Much has been said about the recent blockbuster film, Black Panther. As of this writing— and the film has yet to play a full week—it has already grossed nearly $1 billion, and global box office previews suggest that the film may end up being the money-maker by which all money-makers are measured. More impressive than its economic clout is its cultural currency. Black Panther is, according to Ta-Nehisi Coates, “an allegory,” a story that encapsulates a people’s history (“Still Processing,” NYT podcast, Feb. 16, 2018). “Still Processing” co-host and New York Times journalist Jenna Wortham further suggests that the movie offers a sort of cultural refuge. The film is important because “blackness has never been more under assault on screen, and I am not just talking about movie screens, but our phone screens.” In this sense, the film is a metaphysical Wakanda, a place where the oppressed can feel, if only allusively, that another reality is possible.
Much of this is to say that the movie is not being judged as a movie—i.e., on the merits of its plot, acting, direction, score, etc. — but, instead, as a necessary and celebratory rejoinder to Trump’s “shithole countries” comment, and his appalling belief that America’s black communities are places where “you buy a loaf of bread and end up getting shot.” The movie is, thus, timely—good, in so far as it speaks to the age; bad, in so far as that message is sadly necessary. But this good/bad timing is not the same as lucky timing. While racial discrimination festers in our society, Black Panther‘s success is, according to Darnell Hunt, dean of social sciences at UCLA, apolitical and inevitable: “Hollywood, if it wants to remain viable, will need to produce what the audience wants, and the audience is becoming more diverse by the day.” To unpack Darnell Hunt’s argument: black culture drives media ratings; furthermore, it dominates virtually every aspect of contemporary American art—painting, fiction, essay, fashion, poetry, modern dance, music (no need to hyperlink!), and now, increasingly and inevitably, film.
That the film is aware of its own cultural value, and its investment in its own cultural moment, is obvious. At the film’s end, T’Challa, addressing the nations of the world, promises that his country’s wealth will be shared. But what sort of wealth? Given that the entire movie was about protecting and secreting Wakanda’s weaponry, we can assume that T’Challa is not going to arm, as his rival attempted, various oppressed communities. If Wakanda does aid in a class struggle, it will be Gandhi-like, peaceful. Ok, what about Wakanda’s amazing medical technology? Well, it’s all powered by vibranium, and it’s inevitable that a rogue nation will harness or repurpose that peaceful tech for military application. So, that’s off the table too.
Does T’Challa suggest that his country will become a donor nation, offering low-interest loans or free money to impoverished nations? This is possible, though unlikely. Such programs already exist via the World Bank., and their efficacy is problematic. Usually, the aid comes with many strings attached, and the result is (commonly) a skyrocketing of debt.
So, what’s left? Logically speaking, T’Challa likely means that Wakandian culture can be a model, a beacon for other nations. That theme is underscored by the King’s willingness to build an exchange in a poor, black American community. In one of the many admirable inversions in the film, it is an African nation that will now lend a helping hand to an American community. That exchange, however, seems to be more inspirational than practical. Because T’Challa’s nation has been at peace for thousands of years, it is literally generations ahead. While Europe plunged into a “Dark Age,” Wakanda continued to build on its legacy. The result is that while the West (and the rest of the world) has gone through various teardowns and rebuilds, Wakanda’s stability has resulted in exponential and uninterrupted advancements. Even if the West were somehow capable of understanding Wakandian tech, again, for reasons outlined above, there is no way that T’Challa will allow the export of vibranium to America or anywhere else. The world is just too primitive to handle this stuff.
But this is merely to reiterate the question. The King has promised to share, but not everything. So what is he actually offering, besides afterschool programs in poor communities? Please note, I am not undervaluing that very worthy effort; but, is there anything in that offer that is pointedly different than, say, efforts by Bill Gates or Warren Buffett or innumerable charities? If T’Challa argues that his nation has something new to share, it must be in form or in kind unique — i.e., Wakandian. So, let’s explore some options.
