There are times when our need to preserve a myth prevails over the reality of what we know to be true; take, for example, the presidency of Barack Obama. I’m very serious here. I recently wrote a piece on the myths surrounding Jay-Z and Beyoncé and the need to deconstruct the black artist vs. the black capitalist. A woman wrote to let me know that she was not impressed with my work. She explained that I hadn’t appreciated in my essay what the Carters or President Obama meant to her personally, and to the entire black community. She admitted that upon careful examination she found many of Obama’s choices as problematic as I did. But she was less interested in Obama the man than Obama the symbol. She needed Obama and the Carters in her life for very specific reasons, and “the truth,” while relevant, wasn’t going to intrude on her myth.
I had to respect her point — we all cling to myths of one kind or another. And while it may be too early to determine all the myths that surround “Black Panther” and its fictitious African country Wakanda, I can see the film’s symbolic value and the reasons why we need it right now. In the showings I attended on the opening weekend in New York City, the celebration was palpable; a man called out in the theater lobby to find the other members of his “tribe”, another woman shouted, “Wakanda lives!” There was Kinte cloth, elaborate jewelry, natural hairstyles, and permission in the air to be unapologetically inspired by African culture; a powerful reminder that black is indeed still beautiful. A movie like “Black Panther” reminds us that being of African descent isn’t only about fighting oppression around the world; it’s about enjoying a spectacular cultural legacy. Being black is fun!
At the same time, I suspect there are other viewers who go to Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther” looking for a film about resistance, and who are finding instead a slightly blacker and more violent “The Lion King”, audiences who walk out of the theater bewildered, unsure of what they have just seen. Still others are angry, not at white oppression or racism, where one’s anger should be directed after watching a film called “Black Panther”, but at Hollywood and the filmmakers themselves. And, finally, more than a few of the people who are pissed off about the film are Africans. Not Wakandan Africans — real ones.
There are some people who get enraged when a writer or critic comes along and “tears a black movie down.” Tearing down in this case means engaging with it critically, not just praising it unequivocally because it is black. (I was called a “chicken-fucker” in one camp for criticizing the Carters.) I understand where this comes from — as so few “black” productions come along with real money and attention behind them — and money in Hollywood means love — it makes sense that we all want to go out and support it, to make the film a success so we can look forward to quality black movies in the future. (The film has already set box office records.) Consumer culture also encourages us to support the film without examining it, buying the DVD and Halloween costume for our kids while staying firmly within the confines of the myth. And myths are powerful: Barack Obama’s presidency was “sold” to us this way (and won a branding award). But shouldn’t we question whether a movie is progressive just because it has a black director, a reference to black history in the title and black people in it? There is black love in “Black Panther” to be sure, but it is a Marvel Studios film — distributed by Disney — which means the political consciousness of the film begins and ends with the company’s financial bottom line.
When I got up from my seat after watching “Black Panther,” I tried to identify what I was feeling as I left the theater. It became easier to appreciate what I hadn’t felt at all: authentic pain. Black Panther is a fairy tale — a king looks for his queen, protects his throne, his subjects and their resources— and fairy tales always begin with heartbreak. Heroes are initiated through the experience of heartbreak. We recognize this because it true in our own lives, our own heroic journeys. And audiences get it: we watched Bambi’s mother shot and killed at the beginning of that film. In “Black Panther,” we are given scenarios of betrayal and loss, but scenes with real heartbreak — and black American life is filled with them — are missing in Ryan Coogler’s film.
“Black Panther” pulls back from the horror of contemporary and historic black life; refuses, in fact, to go anywhere near it. And I required this reality fully to appreciate the greatness of Wakanda. Halfway through the film, the character N’Jobu, King T’Chaka’s brother who chooses to live in Oakland, Calif., birthplace of the original Black Panther Party, explains why he has defected from Wakanda, why he is choosing to stay and fight for black America in 1992. He catalogues the horrors he’s witnessed: the policed communities, the mass incarcerations, neighborhoods flooded with drugs, leaders assassinated. The list goes by so fast, if you cough you’ll miss it, and it isn’t repeated. Coogler chooses never to show us in cinematic terms the racist violence that created the Black Panther Party, we have to take N’Jobu’s word for it. The party was intended to witness and resist black persecutions in the United States, but what of black American life is being witnessed in this film? The inner city is depicted only as a cramped apartment and an outdoor basketball court. (International audiences may say to themselves — what are blacks complaining about? The ghetto doesn’t look that bad.) I like Coogler’s films, but even a novice filmmaker should know, we can’t appreciate the grandeur of Oz without first establishing Kansas.
If you grew up during the ‘90s in America then you may be able to supply the backstory yourself; When you see the Public Enemy poster, you’ll know what their music meant to a generation of blacks. But “Black Panther” won’t insist you hear that rap music on the soundtrack or see the video of Rodney King being beaten by police officers on the screen from that same year. Without this context, you see guns but you don’t know if N’Jobu and his friend are drug dealers or revolutionaries or both. It becomes clear that the scenes we need are missing, not because Black Panther is afraid of violence — the film definitely has its macho, militaristic side with discomfiting scenes of extended brutal fighting throughout. They don’t exist because actual racism would put the audience in a bad mood and would intrude on the fantasy of the film. Wakanda is presented to us as a sunlit dream; real American racism and the colonization of Africa are the stuff of nightmares.
What I suspect people are responding to with deep emotion is an un-colonized black world on the movie screen, of watching empowered black people “unharmed” by racist oppression. (Sidney Poitier, who experienced American racism at fifteen after living isolated in the Bahamas as a child, may be our first real Wakandan.) For generations of black moviegoers, the phenomenon surrounding “Black Panther” may stir up sadness as we take our own children to see the film. We may ask ourselves, Why didn’t we have this movie when we were kids? Where has it been all these years? We had to fuck with old VHS copies of Fantasia and The Little Mermaid when we were little — no Wakanda for us. Now our babies and grandbabies can’t wait to get to the theater. This alone may have some people rejoicing in the aisles, celebrating “Black Panther” without having actually seen it.
Audiences may also be responding personally to “Black Panther” and Wakanda as metaphors for being underestimated in a racist society; Wakanda is considered by the world to be a poor African country, but only a few people know its true wealth and power. And with the beautiful relationships throughout, particularly between the King T’Challa and his sister Shuri, it is possible to get your life from the film. (It is also possible, if you are gay, bisexual or transgender, to get your death.) “Black Panther” isn’t a bad movie, there is greatness in it, but it is also a series of painfully missed opportunities. Many people will applaud the film, others will coast along on the myth, appreciating what is on the screen while unaware or uninterested in the story “Black Panther” is determined to withhold from us.
“Black Panther’s” plot is a beautiful idea joining two continents; a radical black activist in America turns out to be related to an African royal family, and not just of any African country but of a hidden kingdom with advanced technology and access to a powerful metal substance called Vibranium. Killed by his brother, and his mission aborted, he is survived by a black American son who later attempts to destabilize the Wakandan throne to avenge his father’s death. We learn that the son works with an evil white man named Ulysses Klaw who steals a Vibranium laced axe from a museum; Wakanda’s leadership goes on a mission to get it back. (Why the Wakandans don’t steal it from the museum which had it on display isn’t explained.) The nephew is vanquished after a great battle, and Wakanda decides to help other people of color around the world with their vast resources. The end. A lot of customers are leaving the theater satisfied, which is fine, but there is one problem: Black Panther is missing a third act.
