterrestrial element Vibranium, which gives Wakanda its special technological advantage over the rest of the world, serves as the perfect figure for the treasures that have come from Africa: misidentified and overlooked, but incredibly powerful. While obviously fictional, it helps us to appreciate the film’s music and elaborate costumes, which derive from actual African cultures. And the fact that it works just fine outside of Wakanda, giving an advantage to whoever is able to wield it, reminds us that culture, like technology, is always subject to decontextualization. That’s why people collect art, just like they collect natural resources: it can be a source of great strength.

At one point in Black Panther, Killmonger takes a Vibranium artefact from a museum during a robbery. Although he is technically acting in a criminal fashion, the film gives him the opportunity to recast this theft as the “liberation” of something that had previously been stolen from his ancestors. Playing off notorious cases in which European and American collectors plundered the heritage of peoples all over the globe, from the Greeks to the Incas, this scene draws attention to the problematic borrowing that has been an integral part of the culture industry from the beginning.

Before the film came out, my daughter showed me a meme that identified its only two leads who are not people of colour, Martin Freeman and Andy Serkis, as “Tolkien whites”, because they both star in Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy. This made me laugh, naturally. But it took on a deeper meaning once I’d seen the film. As Kim noted during our conversation afterwards, what most sets Black Panther apart from other critically lauded films by and about people of colour is that it takes on stereotypically “white” movie genres and shows that they can work just as well – or even better, really – without being white at all. Also, in the process, it implicitly signals its suitability for the sort of intensive fan involvement that the Tolkien films are famous for.

As I reflected on these counter-arguments, I decided to set my analysis of the film’s ideological implications aside and pay attention to what other people were saying about it. Not surprisingly, as Black Panther blew away box-office expectations, a backlash quickly emerged. Progressives who doubt that big-budget productions can ever do much more than make a profit for massive corporations started arguing that the film’s success with suburban white audiences was an indication of its failure to truly threaten the status quo. And proponents of a more radical identity politics, rooted in the liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s, used the same evidence to decry it for selling out, particularly in its treatment of Michael B. Jordan’s charismatic antagonist Killmonger.

But these critics also met with a furious response, particularly from those who are sceptical of any investment in ideological purity. Sure, they argued, Black Panther is a mainstream film, trying to appeal to as large an audience as possible. You aren’t going to secure the financial backing of Disney without making compromises along the way. What matters is that the film exists at all and, because it is so good at being a superhero tale, the fact that millions and millions of people have been seeing it together. In an era of rapidly widening cultural fragmentation, when very few books, films, and records are able to transcend niche status, having a black-directed, black-acted blockbuster that just about everybody wants to discuss is far more important than who wins and loses in the narrative itself.

Making matters more complicated, in a public conversation on Tuesday at Harlem’s historic Apollo Theater, Boseman, co-star Lupita Nyong’o, and author Ta-Nehisi Coates – who has been writing stories for a new generation of Black Panther comics – reflected on the debate about Black Panther’s message with surprising frankness. “I didn’t realize how much I needed the film,” Coates noted, remarking that he has clearly had “a hunger for a myth” that directly confronted the complexity of “feeling separated and feeling reconnected.”

Nyong’o emphasized that, since Killmonger is also descended from royal blood, the film’s principal characters actually comprise an estranged “family unit”, synecdochally representing the relationship between the African diaspora and the African continent.

It was Boseman, however, who made the most startling comment. “I actually am the enemy,” he declared of his character, going on to add that he identified more strongly with the film’s antagonist than its eponymous protagonist. And he suggested that the film’s director, Ryan Coogler, who, like Killmonger, grew up in Oakland, dealt with similar feelings. “He’s an African American and therefore trying to find a connection to his roots in Africa,” Boseman noted. “You see that search in the movie. There’s a bit of Ryan in Killmonger, and I feel the same way.”

To the extent that the Black Panther does manage to reconcile T’Challa and Killmonger’s conflicting perspectives at the end of the film, as Wakanda begins to share its knowledge with the rest of the world, it is only because they are presented in a complex fashion. Reflecting on his performance as T’Challa, Boseman explained that it can only succeed in relation to Killmonger. “I don’t know if we as African Americans would accept T’Challa as our hero if he didn’t go through Killmonger. Because Killmonger has been through our struggle, and I haven’t.” That’s what makes T’Challa seem to him like “the enemy I’ve always known. It’s power. It’s having privilege.”

If even the stars of Black Panther can express so much ambivalence about its meaning, while clearly still loving it – and if millions of other people of color are doing the same – then we should probably avoid forcing it into the binary framework imposed upon us by a media landscape where “hot takes” suck up more and more oxygen every day. More specifically, I need to steer clear of such oversimplifications. Indeed, the more I think about the film, the more it seems like the perfect text with which to rethink yay-or-nay responses to identity politics.

Let me be clear. I have no doubt whatsoever that Black Panther represents the latest incarnation of a top-down multiculturalism perfectly suited to Neoliberalism’s need to both subjugate and perpetuate “nations” of all kinds. When we see T’Challa addressing the United Nations at the end of the film, doing his part to sustain the fiction that it is more than an ineffectual body, we are witnessing the narrative equivalent of how the film functions in the marketplace: distracting us with a high-minded mission that supposedly transcends both national borders and transnational capital, while making serious bank on the side. But this realization need not be regarded as an invalidation of that mission’s value.

The temptation to see the world in absolute terms is strong, particularly at a time when such black-or-white thinking is more likely to get people’s attention. Overcoming it is extraordinarily difficult. Yet it is imperative that we try our hardest. A film like Black Panther can simultaneously work to reinforce the status quo on one level and forcefully challenge it on another. And if it’s a very good film, as Black Panther, it can also thematize this apparent contradiction in ways that invite audiences to discuss it. Sometimes, in the rush to classify texts ideologically, we forget that the ones with the most staying power not only resist being reduced to a simple message, but also go out of their way to promote complexity.

In that exchange at the Apollo, Boseman acknowledged that – like Disney’s The Lion King before it – Black Panther consciously invokes William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. This is less evident in the dialogue, though that is unusually rich for an action movie, than in the way its narrative foregrounds the process of internal debate itself. We see T’Challa struggling with the legacy of his murdered father and the realization that he must do something to bring stability back to his kingdom. And we witness the doubt that creeps into him when he confronts challenges to his throne.

Scholars of popular culture don’t tend to like the move Boseman made, because it implies that even the best examples of this culture can only be taken seriously when they are compared with high culture. Why can’t Black Panther’s story just be complex on its own, they wonder, without us being encouraged to think about it in relation to one of the world’s most canonical literary texts? Will we ever get beyond the conviction that a blockbuster album, comic book, or hip-hop album accrues bonus points for each reference it makes to tradition? Doesn’t acknowledging cultural indebtedness in this manner make a text seem more parasitic than is necessary?

These are worthwhile questions to ponder. But they somewhat miss the point, particularly in the case of a film like Black Panther. There is more to making a connection with Hamlet than acknowledging cultural indebtedness. Many of the people who will express interest in the relationship haven’t even read Hamlet and are unlikely to do so in the future. Nevertheless, they are likely to know enough about Shakespeare’s play to understand what the reference brings into sharp relief. It reveals depths in the film that might otherwise go unnoticed. At the same time, it also serves to remind us that, if the film’s creators found inspiration in the work of a white male, white males should be able to find inspiration in the film. There are worse ways of promoting cross-cultural communication. And goodness knows that we need more of that, because retreating to the safety of our mental Wakandas in order to avoid trouble is clearly not going to so much to make the world a better place.

Photograph courtesy of Marvel Studios. All rights reserved.