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The Frustrating Indirectness of the Black Panther Series

Unpacking the problematic appropriation of the revolutionary aesthetic

By Alex Mell-TaylorPublished 2 months ago 9 min read
Image; Black Enterprise

Black Panther was an iconic moment in pop culture, and that's because white supremacist society is quite racist. Organizations like the Disney company have historically been very regressive in their portrayals of human difference (i.e., anything that goes against white supremacist, colonialist patriarchy). In the words of writer Sydney Paige: "The fact that black people are represented not with stereotypes, but as the smartest, wealthiest, most advanced, and the absolute royalty [of the] most powerful society is groundbreaking and momentous."

Consequently, the first Black Panther film on the silver screen meant a lot to countless people worldwide, and I am not here to take that away from you. Seriously, if these films gave you joy and you want to stop your analysis at liking the vibes of Wakanda Forever, you can leave it there. I do that all the time. I love queer films and shows such as Love, Simon, or Heartstopper, and they are by no means calls to revolution. To paraphrase YouTuber verilybitchie, sometimes it's fine to just want the media equivalent of a milkshake, and I think there are fair arguments to make that this series had a lot more nutritional value than your typical milkshake (see F.D. Signifiers video on the first film).

However, the feelings of acceptance and joy these films give us do not mean they are beyond critique or analysis. I will be one of the first people to point out Love, Simon's many problematic elements, and when we look closer at the Black Panther series, we likewise find that it is far from perfect. It is a film series that has the aesthetic of a revolutionary message while giving us a rather conservative worldview. And that deserves to be scrutinized.

The Appropriation of Revolution

The first movie in this series had a lot of beautiful elements (the acting, the music, the urbanism of Wakanda, etc.), but politically it has always left much to be desired. The culture of Wakanda is often described as a civilization untouched by imperialism, yet this is not entirely true. Wakanda has relied on the subversion of the racist trope of the backward African nation to maintain its isolation, using stealth technology to hide its advanced capital from the preying eyes of the white world.

Despite never being invaded or colonized, this invisibility has still impacted them as a people. They may not have had to deal with foreign powers in their land, but they have also eschewed the philosophies of direct and representative democracy, socialism, and anarchism, many of them directly worked on by people of color in the diaspora (hence the series’ shared namesake). Wakanda is still a regressive monarchy. As Steven Thrasher writes in his excellent essay, There Is Much to Celebrate–and Much to Question–About Marvel's Black Panther:

“While often hilariously anti-colonial in characters’ laugh lines, Black Panther’s major plot wants the audience to root for T’Challa largely because as the legitimate male son; he has a respectable blood claim to Wakanda’s throne — and what is a more colonialist ideology than upholding the divine right of kings?”

It always felt strange to see a film with the word Black Panther used to describe a political structure that was ultimately regressive. 2018's Black Panther feels like an appropriation of actual revolutionaries — i.e., activists like Angela Davis and Huey Newton of the Black Panther Party. Although the initial namesake for this comic book character was allegedly a happy coincidence, Marvel was aware of the association early on and even tried to change the name briefly to Black Leopard to avoid the parallel (a change that did not stick). The character's tackling of political issues has become only more pronounced over time, to now where we have the MCU version, toting parallels that are far more direct, such as the location of Oakland, California, the birthplace of the Black Panther Party.

Yet the MCU Black Panther series is nothing like the radical party. Where the real Black Panther Party encouraged the use of violence and intimidation to fight against an oppressive, dehumanizing, and violent system, the first Black Panther film ultimately demonizes that approach by having it come from the words of film antagonist Erik "Killmonger" Stevens. Erik wants to use Wakanda's weaponry to liberate the oppressed diaspora. Rather than support that aim or redirect it away from Eric’s more authoritarian impulses, our heroes in the first film squash his nascent rebellion and then open up a bunch of community centers instead.

A few hilarious quips aside, the first Black Panther film narratively doesn't deal directly with criticizing imperialist powers. For example, the CIA isn't the bad guy in the text — CIA agent Everett Ross ends up being a likable hero who shoots down several crafts. Instead, we are given the tactics of the CIA through the prism of the people they have oppressed, mainly through the words and actions of antagonist Stevens. In Darren Mooney's essay, Wakanda Forever Confronts the Legacies of Colonialism, Not Its Causes, he writes:

“This gets at a central paradox in Black Panther. This is a movie about the horrors of violence experienced by a young man taken from Africa to America, who is swallowed by the system and turned into a weapon. Killmonger is a creation of the military-industrial complex, and Ross points out that the CIA taught him the tricks that he uses to topple T’Challa. However, despite the movie’s criticisms of colonialism and the CIA’s history in Africa, the movie’s one CIA agent is a good guy.”