The last act I am suggesting — and it is in the “Planet of the Apes” movies — is the descent of the “outside world” on Wakanda — the white world’s attempt finally to colonize the country, and the Wakandans’ subsequent victory over white oppression. In my version of “Black Panther,” Michael B. Jordan’s Eric Killmonger, the abandoned nephew who seeks the throne, wakes up from his own colonized nightmare and realizes that he has been used by his government to wage war on other people of color around the world. In this “come to Jesus” moment, he understands for the first time who he really is, a black man in the African diaspora, a man from inner-city Oakland, whose heart has been broken by injustice. He realizes that he doesn’t want to rule Wakanda after all, he wants to fight by their side. And given his military talent, used for the first time against the forces he’s always killed for, it’s a hell of a fight. We then watch as the colonizers prepare to invade Wakanda, a scene that recalls slave ships arriving on the shores of Africa, only this time with quite different results. The black American and the black African join forces in a common cause of liberation, and together kick white colonial ass. This doesn’t just make sense in terms of racial politics, but in the history of climaxes in movies.
By adding this third act, the director would have been forced to tighten early scenes which drag on. People I’ve spoken with who enjoy the movie almost unanimously want more “action.” In “Black Panther,” Wakandans pick flowers slowly in the dark, or stand together and plot. The challenge-to-the-throne scenes are overextended with their numbing violence, and almost everything having to do with the Everett V. Ross CIA character grinds the suspense to a halt. The film’s pacing never gains momentum, and nothing ever tops a fabulous fight scene in the underground casino in the film’s first half. When King T’Challa’s younger sister, Shuri, isn’t cracking jokes or there isn’t a battle, the movie feels somnambulant, like a diplomat presenting a position paper at the UN. (The Wakandans are a cerebral people; they don’t dance or sing, they discuss.) There is too much talent on the screen and too many beautiful black faces for “Black Panther” ever to be outright boring; but a lot of people give important speeches while we eat popcorn and watch them talk. You may find yourself concentrating as if there were going to be a quiz on Wakanda later, when you’d rather just be entertained.
I could have done without the evil South Korean storekeeper who eyes the blacks with suspicion, but allows herself to be chucked under the chin by the racist bad guys (Koreans, I suppose, will have to wait for “Asian Panther.”) Ross, the pilot who works for the CIA and who ends up in Wakanda to be healed after taking a bullet, flies the Wakandan spaceship during the final tribal warfare scene, and it’s a low point in the film. Ross is used for comic relief, and because the actor is likable enough, he’s never outrightly offensive. (The fact that a member of the CIA is portrayed as wanting to empower a “black panther” is.) Ross has no internal racist conflicts to overcome as an American government official, no sense of entitlement. He’s just an amicable white man with a doughy, friendly face, who smiles a lot and wants to help — a multicultural cutie-pie. Ross even prays to the ancestors — although which ones we’re not quite sure. When he proves to be a hero after the plane stalls and nearly crashes (the Wakandans can practically walk on water with Vibranium, but their spaceship doesn’t work as well as an iPhone 6 during a crisis), Ross does a Wakandan move to reset the plane and saves the day. It may just be the way Ross is written, but he and the actor seem mediocre, and with so many strong black performers around him, we suspect the character exists because the movie audience needs a “nice” white guy to navigate the black world. Fortunately for us he doesn’t chant soulfully in Wakandan or he’d be the Justin Timberlake of “Black Panther.”
My biggest problem with the film, and why we never get the final scene I’ve described here, is that the film doesn’t have a realistic white adversary. It does have a minor white devil in Andy Serkis’ Ulysses Klaw, but he’s played as a greedy fool who laughs a lot and sings badly, a smart ass who likes toys — definitely no Cecil Rhodes. Serkis is dispatched early on and never replaced. He’s also South African — an easy cinematic choice for racists, no surprises there. White Americans can hate and feel superior to Klaw without identifying with him. We know from earlier in the film that King T’Challa’s father was killed by a white terrorist at the UN, and the suspect is shown briefly on the news, but that is all that we ever hear about him, and we never discover his fate. We are also told there is an American buyer for the Vibranium, but we never find out his identity — couldn’t he be the same man that killed the King’s father? (The Wakandans may be too ethical for revenge: they only like to build things and beat each other up by waterfalls.)
In my alternative version, we would discover that Andy Serkis’s character was selling the Vibranium to a syndicate ruled by Americans. When Serkis is killed, the syndicate then decides they are tired of messing around with amateurs and plan to advance on Wakanda for a complete takeover. I don’t need scene after scene of white actors plotting against Wakanda — Black Panther distinguishes itself by not using too many white actors — but what I would like to see is a rival worthy of Wakanda, and consistent with other superhero movies; the kind of anti-hero that Philip Seymour Hoffman was to Tom Cruise in “Mission Impossible III,” or Jack Nicholson to Michael Keaton and Heath Ledger to Christian Bale as the Jokers in the Batman films. The Wakandans deserve an opponent at least as brilliant as they are. I want a major actor in the role, a star, playing a fabulous racist, a white man who is cunning, determined, sophisticated — like the racists we often deal with in our own lives, or whom we have watched providing leadership for our country. Andy Serkis’ grungy Ulysses Klaw is more like a thug out to do the real villain’s bidding. He should be seen as slight compared with the real “big guy”; like Trump supporters to our President. We want the Laurence Olivier of racists, an older white man who really understands how colonization works; “Black Panther” gives us a “jive honky” when we need a mastermind. Given recent articles on white female complicity during the Civil Rights movement, it might even make sense for our anti-hero to be a woman.
In other words, given the awareness that the Black Lives Matter movement has brought to police brutality in the U.S. and with the film opening ten days before the anniversary of the death of Trayvon Martin, it is incredible that we never meet a single racist white American in “Black Panther.” And it is unfair for the movie to give us the friendly white liberal Ross and deprive us of the nefarious racist the plot demands. We’re given a white man to love, without one we can hate. This may work for “When Harry Met Sally,” but it doesn’t make sense in “Black Panther.” The motivation for this decision can only be financial, and if that’s true, it’s a contemptible choice. By someone’s estimation a movie in which white Americans are killed by Africans and African-Americans defending themselves won’t make as much money. The problem is, an idiot like Andy Serkis’ Klaw, as depicted in the film, can’t even steal an axe without getting caught, so he certainly isn’t the man who might invent COINTELPRO. With the absence of a white villain in the final act, and by using contrivance to get the black tribes to go to war with each other, “Black Panther,” at times, is a disgrace to the actual Black Panther movement.
When the final confrontation scene comes, it’s a black-on-black showdown, Crips vs. Bloods. By the end of the film, I suppressed a nasty suspicion that “Black Panther” would go down easy for most audiences, because in this context of tribal warfare, whether it is Wakanda or Compton, black people killing black people doesn’t matter. And it may also not matter because none of the deaths register, with one exception, and there is no grief, no bloody battlefield after the war is over. The movie should be distributed by Disney: It’s a cartoon.
