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Fear of a Black Universe

Can Marvel’s Black Panther help carry the torch of Black radicalism?

Black America is coming up to a precipice. On February 16, Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther was released in theatres nationwide. Anticipation for the film had been running high since the release of its first trailer: Fandango presales exceeded those for all other first-quarter films in modern history. Now, after its record-breaking opening weekend, it’s being vetted by fans for the 2019 Academy Awards.

The movie, if you haven’t already heard, follows T’Challa, the Black Panther, not long after the events of Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War. He’s returned to his homeland, the utopian and isolationist Wakanda, to ascend the throne after his father T’Chaka’s death. Soon, though, he finds himself challenged by Erik Killmonger, a long-lost Wakandan cousin who has grown up in America, and who seeks revenge and global revolution—by way of Wakanda’s advanced weapons and technology. It’s a tale of broken bonds, cultural dysphoria, and warring ideologies. Or, in the case of the latter, it could have been.

In a column for Time magazine, Jamil Smith attempted to capture what about the film has ignited such zeal from Black folks who may not care much about the Marvel Cinematic Universe:

In the midst of a regressive cultural and political moment fueled in part by the white-nativist movement, the very existence of Black Panther feels like resistance. Its themes challenge institutional bias, its characters take unsubtle digs at oppressors, and its narrative includes prismatic perspectives on Black life and tradition.

Unfortunately, Smith’s reading of Black sentiment is at once misty-eyed and impersonal. Black Panther doesn’t resonate with Black Americans just because it’s another milestone; it’s more that we’ve grown so accustomed to producing culture for the zeitgeist that we can’t yet recognize ourselves as valued consumers within it. Nor, in any case, does the film stand out for being political in a hyper-political cultural moment. All Black art is inherently political.

The film stands out because of its abundance, in every sense of the word: it’s an Afrofuturist spectacle. It is also clumsily written.

The film stands out because of its abundance, in every sense of the word: it’s an Afrofuturist spectacle designed to inject Pan-Africanist pride in its viewership. The source material, rich in culture as in all else, lends itself well to the visual medium, creating a work of art that has understandably left millions of Americans dazzled.

It is also, unfortunately, clumsily written, which comes as something of an inevitability given that Coogler is forced to develop an ensemble cast, flesh out the geopolitics of an imaginary and utopic African state, squeeze the narrative into the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s predestinate schemes, and live up to the expectations of a Black film released during the tenure of the Trump administration. For many, the assumption was that Black Panther would be revolutionary by design. It isn’t, but it hints at what could be.

First, to dispel the myths: Black Panther has little (or nothing) to do with the Black Panther Party, despite the allusions of its marketing campaign. Created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, Black Panther’s T’Challa made his debut in a Fantastic Four comic in July of 1966, three months before Huey Newton and Bobby Seale founded the Black Panther Party. (By 1972, the Party had become so infamous in Lee’s eyes that he tried to rebrand T’Challa as the “Black Leopard.” It didn’t play.) According to Lee, he chose the sobriquet as a tribute to a pulp adventure hero who kept a black panther as his sidekick. In naming their party, Newton and Seale went the more poetic route: “The nature of the panther is that he never attacks. But if anyone attacks him or backs him into a corner, the panther comes up to wipe that attacker out, absolutely, thoroughly, and completely.”

But because of the Party’s influence on Black politics, its raison d’être came to define T’Challa through semiotic osmosis, right up to his screen incarnation. In his MCU debut, Captain America: Civil War, Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa remains a peaceful diplomat until his father is murdered by the Winter Soldier, prompting a revenge narrative that persists for much of the film. When confronted with Hawkeye’s quips—the kind that have come to define Marvel’s dialogue—he responds with a brusque “I don’t care” and carries out his attack. He remains reasonable, however, and he even provides the Winter Soldier with the best health care available from Wakanda, his utopian homeland, once it’s clear that his adversary had been brainwashed.

The Black Panther Party provides seductive visuals for a generation of entertainers seeking to inject Blackness into mainstream culture without falling back on early aughts stereotypes despised by Cosbyites.

