Black Panther: Neoliberalism with a Wakandan face?
A major American blockbuster movie that situates African people in particular African women at the forefront of the film is a cultural and historical milestone, but should progress be determined solely by representation? Is it enough to be passive in the face of current oppressive global systems that are still hurting black people all over the world today?
Without a doubt, this film is one of the most hyped films since…ever. The excitement, the online buzz especially from Black social media, the sky-high anticipation from most quarters of the globe, ‘Black Panther’ is well placed in cinematic history for its positive depiction of African culture, its placement of fleshed out African characters - especially African women - at the head of a blockbuster franchise, assigning the role of director to a black man, and its callback to the history that has shaped modern America.
The film is set to become a record-setting smash at the box office blowing apart the stale narrative that black led films cannot sell big. To further illustrate this point: last year’s ‘Get Out,’ a R-rated horror film, about racism with a black lead, directed by a black man went on to rake in a profit nearly 40x its original budget. Black Panther is projected to gross half a billion dollars following just over a week of release at the international box office. Imagine what total receipts will sum up to after its run has ended.
‘Black Panther’ also arrives at a time when President Trump - renowned racist, misogynist, homophobe, ableist and corrupt business owner - recently made the ‘shithole countries’ remark stirring up a national question in the states as well as reigniting deep-seated reactionary sentiments towards countries from the Global South. This film will not reverse racist stereotypes overnight, but it will help push back against the common trope that African people are lazy and stupid. Black Panther is an Oxford graduate, he is a King, his sister Shuri is a tech genius and his elite bodyguard is comprised entirely of fearsome women clad in dazzling armour.
With a historical and hefty precedent set, a fantastic contribution to the superhero mythology, a superb story and character development, the beautiful homage to African culture, there is a lot to love about this movie. I also admired the presentation of African women in the film, they were not held back by plot contrition nor were they depicted as ornaments for decoration adorned in attire reducing them to their body parts. These women made decisions consistent with their ethos and each one has a credible and coherent arc. Not just one woman, but multiple women. Black Panther sets the bar for how to write black characters, women characters and antagonists in a Hollywood movie.
So what is it about the film that causes me reign in lavishing praise? 😳
It boils down to politics. *SPOILER ALERT*
Before watching this film, a burning question in my mind was: why does Wakanda shy away from sharing its resources and technological advances with the international community particularly with oppressed parts of the world? Wakandan foreign policy is to dupe the world into believing it is a third world country so that it does not inadvertently invite outsiders who will steal their resources and misuse it for nefarious purposes. What countries or people would colonise and invade another land for the purpose of stealing their resources, ravage said lands for centuries and continue to profit from their exploitation?
The film surprisingly tackles this question head on using the main cast to wrestle between remaining hidden or integrating into the global system to support oppressed brothers and sisters across the world. Enter Killmonger.
Michael B Jordan’s ‘villain’ Killmonger was the stand out actor in the film. He portrays the pain of abandonment, the oppression of African people and embodies the legacy of slavery with such poignancy it was difficult not to tear up as he recounts his brutal history. His father was murdered by his uncle - the king of Wakanda before T’challa - for ‘betraying’ Wakandans when he exported its resources to support oppressed Africans in the states.
The films depicts several reunions between the living and the dead, it is the second exchange between Killmonger and his father that remains etched into my mind, because of the sense of loss that that resonates in this scene. Killmonger grew up without his father in a country that treats African-Americans poorly, just as many African slaves were cruelly deprived of their homes and their family. To live in another country should not mean being forcibly exiled and brutally exploited, but this is what happened. And that is precisely the injustice Killmonger is trying to correct.
Killmonger has to relive this sense of abandonment when he is met with suspicion, anger and rejection in Wakanda despite being a Wakandan and being a cousin to the King himself. Whilst Wakandans enjoy an exceptionally high quality of living, the African-American community remains one of the poorest communities in the country who are subject to brutal treatment at the hands of the police. This tension between an African from America and indigenous Africans mirrors the debate over ‘blackness’ amongst a myriad of African groups. The film challenges the notion that growing up in another part of the world should obfuscate the reality of your skin colour playing the deciding factor in whether or not you are accepted into university, whether or not you are hired for a job or when you are needlessly gunned down by someone supposedly assigned to protect your community.
The abject poverty and systematic oppression that Killmonger was subject to whilst growing up is one that informs his outlook as an adult. His desire to export Wakandan technology to help liberate oppressed African people all over the world is a mission that resonated strongly with me because the objectives from this mission could easily be extended to oppressed people all over the world particularly in the Middle East and Latin America who are at the sharpest end of USA’s military and economic attacks in the world today.
What lacks conviction is Killmonger’s end goal. He attempts to destroy the source of Wakanda’s advanced technology, so that his mission is erroneously presented as nihilistic driven solely by rage as opposed to a quest for justice. The ‘revolution’ once promised by Killmonger is thwarted by Black Panther and his allies.
The head scratching moment occurrs when Black Panther aligns with the CIA to confront the film’s primary antagonist. The same CIA that orchestrated the murders of real life Black Panthers? That spied on civil rights leaders including Martin Luther King for the purposes of sowing division in the movement?
One should not forget the CIA’s clandestine role in Africa either:
- It is linked with Patrice Lumumba’s assassination in Congo. A survey of declassified US government documents notes that the CIA “initially focussed on removing Lumumba, not only through assassination if necessary but also with an array of non-lethal undertakings.”
- The CIA is suspected to have overthrown Ghana’s first President Kwame Nkrumah in a military coup in 1966 while he was out of the country. Nkrumah wrote a book outlining his suspicions in a 1978 book, where a former CIA intelligence officer supported this theory.
- It is alleged that the CIA overthrew Chad’s president in 1982, replacing him with the brutal Hissene Habre.
- The CIA also tipped off the South African apartheid regime of Nelson Mandela’s location in 1962, leading to his imprisonment for nearly three decades.
Colour me skeptical regarding this cordial relationship between the abetter of human rights abuses and an oppressed community. This is the fundamental problem that many cinephiles will forego thanks to the excellence of the film but it is a concern I have to raise. The scope for progressive change that the film ‘Black Panther’ proposes is undermined by the heroes’ relationship with the CIA and the misrepresentation of Killmonger’s mission as one that should be opposed because of the propensity of violence that comes with rebalancing society. South Africa was not liberated by the masses singing cumbaya, it took the united front of both indigenous Africans and imported Indian slaves to resist apartheid (as well as Cuban military support) to overcome the brutal apartheid regime. This followed decades of peaceful protests and other initiatives all of which were ignored.
By the end of the film, Black Panther adopts some of the lessons from his cousin deciding to change Wakanda’s isolationist approach prompting him to set up a community project where Killmonger grew up in support of local kids of African descent. Whilst this is a laudable initiative, I can’t help but question the scale of its impact. Now that Black Panther is cosying up to CIA operatives, how will the former’s intervention into the community reconcile with America’s relationship with the African-American community not only in the States but across the world?
Naturally these questions cannot be resolved in the very first film, but it would be be interesting to see that conflict play out in future sequels. What I would loved to have seen in the first film is Black Panther teaming up with Killmonger to dismantle politically and economically oppressive systems all over the world. I guess that was too much to hope for, even for a moving and thoughtful film as this one.
As it stands, Black Panther offers a lot of room for self-reflection and engagement with the central themes and main cast. The film is a rich tapestry of social and political commentary, it brings new comic book lore to mainstream audiences, it displays a spectacular level of production and offers dynamic, memorable characters.
It truly is a ‘Marvel’.