We in the audience may feel confused as to whom to root for, not wanting either side to be the “bad” guy, not wanting to cheer black-on-black crime. In the audiences I sat in, we applauded the action, but we kept having to check the CGI bodies that flew through the air asking ourselves, “is that one of the ‘good’ black ones or one of the ‘bad’?” “Black Panther” deprives us of what we came to see, whether we know it or not: the opportunity for warring black tribes to unite against a common enemy, and of the satisfaction that is basic in most superhero movies — revenge. The primates get to do it in the “Planet of the Apes” movies, so why can’t we? (They must have a better agent.) A white American baddie and his encroaching army would have easily solved this problem.
None of this might matter, except that there has been a determined effort recently to neutralize historic black revolutionary voices in our popular culture. Cynthia Mort and Liz Garbus attempted to do it to Nina Simone. The film Selma tried to do it Diane Nash. While their voices cannot be silenced completely, they can be subverted in the collective consciousness; so that when one hears the words “Black Panther” one thinks of Wakandan tribes at war, and not of Bobby Seale.
The only way I can judge the effect of “Black Panther” on audiences is by studying the faces of the people leaving the theater. (I stuck around after a few showings and watched.) History tells us that during the Sixties the real Black Panther Party was targeted by the FBI and J. Edgar Hoover as “without question, the greatest threat to the internal security of [our] country”. I will say this: when a movie is called “Black Panther” and white people are leaving the theater laughing and smiling as if they just got off an amusement park ride, we’ve got a problem.
There will be a few white people, of course, the usual ones, who will make some noise about Black Panther, in the same way that Rudy Giuliani squawked over the Black Panther homage in Beyoncé’s “Lemonade.” But there is nothing going on in Black Panther to make white people angry or even reasonably uncomfortable. Racists may even agree with Wakandans’ estimation of Eric Killmonger, the rogue black anti-hero — they can’t stand him, either. In fact, the movie is such a crowd-pleaser that when Shuri, the younger sister, arrives in California, and she tells her brother she thought he was taking her to Disneyland, I envisioned the Wakanda village and the Vibranium train ride that are probably being built as I write.
Without an act of resistance against the white world, and particularly the white American world, “Black Panther” is basically a movie about two African tribes who beat the shit out of each other and the uncouth black American man who attempts to overthrow them. At the end, there is a message of sharing resources, and King T’Challa buys the building where his father killed his uncle. (This killing never made any sense to me: T’Chaka kills his own brother to save the life of another man? But let’s leave it for now.) While this ending may seem admirable and socially conscious, it is a letdown. And there is more than a bit of condescension and superiority in the Wakandan approach to giving to black America. No one meets with community leaders and asks for what they need, and with the exception of Eric’s girlfriend, who barely registers, there are no other black Americans in the film. There is a sense that the Africans know what black Americans need better than we do, that we are too busy playing basketball in courtyards to help ourselves. This is the kind of thinking that got Oprah in trouble in 2007 when she famously explained why she built a school for girls in South Africa and not on the South Side of Chicago: “I became so frustrated with visiting inner-city schools [in America] that I just stopped going. The sense that you need to learn just isn’t there. If you ask the kids what they want or need, they will say an iPod or some sneakers. In South Africa, they don’t ask for money or toys. They ask for uniforms so they can go to school.” We leave the film thinking the Wakandans are generous but, having been in America for about ten minutes and already calling all the shots, they also seem a bit smug.
Who can blame them? The only black American they encounter is Eric Killmonger, and he is played as a man-boy, an arrogant teenager. We are told that Michael B. Jordan’s character, Eric Stephens, went to M.I.T, is an ex-Navy Seal, able to destabilize governments and overthrow presidents. He is American military excellence, not unlike Everett V. Ross, an ex-military pilot turned CIA agent. Ross, however, is presented to us as an articulate professional with class, while Jordan’s character is played purely “street” — one of the kids that pissed off Oprah. He arrives and says, “Whassup?”, disrespects the Wakandan Queen and tries to humiliate her by saying, “Hi, Auntie” when the secret of his lineage is revealed; and when a black female elder doesn’t respond to his command as King, he brutally grabs her by the throat, lifts her off her feet, and growls, “When I tell you do something, I mean that shit.” (This may be an homage to Angela Bassett who plays Wakanda’s queen mother and who starred in Disney’s “What’s Love Got To Do With It?”— Eric Killmonger is Wakanda’s Ike Turner.)
Michael B. Jordan makes for an amazing bully, and he is talented enough to reveal to us Killmonger’s pain later in the role, but it’s not clear why Stephens is conceived so crudely. It is too easy for audiences to make Killmonger a cruel sociopath (he even shoots the black woman he is in love with to prove he is impervious to white manipulation — Rowan Pope did the same thing with the black woman he loved on “Scandal”). Killmonger is much more complex when we see him as an American creation: the frustrated black man who violates black women and kills other blacks because he can’t truly harm white people or change the racist system in which he finds himself. Personally, we may not have run into any Killmongers lately, but we do know black mothers and fathers who, frustrated by racism, beat and scream at their kids, we are familiar with the pressure-cooker of frustration that racism engenders. And a few of us may know a Killmonger or two, a black man or woman incarcerated for violence. But as we are never shown in the early Oakland scenes of the poverty and oppression that create “Eric Killmongers”; We are allowed to assume that Eric is just sick and greedy, a corrupt, entitled white American in blackface.
This may be “Black Panther’s” single greatest offense to its black audience; without this acknowledgement of racism, Killmonger doesn’t get the emotionally complex backstory of a character like “The Joker” — he’s just black and evil. Black Americans are running to “Black Panther” in droves, almost every theater in the multiplex was showing the film, and every showing was sold out. But I wonder if, once we are in our seats, we suspect that the movie may be subtly insulting our black experience. We just can’t wait for the Wakandans to fix Eric Killmonger’s ass and get him out of their beautiful country. That is, until we realize that Eric Killmonger is a substitute for us.
Growing up, I had a close friend whose father was African. I’ve written about her before. She traveled to visit her relatives several times throughout her childhood, and later went to college near a major inner-city with a large black population. It used to make both of us laugh until our sides hurt when she told me that as soon as she arrived on the continent, before she could even properly unpack, her extended family would gather around and ask, greedy for stories about black Americans, “So, please tell us, what are the ‘niggers’ doing? What are they up to now?” This particular nigger was in college avoiding his homework, but I knew what they meant.
What tickled me then and even now was that while there was contempt mixed in with their request, there was also fascination. Niggers were exciting, we were rebellious, we were over in America stirring up shit and definitely surviving, clever and sassy. I wish they had articulated it in a slightly different way, but the meaning was clear: Black Americans were worthy of legend, like the Loch Ness Monster or Big Foot. And they loved that we were creating something, or burning down something or driving white folks crazy, because America sure as hell had no idea what to do with us.
