Black Panther

1. The economy of Wakanda – the fictional African country ruled by the Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) – depends on a metal called vibranium. This material gives the population a high quality of life without the need for any democracy. As a shimmering megalopolis of skyscrapers and magnetic trains, Wakanda is supposed to exemplify the afrofuturist spirit: a science-fictional alternative to white supremacist modernity. In fact, it most closely resembles an oligarchical petro-state like Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates. Politicking in Wakanda consists of bloody battles between tribal leaders to contest the throne. This is the means by which the film’s villain – Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) – briefly comes to rule. Killmonger overthrows the Black Panther to avenge his father, who was killed by an Wakandan emissary to prevent him using a smuggled vial of vibranium to foment a black revolution in the United States. It is not ‘Wakanda’s way’ to use its technology to act in solidarity with the global poor; the Black Panther is not the king of all oppressed black people – he is simply king of Wakanda. Like his slain father, Killmonger cannot sit idly by while black people outside Wakanda suffer. (He is also a misogynist and a mass-murderer who cut his teeth as a US soldier in Afghanistan.) If Killmonger’s father represented the politics of twentieth century secular liberation, the son represents its degradation into nihilistic, pseudo-jihadist violence. Emancipatory politics is nothing more than violence.

2. Although representation as an end-in-itself is limited, the euphoric rush of representation should not be dismissed. It can be cathartic and meaningful to see the white superhero template filled with black faces that are not tokens. Inversing notions of luxury and the primitive in order to skewer our colonial culture has clearly buoyed many viewers. And although the film arguably promotes the idea of black excellence over solidarity, it has filled working class people with a sense of self-worth, pride and love for their communities. Black Panther (2018) is a rare example of a film that’s been used as well as watched. In Brazil, it has fuelled the so-called rolezinho protests against social segregation, with black Brazilians organising a mass-viewing at a cinema in an upper-middle class shopping mall, defiantly occupying a space meant for the white elite. ‘A movie with 90 percent black actors fills me with pride,’ said a black resident of Rio de Janeiro. Star Lupita Nyong’o has used the press junkets to talk to the mass media about the historical and psychological consequences of colonialism.

3. What about the real Black Panthers, the communists who fed the poor and demanded an ‘end to the robbery by the capitalists of our black community’? The film’s obvious insult is the friendship between the King and a CIA agent. (The Panthers disintegrated in part because of constant surveillance from the CIA and FBI.) Former Panthers have focused on advocacy work: recently released Sekou Odingo is using screenings to educate moviegoers about black militants who still languish in US prisons. Back when the Panthers were a revolutionary force – acting quite unlike Wakanda and establishing material links with oppressed people across the Third World – they would watch and rewatch Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers (1966). They treated the film like a instruction manual to accompany Mao and Che’s texts on guerilla warfare. So, what films can revolutionaries turn to in 2018? Definitely not the liberal humanitarianism of a Marvel superhero movie. Today’s militant needs a movie that speaks to an increasingly stratified world where everything is mediated. Maybe The Hunger Games Mockingjay (2014-15) is due a rewatch.