Black Panther as Empty Container

I went out last night with my family to watch the film Black Panther. I was entertained, and that was the problem.

The Wakandans – a nation of tribes in the African continent – isolate themselves and pretend to be a third world country. However, they hide immense riches, technologies, and infrastructure, from the rest of the world. They seem far superior to Western capitalism as we know it today, and yet, the contradiction is that they have left so many people outside of Africa to suffer at the hands of oppressors. This already poses an interesting question: is the Wakandan nation not meant to represent the prospect of Western rational-bureaucratic capitalism after a dialectical integration of African culture?

Prince N’Jobu wanted to abolish the oppression of Africans internationally so that he might adopt a sort of cosmopolitan or egalitarian international community. The result was that some people were killed and a young boy was orphaned. That young boy grew up outside of Africa for all of his life, in the land of the oppressors and colonizers. He described his ancestors jumping off of a slave ship because it was better for them to die than to give in to the slave owners. His conviction is, like Prince N’Jobu, that one must confront one’s oppressors rather than develop an isolated nation alongside them in some sort of quiet and postponed revolution.

This brings me to what I find most interesting about the film. There are four perspectives that I want to highlight. The first two are from the alt-right and the last two are from the ult-left.

The first alt-right perspective: you will find stories online that celebrate Black Panther as an “alt-right film.” Why? Because it is explicitly nationalist, it celebrates pride in homogenous culture, is offers an anti-globalist vision, and so on. For example, one article is titled “The Alt-Right has a new hero and it’s black panther.” This was published June 26th, 2017 by Carl Perkins in the International Policy Digest. I’d like to quote a sentence from that article: “what many conservatives will quickly realize upon closer inspection of Wakandan culture is that the character of T’Challa [the King of the African nation] resembles the socio-political worldview of the alt-right.” The article continues: “Black Panther is anti-globalist. Black Panther’s moral coda is steeped in a strong nationalistic conviction that constantly places the wellbeing of his people’s history, culture, and identity over any external attempts at opening up the culture and economy of Wakanda, the fictional African country in the Marvel universe. Wakanda is a hierarchal society that’s intentionally racially homogeneous, and its immigration policy is essentially isolationist. Other cultural influences are not permitted within Wakandan borders, as Black Panther believes them to be harmful to the wellbeing of his people. The Wakandan King enforces these policies through a culturally entrenched military, the Hatut Zerzae (a former secret police force turned mercenary group) & the Dora Milaje (the King’s all-female Praetorian Guard). In this sense, T’Challa expresses strikingly neo-Nazi tendencies.”

There is another more popular version of the alt-right narrative concerning Black Panther. This is a version that rejects the worldview of the film Black Panther. In an article published by the Huffington post one author wrote that “[a] Facebook group called Down with Disney’s Treatment of Franchises and Its Fanboys, whose moderator describes himself as ‘alt-right,’ recently announced its plans to intentionally tank ‘Black Panther’s’ Rotten Tomatoes score once the movie starts showings on Feb 15.” The group was apparently “white nationalist” and did not like the fact that the film had a near all black cast, etc. This section of the alt-right, then, cared about nationalist values but principally white nationalist values.

What we notice is that the alt-right is here split on the question of the significance of the film Black Panther.

On the the side, there is the ult-left narrative of the film. The predominant response has been to celebrate the film. One article, titled  “The Liberating Visions of Black Panther,” described the film in relation to the work of Frantz Fanon. I’ll quote it: “In 1952, the psychoanalyst and revolutionary Frantz Fanon observed that in comic books, ‘the wolf, the devil, the evil spirit, the bad man, the savage are always symbolized by Negroes or Indians.’ Things have changed since then […] Fanon believed that colonized peoples had the right to pursue their liberation by any means necessary. But Wakanda has never been colonized, […] [and it desires] to foment a revolution from below.”

I want to quote the rest of the article in full because it will help us also get some insight into the film:

“Killmonger, the orphaned son of an expatriate Wakandan, grew up in poverty in the United States, his life shaped by the privation of the American inner-city and his experiences inside the U.S. war machine. He both desires to locate a home, a place he truly belongs, and yearns to correct at the point of a gun the injustices of a world order that so often exploits people of African descent. Jordan expertly communicates these conflicting motivations, tapping into the same angst and longing that lent pathos and an unusual depth to his portrayals of Wallace in The Wire and Oscar Grant in Coogler’s debut film, Fruitvale Station. In one scene, he has a bristling exchange with a curator at a British museum that holds dozens of expropriated African artifacts, his mocking inquiries into the provenance of each finely wrought mask communicating a sense of injustice that stretches back centuries and across the Atlantic.