Boseman’s T’Challa is no doubt inspired by the Panthers’ stoicism: his is a silent machismo accompanied by a dignified, East African lilt. His demeanor brings to mind the armed, leather-clad men of the Party, those positioned, like a silent army, around Eldridge Cleaver during his speech outside Newton’s court proceedings. And Boseman wasn’t the only cast member to find influence in the Panthers: as part of the film’s promotional effort, in a photo shoot for the cover of British GQ, Michael B. Jordan donned leather and a beret. Recently, too, Beyoncé invoked the Black Panthers’ sartorial image during her Super Bowl 50 performance of Black-girl-power anthem “Formation.” And a few years earlier, Jay-Z gave the Party a shout-out in “Murder to Excellence,” a song from his (and Kanye West’s) album Watch the Throne:  “I arrived on the day Fred Hampton died / Uh, real niggas just multiply.” Jay-Z is referring to the fact that twenty-one-year old Fred Hampton was murdered by the Chicago police on December 4, 1969, the same day he was born in Brooklyn.

The Carters appear to be enamored with the idea of Black liberation—or, at the very least, its aesthetic—as many Black artists are these days. The Black Panther Party provides seductive visuals for a generation of artists and entertainers seeking to inject Blackness into mainstream culture without falling back on early aughts’ stereotypes despised by Cosbyites—sagging pants and gangsta rap, for example. And the images that have resulted from this influence are often striking: as a collective, the Party exudes resilience, righteous obstinacy, and unabashed masculinity in a society hellbent on destroying Black men by any means necessary—whether it be by shooting, lynching, imprisonment, or slow psychological erosion. Black artists revere the Black Panthers because they have given us our most indelible images of Black radicalism and, more importantly, power; the Party’s staunch socialist and anti-imperialist ideology often falls to the wayside, however, because the power they seek is economic and not merely a function of the white capitalist credo, which leaves the poor behind. It’s this credo that quietly informs our best and brightest Black entertainers to this day.

There was, at one point in time, consanguinity among Black Americans up and down the economic ladder, a unifying thread of revanchism and Holy Spirit. The Civil Rights Movement ignited across the nation a cultural conflagration: the South by Talmudic parables, the North by rhythm and blues. All of this was subversive even at its most centrist, especially considering that the prevailing doctrine in America was thoroughgoing white supremacy. Radical works in the mid-twentieth century ranged from Notes of a Native Son to “Mississippi Goddam” to “Lawdy Mama”—a Black cultural pantheon as diverse in its economic makeup as its varying shades of brown. In Manning Marable’s Beyond Black and White, he reminisces about how such infrastructural binaries served as a binding force: “Once, segregation led to a sense of shared suffering and group identity. An artificial yet powerful wall of race had been built around our community, giving us simultaneously a sense of oppression and a collective will to resist.” He adds that, at the point in which he was writing, in the eighties and nineties, “even the term ‘black community’ is up for debate.”

While it’s problematic at best to insinuate that segregation alone kept the Black community alive, the ever-dampening Black Power movement throughout this time surely influenced Marable’s thinking. Dr. King’s dream—that of an American populace united by socioeconomic equality—was not realized but distorted through liberal integrationism, giving rise to a Black petite-bourgeoisie that only exacerbated intraracial class disparity in cities like Washington, D.C. The late eighties and early nineties saw prosperity for the Black American middle class as Black married college-educated couples earned about 93 percent of similar white households; meanwhile, the average annual income for Black families didn’t exceed $22,000. As Marable puts it, “the general experience of the Black working-class, low-income people, and families on welfare—overwhelming majority of the African-Americans—is one of steady deterioration.”

In We Were Eight Years In Power, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes about how Black millennials slowly lost interest in racial politics before Obama announced his campaign:

National energies had shifted in the wake of 9/11. The most crucial questions of justice during the Bush years revolved around spying and torture. The old civil rights generation was aging out, and there was a general fatigue, even among Black activists, with the paratrooper model of leadership represented by Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. The choreography had gotten repetitive. Some outrage would be perpetrated. A march would be held. Predictable positions and platitudes exchanged. And the original offense would fade from memory. The outrage was, most often, crucial and very real . . . But the lack of any substantive action, and, more, the fact that the tactics seemed to not have changed in some forty years, made many of us feel that we were not witnessing movement politics so much as a kind of cathartic performance.

