Be assured that I had no intention of landing overseas and telling folks over there that Black folks back here shared a unified take on Black Panther. I know the frenzied discussion has subsided, but conceptions are still up for contest, as is illustrated in the collection Black Panther: Paradigm Shift or Not? The book is edited by Haki Madhubuti and Herb Boyd and was published by Third World Press.
No contributor’s response is more rhapsodic and poetic than that of Michael Simanga. With respect to the thunderous ovation he witnessed at the conclusion of a screening, he evokes memories of the Langston Hughes who authored “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” Simanga writes, “It was clear to me that we had heard the black river of Africa flowing through our veins, and through our history and through our pain and through our lives.” After a series of expressive plaudits, Simanga explains, “Our people are thankful for a film that gave us a moment to rest in ourselves away from the death grips of the oppressive places where we became Africa’s diaspora.”
Jelani Cobb construes the film to be a “redemptive counter-mythology” and judges it “brilliant” and “profound.” He argues that the director, Ryan Coogler, asks us to transcend the Western gaze with regard to Africa to conceive of Pan-African triumphs. After all, Cobb pens, “Africa---or rather, ‘Africa’--- is a creation of a white world and the literary, academic, cinematic, and political mechanisms that it used to give mythology the credibility of truth.” Black Panther is thus seen to function as a battle flick in a war of representation about African and African-American history and prospects. To Cobb, and several other critics, it is significant that a liberating commando team is played by an African American (Boseman), a Zimbabwean-American (Danai Gurira), and a Kenyan (Lupita Nyong’o). The cast includes Letitia Wright (Guayanese-British), Winston Duke (Tobagonian), Florence Kasumba (Ugandan-German), Daniel Kaluuya (Ugandan-British), John Kani (South African), and Nabiyah Be (Afro-Brazilian). The cast is a metonym for all of Africa and the entire diaspora. They are not united in saving Wakanda, but in the production of the movie they band together in an act of vindication.
Milton Allimadi pushes further on the question of Pan-Africanism. He loves the suggested cooperation between continental Africans and those in the diaspora, symbolized by the trip made by T’Challa and Shuri to Oakland and the announcement of forthcoming investment in the community. Allimadi believes that such joint projects are essential to Pan-African empowerment. He imagines Africa’s vast resources, which include enormous stretches of farmable land not being used for crops, being leveraged with the one trillion dollars in annual purchasing power possessed by Blacks in the United States. The film exemplifies the cooperation needed, or as Allimadi muses, “Might this Black Panther template not be used for other collaborative enterprises---in business, science, education, politics and other artistic endeavors?”
Allimadi touches on the notion of Black heroism, referencing the fact that he grew up with a “White-Hero-Complex” because Whites were the only idols thrust at him. As a result, he continues to salute Black Pantherfor the ego boost it provides. He opines that the movie is beneficial for all youth because the idea of Black superheroes should become acceptable to everyone. In fact, he has been making a pitch for a movie about the Battle of Adwa, which marked the Ethiopian defeat of the invading Italian military. This occurred on March 1, 1896. The Ethiopians were led by Empress Taytu Betul; her husband, Emperor Menelik II; and generals such as Ras Alula Aba Nega; Ras Mikael of Wollo; Ras Mengesha; and Ras Makonnen. Allimadi believes, “The African victory over imperialism can inform any sequel to Black Panther. It’s a story that all Africans including Diaspora must know.”
Robyn Spencer, who felt compelled to take her twelve-year-old daughter to the theater, employs the language of feminism to enhance deliberations and concludes that “it is the women of Wakanda who have offered the most justice centered view of what Wakanda can mean in the world.” She suggests that Nakia’s anti-isolationist praxis and global political commitment have more radical upside than T’Challa’s insouciance or Killmonger’s ambition. Additionally, she insists that Nakia and Shuri’s brilliance as thinkers and visionaries should not be overshadowed in any analysis as they are in the movie’s conclusion, which Spencer finds anti-climactic: “He [T’Challa] has positioned his sister and comrade, his two closest allies and the two characters with the broadest and most intriguing vision of Wakanda in the world, at the helm of his first attempt at outreach. However, their hand in the project is unclear and the result is a cooptation of their vision and a blunting of the radical edge of their politics.”