Her relatives were in good company. In fact, most of the world wants to know what the niggers are doing, which is part of the reason why black American culture fascinates and captivates the world, and why so many people try to repeat it, in this country and abroad. (American cultural imperialism also plays a role.) Our music and literature are how-to guides to resistance. Maya Angelou describes in her autobiography “The Heart of A Woman” her experience of falling in love with a South African civil rights leader and member of the Pan-African Congress, Vusumzi Make. When she plans to introduce him to her friend Abbey Lincoln, “he recognized her name immediately and began to tell me how the Max Roach/Abbey Lincoln records were smuggled into South Africa and then passed around like the hot revolutionary material they were. He knew the title of every track and most of the words to all of their songs. The man was indeed a wonder.”
In “Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas” Angelou recalls touring with the Opera Porgy and Bess in the early 1950s, as part of the first black company to perform behind the Iron Curtain. In former Yugoslavia, she walks into a store to buy a mandolin, and while she is being helped by the shop owner, his wife and children all emerge from the back room. They do not speak English but they say two words to her: “Paul Robeson.” Then the entire family sings “Deep River.” She joins in and they finish the song together. She writes, “I made no attempt to wipe away the tears…I stood in the dusty store and considered my people, our history and Mr. Paul Robeson. Somehow, the music fashioned by men and women out of an anguish they could describe only in dirges was to be a passport for me and their other descendants into far and strange lands and long unsure futures.” In that moment, she realizes the power and majesty and reach of black American art.
I have heard Aretha Franklin in the airport in Tokyo, Nina Simone in Frankfurt, Luther Vandross in Sweden, and on YouTube there is a man from Taiwan named Li Yu Chun who sings “I Will Always Love You” on what I assume is the Taiwanese equivalent of “American Idol.” It’s uncanny, a young adolescent-looking man from China singing in the voice of a black American woman from New Jersey. In London, an advertisement on the Jumbotron in Piccadilly Circus has a group of white kids breakdancing on pieces of cardboard.
The irony is, the parts of our black American culture that people find most fascinating, rarely originate with blacks living in Vermont or Maine, but in inner cities where our art is often created from an alchemy of poverty, violence, anger, defiance and pain. The world is grooving to our blues. This art, commodified and copied around the world, is usually the music and dancing and poetry from black men and women who sometimes great each other with “Whassup”, and who say, “Hi Auntie” at family gatherings. So it seems amazing that a movie named after one the greatest organizations of black resistance ever created in America, inspired by art that comes from American cities like Oakland where that organization originated — would choose to degrade blacks by offering us Eric Killmonger. Instead of his having authority, derived from a cultural legacy which continues to sustain us, the movie invites us to feel contempt for him, and maintains a common theme in popular American culture: the demonization of the working-class and poor.
“Black Panther” ultimately treats Killmonger like a nigger in a high place with no home training and no idea how to behave, an insult to the Wakandan throne. The elders wrinkle their faces when he arrives as if he smelled of fried chicken grease. But it seems to me that Wakanda would have bigger fish to fry with potential white colonizers, not black ones. “Black Panther” the movie lets the white world off the hook; but if Africa is in trouble right now, I hardly believe its greatest fear is of black Americans swooping down to rule. Africa, if you are worried about a black American takeover, trust me: we can’t afford the airfare.
Eric Killmonger (it is later revealed in the film that his African name is N’Jadaka) is presented as a man with no class or education, but when he talks about Wakanda’s social irresponsibility, about black people all over the world dropping like flies while Wakandans are sitting there on their Vibranium-covered black asses doing nothing, when he talks about going after the oppressor and winning for once, using the most powerful resource in the world, he doesn’t sound like a fool or an uncouth black at all. In fact, he sounds like a member of the Black Panther Party.
What I longed for was the scene in which Eric Stephens, no longer Killmonger, is brought into the tribe. I needed him to be initiated, hugged by Angela Bassett, and to cry in the arms of his elders over the death of his father, over being left behind all those years ago. The brief moment in Oakland in which the young black boy holds his dead father in his arms and weeps, is one of the few moments in “Black Panther” that has deep archetypal resonance and seriously deals with loss. When Eric Stephens weeps in Wakanda, he is not only crying for his own past, he sheds the archetypal tears of the enslaved black American who asks the ancestral black mother and father over centuries, why didn’t you come and get me when the white traders took me away to America? Why didn’t you bring me back home? This is the question embedded in the heart of every black American man and woman, and it is at the spiritual core of “Black Panther.” Eric Stephens’ malevolence in Wakanda is black American rage at not knowing our tribe, where we belong in the world. He is Toni Morrison’s Beloved, the murdered baby who returns to her mother, Sethe, for revenge. She appears in an antebellum dress and rises up from the bottom of a lake, Killmonger arrives in a stolen plane wearing army fatigues; but their wound is the same.
We as blacks are loyal to our cities — Chicago, Atlanta, Detroit, Brooklyn, Philadelphia, New York City, Oakland. But we also know we aren’t safe in America, that we never have been. And we are searching for home, we are always searching for Wakanda. There are hints of this reconciliation between the two continents in the final confrontations between the two cousins, as one lies dying in the other’s arms. The film does give Eric Stephens what appears to be a moment of dignity; when T’Challa offers to take him back to be healed, he says, “Why? So you can lock me up? No. Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from ships, ’cause they knew death was better than bondage.”
It is not clear why “Killmonger’s” death is liberating, or when his African cousin became his enemy. Is he blaming the Wakandans for his ancestors’ enslavement, accusing them of selling them to traders? Eric Stephen’s final words are powerful, but they should be said to a white man, not an African. But as there are no white people around, I supposed he had to say it to somebody. There are powerful codes embedded in “Black Panther,” but the message is scrambled.
I recently saw an article about how some white people are already responding to the “reverse racism” in “Black Panther.” I’m not sure how — there isn’t any. What they might be referring to are the sassy lines given to the younger sister. She gets to say, “Great, another white boy for us to fix”; and at one point when Ross surprises her she tells him, “Don’t scare me like that, Colonizer.” The general, Okoye, sneers at Ross at one point and says under her breath to the king, “Americans!” She earlier refers to a white man in the casino as “Greased Lightning”. White viewers may not be used to being dismissed like this in a mainstream film: it’s one thing when Pam Greer does it in “Coffy,” it’s something else in Disney’s “Black Panther.”
This voiced contempt of America by blacks is refreshing, because we haven’t seen it before in a blockbuster film, and rarely from black women. It’s powerful when it’s said by the general, Okoye, a little easier to dismiss when it comes from the sister, Shuri. She is scolded by her mother for sticking up her middle finger at her brother, and interrupts his coronation ceremony announcing that her corset is too tight and that she wants to go home. She’s spunky, but at times immature. (This sister, presented as a brilliant and outspoken know-it-all, is Wakanda’s Dee from “What’s Happening.”) Laticia Wright practically steals the movie with her performance, and the director never humiliates her, but lines of resistance aren’t taken very seriously by audiences when said by a “black teenager.” (This was also true of the character Michael Evans on TV’s “Good Times”.) No black adult of consequence in “Black Panther” gets to tells off a white person of any real power; not because they aren’t prepared to, but because there aren’t any. (Ross is a boy himself.) I love the sister, but she is there for comic relief, always a danger for serious black movies. The comic relief of the best friend in Get Out, and his “hilarious” rants about Jeffrey Dahmer eating black gay men for dinner, kept that film from being truly great; the friend intruded on the film anytime the plot touched on authentic pain, and “Get Out,” like “Black Panther,” lets the racist viewer off the hook. He can’t be introspective, he’s too busy laughing.
