Thinking About Teju Cole thinking About Black Panther

Chadwick Boseman stars in the Black Panther, which Teju Cole writes around

Many weeks ago, my friend James told me he was waiting for Teju Cole to write about Black Panther. Teju, he said, would connect the film to Mesopotamia.

His words, in Nigerian style, were a compliment delivered via half-hearted mockery. But he did have a point. No contemporary Nigerian writer, with or without another passport, is as ripe for poking because of the production of overwritten overthinking as Mister Cole, whose essay duly arrived weeks back. James was right. Cole does overthink but not quite in the effective manner he has demonstrated in the past.

Perhaps because his usual haunts — the New York Times and the Atlantic among them — are saturated with Black Panther think pieces, Cole’s essay was published on Medium. Of course, it might also be because Cole has gone the high word count route, few newspapers can take his piece. And because he is no longer a staple at the great and greatly indulgent New Yorker — at least since Unmournable Bodies, his divisive essay on the Charlie Hebdo murders— that option was out. Lastly, those papers may also be more invested in the American view of the Black Panther film. And in this piece Cole is African first.

Or, he starts with Africa first. Cole tells us about learning to be African, since he was only a Lagos boy before American-othering. This is a retread of Chimamanda Adichie — specifically her hero, Ifemelu, in Americanah, who wasn’t black before going to America. It seems a good start but before long, we are going through barely tangential trivia, as he produces commentary on his old cat and dismisses the creation of fictional countries.

This commentary on the trouble with fictional countries feels phoney — as though Cole isn’t aware of Batman’s Gotham or even of Kunle Afolayan’s Araromire. If this is disingenuous, it is also reflective of Cole’s own grounding as a writer who is so invested in realism that it isn’t so much literary concept as it is reality. His acclaimed novel Open City is set around lived-in geographies. Movies based on comics rarely are. And rather than go with my friend’s Mesopotamia, Cole deploys the fictional Zamunda:

Wakanda is a monarchy, and so is Zamunda. (No idea what Nambia is.) Why are monarchies the narrative default?

Come on, man. Zamunda is, if anything, the offspring of Wakanda. The former appeared in 1988 via the Eddie Murphy film, “Coming to America”; Wakanda, like the Black Panther comic, came into the world in 1966. Sure, both are American sins in Cole’s eyes but they are transgressions of unequal value. As Cole knows, many successful societies were empires ruled by a monarchy. From Oyo to Benin. In relative terms, to country-dream is to endorse a modern European standard.

This is one of the problems of “The Blackness of the Panther”. Cole centralises whiteness. As the reader goes on, it becomes clear that Cole’s discussion of blackness is wholly concerned with whiteness, even if the film he is supposedly discussing has whiteness and western-ness at the margins. This is not merely because, as Cole says, one cannot exist without the other—which is true conceptually—but because the audience Cole is speaking to becomes clear when he writes:

I don’t want to hear “Africa” unless it’s a context in which someone would also say “Asia” or “Europe.” Ever notice how real Paris is? That’s how real I need Lagos to be. Folks can talk about Paris all day without once generalizing about Europe.

A demurral is necessary: Lagos is as real as Paris. At least to the African, whether he lives on the continent or outside of it. The folks referred to here are white and, perhaps, even a particular kind of white. One would hope, as Cole once hoped of Obama, that a white person educated enough to grasp a Cole essay has heard of Lagos and its distinctiveness. And if said white person hasn’t heard of the incredibly populous city, what but the colour of her skin has given her pride of place in the mind of one of the world’s brilliant essayists?

Also by 1966 not many African countries had been independent for long; the names they bore were colonial relics. A name might be just a name but Wakanda bears its own name and several African countries, Burkina Faso, Benin among them, came to rename themselves. If a country has never been colonised why should it be labelled by another?

***

I liked the hopeful idea of vibranium, as Cole hypothesizes, as stand-in for blackness as a valuable resource (although the many poor black countries in real life might present differently). But I think he dismisses the resource metaphor too easily, only to dedicate several paragraphs to a cat.

And that technique (let’s call it the Cole Cat Technique) strikes me as somewhat novel in Cole’s writing. Here, Cole handles the material from his own life apart from his thought on the film. It is a technique used effectively by many including the New Yorker theatre critic Hilton Als. It mostly works for Als, as in his piece on James Baldwin and Prince. There are times Als inserts his life inside the material in ways that can be off-putting (for instance, his piece on Michael Jackson). Cole, however, separates both and this leads to choppy fragments. We wait for the penny to drop, or for some kind of connection to bring it all together. It never happens.

As I read about Cole’s ill-fated cat, I began to think about an oft-repeated apocryphal tale about Dickens: that he was paid per word: so that it’s no longer clear if the many words in his books were necessary or merely a way to maximise revenue. Perhaps there is a way to reconcile both but it’s hard to defend Cole who presents a not-short poem in both German and an English “rapid translation”. If the piece is for English readers, why do we need the original German?

Cole can’t restrain himself from reaching. We get Germany’s Rainer Maria Rilke and Portugal’s Eusebio and Brazil’s Parque Zoológico de São Paulo. You get the feeling that if Cole once walked past a chihuahua named Panther in Finland, he would shoehorn it into this piece about the Marvel superhero. It’s like reducing the essay form to writing around Google keywords.

