(This article was originally published in The American Interest on February 22, 2018.)
Marvel’s latest blockbuster serves the classic function of myth—to provide a poetic account of the political ethics of a community.
Black Panther is a rarity in the over-crowded universe of superhero film: a critical and commercial success. One is tempted to compare it to last year’s Wonder Woman: Both films revitalize a tired genre dominated by white male leads by exploring the possibilities of a diversity of protagonists. But neither film is an easy, politically correct exercise; both succeed, first and foremost, as popular entertainment in which social and ideological themes are subordinate to plot, character development and, of course, loud action.
Subordinate, but not absent. Black Panther takes up the politics of pan-Africanism and post-colonialism and will doubtless inspire scores of graduate student dissertations. Most of the action takes place in the fictional African nation of Wakanda, a near-utopia where traditional customs seamlessly coexist with hyper high tech: Supersonic aircraft are shaped like African ceremonial masks, spears and machetes are supercharged with electricity, a bustling open-air market thrives in the shadow of skyscrapers.
Wakanda is, of course, Afrocentric wish fulfillment: Africa as it should have been, preserved in its rich traditions, free of the exploitation of the colonial encounter and the horrors of the slave trade. To the outside world, Wakanda is a stereotypical impoverished Third World country—the kind of place the ignorant and bigoted might call a “shithole” full of undesirable potential immigrants who will never “go back to their huts” if allowed to taste the pleasures of the advanced West. In fact, the Wakandans have carefully cultivated this image in order to ensure that unenlightened outsiders do not discover their country’s secret riches—in particular, a precious metal called Vibranium, which has been responsible for their technological advancement.
In one sense Vibranium is simply the explanation for the Black Panther’s super power—like Spider Man’s radioactive spider bite or Superman’s extra-terrestrial heritage. But in the Afrocentric mythos that defines the film, it is also a metaphor for black culture—a treasure trove of artistic and spiritual resources that, like Wakanda, are “hiding in plain sight”— disdained by whites, but also always at risk of being exploited by them.
Here I say “black culture”—not African—because Wakanda has less to do with Africa than with black America. The film appropriately begins and ends not in Africa, but in Oakland, California, birthplace of the Black Panther Party. The black nationalism of the 1960s combined the tradition of pan-Africanism pioneered by W.E.B. Du Bois with the post-colonialism of the late 20th century, developing an analysis of American racism as a form of domestic colonialism: black inner cities were analogous to Third World nations, simultaneously denigrated and exploited by white capitalists. The central conflict in the film involves the two competing strains of the black nationalism that defined the Panthers. Wakanda in its splendid isolation represents the apotheosis of the separatism that has inspired ideals as diverse as Booker T. Washington’s focus on black self-reliance, the “buy black” movement, and the Panthers’ community service ethos; the villain—or perhaps counter-protagonist—in the film represents the ideology of violent resistance. The pivotal question in the film is whether Wakanda will remain hidden like El Dorado, or use its technological prowess to free Africa and the African diaspora from poverty and exploitation BAMN—“by any means necessary,” for those who do not speak Sixtyese.
The pathos of the film lies in the limitations of both visions. Isolation is a viable option for Wakanda only because of the supernatural Vibranium, which magically and inexplicably allows an advanced civilization to develop without the benefits of trade and cross-cultural learning or the ill-gotten gains derived from conquest. Consequently, Wakanda is an odd blend of old and new, tradition and modernity: Its warriors use technologically enhanced spears and shields; but its futuristic weapons, medicine, and transportation are overseen by a form of absolute monarchy that most of the world cast off centuries ago.
The separatist vision inspired black self-sufficiency movements across the United States, from the dream of thriving “chocolate cities” such as Detroit and Oakland, to the creation of smaller majority black cities such as East Palo Alto. The flaw in the idea that isolated black communities—whether in central Africa or in the central cities of the United States—could mirror the prosperity of wealthy white ones is apparent, however, from the political critique of white imperialism and exploitation that underlies black nationalism. Whites—in America and elsewhere—do not simply have autonomous institutions; they have hegemonic ones, and hegemony is not a position everyone can occupy.
In a sense, the ideal of black separatism is the photo negative of the myth that “Western civilization” is the product of the solitary genius and industry of the Europe. As the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah argued in an excellent series in the Guardian, what we call Western civilization is actually the product of the combined genius and industry of the many cultures from which Europeans have learned, borrowed, and stolen: Chinese industrial and administrative skill, the mathematical and scientific genius of the North African and Arab world, the political philosophy of Mediterranean societies, and of course wealth acquired through both free trade and plunder from people and lands the world over. Western civilization has been the civilization of empire—as were the great Chinese and Arab civilizations from which Europeans learned so much. And while it is plausible that a society could become as advanced as the West without the fruits of conquest, it is implausible that it could become so without the benefits of cosmopolitanism.
Hence, the competing strand: violent resistance. The Black Panther’s nemesis is an American raised on the mean streets of Oakland who wants to use Wakanda’s advanced tech to wage war against imperialists and white racists everywhere. Once again, only the magical Vibranium makes this a viable option: Violent resistance has a nasty tendency to provoke a violent response, which, in the real world, makes it a losing strategy for the dispossessed. This practical flaw, as much as ethical or religious opposition to violence, inspired the non-violent resistance of Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.—the late-20th century resistance movements that have achieved durable successes.
The film ends with the Black Panther deciding to devote Wakanda’s resources to the global improvement of human kind: “the wise build bridges; the foolish build barriers” he opines, a not-too-subtle dig at America’s 45th President. Cosmopolitan engagement wins out over the politics of both isolationism and violent resistance. The film thus serves the classic function of myth— to provide a poetic account of the political ethics of a community.
Black Panther offers a syncretic, stylized pan-Africanism to be sure—closer to Ron Karenga’s Kwanza than to DuBois’s scholarly engagement with African and black American culture. But the Africa of Black Panther is scarcely more fanciful than many widely accepted national myths: King Arthur’s Round Table or even the idealized drama of the American frontier. And if the pop Afrocentrism that combines Swahili, the artifacts of Nubia and tribal rituals of sub-Saharan peoples is unfaithful to history, so is, for instance, the reimagined Scottish Highland tradition, which the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper points out was developed in the late 18th century, a mishmash of disparate Celtic practices, promoted by social climbing Scots and Anglo-Saxon profiteers. If the historian Benedict Anderson is correct that nationalism is to be judged, not by its truth or falsity, but by the style in which it is imagined, the black diaspora could do worse than the stylish imaginings offered in Black Panther.