A child of both privilege and lineage, T’Challa takes the long view, cognizant of the fact that technologies derived from vibranium could potentially disrupt the global balance of power. Killmonger welcomes this chaos, and looks forward to the day when “the sun will never set on the Wakandan empire.” This incongruous boast reminds us that the achievements of historical figures like Winston Churchill—currently enjoying a bit of a renaissance in the popular imagination thanks to The Crown and Darkest Hour—resonate differently in the provinces where his military often ruthlessly enforced colonial rule. The film repeatedly suggests that had Wakanda not hidden its advancements from the outside world, they would have faced a similar invasion from Western powers long ago.”

You see that what is celebrated here is a “revolution from below” — a “non-violent” and therefore non-confrontational revolution. I name this a “decaffeinated revolution,” or, rather, a capitalist revolution (to be distinguished from a revolution beyond capitalism). But here there is a subtle possibility to split within the ult-left on the issue of its interpretation. Here are some coordinates for doing so:

First, Frantz Fanon was a militant revolutionary. The aforementioned article claims that Fanon would have been “proud of the movie.” I don’t believe that Fanon would have be proud of the movie. Fanon wrote, for example: “And it is clear that in the colonial countries the peasants alone are revolutionary, for they have nothing to lose and everything to gain. The starving peasant, outside the class system is the first among the exploited to discover that only violence pays. For him there is no compromise, no possible coming to terms; colonization and decolonization is simply a question of relative strength.”

We should ask ourselves who within the film was the “peasant,” the “outsider,” the “orphan?” It was most certainly Killmonger. And who, within the film, was the establishment leader/king of a wealthy nation?

Some more critical thoughts:

(1) When I google “Black Panther,” instead of generating hits relating to the Black Panther Party I am overloaded with hits about a box office (capitalist) film. Isn’t this a subtle form of “overcoding” black history? For example, the first hit for “Black Panther wiki” is a link to the film. 5 years ago it would have been to the Black Panther party. Today instead of finding links about militant conviction our children are finding links to a film produced by the American propaganda company, Walt Disney.

(2) I admit that maybe I’ve missed something, but the militant revolutionary figure in the film – the one with all the passion, the one who was willing to die for what he believed in – was the bad guy. The film staged an internal African confrontation – it was a story of internal divisions (instead of a solidarity campaign against an external enemy). This resulted in an alliance with the United States, with the C.I.A (and we should remember which side the CIA was on during the civil rights movement, etc). What would Frantz Fanon say about this internalization of vulnerability?

(3) The character of the “bad guy” made use of slang and gestures reminiscent of American black stereotypes. I found this striking, in fact. It made me consider the possibility that this was a cinematic version of Chris Rock’s controversial standup routine from the 1990s when he separated African Americans into two broad groups (the good and the bad).

(4) The film glorifies “the process” (i.e., rational bureaucratic authority). The victory is to keep the system as it always was, that is, to keep the system running along on the same track. Black Panther does not face his enemy because of courage but rather because he respects the rule of law.

(5) Finally, while Wesley Snipes was key in the film — and while it had a large number of African American cast members — in the final instance it was produced by Walt Disney. What would Edward Said have said about this?

It would seem to me that the film has opened up a space for the alt-right and the alt-left to agree and to disagree for exactly similar reasons. Is this not the perverse ideology of the film? It is similar to Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” his ninth symphony, which, as Slavoj Zizek correctly demonstrated, has been used famously to signal ultra-conservative nationalism — it was used by the Nazis and it was used by the Soviet Union and during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. It also became the unofficial anthem of Europe. Zizek said the following: “the universal adaptability of this well known melody can be used by political movements which are totally opposed to each other.” Zizek continues: “this is how ideology has to work — its never just meaning. It has to work as an empty container, open to all possible meanings. […] The catch is that this neutrality of a frame is never as neutral as it appears.”

And is this not the function of the film Black Panther? 

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8 thoughts on “Black Panther as Empty Container

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  1. N.B. the star of Black Panther is Chadwick Boseman, not Wesley Snipes. Snipes was actually in early talks about developing a Black Panther film in the 1990s, but he eventually found himself instead cast in a trilogy of films as Blade, another black superhero from the Marvel Universe.

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