Opinion: How Black Panther (2018) Gets Black Empowerment Wrong
Disclaimer: Spoilers ahead!
If you haven't watched Black Panther I suggest going through the plot summary before reading this post.
Black Panther has been widely hailed as the film that African Americans had been eagerly waiting for, and deserve. Its claims to black empowerment comes from having a black director, a black writer, an almost all entirely black cast, a vision of an advanced African nation, and a story focusing on the plight of African Americans. All these properties save the hyper-advanced African nation is basically every Spike Lee film ever. In this article I will discuss how Black Panther gets black empowerment wrong and why it is exactly the kind of superhero film we need.
Wakanda tries to give us a vision of how Africa might have looked had the European colonizers not interfered with every aspect of their lives. As it turns out, the picture of the untainted Africa as painted by David Coogler and Joe Robert Cole isn't very progressive at all. Beneath the amazing costume designs, marvellous sunsets, solid performances and fake accents lies a vision of Africans who are simply unable to evolve even with incredible achievements in technology.
In Wakanda kings are selected based on physical prowess and physical prowess alone. Knowledge, intelligence, maturity, sensibility, morality, experience - nothing seems to in any way weigh in on the king selection process. And what does physical prowess mean in Wakanda? The old-school ritual combat, fought with primitive weapons instead of the advanced Vibranium ones. "Victory in ritual combat comes by yield or by death". No pinnings or knockouts, only yield or death, in a nation obsessed with non-violence.
There is a significant emphasis on royalty. The king or the prince are the only ones who can access the power of the Black Panther. The only reason Killmonger gained an audience in Wakanda is his royal heritage. The council is made up exclusively of nobility (the royal family and the leaders of each tribe) with Okoye being the sole possible exception. However, there is no representative from the Jabari; no empty seats either. The science division is led by the princess who as pointed out by M'Baku is a child. When the Jabari arrives Princess Shuri asks her mother "Are they the Jabari?".Doesn't the head scientist of the nation know how the Jabari looks? Even more astonishing is when she asks M'Baku why he has put T'Challa in snow. Is that an appropriate question from Wakanda's head scientist? Reminds me a bit of our own ministers. Did she get to be the head of the scientific division simply due to her royal status? Suspicion of the common folk is also evident by the way the Dora Milaje escort T'Challa and Nakia in their stroll through a Wakandan bazaar, which incidentally is the only time we see a royal among the common folk. By not letting in refugees because "they bring their problems with them" Wakanda adopts the same justification that the world continually uses to keep Africans out.
The tribes seem to be classified according to their functions. The Merchant Tribe, The Border Tribe, The River Tribe(probably agriculture, as is evident in their green clothing), The Mining Tribe much like the way districts were divided in The Hunger Games. While in The Hunger Games (2012) the destinies of the people were sealed by a dictatorial political system, out here tradition probably plays a bigger role- tradition that is in no way protected from a maniacal king's wishes; tradition that the head priest Zuri himself breaks by interfering in the ritual combat between T'Challa and Killmonger; tradition that would have allowed M'Baku (had he won), hailing from a technologically primitive society, to govern a nation based on technological advancements.
The Hounourable Dora Milaje is loyal to the throne "no matter who sits upon it" and will follow the King's directions to the letter. Honestly, it sounds a bit like giving up responsibility for one's own actions by swearing allegiance to someone or blaming it onto a higher authority. Remember the Nuremberg defense of Superior Orders? Or the superbly controversial Milgram experiments?
But it's all good, right? Because T'challa is a good king, and so was T'chaka, and the one before that, and the one before that, and everyone who came before. The people love their king and the king loves them back. Everything is so prosperous and harmonious. Well, Killmonger effectively reveals how easily the political system can help a "bad" ruler wreak havoc on the nation. As long as someone is of royal birth he can simply waltz in, challenge for the throne, and win it. No qualifications required. It doesn't matter that he is a murderer, who has never been to Wakanda before, and is openly declaring "I took life from my own brothers and sisters right here in this continent". He would have had the support of Wakanda and the Dora Milaje too, if only he had been smart enough to actually ensure T'Challa's death.
We realize the extent of the Wakanda's political impotence when Killmonger orders the burning of the heart shaped herb, the very source of the Black Panther's power, and no one can stop him. It is understood that the king is the sole authority and his words cannot be disputed. There is no governing body or council of ministers weighing in on such important decisions and no contingency plans in case the king goes "mad" (especially since the sole selection criteria is physical combat abilities). More of the same follows when Killmonger proceeds for war preparations, even after declaring his wishes to not only kill the ones in power but also "their children, and anyone who takes their side." You would expect a nation formed of warring tribes to be a bit more vigilant and sensible about their administrative policies.