Narratively, this film is very indirect when villainizing colonial powers like the US. Sure, colonizers are called out in funny lines, but they are not the real antagonists — that's the downtrodden Black and Brown people who have internalized their tactics. If I am being ungenerous, I would say that the MCU's close relationship with the military probably made them hesitant to make US intelligence agencies and military branches the bad guys, but it could just be the case of Disney being a conservative company.

I was holding out a distant hope that Black Panther's sequel would adjust its course and buck the conservatism of the first film, but Wakanda Forever isn't any better. The enemy isn't the CIA or the UN, but the fascist God King Namor, who is once again a BIPOC character whose interaction with colonialism has left them with an extremist lesson. Namor's kingdom of Talokan was founded by a group of indigenous Mayans who fled into the ocean to escape plague and enslavement from Spanish colonizers. Now, they want to preemptively strike the surface world before their underwater city of rich vibranium deposits is discovered. In that same essay, Darren Mooney', writes:

“…the violence in Wakanda Forever is largely committed by the victims of colonialism upon Wakanda. When Wakanda refuses to comply with Talokan’s demands, Namor declares war on the only other country with vibranium. Wakanda Forever approaches Namor and Talokan in the same way that Black Panther treated Killmonger. It is very deliberate and very intentional. The audience is expected to see Killmonger and Namor as two sides of the same coin.”

And so rather than focus on how imperialism is this force that must be overthrown, with violence if necessary, the Wakandans spend their time feuding with an indigenous culture they really have not much of a reason to dislike. The breaking point between these two cultures is that Princess Shuri refuses to let Namor kill a brilliant Black tech wizard in the US who can build a machine that detects vibranium. It's a very contrived reason to pit these two people against one another when a myriad of diplomatic solutions could have stopped this confrontation.

The villain of this film should have been CIA Director Valentina Allegra de Fontaine. Her people talk about destabilizing Wakanda, and she literally says that she would do terrible things with a monopoly of the supernatural metal vibranium, but we don't see her character do much in Wakanda Forever. She was probably here to lay the groundwork for the film Thunderbolts (a sort of upcoming MCU Suicide Squad). Her character is just set-dressing to tell us how evil some actors in the US can be, without making that evil something that must be examined and deconstructed.

Rather than setting up the US or the UN as the villains, as a fantastic UN monologue hints at during the film's start, we have to focus our ire on God-King Namor. A man who leads another hidden culture whose interactions with imperialism have stunted his people's political growth for hundreds of years (no, I don't think we should be looking at a theocratic dictatorship as a good political structure).

This direction is frustrating because this series clearly wants to talk about the legacy of colonialism, but whether because of Coogler’s worldview or the Disney corporation's conservatism, this text isn't willing to demonize the powers in the here and now. Countries like France and the US are set pieces for monologues and quips, not enemies who must be fought against. As Darren Mooney comments in their essay: "Wakanda may never have been colonized itself, but it is dealing with the legacies of colonialism visited on others. Wakanda Forever remains unwilling to confront the cause."

Unlike Eric Stevens, Namor doesn't die at the end, but his ideology isn't accepted. Wakanda doesn't challenge the white supremacist hegemony that is killing our planet, and their society doesn't change much internally, either. Protagonist Shuri doesn't dismantle the regressive monarchy of Wakanda but instead gives it over to Jabari tribe leader M'Baku, a person portrayed in this film as quite arrogant.

None of this reads as revolutionary from a film I remind you that shares its namesake with real-life Black revolutionaries, many self-identified communists.

A Frustrated Conclusion

The most frustrating part of this movie is at the end when Princess Shuri meets Nakia in Haiti and learns that Nakia had a son with T'Challa. His Wakandan name comes from his father, but his Haitian name is Toussaint. This is in reference to revolutionary figure François Dominique Toussaint who is popularly considered to be the father of Haiti for his efforts in the Haitian Revolution. Shuri calls him a great man, but narratively we've just finished watching a film that painstakingly disapproved of using violence to uproot colonialist society.

It's very disingenuous for them to hail historical figures like Toussaint, a figure they do not explain or contextualize in the film, while pushing for narratives that eschew the sort of tactics Toussaint used. The Black Panther films appropriate the aesthetic of revolution while advocating for regressive narratives, and I have run out of patience for having to entertain the notion that they are anything but counter-revolutionary.

This doesn't mean these narratives are meaningless to people or have not encouraged a positive interest in Afrofuturism, but they are still regressive. These stories call out imperialism and colonialism in jokes and asides while narratively sidestepping the demonization of the countries and institutions that enforce said imperialism and colonialism. The villains of these films are marginalized people who have internalized the tactics of their oppressors. These powers are fought against at all costs while the status quo remains the same, and that sidestep should ring some alarm bells.

Because while Wakanda may reign forever, may we should ask if it should?

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About the Creator

Alex Mell-Taylor

I write long-form pieces on timely themes inside entertainment, pop culture, video games, gender, sexuality, race and politics. My writing currently reaches a growing audience of over 10,000 people every month across various publications.

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