Beyond Wakanda: Diaspora, Neoliberalism, and the Mythic Kingdom
(WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD!)
With its first weekend in theaters coming to an end, Marvel Studios’ Black Panther has already set a few milestones. For the first time in Hollywood history, a mega-budget Afro-centric, Afro-futurist narrative that shows Black agency independent of whiteness has become a box office hit. With costume, set design, and makeup meticulously sourced from real-world African cultures, and a nod toward turning tired old racist film tropes on their heads, there’s a lot to celebrate in this film. An entire generation of Black kids now have access to a largely positive representation of Black strength and power that has been lacking in the media landscape. For all of the film’s strong points, I genuinely hope that it continues to be successful for weeks, months and years to come. But while I would like to have walked away this weekend feeling entirely positive about the film, instead I found myself troubled by the narrative’s reliance on anti-diasporatic-blackness, the neoliberal agenda it sets forward, and the ultranationalist overtones that underlie the vision of Wakanda we are presented with.
For a film that relies heavily on members of the African diaspora for its creative genesis, star power, and revenue production, Black Panther is shockingly anti-diaspora in its meta-narrative message. This is most obviously embodied in the central villain, Erik Killmonger, T’Challa’s cousin and the sole American-coded Black character with any significant role in the film. Killmonger is set up to represent the pain of populations subjected to diasporatic trauma through his upbringing as a Black American orphan in Oakland, California, and subsequent exposure to all the vicissitudes of white supremacist domination inherent to living in a society founded on the oppression of Black folks. Through the lens of the film, Killmonger’s traumatic pain is a source of weakness, driving its bearer into the depths of madness and evil. When Killmonger defeats T’Challa in combat, the tepid support he receives from the Wakandan nobility is rooted in his position as an usurper and as an outsider who did not grow up in Wakanda (read: Africa). T’Challa, meanwhile, represents an unbroken line of patriarchal authoritarian nobility, and is seen as the maintainer of the “correct” path for Wakandan society and thus receives loyal support from a substantial enough proportion of Wakandans to stage and win his civil war to retake the throne. As Christopher Lebron puts it in his ‘Black Panther’ Is Not the Movie We Deserve, “the bad guy is the black American who has rightly identified white supremacy as the reigning threat to black well-being; the bad guy is the one who thinks Wakanda is being selfish in its secret liberation; the bad guy is the one who will no longer stand for patience and moderation — he thinks liberation is many, many decades overdue. And the black hero snuffs him out.” The implication is that Black resistance to oppression in the diaspora is for crazy people, unless it is rooted in the maintenance of status quo structures of power. The underlying message is clear: Black agency to resist oppression is secondary to Black power achieved through traditional, or status-quo means. Black diasporatic people are broken and/or inferior to Black Africans by way of their historical trauma.
What’s only slightly worse is that the source of status quo power that the narrative seeks to maintain is one in which the nation of Wakanda, made wealthy through its tight control over the non-renewable mineral resource “vibranium,” either seeks to protect its internal population through isolationism or set about on a global interventionist project to develop communities around the world in its image by applying its tightly controlled wealth to education projects. If this formula sounds familiar, it’s because these are exactly the contours of the neoliberal project pursued by the United States and rich-world nations since the end of the Cold War (arguably, since its start). While the film pays lip service to the CIA and U.S. special operations forces’ history of destabilizing nations and toppling their leadership through the deftly tokenized white character CIA officer Everett K. Ross, T’Challa’s personal agenda is perfectly in line with that pursued by those very power structures for decades. Of course, it’s by no means surprising that a major Hollywood movie studio wouldn’t offer up anything more politically challenging than a film that centers neoliberal development economic aid based on non-renewable resource extraction and exploitation as a positive model for Black empowerment, rather than a narrative that centers the agency of African diasporatic communities to resist white supremacy on the international stage independent of wealth. But, let’s be clear, in a real world context in which the exploitation of Africa’s mineral wealth is used to lubricate the engines of technological development at the expense of real Africans, and to the benefit of multinational corporations based largely out of the U.S., Europe, and China, this is an irresponsible narrative to offer up as a liberatory vision to communities longing for real-world liberation.
Finally, I think we need to talk about the nature of Wakanda as a mythic representation for Africans and the African diaspora. While Wakanda presents us with a vision of Black strength and power that is lacking on the silver screen, it is trapped by the constraints of patriarchal tropes rooted in authoritarian nationalist conceptions of power. This probably has much to do with the social context in which Black Panther was originally crafted in the mid-1960s. The idealization of a great and unconquered African kingdom with an unbroken male line of rule by African kings somewhere in East Africa carried a lot more heft prior to the 1974 ouster of Ethiopian King Haile Selassie. Today, though, that’s some hotep shit. In Black Panther, it comes packaged in a narrative context in which women, though presented as strong moral and emotional laborers, fundamentally exist in support roles to a male-centered monarchistic society. At worst, Nightshade (a character with fewer than 15 words of dialogue) plays a critical role in service to her intimate partner, Killmonger, only to be murdered by him when she becomes an inconvenience to his aims. At best, T’Challa’s love interest Nakia, sister Shuri, and bodyguard Okoye drive the ethical, technological, and strategic logistical train which T’Challa relies on to wield his power, both as King and as a superhero. Together, the picture this paints of Black strength and power is one that affirms authoritarian and misogynistic assumptions dominant in popular mythology.
Take a step back to look at Wakanda for what it represents as a speculative symbol for Black folks, both in Africa and in diaspora, and the prospects are somewhat dangerous. Along with the implication of African rootedness as the essential foundation of black strength and power, Wakanda establishes itself as a mythic national representation of an ancestral greatness that Black folks have lost and, by implication, should return to as a bastion of hope. This palingenetic myth, while seductive, is divorced from the historical realities faced by African and African diasporatic peoples across the planet. This disconnect is unsurprising, given the origin of the Black Panther comic book and its creation during the mid-20th century by Jack Kirby. Kirby’s vision of Wakanda is an almost perfect mapping of popular perspectives among his demographic at the time — middle class American Jews idealizing a Jewish homeland and seeking power through the restoration of an ancestral patriarchal tradition, due to a perception of diasporatic Jews as irrevocably broken and diminished. Wakanda, for better or worse, is probably an Israel allegory. The question that leaves us with is precisely what lessons, given the intervening half century between the creation of Black Panther and now, we want to take away from this particular vision of national strength and power. Knowing what we do in hindsight, I think it’s best to craft new narratives.
As we imagine these narratives, a penetrating analysis of Black Panther can provide us with some guiding questions: How can we construct social relationships between and among continental Africans and the African diaspora where we can find mutual nurturing support for our collective traumas? What is our vision of Black power unconstrained by the prerequisites of wealth acquisition and geopolitical cooperation with the structural pillars of global wealth? What would a society that centered Black freedom above authoritarian power, and which advanced the power of Black women independent from that of Black men, look like? How do we escape the conventional Euro-American narrative tropes that center interpersonal and inter-familial violence as a necessary factor in the crafting of our heroic myths? Ultimately, how do we create stories that serve not only to give us mere representation of Black faces, Black ideas, and Black culture, but which also serve, through narrative content, to enrich Black lives?