Black Panther in South Korea and watching the first truly marvelous Marvel and the Posing of the “Wakanda Question”

The Show

I originally wrote the original version of this post on February 15, the day after it premiered in South Korea. Our little group, comprised largely of members of the “Brothas and Sistas in South Korea” social and Facebook group, arranged the earliest possible showing we could get of the film through the Yongsan Lotte Cinema, as a custom screening it provided for our mostly black and black-compatible group here in Seoul.

We were geeked and ready for it. We were the first showing of the day, at 7:40 am, with South Korea already bring ahead of the USA by 2 days plus the time difference.

Photo credit: Ty Pittman

A Thought Experiment

We all know that white people like them some historical hypotheticals as popular entertainment:

What if the Nazis won the war?

What if the Confederacy had won?

And the followup question is, “How fucked up would that be?” And in comic books and even their latest cinematic manifestations, mixing myth into history is also fun: “What if the ancient Greek Gods were literally, actually real people and lived on Earth, too? Or haven’t you seen Wonder Woman or Gods yet?

Black Panther asks a similarly fun and fascinating question, but with a much more American socio-political twist, in the form of a super-black Marvel superhero: “What if European colonialism had never touched an African culture/nation? What might that look like? And what if that country were in control of the most valuable (un)natural resource on the planet in a time when that substance had just become necessary for humanity’s survival?”

That’s the “Wakanda question” posed by Black Panther. It’s a great Gedankenexperiment.

A Bevy of Interpretations

Within the first minute, the film lets you know it has come to excoriate the history of western colonialism and its crimes, but do so without lowering itself into the mud by actually uttering Voldemort’s name. The main character ain’t the west, white people, or any of that. You knew from the opening credits that this ain’t that kinda movie — and interestingly, the Marvel opening sequence doesn’t even roll until after the history has been laid down. It’s almost an afterthought, like “I guess we have to do this, since it’s paying the bills, so…here’s that Marvel thing.” But the film starts by telling you it’s about bigger stakes than just infinity stones and other assorted fanboy bullshit. It felt like it was winking the entire first 3 minutes as it said, “This is bigger than the text at hand. Get ready for subtext, niggas. You’re in for a fucking ride that ain’t just about Marvel shit.” If you’re paying attention.

And this is exactly what is going to trigger some closeted racists. Any many will be closeted from even themselves. The film is quite radical in its suppositions and geo-political positionings, as the plot particulars are just a jumping off point for much larger questions very firmly planted in reality. Many African nations are struggling with the legacy of colonialism and the issue of their racial “betters”, along with the problem of national resources in the present-day and how to navigate geopolitics such as to preserve domestic priorities and culture(s), and the question of how and with whom to throw in one’s hat. An interesting additional thing the attentive should notice easily is how well Wakanda functions as a multicultural (multitribal)society, how it is able to weave together being a technologically advanced society that maintains Tradition by choice and as a way of life, and how much room it gives to individual choice even as it reminds us that “You might forget about history, but History don’t forget about you.” This is interesting to see in a film that comes from a culture (American, specifically) that constantly tries to fool itself into thinking that we are the result of individual choices only, and that History indeed does not matter if we choose to ignore it. The Black Panther doesn’t buy into the neoliberal bullshit of conservative America today. In fact, that’s what goddamn Captain America should be as a hero whose important choice to be/remain who he is no matter what his body is, what the changing zeitgeists

This is all the stuff that this Einsteinian “thought experiment”-as-cinematic-spectacle brings into sharp relief. This is the crux of the “Wakanda question.”

Part of this question/thought experiment deftly calls back to the real Black Panthers as it asks how the power of the gun (i.e. Wakandan vibranium-enhanced tech) can be used not to subjugate and destroy, but to better humanity in all its forms and variations. Much like the original Black Panthers in Oakland, CA (and there are a lot of Oakland references in the film, including a Todd Shaw/Too Short track if you listen real close), it seems that the most moral choice for a Wakanda under the kingship of a superpowered Black Panther is to lead by outreach, education, and moral example. After all, the biggest action of concrete consequence taken by the Black Panthers of the African-American past was serving breakfast to kids — not killing white folks with AK-47s, as the ahistorical imaginings of the ignorant would tend to have it.

In short, Black Panther, as a cinematic Gedankenexperiment — a hypothetical exercise utilizing the subjunctive reasoning of “what if”?” — is brilliantly radical.

Breaking Barriers

There is a stubborn myth that “Koreans don’t watch black films.” It stems partially from the American marketing myth that the general (white) audiences “can’t identify with a non-white character” and that films about race or other types of alterity don’t sell. Trepidation of this type was in the air when Get Out and Hidden Figures played here; but both did quite well. As if to spike that bump and set, Black Panther just squashed many box office records by being the top grossing country outside the United States during the opening week. At this point, the conventional wisdom about blacks and the marketability of content in Korea (and internationally) should be smashed to bits.

From a Black Panther-related exhibit at the Yongsan CGV.

Not only has Black Panther become recognized as one of the best Marvel films, but the film’s political importance is patently obvious to many who have been concerned with the power of representation as it pertains to identity and social power. One English teacher in South Korea has even woven this into his lesson plans, and found a way to allow the complex, layered representations of blackness and Africanity to develop into greater socially empathetic connections.

A parody of the classic Korean painting by Kim Deuk-shin.

All in all, there is a global conversation about race, history, representation, and the role of a cultural text (in this case, a film) in fostering positive changes in the way people think about, talk to, and relate to one another. This is a rare opportunity. Nationwide — nay, global — think pieces couched in spectacle entertainment don’t come along very much. And given the way South Korea is squarely a part of not only the film (through its scenes filmed in Busan) but a part of the conversation, it truly is a landmark in true Korean globalization.