Political scrutiny has been advanced more bluntly by several other contributors. “Watch out people,” LM Arnal warns, “what they want to do is make the struggle wrong.” Arnal deems Wakanda to be the western world in a Black face---not different from the conclusion drawn by some among the Chinese audience albeit from a different perspective. In Arnal’s polemic, Killmonger is the hero of the movie because he, the only major African-American character, best represents the African-American thirst for justice. Yet his rage is seen as menacing and he becomes the enemy to be killed, his quest diminished to a life-and-death struggle with his cousin, which, of course, he loses. This was predictable to Arnal. Hollywood, in its conservativeness, wasn’t going to release anything about Black people more powerful than a story about, in Arnal’s terms, the virtues of “Oreo-cookie Land.” Michael Dinwiddie essentially agrees, remarking, “As the only character to have imbibed the African American experience, Erik Killmonger epitomizes an irrational hatred that is at the core of his irrational rage.” Dinwiddie notes that when Killmonger is wounded, the amazing technology used to heal devastating injuries, such as those suffered by a White character, are not deployed by T’Challa for his own blood relative. This means to Dinwiddie that “even in Wakanda, ‘Black Lives Matter’ takes a back seat to a nationalist agenda. Only certain Black Lives seem to matter in this surreal moment.” The communication of an Americanist narrative that Dinwiddie recognizes is stark: “The only way to salvation as a people is to kill our brothers who have been warped and filled with hatred by the slave/plantation culture built on our ancestor’s bones.” Having discerned this “subliminal message,” Dinwiddie rejects it.
Abdul Alkalimat dismisses the film outright. He understands that in Hollywood “they know how to go fishing.” They knew that an ultimately non-threatening, comic-book-based, state-of-the-art, Black-cultural-nationalist fantasy about a glorious African past and future would score big at the box office. The result, Alkalimat points out, is the presentation of a Marvelized commercial mash-up: Q of James Bond movies recast as Shuri, space ships that gesture to Star Wars, the CIA agent from the Hobbit series, car chases replicating the Fast and Furious franchise, and the habitat of Stargate. A “big lie,” says Alkalimat, “is that to be a Panther one has to be of ‘royal blood,’ and not simply a victim of the system who stands up to fight back.”
Distaste for the royal-blood and king-and-queen tropes has been a consistent critical thread, an opinion with which I agree, as do Robyn Spencer and K. Tutashinda. Way more commoners existed than kings and queens. To idolize or privilege monarchies, or even to act as royalty, is not a model for Black progressive struggle. The royalty thing and nobility thing work in Black music: King of this, Queen of that, Duke, Count, Baron, Empress, Prince, Princess, Maharaja. But it doesn’t work in Black politics.
Perhaps the most emotional oppositional response is to the positive portrayal of the CIA. Allimadi, in an otherwise generous review, simply cannot stomach it. The White-boy-as-savior interjection is troublesome enough. Wakandans need to save him so he can save Wakanda. But Allimadi wonders, with seeming incredulousness, “How is it possible for the director, Ryan Coogler, to permit this storyline even in a film about a fictitious African country given what the CIA did to some of Africa’ heroes, real life T’Challas such as Lumumba, Nkrumah, and Mandela?” Good point. To recapitulate, the CIA was complicit in Patrice Lumumba’s assassination in the Congo, the deposing of Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana, and the imprisonment of Nelson Mandela in South Africa. The CIA’s dominant mission in Africa has been to destabilize it, with disastrous consequences.
I have not sampled responses to arbitrate at length among them. My inclination has been to serve them all up for the discussion in the Black public sphere. The most compelling explications will come out of that process.