It was Obama’s victory in 2008 that consolidated a culture of Black individualism. The phrase “Black Excellence,” again inspired by Jay-Z, became dogma; we were made to live in a “postracial” America informed by what Aziz Rana described in n+1 as “a now moribund centrism”: “[Obama] was the living proof of American exceptionalism, an embodiment of self-advancement through meritocracy.” The lethargy then plaguing a once-robust Black Power movement made itself known through the era’s cultural production, in which the “Blackest” and most radical television show was The Boondocks, a niche animated sitcom on Adult Swim that ran between 2005 and 2014. Based on Aaron McGruder’s comic strip, once published in the Washington Post, the cartoon offered a leftist critique of Black culture, from the shows we watch to the food we eat to the people we refuse to criticize because of fear—of losing respectability before white America. But Boondocks only lasted four seasons. For his part, McGruder opened its third season with an unabashed critique of Obama and the mania surrounding the 2008 election; he left soon afterwards, however, prompting the show to decline considerably in quality during its fourth and final season.

I don’t want to mince words: representation, full stop, remains the bedrock of radical Black artistry. The full-throated effort to project Black faces onto screens both big and small is not just a worthy endeavor—it was the modus operandi of the Black Arts Movement in the sixties and seventies. As Kellie Jones describe it in “Black West, Thoughts on Art in Los Angeles,” “the Black Arts Movement championed the aesthetic pleasure of blackness and focused on reception by black audiences.” In 1970, the Chicago-based arts collective AfriCOBRA released Ten in Search of a Nation, a manifesto providing a set of aesthetic principles through which radical Black artists should work; it generally focuses on the art’s “expressive awesomeness.”

Now it seems Black Americans are modeling progress off the European paradigm, ironically through an imaginary land—in Black Panther’s Wakanda—never colonized.

The issue that remains, however, is what we seek to represent, and from here on the mission should be to decolonize the Black collective consciousness. Black American culture is not divorced from American culture; whatever fascism imprints white America does Black America, too. Toni Morrison once theorized that white American art molded itself against African slavery, but now it seems Black Americans are modeling progress off the European paradigm, ironically through an imaginary land—in Black Panther’s Wakanda—never colonized.

This isn’t exactly the fault of Black Panther’s filmmakers, seeing as most Americans—perhaps, especially, Black Americans—are never given the opportunity to study pre-colonial Africa. Our art will always be contingent upon the society in which we live, and Coogler seems aware of this. He (along with countless Black comic book writers before him) relishes Wakanda’s de-colonial potential, depicting its Africanism as untouched by the pillaging world around it. Wakanda, however, remains a white creation, and it was here where the new Black Panther’s radical possibilities lay dormant: Would the film question our reverence for monarchy, or the motivations behind unearthing a lineage of African kings and queens when the vast majority of us would have remained commoners—or, worse yet, slaves? It’s a relevant question to ask in a culture that venerates multi-millionaire entertainers raising Black power fists while using Sri Lankan sweatshop labor, a culture that reveres a neoliberal figurehead who sells hope in the American Creed when hope only breeds misery. Black Panther, we have to admit, did not question this culture. Instead, it deliberately distorted and denigrated Black radicalism altogether in the figure of Eric Killmonger.

Killmonger, played by Michael B. Jordan, is now being lauded as the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s best villain. He is surely closer to tragic heroism than T’Challa in that he carries one fatal flaw, which ultimately means his destruction: a racial chauvinism that shows itself through the persistent and violent yearning to arm Blacks across the diaspora with Wakandan technology—and take over the Earth. This politics seems nuanced at first glance: Killmonger’s rhetoric resembles that of the Party’s or Frantz Fanon’s or even Malcolm X’s. But, in the end, Killmonger’s ideology is disorganized, misguided, and illogical enough to justify killing him in a Universe where a Norse god once summoned an alien army to destroy the planet, only to be carted off to a cozy space jail and redeemed in later films.

