Black Panther and the Far-Right

Researcher Becca Lewis and Research Analyst Kinjal Dave

Image via Marvel

Following the release of the superhero movie Black Panther, white nationalists and other far-right online communities reacted to its success and the important moment for black representation in Hollywood. Below, we analyze these reactions and what they reveal about the panic and ideological fragility that underscore the far-right movement. This research was recently featured in The Washington Post and The New York Daily News.

On February 16, 2018, the Marvel Comics superhero movie Black Panther was released in theaters and went on to smash multiple box office records. Among mainstream media outlets, the movie was a critical success, garnering a 97% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The mainstream media also hailed the movie as an important cultural moment: it was the first black Marvel superhero since Blade in 1998, featured an almost entirely black cast, and was directed by a black director. Across the United States, schools, churches, and individuals raised money for hundreds of kids to see the movie. Teachers used the film to build curricula for lessons on colonialism and racism. Overall, it was an undeniably important moment for black representation in Hollywood.

The mainstream media covered some of the online far-right’s more predictable efforts to coordinate negative press and the harassment of fans. For example, outlets covered the far-right’s down voting campaign on Rotten Tomatoes’ audience response rating. The media also picked up on a hoax involving false claims of black-on-white violence at screenings. Both of these efforts closely followed familiar patterns of far-right manipulation of platforms and media outlets, but neither of them significantly altered coverage of the movie.

Simultaneously, the alternative far-right media has developed a more insidious set of responses. Nearly every prominent right-wing YouTuber has made some attempt to engage with Black Panther in their videos. These videos are most likely attempting to attract new audiences, perhaps people searching for YouTube content discussing the movie without prior political considerations. Popular right-wing influencers have long used pop culture phenomena as a discussion topic for similar purposes. For instance, the image below is from a Richard Spencer video, in which he criticizes the most recent Star Wars movie, The Last Jedi.

Screenshot of Richard Spencer’s YouTube video

As more and more far-right influencers have engaged with Black Panther, two types of responses have emerged that together minimize and subvert the themes of the movie: the first misrepresents the film as anti-white propaganda, and the other co-opts the film’s narratives to praise it as a depiction of ethnonationalism in action. The American “Alt-Right” is preoccupied with debates about how to bring about the white ethnostate. For instance, Spencer has led multiple YouTube forums on “peaceful ethnic cleansing” through “self-deportation.”

The far-right’s interpretations are based on the false underlying premise that modern racial oppression doesn’t exist. Western colonization since the late 19th century has enslaved Africans and exploited the subcontinent through resource extraction and global financial institutions’ debt schemes. Black Americans experience a continuation of this colonial logic, a dehumanization and exploitation of labor in order to support American industrialization. Black Panther addresses some of the historical and material conditions that lead to modern day resource extraction and allocation, while also illustrating how respectability politics in the US can undermine efforts to build global solidarity across the African diaspora. For Black Americans, identity-based movements are partially grounded in calls for resources and rights afforded to everyone by the government because structural racism affects both the distribution of rights and resources as well as access to power. The alt-right misunderstands the desire to restore power balance among black populations because they see petitions of the government for equity as a personal loss of status, representation, and resources.

Anti-White Propaganda or Ethnonationalist Utopia?

Among the more “mainstream” conservative pundits, those such as Tucker Carlson on Fox News and Ben Shapiro on The Daily Wire argued that the film promoted “radical identity politics.” Both also seized the opportunity to sensationalize the politics of viewership around the film, particularly targeting a white woman who posted a now-deleted tweet saying she didn’t want to attend the movie on opening weekend out of respect for black audiences. They both semi-facetiously claimed this was bringing back segregated movie theaters; Shapiro responded by saying, “The sensitivity police have gone so far that we now have to have fully segregated theaters to make sure that black people are not offended by the presence of white people.”

Those who attempted to subvert the film’s message started hashtags such as #Wakandaisntreal and #OpenBordersforWakanda; the latter hashtag riffs on the far-right “Open Borders for Israel” meme campaign. White nationalist instigators are attempting to link the afro-futurist celebration on display in Black Panther with a suppression of white identity and achievement; this is a common narrative employed by the far-right to encourage detachment with popular media and culture. On Red Ice TV, white supremacist Henrik Palmgren identified several Jewish people involved with the production of Black Panther, arguing that Jewish people were using their control of the media to instigate a race war between whites and blacks. To these commentators, a primary tool for recruitment is manipulating the perception of anti-white themes, and any media that doesn’t center whiteness is used as evidence of conspiracy against whites.

Alternatively, a growing excitement for the film has been ironically adopted by many in the far-right. The cooptation of Black Panther’s themes of racial solidarity have congealed into the meme “Black Panther is Alt-Right.” First uploaded by an anonymous user to imgur, the MAGA-themed meme has been widely shared across social media and is itself a popular debate topic for YouTube commentators of many political stripes. While the creator of the image is still unknown, the meme dates back to June 2017, long before the movie was actually released. The meme (posted below) illustrates the ideas behind the #BlackPantherIsAltRight meme: the far-right claims the movie is “anti-immigration,” “pro-wall,” and “anti-diversity,” among other stances.

Meme: Black Panther is Alt-Right

YouTuber, BlackPigeonSpeaks, also helped popularize the connection between Black Panther and ethnonationalism. BlackPigeonSpeaks is a Canadian ex-patriot who currently resides in Japan and frequently produces ethnonationalist content. In June 2017, he posted a video titled “Black Panther: A Hero the #AltRight Deserves?” He stated, “The Alt-Right should not only consider supporting the Black Panther movie, they should meme it all over social media, and attend screenings en masse, proudly showing their solidarity with him and his values. If not only just for the giggle factor, it would definitely confuse, disorient, and discombobulate those on the far-left.” He sourced the idea from his friend The Renegade of Funk, a black engineer also living in Japan, who had previous made a semi-ironic case for Black Panther’s potential as an alt-right hero. Overall, the popularity of these ideas illustrates the dependency white nationalist rhetoric has on black cultural production, and their inability to define whiteness in a way that is not oppositional or exploitive of black identity.

Memetic Production of Stereotypes

Beyond direct reactions to the movie itself, many in the far-right have used it as an opportunity to adapt and grow memetic anti-black stereotypes. In particular, far-right extremist have adapted one of the most ubiquitous anti-black memes — “We Wuz Kangz.” The meme originated on 4chan’s politically incorrect board and has since spread throughout other far-right online spaces. According to Know Your Meme, the meme is used to “poke fun at those who adhere to the Black Egyptian Hypothesis, an often disputed theory which postulates that Ancient Egypt was a Black civilization and that some of the most notable royal figures from the Dynastic era were of African ethnicity.”

“Kangz” and “Wakandans” are now being used interchangeably in white nationalist spaces. For several months, leading alt-right podcasts have all encouraged listeners to describe Black Americans as “Wakandans.” This rhetorical move links the celebration of this fictional country with any displays of black pride and solidarity in an effort to negate their collective influence. The writers of neo-Nazi site, The Daily Stormer, have increasingly been using “Wakandans” to refer to black people in headlines, and anti-black hub Stuff Black People Don’t Like also has incorporated “Wakandans” into their rhetoric designed to undermine black autonomy and political thought.

The varied reactions to Black Panther from the far right showcases their inability to detach from popular culture despite their constant critiques of it. Mass media provides an undeniable source of potential new viewers and listeners to enter the far-right, so the critical and commercial success of Black Panther proved an impossible opportunity to ignore. Additionally, the commercial and critical success of a movie that so clearly celebrated black culture highlighted the panic and ideological fragility that underscores the broader far-right movement.