There are a few scenes, however, that reveal “Black Panther’s” greatest achievement: Okoye, the general, who, we are told by Nakia, another fierce Wakandan leader, is “the best warrior we have”, kicks ass when the trade deal in the casino goes wrong. With her bald head, red dress and spear she is a breathtaking example of black female heroism. “Black Panther” gets one thing right that many movies don’t, black or white; with the exception of the Queen who has to be protected, there aren’t any damsels in distress. When the Wakandans decide to go after the evil Ulysses Klaw and get their Vibranium back, Nakia and Okoye have to dress the part for an evening out. Okoye puts a wig on her bald head, and it is clear she hates every minute of it. She refers to it as a “disgrace” and says, “I want you to get this ridiculous thing off my head;” at this point we know exactly where we stand with traditional depictions of black women in the film.
All the black women we meet in Wakanda seem ready to kick ass. Women are truly powerful in this movie; and that may be reason enough to see it and support it. The scene in the gambling casino never achieves the Grand Guignol ballet of blood as does the Lucy Liu scene in Tarantino’s “Kill Bill I” (this movie is definitely for kids; hardly any blood is ever shed, black or white), but Okoye has a stunning moment when she throws her black wig in a white man’s face, and then, obviously relieved to have the offensive object off her head and while it simultaneously obscures his vision, stabs him with her spear. It may be a first in movies; death by weave. Black women aren’t just great warriors, they are geniuses: Shuri, the sister, oversees all the technology. There is a connection here with the film “Hidden Figures” which may give viewers the same lift. Who runs the world? Girls.
Neither does the movie play any games with light-skinned Wakandans, male or female, coming in and saving the day, and the love-interest, Lupita Nyong’o’s Nakia, is a dark-skinned beauty. She isn’t boy-crazy or rushing to marry. Nakia doesn’t go looking for love, love finds her. When King T’Challa tells her, “If you were not so stubborn, you would make a great queen,” she replies, “I would make a great queen because I am stubborn — if that is what I wanted.” Nyong’o gives an effortless, lovely performance, and in many ways it is her Nakia who saves the King and Wakanda. Chadwick Boseman, in another beautifully nuanced performance, tells her so. (She may be the real “Black Panther” of the film, Wakanda’s Elaine Brown.) This is significant; the women on screen who are heroic, are all dark-skinned or brown. There are also no white women in the film, except an officious white woman curator in the museum who represents a familiar racist archetype, the “may I help you” smile laced with a “what are you doing in this store and how quickly can I get you out of here” subtext, which every black American knows who has ever gone shopping in America. She’s dispatched quickly with a poisoned latte: in her case, it’s death by Starbucks.
It’s exciting to see these traditional film tropes subverted, and we can only hope that because the film is already so successful, others will follow the trend. Black filmmakers like Ryan Coogler and Ava DuVernay are being given unprecedented opportunities as directors of color to shape our consciousness with their projects about the future. It is only a matter of time before a filmmaker realizes the great black writer Octavia Butler’s visions onto the screen. In the previews before “Black Panther” started, Ava DuVernay introduced a trailer for her new film “A Wrinkle In Time,” based on Madeline L’Engle’s children’s classic. The movie looks promising, but the last time DuVernay gave us a view of the future, we were sitting at a conference-room table in Jay-Z’s “Family Feud.” Based on who was invited to sit at that table, we were informed that the future belonged to beautiful, light-skinned, long-haired black women of a certain body weight and height; a world run by Beyoncés. We need a vision of black life that is expansive, inclusive, progressive, and reflective of right now, not the same old racist, sexist, size-ist, classist, ageist, homophobic bullshit of old, remixed, tossed into outer space in a superhero’s outfit and called futuristic. The universe, and let’s hope the box office, simply won’t allow it anymore.
While skin-color bias and sexism are admirably subverted in “Black Panther,” LGBTQ liberation is once again asked to take a serious back seat. I suppose it was too much to ask that there be even one queer or transgender person, one lesbian smile, or even a Wakandan male warrior in high heels. Not a chance. Not only is the LGBTQ audience deprived of a love scene or even the tiniest queer flirt in the film, Wakanda doesn’t have anybody who even looks queer. I would love to have seen Wakanda’s version of Little Richard, an elder in the high court wearing a little eyeshadow, an ostrich-feather boa, and a finger snap in Killmonger’s face when he demands the throne. “Sorry, Baby, it’s already taken.” (There is a man in a colorful suit with a large plate in his lip and no wife. He seems to be the closest we get to black queen — the plate, at least, is turquoise.)
In 2018, an omission like this is offensive. It takes work to keep queerness, like blackness, out of the movies in this day and age. We’ve grown as a society, and it isn’t as easy as it used to be. To deprive us of these scenes as an audience is a cruel, greedy choice. Straight people get their traditional heterosexual love story as usual — King T’Challa and Nokia acknowledge their love for each other, and when they share a kiss in the final scene, he has found his queen, she has found her king, and they get their Happy Ever After. Gay people, meanwhile, are forced back into closets made of Vibranium.
Not knowing the Black Panther series at all before I saw the film, the most obvious choice for a lesbian was Okoye, the general, with her beautiful bald head. She has another soldier in the film who could easily have been her lover, and if these women had flirted deliciously with each other or shared an on-screen kiss, I doubt the audience would have stampeded to the exits. When Killmonger cuts the throat of one of the women in the army, Okoye moans and mourns her briefly; but this scene would have had a wholly different resonance if we knew the woman was her lover. In Jenna Marotta’s article on the film for IndieWire, actress Florence Kasumba, who plays Ayo, says her character filmed a gay flirtation scene with Okoye, but that it ended up on the cutting-room floor. The article also confirms that Marvel comics by both Ta-Nehisi Coates and Roxane Gay included a queer storyline for Ayo in the books themselves.
What is exasperating about this choice is that, given her body language, her swagger, and her courage, Okoye seems to inform us that she’s a queer woman in every scene she’s in. It’s in her reaction to the hair, her awkwardness in getting “dolled up” for men’s attention, and her general aura of “otherness;” she is different from Nakia and Shuri in ways that are hard to define, and it’s not that a black heterosexual woman can’t look and move like her, but in the traditional ways that black women are depicted in movies, it is clear that something queer is going on with this character. Morotta’s article describes an interview that “Black Panther” co-screenwriter Joe Robert Cole gave to Screen Crush: when asked where the missing gay scenes were, “…he did not remember the specific scene in question, [but] a queer love story ‘wasn’t some major theme … we were looking to explore’.”
Ironic, when Huey P. Newton, co-founder of the Black Panther Party, said in a 1970 speech, “Whatever your personal opinions and your insecurities about homosexuality and the various liberation movements among homosexuals and women (and I speak of the homosexuals and women as oppressed groups), we should try to unite with them in a revolutionary fashion.” Like many of our greatest leaders, part of Newton’s brilliance was his willingness constantly to engage, to develop and revise his critique of social justice as his own consciousness grew. A movie with the name of his movement should at least be inspired by his awareness and inclusivity, but “Black Panther’s” screenwriters had other priorities.
