Courtesy of the Times Literary Supplement, below is a long and thoughtful review of Black Panther and its significance.
Michael B. Jordan as Erik Killmonger
The unprecedented spectacle of a blockbuster action film with a black director and (almost) all-black cast
Black Panther opens with an animated montage that dramatizes an alternative and fantastic African history. Millions of years ago a meteor composed of the fictional metal Vibranium crashes into the fictional country of Wakanda, giving its people access to a powerful resource found nowhere else on Earth. With the cultural and technological developments made possible by the Vibranium deposits, Wakanda is able to escape the brutality of the slave trade and European colonial expansion. By the twentieth century, Wakanda is the most sophisticated and technologically advanced country on the planet, but also the most isolated. The montage ends with a young prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) asking his father, “And yet we still hide? Why?”
It is a timely question given our particular cultural moment, as a lot of people seem to be asking themselves the same thing. The Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements are both predicated on the desire to bring long-standing abuse out of the shadows where they have existed “in hiding” for far too long. At the same time, the growth of white supremacist groups emboldened by the Trump presidency seems to suggest that racists in America are increasingly asking themselves why they hide as well. The film does not directly engage any of these current conflicts yet it responds through the very effort to rise above them, and silence them with awe. A month after President Trump suggested that Africa was a collection of “shithole countries”, the film presents a ravishing vision of a glorious future, predicated on the revelation of the often unacknowledged achievements of the African past, as well as the energy and ingenuity of the African present. Black Panther also offers the unprecedented spectacle of a blockbuster action film with a black director and almost all-black cast. The representation of women in the movie is especially powerful, providing multiple iconic images of black women who are simultaneously strong, brilliant and unquestionably beautiful. Instead of giving a clear answer to the question of why we hide the film presents a stunning vision of what has been kept hidden for far too long: strong, regal, intelligent African men and women as warriors, scientists and queens.
It also gives us the figure of Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), a portrait of black nihilism and rage. Killmonger is the son of a Wakandan prince who was sent to the United States as a spy by the Black Panther’s father, King T’Chaka. He fell in love with an African American woman and, horrified by the oppression endured by Africans throughout the diaspora, was plotting to use Wakandan technology to help them in defiance of the king’s wishes. Following his death at the hands of the king, his son Erik was raised as an orphan in the United States. Much of the energy of the plot is derived from Killmonger’s hatred of T’Challa’s family, which is all the more powerful because it is justified. Deprived of his cultural upbringing in Wakanda, Killmonger is not accepted by the royal family even after his pedigree is established. When told that Killmonger’s father was killed by King T’Chaka, the Wakandan elite agree this was unfortunate, but do not express actual remorse. Killmonger wants to claim his birthright, capture the throne, and avenge oppressed black people all over the world. His aim is to trample on tradition and he proclaims his desire to use Wakandan technology to rule an empire that spans the globe.
Thus, in a curious turn, the plot of the movie is about the threat to Wakanda posed by black people themselves. Wakanda is an idealized African society that enjoys the most advanced technology, traditional pastoralism in harmony with nature, and is ruled by a benign royal family seeking only to protect and preserve this glorious idyll in a hostile world. It is not the CIA or global corporate interests that constitute the most destabilizing factor in this vision of Africa’s future but rather other Africans.
This is not the first time Wakanda has been evoked during a period of representational crisis. The comic first appeared in 1966, the same year the Black Panther Party was formed in Oakland. The Black Panther was the first black superhero Marvel Comics created and the concurrence, in terms of the hero’s name, was by all accounts a strange coincidence. But the comic’s creators, Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, were certainly aware of the cultural and social climate – both the emergence of a political organization founded to protest against urban police brutality and the potential market for a black superhero. In June 1966, Stokely Carmichael appeared on national television using the term “Black Power” in response to the shooting of James Meredith during his March against Fear from Memphis to Jackson. The violence that accompanied the simple act of trying to walk down a public thoroughfare while black was just one of countless dramatic demonstration of the brutalities African Americans faced for even the most basic assertion of their civil rights. In some ways, the entire Civil Rights movement was predicated on a refusal to hide, as exemplified by Emmett Till’s mother’s powerful insistence on revealing the violence inflicted on her son for transgressing the social codes that governed black behaviour in the South. Part of the logic of non-violent protest was that by compelling white Americans to bear witness to the atrocities committed in the name of white supremacy, they would be forced to consider the ways in which they were complicit in it, by not taking a stand against it.
The popularity of the forthright energy that gave rise to the emergence of both the Black Power slogan and the creation of the Black Panther comic was short-lived. Instead of addressing the structural issues underlying these long-standing abuses, racism, in many respects, went into hiding. While mainstream America disassociated itself from the overt brutality of the segregationists, other forms of structural racism emerged. The exponential growth of the prison population as a result of the “war on drugs” was just the most egregious example of how policies that were clearly racist, both in intent and outcome, were implemented and enforced while hiding behind other names. Throughout the 1980s and 90s, African American culture was represented as bifurcated along class lines, with black middle-class assimilation used to suggest that race was not the cause of persistent disenfranchisement of a black majority. If Oprah and Cosby existed and if every white star of a movie had at least one black friend, then how could structural problems be evoked as the cause of oppression? Increasingly Americans were told that the real source of social inequality was not external racism but internal disfunction. We were living in a post-racial era and the greatest threat to black communities was black people themselves.