Is T’Challa suggesting that other nations or communities use Wakanda as a blueprint for political empowerment? Let’s hope not! The country is at best a constitutional monarchy— for example, we see Forrest Whittaker’s character, Zuri, point out that a challenge by royal blood must be acknowledged, resulting in physical combat. This winner-take-all system, a neo-Darwinian survival of the fittest, is not only a dangerously unstable form of government, it also carries within it the imminent threat of mass arrests, executions, and political corruption. When Erik Killmonger displaces T’Challa as ruler, the royal family skedaddles to the mountains, where it foments a counterrevolution. M’Baku agrees to harbor the exiled ruler and his family, but that decision runs counter to his noble adherence to tradition. While initially refusing to provide an army, M’Baku and his tribe ride in, cavalry-like, to save the day, and, more importantly, to reap the rewards. In short, when push comes to shove, 10,000 years of tradition is upended. M’Baku’s new station in the court suggests a quid pro quo of political expediency and (possibly) graft. And this, I stress, is the best case reading of Wakanda’s political structure.
Now let’s explore the worst case—not a constitutional monarchy but an absolute monarchy. When Killmonger takes power, he orders the destruction of the Black Panther flower, the execution of the rebellious T’Challa, and the arming of insurgents across the globe. Virtually everyone follows his orders. He’s the king and must be obeyed absolutely. That is not kingship, but tyranny. I am working from memory here, but the head of his honor guard, Okoye, says something to the effect, “You lack the heart to rule as king.” This suggests that ruling has more to do with justice than with brawn, but, given that Wakandians select their leaders literally by violent overthrow, Erik Killmonger or a ruler like him— absolute, autocratic, ruthless— is unavoidable.
(above) Forrest Whittaker’s character, Zuri; (below) a fight for the crown: T’Challa versus Erik.
And let’s not overlook the Wakandian love of surveillance. Not only does the country have a global network of spies, these people spy so much that they have spies spying on their spies. We might here compare Wakanda’s spy agency to the Stasi, the secret police of East Germany, which regularly paid or coerced people to spy on co-workers, neighbors, friends, and family. This policy resulted in widespread paranoia. No one was entirely sure who was in the Stasi’s pay. As a consequence, the possibility was very real that a single family might have multiple agents, each secretly reporting on the other. If the Romans asked, “Who will guard the guards?” the Wakandian revision might read as “Who will spy on the spies?” and the answer is, more spies. Oh, and when not spying, the Wakandians also follow the lead of Israel’s notorious Shin Bet by assassinating foreign nationals. I’m not saying that the murderous (and dentally-challenged) Ulysses Klaue doesn’t have it coming, just that he should have been arrested and tried by the rules of international law.
That aforementioned Black Panther flower has another benefit: It acts as the de facto constitution of the society. A constitution is a set of sacred principles that are adhered to inter-generationally— in the case of the Wakandians, the flower serves that function. It mystically connects the present ruler to a spiritual senate or council of elders. The destruction of the flower means that access to that guiding force is lost. With no council and no rival, Erik Killmonger’s power is seemingly unassailable.
T-Challa visits the ancestral plane.
Note, however, that this act of destruction is implicitly virtuous, since it means that, without further challenges, Killmonger can offer the kingdom decades of stability. Killmonger fails because his subjects disobey him; they save one last flower for T’Challa. But, umm, doesn’t this mean that Killmonger was right to order the flower’s destruction? The fate of the flower has some serious consequences. If it is lost, then no one can challenge T’Challa; in which case, his usurping cousin did him and the nation a solid. If, on the other hand, the flower is again cultivated, then T’Challa can resume his conferences with the council of kings. But there will be a new addition to the council: Erik Killmonger— and won’t those meetings be interesting?!
And one more thing about this spiritual council of former rulers. They’re all dudes. Sure, the women serve as the king’s guard; the scientists are all female to boot, and we even see a woman among the tribal leaders; nonetheless, the ultimate prize is reserved for men. So, if a king’s consort gives birth to a daughter, she is presumably passed over until a son is conceived. That might seem medieval to most people, and certainly no system you’d want to export to the modern world. As my former student (and budding fiction author) Francesca Terzano put it, “when I was watching the film, and they needed to beat Erik, I was like ‘and his sister can’t eat the plant because?’”
The Dora Milaje; an all-female warrior class, servile, nonetheless, to the patriarchy.