Joe Robert Cole speaks in the same unapologetic tone that Raoul Peck used in interviews after the release of his documentary film on the black queer author James Baldwin, “I Am Not Your Negro.” When asked why he didn’t include more on Baldwin’s sexuality and sexual politics, he said, “The issue for him was not his homosexuality at the time…when he needed and wanted to speak about it, he wrote a novel.” Roxane Gay told The Advocate, as quoted in Morotta’s article: “Even when great progress is made, some marginalized groups are told to wait, are told, not yet, are told, let’s do this first and then we will get to you. And we are also told we’re asking too much, that we should be grateful for what progress is being made. But I don’t buy into that. It would have been incredible and so gratifying to see a queer black woman in what will likely be the biggest movie of the year. Alas, not yet.”
It’s time to face the fact that this kind of homophobia is more than just an oversight, or benign neglect — it is actually a form of political self-harm and artistic self-sabotage. I would argue that Peck’s film was marred by his decision not to engage Baldwin’s queer life and may have cost him the Oscar — for all the author’s brilliance on screen, the film feels compulsively heterosexual, hyper-heterosexual, and this limits its appeal to millennials. It is a tribute to Baldwin’s indomitability that his electrifying presence was able to transcend it. It takes a very pointed and determined effort by a director, screenwriter and studio for a project like “Black Panther” in 2018 to keep a queer black woman down.
For those of you who talk of white America still having its foot on black people’s necks, who criticize socio-economic and racist violence in the U.S., but who continue to stay staunchly homophobic, know this: you are becoming relics of a forgotten age. It is absurd at this point not to engage in queer politics on any level if one is committed to eradicating racism. Black liberation theology requires us in this century to see the connections of oppression on every level. Huey P. Newton knew this in 1970: we can’t talk about racism without talking about sexism, and class, and we simply cannot envision a Black utopia without a single black gay, lesbian, bi-sexual or transgender person; not closeted, not watching the action from the sidelines, or winking from across the room, but out front, vital, joyous and free. (I hope “Wrinkle in Time’s” main character Meg Murry has at least one transgender friend. If not, there’s still a little time until March 9; the director better pull a Kevin Spacey/Christopher Hammer and get one.)
If this sounds like tokenism then fuck it, we have to start somewhere. We’ve been complaining to white moviemakers about black representation for years. I’m tired of going to “black” movies and not seeing myself because the filmmakers are afraid they won’t be able to sell tickets to black church groups. (This feels particularly wrong when it’s usually the black gay choir director who is ordering the tickets.)
One would assume that Wakanda, with all its technological advances, would be progressive enough to support a gay general — the fault isn’t Wakanda’s, it’s Coogler’s. To most adults who watch the film, we may be able to infer what the movie stingily refuses to offer us; that even when they give Okoye a heterosexual romance, she is still a gay or bisexual woman. But as with I am Not Your Negro, schools are selling out entire showings of Black Panther, buying tickets so that children can see the film together and discuss it in class. There will be conversations about the Benin culture and the Dahomey Kingdom, known for its female solider corps, about colonization and African self-determination. What there won’t be are conversations about inclusiveness, sexual orientation and difference. Black American respectability politics defines Wakanda on some core level, and also defeats it, which is why “Black Panther” flies high from time to time but never truly soars. For the queer black children, they can visit Wakanda, but they aren’t home in Coogler’s film. Their utopia still awaits.
Early in the film, a character looks through the peephole of a door and says the two Wakandan women on the other side are “two Grace Jones-looking chicks.” It’s fascinating to hear Jones’s name invoked, because Black Panther could really use her — her funkiness, her ferocity. I personally wouldn’t have minded her as the queen mother. Angela Bassett is regal and beautiful, and at one point, with silver dreadlocks, she’s Wakanda’s Toni Morrison. In this film, Bassett never gets to play what she’s best at, anger. She’s a safe choice; she’s played queens before, and even though she gets to wear amazing outfits, when the chips are down and we need a queen’s authority, to watch her run barefoot in battle to protect her daughter, she’s locked in by the costumes and script.
I don’t know how Jamaican-born Grace Jones identifies herself sexually, but as a performer I consider her queer; she is woman as outlaw, and it is not by accident that people are sometimes afraid of her, on- and offscreen, or of what she will bring up for you in her performances. It is impossible to neglect the role of ritual and rebellion in her artistic work. (In her video “Living My Life” she holds a gun to her head in one hand and a handkerchief to dry her eyes in the other, all while twirling around in an enormous polka-dot dress. Eventually the polka-dots become the umbrella hats of ballet-dancing monkeys. The song, a suicide note, begins with Grace shooting herself in the head. She tells us: “You cuss me for livin’, you cuss me for livin’ my life. You kill me. You kill me for livin’ my life. As hard as I can. As long as I can. As much as I can. As black as I am. You brainwash me. You brainwash me for living my life. You can’t stand me! You can’t stand me!”)
And she’s right; we sometimes can’t stand Grace and her audacious black, queer, feminist art, but we can stand Wakanda, and that’s part of the problem. What I miss in Wakanda is the ancestral Africanness that you can’t buy in an amusement park gift shop. There are hints of it, throughout, but it is mostly in the costuming. I’m missing the unsettling “voodoo” in Jones’ work; Beyoncé’s “Lemonade,” through the use of Somali-British poet Warsan Shire, envisioned a contemporary dialogue, or at least the myth of one, between African and African-American women through the introduction of the African goddess Oshun, and through visual references that recalled the work of Julie Dash and her film “Daughters of the Dust.” Wakandans call on “the ancestors”; and after the King drinks a potion he is symbolically buried with sand in order to cross over to the other side and speak with the dead. It seems right, but the flowers look fake and the sand looks like dyed sugar. We really need these scenes to be remarkable and to pop with African wizardry- and they don’t. What we want is an elder, a high priestess, a black sorceress, to use ritual and ceremonial movement as part of the King’s transition to the other side. (Track down the striptease scene in the Eighties horror film Vamp to find out what Grace Jones might have done with “Black Panther.”) The African mysticism in Black Panther feels generic, Disney-fied; which may be part of what’s pissing off real Africans. Black Americans are starving for representations on screen, the studio assumes we’ll settle for anything, even if it seems false.
Grace Jones is referenced in “Black Panther” for humor, but the screenwriters know that saying her name is shorthand for invoking the revolutionary power and defiance that defines her art. She would have unearthed that part of African culture buried in “Black Panther,” that made a master warn his slaves they couldn’t practice their heathen rituals because he found their religions terrifying — handing them Bibles instead.
I needed the hypnotic drums and harmonies that would have made me want to jump out of my seat and that would have made some white audience members a little nervous, keeping their eyes on the exits. This isn’t unfamiliar to black audiences — the initiation scene in “The Color Purple” had some of it: (Shug: “Where’s Miss Celie?” Child Playing: “Fixing to shaaave Mister.”) The thrill in that scene was the connection the movie made between the cuts in the coming-of-age ceremony of the fictitious Olinka tribe and Celie’s preparing to cut Mister’s throat for revenge. It may seem contrived now, but the drumming in that scene told its own truth and awoke something in me in the theater.