The Role of Vibranium
Neither the technological strides nor the social prosperity of Wakanda is due to the intellect, ingenuity and experience of its people. It is due to the abundance provided by Vibranium, a precious mineral which they simply got lucky with. In fact Vibranium seems to be the sole factor facilitating Wakanda's progress. Weirdly enough Wakanda doesn't boast of any of the resources that Africa in the real world holds plenty of- oil, gold, diamonds, biodiversity, fertile lands to name a few. The film effectively says that an African nation without Vibranium is probably incapable of any real progress, not to mention they can't let go of their voodoo roots (the heart shaped heart providing its user with Godly physical abilities; ingestion of the herb inevitably leading to a meeting with ancestors) even with Vibranium. No wonder they so desperately wish to protect their precious Vibranium.
The Wakandan culture is advanced only in relation to the Jabari, who has been portrayed as a relatively primitive tribe isolated from the other Wakandan tribes. They are mostly bare-chested muscular men who wear animal skins (while being vegetarians), use crude weapons, hangs tree branches as interior decor, exercise the same suspicion towards the rest of Wakanda as Wakanda does towards the rest of the world, and literally go "Whoo!" "Whoo!" "Whoo!" like apes. Yes, I get it. They worship apes, but you don't see T'Challa growling like a black panther now, do you? The Jabari is clearly lacking in the technological prosperity that the rest of Wakanda enjoys. While Wakanda has far surpassed the rest of the world in its technological advancements the Jabari still has no better way of preserving someone in a coma than to bury him in snow. It is akin to saying that an African tribe without Vibranium is only a little more evolved than apes, and an African nation with Vibranium can appear more culturally sophisticated while lacking any actual political and administrative sophistication. It is quite sad that filmmakers wishing to explore "what it means to be African" failed to imagine an African state with proper forms of governance even with boundless technological prowess.
Since I talked about the Jabari I would also like to express my doubts on the Jabari's "isolation". Let me quote M'Baku to highlight that T'Challa is "the first king to come here in centuires." Shuri the head scientist doesn't seem to know much about the Jabari which leads me to believe that the science division is not much interested in them. The discomfort of all the Wakandan tribes at the presence of the Jabari is painfully obvious. We learn of the Jabari's "isolation" only from the narration of N'Jobu, who is also a royal and may simply have been misinformed. So did the Jabari isolate themselves or were they the marginalized community of the peaceful, prosperous Wakanda? We can't tell for sure.
I won't even start about the primitive battle that follows T'Challa's revival.
Black Panther vs. Black Panther
At first Erik Killmonger comes off as a strong confident young man who is enjoying his life of crime. Later when he shoots his girlfriend down we realize that Killmonger has greater motivations than simply being an outlaw. As the film progresses we learn of his history and his plans. He talks about his spies already being in place all over the world, thus establishing himself a man of strategy who is steadily moving towards his goal.
Soon things take a different turn as he declares his wish to kill not only the ones in power but also "their children, and anyone else who takes their side." This is where viewers stop rooting for Killmonger. As he goes on talking about being on top and establishing a Wakandan empire he starts to sound more and more like a typical action movie villain who enjoys slaughtering innocents. There is no sign of the genius strategist that the comic books introduced us to. Killmonger after attaining the throne dresses and walks like a rapper complete with a funky background score, thus separating the African American from the African. His maniacal intentions get further revealed as he sends shipments of weapons to even Hong Kong, where there is no white government systemically oppressing black people. With words like "The world's gonna know exactly who we are" the film portrays him as an immature gangster who simply wishes to assert his dominance. This is exactly the way the majority of western media has repeatedly portrayed the Black Panther Party of America; as a radicalized bunch of black gangsters who wishes to take over the country and kill all the white people in it. The Black Panther party for Self-Defence (not to be confused with the New Black Panther Party) was founded by Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton, two college students from Oakland, California (notice the similarity?) who were largely influenced by MalcolmX. They gave the call for "freedom by any means necessary" including armed defence. The Black Panther Party's definition of freedom included housing, food, employment, education, legal and medical aid, justice, peace and an end to oppression (as listed in their 10 point program, first publicized in 1967 as "What We Want Now!"). While the Black Panther Party viewed revolution as a means to these ends, something they called "revolutionary humanism", Killmonger seems to be only interested in world domination. By portraying Killmonger as a radical violent megalomaniac the film adopts the voice of the 70s-80s western media.
