To hear some people tell it, Black Panther marks the first time a black person has ever set foot on a film set. Blaxploitation never happened. Most of the 90s and the early 2000s are just dust in the wind, apparently. Forget about Spike Lee and Julie Dash and Marlon Riggs, and shit, even Gina Prince-Bythewood. This might sound like hyperbole, but it’s nothing next to the kind of free marketing work black folks have been doing to establish a Disney movie as the most important black cinematic achievement in, like, ever. I just came across this excerpt from a HuffPost piece, yesterday:
“Jamie Broadnax, founder of the online community Black Girl Nerds, told the Times that the film marks the ‘first time in a very long time that we’re seeing a film with centered black people, where we have a lot of agency’ and noted that the characters “are rulers of a kingdom, inventors and creators of advanced technology.”
Sister, with all due respect, a movie about niggas literally won the Oscar for best picture last year. Y’all really forget about Moonlight already? Y’all gonna tell me Black Panther has more to say about the black experience than fucking Moonlight, which included an all-time great performance from one of the best black actors working today? Get Out came out a little over a year ago! I know y’all haven’t forgotten about Get Out. The dude from Get Out is in this movie! Come on, man.
What really gets me about this kind of veiled chicanery, other than the necessary devaluation of black art that it requires, is who it ultimately serves. It does not serve black folks. It serves a handful of Disney/Marvel executives, and then, way down the line, the black artists and craftspeople who worked on the film. That’s it! Please don’t even start with this spiel about how T’Challa and Nakia are an inspiration to black people everywhere. People said the same damn things about Barack and Michelle, and look where we are now. I’m also extremely not here for this “we were kings and queens” talk. Monarchical rule sucks. It’s a proven fact. And if one of the selling points of this movie is, “Black people are royalty,” then I’m gonna look at the history of what royalty has done around the world, and uh, it’s gonna have to be a no from me, dog.
There’s such a resistance to accepting this basic fact about Black Panther, and it gets embodied in phrases like “just let people enjoy things” and “it’s only a movie.” Man, I would be happy to let people “just enjoy things” but that’s not what folks are doing. People are desperately trying to turn Black Panther into some kind of political-cultural touchstone that signifies black progress. Folks aren’t just enjoying Black Panther, they’re quite literally advocating for the notion that their liberation is wrapped up in the ability to hand $10 over to Disney. That is fucking weird.
And folks are doing this all for a movie that is a sham. An entertaining one, but a sham all the same. Black Panther is a sham in the way that most Marvel movies are: they feint towards meaning and substance, before ultimately pulling away to return to the same status quo. In Doctor Strange, you have arrogant, impossibly brilliant surgeon guy who becomes arrogant, impossibly brilliant magic guy, even though he was supposed to learn a lesson about humility in there, somewhere. In Captain America: Winter Soldier (still probably the best Marvel production), the movie builds an interesting look at surveillance and crime prediction before blaming it all on fantasy Nazis, and then destroying SHIELD, which turns out to mean exactly nothing. These movies can be fairly masterful in the ways they seem important at the time.
Black Panther plays the same game and it almost succeeds. The pathos it extracts from Killmonger’s tragedy, combined T’Challa’s subsequent anger at his father’s involvement, feels real and substantial. The best scenes in the film deal with T’Challa and Erik Killmonger, the film’s villain, having to confront the consequences of T’Chaka’s actions. It’s this family drama that leads to the movie’s central question: How should an advanced, thriving black nation like Wakanda situate itself in relation to black people worldwide, who are often oppressed? The movie presents a possible answer to this question in the form of Killmonger. He believes that Wakanda should toss aside its isolationist instincts and use its resources, as well as its strength, to empower black folks everywhere. To this end, Killmonger envisions violent revolution against the oppressors, resulting in a world reshaped and ruled by Wakanda (In perhaps the movie’s most on-the-nose moment, Killmonger says “the sun will never set on the Wakandan empire”).