“Black Panther” does a few special things with masks and costumes, and we hear drums throughout, but we aren’t carried away by them. The mask that Killmonger steals from the museum suggests a powerful African juju, but we never get much use from it dramatically; He wears it once and then it disappears. If he couldn’t deal with that mask, I wanted the mask to deal with him. (Jim Carrey’s white superhero in “The Mask” has more fun than Eric Stephens— at least he gets to dance as “Cuban Pete.”) When it comes down to it, Wakanda is actually more defined by its technology than its African rituals. Its rituals are its technology. In this context, Wakanda looks less like something from Alex’s Haley’s Roots, and more like the Genius Bar at the Apple Store. Technology is exciting, a reminder of Ancient Africa’s great contributions to science, but it’s not the catharsis I was looking for in “Black Panther.”
I may get in trouble for saying this, but I suppose there’s no turning back now: finally, Wakanda isn’t as beautiful as it needs to be to sustain the myth of Wakandan exceptionalism. While there are shots of shepherds and lovely landscapes, Wakanda City looks more like Minneapolis on an overcast day. The transformative, secret kingdom-ness of it all just isn’t there; even the scenes in the marketplace aren’t shot from above, so that we can see how large and bustling Wakanda is. The King’s palace feels like a convention center in Dallas, variations of gray. We don’t get the aforementioned “Wizard of Oz” moment when Dorothy opens the door into a world of color, or the yellows and golds of “The Wiz.” We never get to “Ease On Down The Road” in Wakanda. (We can’t — Wakanda doesn’t have roads, just waterfalls.) In the two “challenge to the throne” scenes there is a lot more color from the costumes, but the overall aesthetic recalls Hollywood films of the late Fifties and early Sixties, “Jason and The Argonauts” (1963) and “Ben Hur” (1959) — stolid, grandiose Hollywood moviemaking. The color templates aren’t ugly, they are just basic, or are filmed basically — a wall of colors. This only confirmed for me that in Wakanda, life, like Coogler’s filmmaking here, is safe, conservative.
After the second viewing, I began to worry that Wakanda may not be an African or black paradise after all, but a white imagining of one, finally a black city where white people like Ross can feel safe at night; nothing too black is going on, and everyone in Wakanda behaves himself. No-one is too fat, no-one is too loud, no-one asks for hot sauce. The Wakandans are so respectable and regal, so militarily controlled, we never even see them eat together. Even after the crowning of a king, they don’t have a big banquet or feast, or even a huge dance party. (Now that’s definitely strange– blacks will roast an entire pig for a junior-high school graduation, we love to celebrate.)
No one in Wakanda asks the African equivalent of “let me have another piece of that pound cake, chile,” or fixes a plate before they go back to their village. No uncle comes out in his bathrobe, drunk and asking for more palm wine. No one cusses anyone out. In other words, no one looks like they come from my family. We never see any fucked-up Wakandans. (Isn’t there even one Wakandan with bad credit?) Now I think of it, Grace Jones and her rude humor, relaxed sexuality and androgyny would never be invited to “Black Panther.” Black Americans may feel they are watching “Africans” in “Black Panther” because the accents feel right and are lovely to the ear. But at times this feels like Africa with a hidden agenda, a primer for Black Americans and potential Killmongers, on how to behave themselves. No wonder the Wakandans are shocked by niggers — they’ve never seen any before.
We may take this racial chauvinism for granted. It is very attractive to black Americans to perpetuate the “Kings and Queens” myth, despite the fact that we all know it’s impossible; there had to be at least one used-car salesman for every king in Africa. We want to believe in Wakanda, we need to believe in it, because of our pain from slavery. But it may be frustrating for actual Africans watching “Black Panther,” who may feel that we prefer our black American myths to their real African truth.
“Black Panther” has a wonderful moment when the spaceship lands for the first time in Wakanda to powerful drumming. It was the most exhilaration I felt in the entire film. I could have sat there for two hours, just watching the spaceship land. I knew I’d seen this spaceship before, heard those drums, but it took me a few moments to locate it: it was the landing of the Mothership in Parliament with Dr. Funkenstein.
George Clinton’s work in Parliament and Funkadelic is essential to any discussion of Wakanda and “Black Panther” and liberation. I am personally grateful to Clinton for what he gave me as a black child, what he still gives to me as an adult — I was part of the P-Funk from the age of five, and I loved the idea that there existed in outer space a place where blacks were loved for our big asses, the funky smells of our food, our music, our dance, our sexuality. There are occasionally sexist representations in Clinton’s work that should always be challenged, but there is also a beautiful sense of black cultural self-love. Just the idea that the mothership (one of the actual ships is preserved in the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C.) would come and take us away, rescue us from racist persecutions, speaks to early visions of Wakanda. In Clinton’s music, the relationship to the body in songs like “Agony of Defeat” — “I’m going to take my shoes off, I got to take my shoes off, and kick up my heels!” -connected me to my Africanness in ways I couldn’t appreciate as a child, and the humor and resistance and joy in our African influenced culture. This is not to romanticize Africa, but to appreciate a common cultural legacy. Labelle, the 70’s female rock group, with their glam-rock outfits, holy-ghost harmonies and witchcraft, also mesmerized me at five years old. Nona Hendryx, writing for Labelle, and George Clinton were my afro-futuristic parents in a divine musical marriage which told me, no matter what racism said, that there existed a black place in the stars where I was welcome, where I didn’t have to explain myself. I can’t emphasize enough what their music did for a black queer child’s imagination. That’s why it is significant to me that in “Black Panther” we get lovely costumes and stunning masks but we don’t get real black pageantry during the ceremony scenes and no singing. People move their shoulders or pop their fingers to drums on their way down the river to the big challenge, but we don’t get anybody stirring up any serious tribal dirt — nobody is working up a sweat, raising their voice, kicking up their heels.
In “Black Panther’s” final scene, the Wakandan spaceship lands on the basketball court outside the building where King T’Chaka killed his brother. A group of boys are playing ball and they walk over to the ship, staring in disbelief and touching it with awe. I’m not impressed with much of Steven Spielberg’s directing these days, but I must say, I wanted those black children to experience the kind of wonder that we used to get from early Spielberg movies, from E.T. to Close Encounters of A Third Kind. A feeling of illumination, of magic. You need children for magic, and we don’t really spend time with children in Wakanda. I wanted those boys playing basketball, and some black girls too, to get aboard the space ship, to get a chance to look inside. Several of the children would then rush home and pick up their parents: “Where are you taking me, child? You know I ain’t got time for all this foolishness.” “But this African lady said we could all go for a ride in her spaceship, Mama!” And everybody would get a quick trip to Wakanda, back in time for dinner. Richard Pryor got to ride through the sky with Christopher Reeve in “Superman III.” This is the stuff superhero movies are made for.
