How Black Panther liberalizes black resistance for white comfort

Image by Marvel Studios

This article contains spoilers.

Black Panther didn’t have to be a “political” film.

Its trailer didn’t have to feature Gil Scott-Heron’s legendary poem “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” The opening scene didn’t have to take place in an apartment littered with Public Enemy posters, in Oakland (the home of the Black Power movement), in 1992 — the very year of the Rodney King riots. The film’s villain didn’t have to be explicitly motivated by fierce desire for armed Pan-African insurrection against colonialism, white supremacy and mass incarceration.

But it did. And of course, it’s not at all fair that a black filmmaker is expected to bear the burden of politicizing the Marvel universe: he should be allowed to tell his own triumphant story. But politics are explicitly embedded in it. As a result, we must grapple with the movie as a significant political text — yes, even if it’s a Marvel movie.

After all, Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther is of spectacular cultural importance. Based in the fictional East African country of Wakanda, the film almost entirely consists of black characters, played by the likes of Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira and Daniel Kaluuya. That fact alone is political. It’s also a story that joyfully celebrates African cultures, outfits, languages, songs and customs in a universe powerfully defined by Afrofuturism and black feminism. It’s arguably less a superhero movie than it is an entrance into an entirely new universe — one that’s deeply fresh, witty and driven by complex characters and cultures.

Audiences have flocked to see it: the movie has made over $427 million so far. Many brilliant pieces have identified its clever undermining of racist tropes about Africa, prioritizing of powerful female characters, and groundbreaking impact of seeing an uncolonized African nation completely in control of its own resources and technologically advanced future. The album’s soundtrack, curated by Kendrick Lamar, debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200. Its earned it places in the upper echelon of recent displays of cinematic black excellence: Moonlight, Selma, Get Out. All of these truths are deeply political as well.

But at its core, Black Panther contains a fundamentally reactionary understanding of black liberation that blatantly advocates bourgeois respectability over revolution, sterilizes the history of real-life anti-colonial struggles in Africa and elsewhere, and allows white folks such as myself to feel extremely comfortable watching it — which, given Marvel’s sole purpose, is almost certainly the bottom line.

Give me ‘CIA agent helps crush another black armed rebellion’ for $10, Alex

One of the final scenes of Black Panther sees a white CIA agent played by Martin Freeman shooting down other ships — piloted by Wakadan people — who were attempting to transport the incredibly powerful metal vibranium to black revolutionaries in order to wage armed war against white oppressors around the world. Meanwhile, a vicious civil war takes place below in which two factions of Wakandans clash over whether the shipments should be stopped.

This was framed as a “good” scene. It directly benefited the protagonists. Audiences were intended to feel relief, perhaps even to cheer. Freeman, a CIA agent, was the hero.

Much had led up to this scene, which we’ll get into shortly. But it encapsulates in terrifying form the ways in which Marvel has successfully sold us a politically “woke” film that straight-up endorses the crushing of armed revolt by a member of an agency that has historically helped arrest South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, assassinate Congo’s Patrice Lumumba, oust Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, train anti-communist militants in Angola and operate secret military bases throughout the continent. Furthermore, it helped solidify the message that violence is perfectly fine, so long as it’s not directed against white people. In fact, especially if it’s not.

As writer Leslie Lee III recently put it on Twitter: “Black Panther is a deeply evil film. It dangles the idea of global black liberation in front of you, paints that as villainous, then ends in an orgy of the freest black people to ever walk the earth slaughtering each other to protect whites. That shit turned my stomach.”

Sole black militant portrayed as completely deranged

In brief, Black Panther tells the story of T’Challa becoming king of Wakanda. He faces immediate uncertainties as to whether he should continue the country’s extreme isolationist tact that protects it and the precious vibranium from colonial invasion, or begin outreaching to other countries and share the power of the metal and Wakanda’s space-age technologies. Much to any good techno-utopian socialist’s delight, those techs include highly efficient maglev trains. That tension is greatly exacerbated when N’Jadaka — also known as “Killmonger” — shows up in Wakanda. He demands that vibranium be immediately distributed to “War Dogs” stationed around the world and initiate black liberation struggles.

Killmonger certainly isn’t the first to suggest that Wakanda should adopt a more outward-facing stance and use its resources for the benefit of others: Nakia, a main character and love interest of T’Challa, advocates that from the get-go. But Killmonger’s proposed approach was vastly different than the liberal foreign aid-centred NGOification that was on the table. He advocated for the immediate arming of black people around the world. Just like, you know, the Black Panthers.

But as suggested by his name, Killmonger wasn’t depicted as a reasonable character. Far from it. He was depicted as sociopathic, misogynistic, unsophisticated; a deranged participant in the imperial invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, a collaborator with the CIA. Of course, it’s never indicated how an impoverished kid from inner-city Oakland ended up being lured into the military. Regardless, all the most hideous traits imaginable are downgraded on to Killmonger, making the only major African-American character and agitator for revolution a manic killer consumed by rage and violence.