All of this seems very interesting until you take a step back and look at the juxtaposition the film has constructed for us. You have the level-headed liberal consensus embodied in someone like T’Challa, and then the black revolutionary subject represented by Killmonger. I know there have been some Left responses to the film that praise Killmonger as a fairly sensitive portrayal of the kind of motivations that lead one to revolutionary politics. I think that’s true. But some of these Left responses really glorify Killmonger and I think that’s wrong. One of the few true things T’Challa says in the movie is that Killmonger is a monster of their own making, and boy is he. Dude is an unrepentant killer (though so is every other Marvel character!). I feel quite a bit of empathy for Killmonger and how he became what he is, but the choice embodied by T’Challa vs. Killmonger is a false one. It’s one of the many ways that Black Panther presents fascinating possibilities before ruthlessly foreclosing them. The revolutionary opposition to T’Challa isn’t a guy whose plan is to, functionally, end the world. Rather, it’s Fred Hampton. It’s the real King, Martin. Not this charlatan with his jumbled revolutionary rhetoric delivered with all the passion of a graduating senior at Wakanda High.
So, through a really tortured series of events, Killmonger ends up in Wakanda and challenges T’Challa to a legal(!) duel to the death for the throne. Yo, aren’t Wakandans some super advanced civilization? Ah, I see. They just have a fancy metal but their politics are stuck in Game of Thrones land in 2018. That’s cool. Anyway, Killmonger succeeds, ousting T’Challa and taking over as King of Wakanda. Then, in a quiet, but determined plan, Nakia and Shuri, T’Challa’s sister, team up with a CIA spook to defeat the newly (and legally!) elected King. This is the movie folks are going crazy about? The movie where the CIA guy is one of the heroes? Y’all are wild. One of the really frustrating things about this movie’s take on Freeman’s CIA guy is that Freeman is obviously ready to play a gross CIA shithead and the movie kneecaps him, turning him into one of the lynch pins in the plan to save Wakanda. I also love when the character repeatedly interrupts the movie every time we learn something new about Killmonger so he can say, “Yeah, duh. That’s how we trains Death Squad guys!”). The really cool thing is that, in the action climax of Black Panther, the interests of the Wakandan and American ruling classes align perfectly.
The movie culminates in a scene where about sixty black folks fight each other in an open field with spears. My mouth literally fell open. If a white man had made this movie, y’all would’ve torn his ass to shreds. Below that awkward fight, on an underground railway, is a completely separate awkward fight between T’Challa and Killmonger. Here, the film musters some early 2000s era CGI to depict T’Challa’s victory over the film’s villain. In a separate scene, T’Challa graciously offers to let Killmonger live before Killmonger takes his own life, saying he prefers death to bondage. People have said that the movie should’ve let Killmonger live so he could be an ongoing villain, but the whole point of that scene is that Killmonger has to die. The (admittedly limited) revolutionary possibilities that he represents must be snuffed out, and ruthlessly so. Killmonger has no place in the kind of world envisioned by people like T’Challa. Apparently inspired by Killmonger’s politics, T’Challa openly presents Wakanda to the world for the first time, demanding an end to the opression of black peoplehaha just kidding. Your boy goes to Oakland and opens some charter schools or some shit. That’s literally the end of the movie! The middle ground to Killmonger’s politics is the neoliberal politics of charity and initiatives and outreach or whatever. T’Challa is King and the status quo is restored, like every Marvel movie ever made.
It needs to be said: I’m not looking for a superhero movie to accurately and sensitively portray black revolutionary politics. I don’t need corporate entertainment to do that work. More importantly, corporate entertainment can’t do that work. But there are a lot of folks who think it should and does. These people are wrong. They have thoroughly fooled themselves. The corporate stranglehold on media is all-encompassing. The idea that Black Panther is some kind of important culturally dissident work that somehow made it through the studio system is laughable. If there was anything at all in this movie that threatened white supremacy or the ruling class, it would have never been made. This movie is the 2018 equivalent of Beyonce donning her faux-radical black revolutionary aesthetic and y’all fell for that shit again.