Black Panther has duped us all
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Wakanda is a gorgeous country; it boasts of rolling hills akin to western Rwanda or KwaZulu-Natal, epic snow-capped peaks and, most importantly, a futuristic Afropolitan city of skyscrapers topped by rondavels, magnetic levitation trains, talon fighters and dragonfly helicopters, far ahead of anything of our time. The film boasts of an “Africa” like you’ve never seen it - the utopian possibilities of what could have been had its land and people not been exploited by centuries of colonisation.
I cried out when Black Panther earned the throne, felt butterflies when the drone camera swept over vast swathes of landscape that I call home. I smiled when I recognised bits of isiXhosa and heard my fellow audience members gasp when they recognised themselves on screen.
Wakanda is a nation connected to nature; its powers are a curious mix of organic technology, startling innovation and tradition. The beadwork of the Maasai, the blankets of the Ndebele, the splendid collars of the Yoruba; a sci-fi story it might be, the film represented and thrilled like nothing before. I was impressed it took on the topic of the terse relationship between African-Americans and Africans.
When the villain, Erik Killmonger, made his entrance, I felt uneasy.
He was complex, but his anger so visceral. His cause so understandable. But I made the conscious choice to stand by the hero. His voice gave me hope. I wanted to believe.
I then made the mistake of watching it again. And realised I had been duped.
Were these issues marginal to the film, perhaps it would be silly to raise them. But taking away the glamour and the symbolism, the film, at its core, an African neo-liberal fantasy parading as a “woke Af” film about revolution and decolonisation.
Let’s begin with the depiction of the villain, which ultimately serves as a means to undercut legitimate movements of resistance.
Killmonger - a descendent of Wakanda - grows up as an African-American in California where he is witness to tremendous injustice on black lives. His motive is to return to Wakanda, avenge the murder of his father, and use Wakandan technology and resources to wage war against presumably Western colonial powers to not only save his black brothers and sisters battling structural racism, poverty and mass incarceration, but also, all oppressed peoples around the world. This is against the touted values of the Wakanda nation who “only wage war when they need to.” When he takes over Wakanda, the Black Panther, the rightful king, together with his ex-girlfriend, mother and sister and a (white) special agent from the CIA, fight to get his country back.
I found myself wondering how a film touted as a breakthrough for people of colour could be so primitive when it came to questions of justice and legitimate violence. The movie positions the dichotomy as follows: armed resistance versus “dialogue” and “exchange”. The former can only be depicted through the personal story of Erik’s revenge.
This is intentional: armed resistance can never be a collective “rational” strategy of the oppressed. It can only be mediated through the “irrational” aims of a personal vendetta. In the end, dialogue-exchange defeats the former, and thereby, the scope of resistance becomes restricted to symbolic words of the need for “brotherhood” at a UN-like agency. Here, the lines are drawn in favour of the colonised, who ultimately only stand to gain from Wakanda’s entry into the world economy.
The future that the Black Panther envisions for Wakanda is one that the colonising powers can gladly live with. In this world, throwing money at “causes” and “development” can solve everything. Relentless technological growth, which results in surveillance, military technologies and biopolitics that far surpass anything the CIA could have imagined, is an aspiration. We cannot forget that technology undergirds the neo-liberal order, and not only cements its economic and social compulsions, but also its inherent authoritarianism.
To tear into Blank Panther gives me no joy. I recognise the hurt as being the same pain we felt when it turned out that Barack Obama had just added some sheen to American imperialism. He did little for African-Americans. He was a black front for a white cause. He granted back people acceptance from white folks; he didn’t emancipate the disenfranchised from the violence of poverty or prejudice. So, it is no surprise the film emerges in this moment, when we continue to be duped by symbolism over substance, and too much fanfare.
One needn’t look further than the reactions of black or brown audiences.
When Black Panther took to our screens, many of the same black elite easily connected. It was identified as a symbol of black pride and representation. The anti-colonial quips brought down the roof; the “barking” of certain mountain tribals towards the white CIA operative was seen as a pushback.
A husband bowing to his wife was seen as the defeat of patriarchy. We were deceived this had anything to do with the underdog.
If anything, a black hero and his ability to harness whiteness only had one motive: manufacturing consent.
Consent that King T’Challa is the good guy, while the villain, who actually wants to serve mankind, is a vile creature that must be destroyed. Consent that Wakanda needs to “co-operate” and “exchange” technology, and create “community and outreach centres” as a means to build a better world. Consent that Wakanda must give up its technology and work in partnership with the UN in order to build a better world.
This is about belonging and inclusion into an existing template. Not justice.
Azad Essa is a journalist at Al Jazeera and co-founder of The Daily Vox.