It’s an incredibly common trope: any black revolutionary who seeks to use violence to meet their aims becomes even worse than the system they’re trying to take down, identical to how the character of Daisy Fitzroy was portrayed in the video game Bioshock Infinite.

Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw wrote in a Facebook post: “Black power has always been framed by its critics as dangerous, irrational, bloodthirsty revenge. Today’s identity extremists were yesterday’s Panthers and Pan Africanists. How did that libelous trope come to be the central tension in this celebration of black superheroes?”

Killmonger’s motivations are thus extremely unclear. Is he a reactionary black nationalist seeking to establish a new vanguardist rule over subjects? Or does his burning of all the critical herb which bestows superhuman powers upon Wakanda’s king represent a desire to do away with monarchical traditions and allow for true black self-determination? Such questions aren’t ever resolved, as he ultimately only ever plays foil for T’Challa to develop into a true leader. But Killmonger’s final words — offered in response to being healed and serving as the only to acknowledge the history of slavery — hint at his fears that it would be T’Challa who would would maintain hierarchy: “Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from ships, ‘cause they knew death was better than bondage.”

This isn’t to suggest that Killmonger was the “real hero.” He wasn’t. He was a disaster of a character, a misogynist mishmash whose ambitions for global revolution were deeply undeveloped and prone to hyper-masculine vanguardism — just like the real-life Black Panthers. But those are all choices that the director (and more likely, the producers) made. There’s no possibility presented of legitimately democratic people-led revolution: all radical actions are painted with the same brush.

Compare that to recent dystopias like The Hunger Games, Divergent and Maze Runner: all of which feature white youth violently rebelling against oppression. Killmonger was never allowed to be that — or anything but an unhinged revolutionary.

That set the stage perfectly for the final act: There Is No Alternative to Liberalism.

Giving kids the skills to sell their labour to Tony Stark for $8/hour

By the point, a bloody civil war had been fought over the shipment of vibranium to revolutionaries. Thanks to help from a CIA agent, Wakanda’s forces had crushed opposition and ensured that the metal remained fully in their control.

And what did T’Challa do following his country’s enormous, unprecedented upheaval? He spoke at the United Nations. For the first time, he told of Wakanda’s true wealth and pledged to share it with the world. Freeman, the white CIA agent, can be seen smiling — for he knew that he had won. An infinite source of vibranium had been secured for use by the UN, and almost certainly by NATO and the U.S.

But it wasn’t over: the spear hadn’t been plunged quite deep enough. Upon resolving the civil war and presumably cleaning up the bodies of his fellow Wakandans who had been slaughtered while attempting to secure liberation for fellow black people around the world, T’Challa showed up in Oakland: the same place where the movie started. Was he there to wage war against the prisons, the police, the military? Perhaps to establish community self-defence patrols, breakfast programs and medical clinics?

No, of course not — he was there to set up technology schools for local kids, the pinnacle of Obama-esque neoliberal philanthropy that wouldn’t have to exist if education systems were properly funded by communities. Maybe one day the students could end up working as low-wage programmers for Tony Stark’s conglomerate!

As R.L. Stephens quipped on Twitter: “The movie ended like ‘Black people need to learn to code.’ But when there’s no oppression depicted, then technocratic solutions appear all the more seductive.”

Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw added: “What’s left for the lost Americans is piecemeal urban development and STEM, while the menu of possibilities for the UN ensures stability through shared technology rather than redistribution. No wonder the CIA gazes on the final scene with pride. Mission accomplished.”

Wakanda allows white people to take comfort

That’s the thing. Seeing oppression depicted makes white people uncomfortable. It reminds us that we’re deeply complicit in histories and systems of oppression, violence and genocide.

It’s why Wakanda as a concept is actually quite absolving. It means that we can interact with “Africa” free of guilt, admiring the stunning sunsets and savannas while not having to think about legacies of slavery and colonialism. There’s no need to recall how liberatory violence was used in slave revolts, riots and independence struggles. It’s also why Black Panther isn’t remotely radical in its politics. The power of Wakanda doesn’t challenge us as white people. Rather, we’re allowed to force Wakanda into our colonial institutions and subject its potential emanicipatory power to global hegemonic forces without any fear of violent revolt.

Black Panther is an absolute triumph when it comes to representations of black people and cultures. The psychological and communal power of seeing such images will never be understood by white folks.

Unfortunately, the film also positions itself as a politically radical film, something that could only be true if we willfully ignore the histories of actual black liberation struggles around the world and accept the premise that late-stage capitalism underpinned by austerity, hierarchy and philanthropy is the best we can do. It’s a deep shame.

James Wilt is a freelance journalist based in Winnipeg. He holds a journalism degree from Mount Royal University in Calgary, and contributes to DeSmog Canada, VICE, CBC Calgary, Alberta Oil, Fast Forward Weekly and Geez magazine.