So, not on offer: weapons, medical tech, money, political stability, or gender equality. At the film’s close, T’Challa never answers the question posed by the world powers —”What can you offer?” But, to be fair, T’Challa may not have an answer. And he doesn’t have to answer. No one expects much from him; so, if he can’t solve the world’s problems, it’s not an epic fail.
Maybe all he has to offer is hope: hope of tolerance and acceptance. Perhaps T’Challa sees social issues on a human scale; i.e., before nations can meet as equals, people need to meet as equals. But exchange does not run one way. If Wakanda opens itself to the world, it must be willing to accept new ideas, even those that challenge its values. Erik’s father, N’Jobu, is a case in point. He was quite happy to play by Wakandian rules, but once he saw how other people live, there was no going back. Putting more Wakandians in other countries will likely lead to similar questionings of national identity and loyalty.
Let’s circle back to this issue of exporting hope, i.e., an uplifting sense of self, the mythos that Ta-Nehisi Coates champions. Part of my issue is here that cultural expressions rubberstamped by governments are, well, governmental. I.e., any art that Wakanda’s government exports is propaganda. Yet, when I think of black American art, it isn’t governmentally-sanctioned stuff that comes to mind. And that’s all to the good. Governmentally-sanctioned art often isn’t Art. Consider, for example, state-sponsored art from the old Soviet Union or present-day North Korea.
Stalinist-era Soviet art (top) and state-sponsored art from North Korea (bottom)
While both of these images endorse revolution, their alignment with state power renders them artistically inert.
Now, let’s compare those images to Wadsworth Jarrell’s stunning “Three Queens,” which uses African imagery, urban graffiti, and a kaleidoscopic, mosaic-like tiling to rethink, if not defy, typical notions of beauty and where it can be located, or Kristine Mays’s provocative sculpture, “The Entanglement of Black Men in America.”
Wadsworth Jarrell’s “Three Queens.”
Kristine Mays’s provocative sculpture, “The Entanglement of Black Men in America.” Inspired by the murder of Trayvon Martin, this hoody outline suggests blackness by its absence.
I am arguing here that there is something inherently defiant, even revolutionary, in any truly great art; this dovetails with Jeffrey C. Stewart’s recent biography of America’s first African-American Rhodes scholar, Alain Locke. Refusing to see black empowerment solely in political terms, Locke reconceived “the function of literature, art, the theater and so on” as an “agent of a cultural and social revolution in America.”
T’Challa’s politically-inspired offering—first made to career diplomats— suggests that he’d like to see himself as a political champion of black nationhood. That makes sense. Marvel’s Black Panther was named after a political movement: the Black Panther Party. T’Challa’s promised cultural center for the urban poor fits part of the Black Panther Party’s profile: its social programs included free breakfasts for children and health clinics for the poor.
The Black Panther Party’s School Lunch Program.
But it is Erik (and his father) who believes that redressing social inequality is by its very nature a political and, if necessary, armed struggle. It is Erik Killmonger who self-identifies with the legacy of American slavery: “Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from ships, ’cause they knew death was better than bondage.” And it is Erik, not T’Challa, who embodies the political credo of the original Black Panther Party, a far-left, anti-fascist, anti-imperialist political movement. This from an early Black Panther manifesto:
Compare Erik’s firsthand experience of living in America to T’Challa’s silver-spooned privilege. What does this prince of power know of police brutality or systematic racial profiling, substandard housing, and living conditions that have led to shorter life expectancies than found in Algeria, Nicaragua, or Bangladesh?
The world’s (all-too-white) diplomats react to Wakanda’s offer with skepticism. It is a skepticism that we should all share. Wakanda’s technological advantage (vibranium) is accidental; and its social order is inherently fragile. What is right with Wakanda (i.e., its traditions, wealth, and knowledge), is indelibly linked to its intractable flaws (a disregard for the rule of international law; military coups; sexual and political inequalities; a surveillance state sustained by spies and assassins). But that’s only part of the problem. The King of Wakanda wants to use his government to empower America’s inner cities, but, in keeping with Alain Locke’s suspicion of politics and policy, what T’Challa offers is alien, not because it is African, but because its authority resides in the state, not the community.