This background is important because it informs and normalizes both the nihilism of Killmonger’s character and the logic of racial representation that has often been an obstacle to creating more diverse roles for black people in Hollywood. At some point it became reflexive to associate honest discussions about the persistence of racism with attacks on white identity. The anxiety about what this meant for the construction of a black superhero is evident in Christopher Priest’s energetic reboot of the Black Panther comic in the 1990s, a series that deeply informs the movie. Priest originated both the character of Everett Ross and the Wakandan female bodyguards to the King, the Dora Milaje. In interviews Priest has spoken candidly about the exhausting efforts he was forced to make in order to construct a black hero that would appeal to white audiences:
The problem with race and popular media is this – in most every “black” movie or “black street” music CD you’ll see or hear, there is some hostility directed towards whites. Now, were I a white male, I certainly wouldn’t want to spend eight bucks to go see a film where white males are portrayed as stupid and the butt of every joke, or where I am made to feel guilty about things I had nothing to do with, and prejudices I don’t actually have.
To that end the figure of the CIA stand-in Everett Ross, a relatively minor character in the film, played by Martin Freeman, was initially conceived as a guide for the assumed white, male comic book reader who might fear that the mere existence of a black superhero somehow marked him as a target of anti-racist attacks. Ross narrates the comics and gives voice to the assumed anxieties of this imaginary reader. The action of the comic is framed in the past tense as Ross’s reports to his superiors at the State Department. This has the further effect of signalling that whatever threats Ross faces during his time with Black Panther, he got out okay and lived to tell the tale.
It is remarkable that, given such pressures, Priest was still able to create such a compelling and dynamic character. It is equally remarkable that twenty years later, despite all the supposed cultural changes that have taken place since then, these anxieties have continued to inhibit efforts to get funding for a big budget film by and about black people.
As I watched the movie, I could not help but think about how this history might have affected the way the director, Ryan Coogler, deals with issue of representation in Black Panther. There is something ingenious about how the film manages to gesture towards so many issues rarely acknowledged in mainstream action movies – the exploitation of Africa, the painful legacy of colonialism – without seeming like an attack on white people precisely through the use of a black villain. Instead of hiding from the past, the film shifts the terms of how it is represented by focusing on its effects. The legacy of white guilt is decentred and then removed altogether by presenting the conflict as a family matter, an issue between black people themselves.
This, for me is one of most fascinating elements of how the film’s plot is constructed. Instead of attempting to allay anxiety by bending over backwards to demonstrate that the world of Wakanda is a safe place for white audiences to enter, the film establishes itself as a safe zone through familiarity with genre. The strategic repurposing of genre evidenced its enormous potential with Jordan Peele’s brilliant redeployment of horror tropes in his film Get Out to convey the fear and anxiety experienced by many black people in their encounters with white liberalism. Coogler similarly used genre to tell newly resonant stories with his previous film, a boxing drama and part of the Rocky franchise, Creed.
Looked at in this way, the figure of Erik Killmonger could be seen as an expression of two demands placed on the film as a result of the enormous pressure to produce a box office hit. The logic of the genre requires a sufficiently threatening antagonist for the hero to vanquish. The logic of this particular superhero film may have demanded that if the hero is black, the villain must be black as well.
Killmonger embodies many familiar stereotypes of African American males so damaged by self-hatred and rejection that they become their own worst enemy. As such his construction as a villain is problematic. We are told he is not fit to be king because he is an outsider and his time in the United States left him with too much hate. Yet Everett Ross, a representative of the CIA that trained Killmonger, fights with the Wakandans to defeat him. Ross is not a fully convincing character in the film. Deprived of his function as a framing device in the comic, I am not entirely sure why he is featured so prominently unless simply to establish the Black Panther’s personal and positive relationship to the US government he represents. There is, in contrast, something cruel about the way Killmonger is used as a means of embodying the folly of his father’s desires to help people throughout the diaspora fight against oppression. While an initial confrontation in a museum frames his theft of African artefacts as simply a replication of the thievery Europe has perpetuated for centuries, Killmonger is so trapped by his own rage that ultimately he aspires only to chaos.
The question “why do we hide?” has a particular resonance for African Americans, and is one we have been asking ourselves in various ways since DuBois articulated his theory of double consciousness over one hundred years ago. Tropes of masking, hiding in plain sight, the expectation of coded speech and gestures have developed out of a long history during which the public presentation of black identity was strictly regulated and often violently enforced. Black people learned how to negotiate that scrutiny and in doing so have not only survived but were often able to create stunning works of art. These innovative artistic creations, while often ignored by the mainstream, are not products of a lost people but rather products of powerful imaginations that despite all obstacles have insisted on their right to transcend the narrow and stultifying parameters of representation that have for so long inhibited discourse about race, class and gender.
Perhaps in that sense Killmonger could be understood as a manifestation of the nihilistic aspects of one artist’s mind, so burdened by the constant need to explain and justify its own existence that it begins to feel overwhelmed. Wakanda could then be seen as a symbolic space of the imagination, a place in the mind that can only truly be free by walling itself off from the negativity and nihilism that surrounds it. That is not an answer to the question of why but an intermediate gesture, perhaps, in trying to come up with an answer to what remains a persistent problem.
Hiding and masking are survival strategies not just for Wakandans but for many black people trying to navigate the fractious and confused world of images, codes and representation we live in. As seamlessly as the movie seems to rise above the fray of such debates, it took years of strategizing and fighting just to get its dazzling images of blackness represented in Hollywood at all.