Black Panther is a landmark film for representation and presentation, but the politics ignores structural issues of class and race, argues Shabbir Lakha
As a fan of superhero comics, and particularly the Marvel film franchise, I have to start by saying that I quite liked Black Panther. The politics, however, not so much.
Comics in general have a history of identifying problems in society to which vigilante individuals with supernatural abilities are presented as a solution. Similar to the bulk of dystopian fiction, there is often sharp analysis, though sometimes exaggerated, of very real problems arising from the capitalist system within which we live. But the solution is liberal, individualised and dependent on supernatural forces – therefore there is an absence of any meaningful kind of class politics. So when analysing the politics of Black Panther, we should bear this in mind – although there are specific reasons in this instance why the flawed politics are a bit more problematic.
Unlike typical superhero stories, Black Panther is not based around a superhero saving the day somewhere in the US. The film is almost entirely based in Wakanda, a fictional African country. And unlike real African countries, Wakanda avoided being colonised and its real wealth is unknown to the rest of the world. The portrayal of a rich African country which goes against the usual poverty-stricken image of Africa that remains dominant in the media or Trump’s concept of a ‘shithole’ for that matter, is one of the reasons why the film had such a big hype around it.
For what it’s worth, they did a good job of bringing together a number of African cultures and presenting them positively and in vivid detail. They even – hopefully sarcastically – had Rhinos for pets!
The other big reason for the hype is that this film has an almost entirely black cast and black director, which considering #OscarsSoWhite only 2 years ago and the little progress made on the diversity front since, is understandable. There was also several strong female leading characters.
At several points during the film, typical right wing arguments against refugees are made and quickly challenged by Shuri, the Black Panther’s sister and tech guru. She similarly has a defiant anti-colonialist position throughout the film. In both these areas though, the politics could have been a lot stronger. Despite both these themes being present, there was no talk of war and why there are refugees fleeing their countries, or of ongoing neo-colonialism.
The smaller issues with the film included the fact that the qualification of Wakanda being a wealthy country is based on an overtly capitalist yardstick of development, and also the very strong pro-monarchy theme throughout the film. There were problems in Wakanda and more generally, but the solution was for T’Challa to learn from his father’s mistakes and be a better King – who needs democracy eh?
Killmonger - revolutionary?
The major problems in Black Panther’s politics are the villain Killmonger and the connection with the Black Panther Party. To give some context, the character of Black Panther was created in 1966, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement and partly in response to it. Coincidentally created around the same time that the Black Panther Party was established, Marvel subsequently tried to change the character’s name to the Black Leopard to avoid being associated, although it didn’t stick.
More than just a coincidence with the name, Marvel’s first poster of the film seems to be based on a poster of Huey Newton, one of the founding members of the Black Panther Party, and more importantly Killmonger wants to arm black people in the West and lead an uprising against the racist governments. What obviously makes Killmonger a villain is his use of senseless violence against anyone he doesn’t like, his pride in the number of people he had killed while serving the US army in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that his end goal was a Wakandan “empire” that ruled the world.
But he also calls for a revolution of the oppressed and criticises Wakanda for hoarding its resources and living comfortably while the rest of Africa and the African diaspora suffered. Towards the end of the film, Killmonger makes a powerful comparison between imprisonment and slavery when he says “Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors that jumped from the ships. Because they knew death was better than bondage.”
The film very clearly presents the basis of his argument of the oppression of black people as rational and factual - which is good - but then his ideas of liberation as extreme. So as far as I can see it, this is either a deliberate mischaracterisation of what the Black Panthers and revolutionaries stood for, or his killing of civilians for no apparent reason is an attempt to reconcile him having reasonable politics with the fact that he’s the villain.
I’m inclined to believe it’s the former given that the Black Panther comes to the conclusion by the end of the movie to allow some refugees from neighbouring countries into Wakanda, and to start up an NGO in the US that will provide support for people in disadvantaged communities – the classic liberal response to systemic racism and class issues.
The other giveaway is the good-guy CIA character who helps T’Challa against Killmonger. The truth of the CIA is it’s involvement in the FBI’s COINTELPRO program that was responsible for hundreds of actions against the Black Panther Party including the assassinations of Fred Hampton and other members; overthrowing democratically elected governments in Africa and the rest of the world and assassinating leaders like Patrice Lumumba; and being the world leader and facilitator of torture and rendition of dissidents and innocent civilians.
Again, as part of the wider Marvel storyline where S.H.I.E.L.D is an off-the-books government agency linked to the CIA this fits right in. But let’s be clear about the CIA’s role in destroying movements for justice, peace and black liberation and what the portrayal of this character tells us about the politics of the film.
So while the film was a milestone for diversity in Hollywood and beautifully presented African culture as well as the idea of what an African nation that wasn’t pillaged by European colonialism could have looked like, its politics are quite problematic. The solution however, I don’t think, is to pretend that Killmonger is the real hero of the story. Because senseless violence and trying to become Emperor of the world are not revolutionary or socialist politics. Our antidote to the mischaracterisation in this film should be to talk about the real legacy of revolutionaries like Malcolm X and the real Black Panthers.
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