By Prof. Paul Tiyambe Zeleza
Last night, I finally watched the much-hyped film, Black Panther. I had read numerous reviews and commentaries in the American media and some in the African press that enthused about the exceptional entertainment value and historical significance of the film. To date, Black Panther has earned the distinction of being the biggest grossing film of 2018 and one with a predominantly Black cast (to date it has earned more than $1.2 billion). It has become an international blockbuster, putting the lie to the Hollywood myth that ‘Black’ films have no cross-over transnational appeal.
In the African American community the film has become an iconic cultural moment, even movement marked by viewing parties, reaffirmations of African fashion and hairstyles, and reclamations of Black pride. Wakanda has been elevated to the emblematic modernity and technological superiority of an imagined African nation. For the literati among the frothy pundits the technoculture and science fiction of Black Panther marks the coming of age of Afro-futurism, the bold re-envisioning of Afrodiasporic pasts and futures.
Thus the film bears the great weight of racial representation, of the brilliant possibilities of the past, present and future for African peoples on the continent and in the Diaspora. This is a burden it carries because of the paucity of Black films in Hollywood and one that it ultimately fails to uphold because it’s too much for one film to bear.
While I found the film interesting even engrossing in parts I was underwhelmed. In fact, I left the theater quite troubled by the pervasive tropes of colonial discourse that frame the film despite its eagerness to invoke a progressive Pan-African aesthetic.
The tropes of the colonial gaze are signaled at the outset. We are told Wakanda is a ‘tribal’ nation-state. None of Africa’s major precolonial states — from the ancient Nile valley civilizations to the great empires of Western Africa, not to mention others elsewhere on the continent — were ‘tribal’ states; they were multi-ethnic or to use contemporary terms multi-cultural and multi-national states and societies. And contemporary African states, formed out of the historical geography of European colonialism, are almost invariably multi-ethnic, multicultural, and multi-religious.
The term ‘tribe’ is the ’N’ word of colonial denigration for African societies. There is nothing authentic or liberating about referring to African communities as ‘tribal,’ a term that evokes atavistic identities and primordial politics.
The representations of Wakanda reek with other Eurocentric stereotypes. The accession to and defense of the throne are marked by ferocious and bloody fights. The contestation between the king of Wakanda, T’Challa, the Black Panther, and his estranged African American cousin and interloper, Erik Kilmonger, degenerates into the ‘inter-tribal’ warfare of colonial folklore, together with the Tarzanian animalistic chants by the neighboring kingdom that comes to intervene. There are also the shields and spears and gyrations of old Hollywood films about ‘tribal’ African warfare.
The bodies of several of the characters are duly adorned with the ‘tribal markings’ of National Geographic among ‘native peoples’ in remote corners of the globe; one even spots an elongated mouth disk! Equally disconcerting are the fake accents, the poor attention paid to African languages, all of which produces a dangerously simplistic and homogenization of the continent.
Wakanda reproduces the colonial discourse of Africa as the black continent. As I’ve written extensively elsewhere, the conflation of Africa with sub-Saharan Africa is an invention of Eurocentric colonial discourse, of the Hegelian homogenization, diminution, and dehumanization that “Africa proper” is sub-Saharan Africa, the habitus of the Negro, which is “the land of childhood, which lying beyond the day of self-conscious history, is enveloped in the dark mantle of Night.”
In other words, despite all its best counter-hegemonic efforts, Wakanda’s Africa is quintessentially sub-Saharan Africa, the truncated Africa of Eurocentric cartography, of Europe’s ultimate other. Black Panther offers us an Afrocentric projection of an Africa invented by the racialized and racist realities and rhetoric of American history and society. It is not a reflection of the bewildering complexities, contradictions, and diversities of Africa itself.
A fascinating contrast can be seen in the scenes representing South Korea in which the latter’s urban modernism is evident and unencumbered by the scenes of rural dwellings and pastoral landscapes seen in Wakanda. While portraits of an urban skyline are latched on to aerial overviews of Wakanda, much of the action in the film, save for the technological center where Sheri works, takes place in the countryside under the cascading river falls and the savanna grasslands of traditional portraits of Africa. The urban scene in Afro-futuristic Wakanda towards the end of the film is in a crowded and rundown street. The downtowns of many contemporary African cities are far glitzier than that.
Even the attempts at capturing gender equality in Wakanda seem to fall flat. To be sure, some of the women in the film are remarkably brave, but they primarily serve as support cast in male battles for power in a deeply patriarchal society. In fact, they largely seem devoid of personal lives, their ferocity reminiscent of the female Amazon warriors of nationalist and colonial historiographies.
The stereotypes do not stop with the African society and scenes. They are evident in the representation of the African American community and characters. Kilmonger, the usurper to the throne from the Diaspora, is the proverbial angry Black Man molded by the ubiquitous violent desolation of the inner city and America’s imperial wars. Even the last scene when the UFO-looking plane lands on a basketball field invokes the dystopia of the hood as the thuggish youngsters talk about dismembering and selling its parts.
The two whites who are featured are no better than cartoon characters. One is the crooked and unscrupulous buffoon, Klaw; the other is a mild mannered CIA operative, Everett, who is initially incredulous about the technological achievements of Wakanda. It is as if Wakanda’s technological prowess is incomplete without the white colonial gaze, not through engagement or confrontation with a powerful Euroamerican state but two hapless individuals. Klaw is killed by Kilmonger, whereas Everett becomes part of the salvation of the ousted king, T’Challa. If only the CIA had such an honorable history in Africa!
Thus, Black Panther is at best a tribute to the Afro-centric imaginary of Africa and at worst it assiduously reproduces colonial stereotypes about Africa. Pan-African solidarity needs more nuanced imaginative creations and recreations of African societies and its Diasporas that transcend the familiar and discredited tropes of colonial discourse.
In an era when the burgeoning African film industry is thriving (Nigeria’s Nollywood is now the worlds’s second largest film industry after India’s Bollywood), the Pan-African world deserves far better than the simple and singular stories of Hollywood’s Black Panther however entertaining and commercially successful they may be.
Prof. Paul Tiyambe Zeleza is Vice Chancellor (President) and Professor of the Humanities and Social Sciences at the United States International University -Africa, Nairobi, Kenya, a position he assumed on January 1, 2016.
This article was first published on Linkedin.com on 31 March 2018.