Away from everyone when T'Challa confronts Killmonger about his stand he answers "The world took everything away from me, everything I ever loved. But I'mma make sure we're even". So that's his motivation to take over the world? No rebellion, no grand revolution, but simple childish vengeance? This is the hardest blow to Killmonger yet diminishing him to the level of a hurt child, and in doing so completely detaching him from the revolutionary ideologies of black liberation and empowerment. The "hurt, misguided kid" is the stand the more "sympathetic" Western media took towards the Black Panther Party, and making Killmonger into one serves the film's most lethal blow to the character (and to every black person who called for armed rebellion).
Neocolonial Methods of "Saving" the World
In the previous section we discussed how the film infantilizes Killmonger's approach. So now let's take a look at the approach to black liberation that the film champions. T'challa plans to open the first Wakandan International Outreach Centre, thus choosing the way of political diplomacy. He didn't share resources covertly with the African nations thus making them more self-sufficient. He didn't open up Wakanda as a safe haven for refugees. He didn't challenge the systemic racism and police brutality against African Americans through legal channels. He chooses outreach programs. Outreach programs are exactly the way First World countries try to "save" and "educate" third world countries. Outreach programs are the tool of Neo-colonizers. In today's world colonization is not carried out by invading borders and declaring war but by sharing necessary resources (after first robbing the nations of its own resources, either through colonialism or other means) thus making the receiving country indebted to the giving country. This debt is then capitalized on for economic and political gains. The western world has systematically robbed the African countries of their minerals (among other resources), minerals that have helped the West make great strides in technology as the African nations descended deeper and deeper into chaos as a direct consequence of this robbing. Agent Ross tries to illegally buy Vibranium from Klaue while believing Wakanda to have been robbed of all of its Vibranium resources. Are we to believe that the CIA would have returned the Vibranium to Wakanda? So why shouldn't an African nation with an invaluable mineral try to hide itself from the world? Let's not get into how the CIA has repeatedly participated in destabilizing African nations.
The film essentially says that no violence also means no aggression, but that cannot be farther from the truth. Aggression can be ordering the withdrawal of international troops from countries, aggression can be supplying the other African countries with enough resources that they can effectively pay off all their debts and prevent themselves from getting into new ones. T'Challa could at least have disclosed Wakanda at an African Union meeting instead of an UN summit, but no, Wakanda, the country that chooses rulers by lethal physical combat, does not believe in aggression. As James Baldwin famously wrote in The Fire Next Time (1963), "The real reason that nonviolence is considered to be a virtue in Negroes— I am not speaking now of its racial value, another matter altogether— is that white men do not want their lives, their self-image, or their property threatened."
One more thing I would like to add- enough with the "We need to educate the oppressed so that they have better tools to fight". A far better alternative would be to start educating (don't confuse literacy with education) the oppressors so they stop being such monumental ...
Black Panther is the first Marvel film to try to actually empathize with the villain (shedding tears over Bucky doesn't count as empathy because Bucky didn't choose to be the Winter Soldier) and to acknowledge that everything doesn't get automatically solved just because the villain is now defeated. It understands that the "villain" is simply a creation of a much greater evil and that is what needs to be addressed for true change to come. The film never once tries to instill hatred in the viewers towards Killmonger. Both the characters and the audience understand that Killmonger's cause is fair, however unfair his ways may be. T'Challa even empathizes with Killmonger and helps him watch the sunset he has always heard of in a scene too reminiscent of Shounen anime (weirdly enough too many Shounen trends are visible in the later Marvel films, but that's a tale for another post). This is what Avengers:Endgame (2019) failed to do. Thanos had to be stopped, no one doubts that, but the film never tries to address the fact that Thanos was (at least superficially) troubled by a very simple reality of this world- "Our world has lost its balance". It is quite disappointing, if not enraging, that Marvel can conjure up Gods as our saviours and yet cannot think of better ways of "saving" us than fighting off aliens.
In the end we get a vision of an Africa exactly like any other stereotypical story- a tribalised nation with primitive policies and an overemphasis on tradition; an Africa of glorious sunsets, colourful outfits, animal rearing, spear-fighting, muscular men and fierce ladies, with a healthy dose of voodoo.
Black Panther deserves points for providing children with strong and smart female role models who do not require heroes saving them. I have a feeling that Okoye with the heart shaped herb would have kicked Killmonger's ass. The treatment of the villain is also commendable. It was a bold move on part of the directors which paid off. Hopefully this will inspire a new trend in superhero films where the villain's purpose is not merely to serve as a monster for the hero to behead.