A case could be made that Killmonger’s motivations are divorced from Black radicalism as we know it—that he perhaps stumbled upon some Black nationalist texts while at MIT, or that he’s driven purely by rage at his father’s murder. But throughout Black Panther he consistently derides Wakandan royalty for having withheld their resources from Black Americans for generations. It’s this stance—the personal and political—that drives his revenge narrative (which mirrors T’Challa’s in Civil War), but it begins to crumble once the film tries to navigate the liminal plane between an alternate reality and our own. Wakanda is, thus far, an extension of our reality rather than a total aberration from racial politics as we know it, and Killmonger suffers through his lack of development. His pain is assumed because it’s inherited, almost genetic. What better way to inform a villain than through issues the viewer can relate to? His pain is just like ours.

Black Panther flirts with an allegory it’s too timid to engage head-on.

The flaws extend to the Black Panther’s execution. An early sequence serves as a bridge between truth and fantasy: the film opens with Prince N’Jobu, played excellently by Sterling K. Brown, carrying out an arms deal in an apartment in Oakland. Killmonger, N’Jobu’s son, is thus presented as our stand-in for the Black American experience in this utopian reverie—so effectively that many viewers have argued that he’s correct in his endeavor. But if Killmonger is driven by institutional oppression, his journey is political; and if he’s driven by the institutional oppression of our reality, the film is political. So it’s puzzling to see the screenwriters retreat from the obvious outcome: an ideological sparring match between Killmonger and T’Challa, akin to that between Malcolm X and Dr. King. (And it’s not as if Marvel hasn’t done it before: a similar version motivates much of the X-Men franchise.)

Instead, Black Panther flirts with an allegory it’s too timid to engage head-on. Coogler centers the film in a debate about what a Black utopia owes the rest of the diaspora—an argument largely inapplicable to our reality because there is no Wakanda—while basing it in the social realism of institutional oppression. And Killmonger is presented as a Black revolutionary, albeit with a “revolution” that amounts to a politically distorted end achieved through malevolent means: global warfare as an African imperial project. This caricature of Black Power is conveyed largely through unhinged machismo, with Killmonger going so far as to choke a Wakandan elderwoman who dared question his leadership. In this respect, Killmonger is the physical embodiment of the “armed Negro band” so feared by the white establishment at the height of Black Power. A Marvel character who espouses lucid criticisms of American empire, in the end, can only be accepted if he’s white.

And herein lies the harm. Black Panther is able to introduce trenchant political topics only because it eschews any responsibility of handling them with care. It’s not that Killmonger should have turned to the camera to recite a Marcus Garvey speech, but he also didn’t need to manhandle little old ladies or seek to deliver a darker version of whiteness. His motivations should have a sturdier basis in our philosophical reality, especially if this world is based in our political reality, lest millions of viewers walk away with a sense of Black non-liberalism as brutish and unreasonable. It would have even been enough to keep him alive to the film’s end.

The film is far from revolutionary—it never needed to be—and still its marketing campaign proclaims the opposite. Meanwhile, its effect on popular culture has been peculiar at best, and worrisome at worst: fans now laud the film as an act of representational progress, a shift in the larger cultural conversation, when, quite simply, Black Panther has instead planted its flag in the neoliberal dreamworld and declared, “I’m here.” While the film never needed to make a statement, it also didn’t need to bastardize Black radicalism, or worse, attempt to usurp it, by compelling its actors to parade in Black Panther Party garb during its press tour, or by playing a remix of Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” in its trailer.

Still, Black Panther is important because it has launched an Afrofuturist moment in cinema. The point of Afrofuturism, like science fiction in general, is to open the racial imagination and to re-thread our social fabric—to help create a society removed from our own, perhaps as a form of escapism. Black Panther attempted as much, but this is a feat that will require more than one film—it may require a universe. Either way, Coogler’s success has opened the door for true Afrofuturist epics of the kind that may help see this project to fruition. We have a seat at the table; the question remains what we’re going to do with it.