What a film like “Black Panther” has the power to do, if it is done right, is to restore to black children, harmed by racism, their original sense of wonder. Imagine a scene where boys and girls get to see Wakanda for the first time, their amazement at the majesty of it all, at the inheritance of which they have been deprived, finally restored. They arrive in Wakanda, thinking they are at Disneyland: one seven-year-old black girl steps off the spaceship and whispers in General Okoye’s ear, “Ma’am, we can’t go in because my mom got laid off from Wal-Mart and we don’t have any money.” Okoye says to her, “You don’t need any money here, sweetheart. This is your home.”
That scene, if well directed, might have broken me all the way down, and Coolger’s “Fruitvale Station” proves he’s capable of it. “Black Panther” needs a scene like that, African-Americans returned to Africa. But I know why it wasn’t written, why it would never exist in a Disney film: that scene would scare the shit out a certain type of racist. And it may scare a screenwriter: when you’re avoiding gay subplots to pursue macho storylines, you may lose touch with your vulnerability and with what Wakanda means to black children. Black men beating each other to death in front of spectators in the “challenge to the throne” scenes, that America can handle, that’s World Championship Boxing on HBO. But the restoration of a black child’s dignity by bringing her to Africa — once upon a time leaving Senegal as cargo, now returning first-class, and in a spaceship flown by a black woman general — now that is something we haven’t seen before, that’s a scene to save lives.
The times they are a’changin’. Let’s hope we are changing with them. In January, after it was reported that international clothing store chain H&M advertised their “Coolest Monkey In the Jungle” sweatshirts online using a young black child, South Africans from the EFF (Economic Freedom Fighters) vandalized several of the company’s stores in Johannesburg. Clothing was snatched from racks and displays, shelves knocked down like dominoes, mannequins destroyed. H&M apologized publicly for the ads but Mbuysensi Ndlozi, spokesperson for the organization, tweeted, “The time of apologies for racism are over: there must be consequences to anti-black racism.” Follow-up articles this month announced that H&M will be closing 170 stores worldwide this year as the result of a drastic drop in sales.
An article published this weekend in The Guardian suggests that “Black Panther” has already raised consciousness about black political prisoners. It’s exciting to imagine a generation of black children asking the question, “Who were the real Black Panthers?,” and learning that the party was created to monitor police brutality in Oakland, and expanded to include fights for healthcare, and provided free lunch programs for children; conversations that would ordinarily take place in African-American studies classes at major universities, now being taught to children in the fifth grade. “Black Panther” and the phenomenon surrounding it makes this possible. If there is one thing that “Black Panther” taught me is that I still don’t know enough about Africa, too often allowing myth to do the job of education. I have a lot to learn.
Our great American comedian Richard Pryor, in his stand-up performances in the Eighties described the experience traveling to Africa. Pryor made his fame in part from the success of one of his best-selling albums, for which he also won a Grammy in 1974. My parents had it, but we were under strict orders never to play it, and we weren’t allowed in the room when anyone listened to it. Even the title was scandalous: “That Nigger’s Crazy.”
In his 1982 stand-up movie “Live On the Sunset Strip,” Pryor tells the story of being in the hotel lobby at the end of a visit to Kenya:
“I was leaving and I was sitting in the hotel and a voice said to me, it said, ‘Look around, what do you see?’ And I said, ‘I see all colors of people doing everything.’ And the voice said, ‘Do you see any niggers?’ And I said, ‘No’. And it said, ‘You know why? Cause there aren’t any.’ And it hit me like a shot man. I started crying. I’d been here three weeks. I haven’t even said it. I haven’t even thought it. And it made me say, ‘Oh my God, I’ve been wrong. I ain’t gonna never call another black man nigger.’ We never was no niggers.”
I traveled to Senegal in my early twenties and had the experience for the first time in my life of looking in every direction on the street and not seeing a single white person. This was incredible for me, and I was mesmerized. A week later I went to the slave house at Goreé Island, where I saw rows of white people waiting in line, all tourists. I was amazed to see white faces again. It was a shock, even though it had been only a week. I didn’t hate the faces I was seeing, or love them, particularly. It just hadn’t occurred to me until that moment that it was possible to exist without them.
A month later, I traveled to Zimbabwe through Ghana and discovered that French colonization was not the same as British — it wasn’t one-size-fits-all as I had assumed. The body tensions, the way women and men moved in the streets in Dakar was unlike the way they walked in Harare. Colonization was different when your colonizers lived amongst you. I marveled at the complicated security systems in the house we stayed in, a house that belonged to a diplomat or official, and the iron gates at the top of the second floor stairs, as if someone once feared they might one day be murdered in their sleep. I also observed the servant that came with the house.
When I went out for the evening with my friends there was a racist hierarchy that was unfamiliar to me and which I had to learn. In Harare, racism wasn’t just black vs. white, or black vs. everybody else, as I had experienced it in America. There were Africans with black skin, brown-skinned Africans called Coloureds, and whites. There were Indians too. In the clubs I was taken to, Blacks served Coloureds. It was explained to me that dark-skinned black Americans who looked like black Africans were treated as honorary Coloureds because of their economic privilege. It’s been over twenty-five years since that trip, and it’s possible I’ve gotten some of the nuances wrong. But what I vividly remember is that it was a system that had to be explained to me; it seemed elaborate, new and yet familiar, like looking at my American racism through a funhouse mirror. And because it wasn’t my racist system, I could study it with a level of detachment. I didn’t take it as personally as I did discrimination at home. I’d never had that distance before. Racism always felt like a hand around my neck, squeezing, squeezing, always right up close. In Africa, I could breathe, assess.
Once I knew where I existed in a hierarchy that was meaningless to me personally as soon I got on the plane, I understood, in ways I had never before considered, that colonization was a construct. It had to be if I had to learn the rules, like learning to play Monopoly. I had never questioned my own colonization or that there were rules I played by every day of my life. I just took American racism for granted, like air. If racism actually was a game, albeit a soul-killing one, when had I learned it, and who had taught it to me?
What I then deduced was that if these were different systems of colonization, then American colonization was also a system. If racist societies had all been fashioned from exactly the same template, then colonized Western Africa and Southern Africa would have been the same. I’d never had other systems with which to compare. I now realized that my black perception of myself, the harmful beliefs I carried about myself that I had taken for granted — another system — may have been put together for me, like assembling a piece of furniture from IKEA, with blueprints, instructions, nuts and bolts, ready to construct from the day I was born. And if something could be constructed, here was the good news: it could be also deconstructed.
I knew I didn’t have all the answers at twenty-one, but Africa taught me that the answers would take care of themselves if I started asking the right questions. And the right question was: Could the black mind be de-colonized? Because if I wasn’t who they said I was, then I might be someone else, someone who hadn’t occurred to me yet. There was the opening, there was the danger.
I didn’t love everything about Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther,” but I’m still grateful for it. I know that some of what I deduced from my experience in Africa is embedded in “Black Panther’s” conception. And I want to return to it; if the not the film, I’ll read the comic books and use my imagination to fill in the rest. Or maybe I’ll just sit quietly with myself. Because Wakanda isn’t just a place to visit, it’s actually a state of mind. And you don’t need a spaceship to get there. Trust me, you’ve been there before. You only have to remember.
New York City,
February 23, 2018