At some point, I began to expect Kafka because of his 1924 short story The Hunger Artist, where the titular character gets replaced by a panther. After all, as Cole might think, Kafka was from Germany’s cousin Austria and his story’s last paragraph might present an opportunity for thinking deep thoughts:

Even the most insensitive felt it refreshing to see this wild creature leaping around the cage that had so long been dreary. The panther was all right. The food he liked was brought him without hesitation by the attendants; he seemed not even to miss his freedom…and the joy of life streamed with such ardent passion from his throat that for the onlookers it was not easy to stand the shock of it. But they braced themselves, crowded round the cage, and did not want ever to move away.

***

Elsewhere, Cole writes: “What would the climactic civil war in Wakanda have felt like had there been a serious reckoning with its death toll? It would have made apparent the movie’s discomfiting secret: that it has two lead villains and no hero.”

This, too, is another missed opportunity for referencing. A few films have addressed the “real life” toll of superhero clashes, Hancock, The Incredibles, The Dark Knight among them. Admittedly, Cole is no film critic, but these are not specialist cinephile products; each was a blockbuster.

I think of this as instructive about the trouble with think pieces of the sort where persons who do not care enough about an art form are asked for commentary on it. Someone as talented and studious as Cole might do well in short takes, but anything long confirms that biblical admonition about sin in an abundance of words.

Cole’s partial redemption from the sins of his piece comes in doses. The most affecting portions of his essay happen when he engages with facts, as when he recalls the tragedy of Ota Benga — but even then you have to know the story for it to be affecting. Cole then usefully passes on knowledge he admits looking up about the scientific nature and nomenclature of a panther. This makes the piece that strange thing: A Teju Cole essay that derives its power from nuggets of fact and not what he makes from those facts.

To be sure, Cole has made a fairly common error of judgment: Too many commenters thinking about Black Panther forget that it is an extension of the Marvel cinematic universe. It is cinema for the populace. Surely, everyone is welcome to strenuously see things as they will but, as Anthony Lane wrote, “I wonder what weight of political responsibility can, or should, be laid upon anything that is accompanied by buttered popcorn.”

The way I see it Black Panther should be discussed under three observations: Its politics is permissible; it is not a great superhero movie; its drama is of the highest quality.

Let’s take the superhero bit. In a time when we are used to the gritty or suave hijinks of movies based on comic books, the visual effects of Black Panther are rather poor or ill-judged. Two examples: When Black Panther leaps, he seems pulled by a weary rope, and the movie’s last fight is underwhelming and confusing.

The reason for this last is the decision by Coogler and his cinematographer to shoot “two” Black Panthers fighting in the dark. From moment to moment, you are not quite sure who is doing what or if anyone is really doing anything besides manly grunting. Compare this to the first fight between Killmonger and T’Challa, that scene of a glorious mano-a-mano. Coogler, as demonstrated in the boxing flick Creed, is clearly more at home with physical combat than the CG one.

Because of this not-quite-adept handling of some of the more important features of superhero filmmaking, Black Panther feels smaller than the usual fare from the Marvel oeuvre. The stakes are as large, considering Killmonger’s plan but by refusing to go grand while accentuating the drama, the superhero’s bona fides in Coogler’s film are stunted. This is by no means a failure — as the drama, especially as takes place during Killmonger’s first palace scene, is intense. It might explain why the Nigerian audience, used to the less sophisticated dramas of Nollywood, have taken to declaring Black Panther a masterpiece.

But it is possible to have it both ways. For a look at a superhero film that is as heavily philosophical as it is superhero grand, see Nolan’s The Dark Knight. A nihilistic drama with grand action, including the superb bank heist opening scene. Taika Waititi’s Thor Ragnarok goes for small-talk comedy and superhero grandeur. High achievement in one unusual department doesn’t necessarily preclude the grandness that is integral to the superhero ethos. It is for this reason that enjoyable as it is, Black Panther isn’t quite the genre masterpiece some would have you believe it is. Nor is it as middling as Cole’s essay, which barely mentions the director and his cast, would have you think.

But, to paraphrase Phillip Lopate, the final test of an essay is stylistic. And style has long been Cole’s superpower. Not this time. Both on the sentence level and on the level of insight, On the Blackness of the Panther isn’t one of his best essays. Yet you can see him try, as when he remixes the title of the Raymond Carver short story (perhaps with Ice Prince’s chorus from Major Lazer’s ‘Particula’ playing in the background):

I want to be particular about being particular about what we are talking about when we talk about Africa.

This is neither pearl of euphony nor insight. But I looked at it twice to see that certain words are repeated. I’m not sure about the significance but it looks nice, I guess.

The essay’s conclusion is better. Cole is aware he wasn’t brought on Medium as a film critic, so he indulges his hosts and himself by ending his piece with a passage that is both lyrical and unconnected to Black Panther:

I still dream about that cat. The eyes slide open, an image enters. Where are you now, Mirabai? Euthanized years ago by the animal shelter? Or successfully adopted and now gracefully aging in some home in Brooklyn? With people, young or old, merciful and just? Dream cat, leaping up to meet me.

Although the entire story about Cole’s cat adds nothing of relevance and too little of style to his essay, I lingered on that last sentence. Is Cole using “dream” as verb or as adjective? I am overthinking it surely but maybe I should ask James. He was right about Cole the first time.