“Black revolutionary consciousness is merged with white and bourgeois Urban Nightmare images of Black ‘underclass’ ‘thugs’ and ‘Super-predators.’”
“They are often the kinds of kids that are called superpredators — no conscience, no empathy. We can talk about why they ended up that way, but first, we have to bring them to heel.” --- Hillary Clinton, 1996
The latest Marvel Comics science-fiction movie “Black Panther” is stealth ruling-class propaganda, consistent with its production by the great manufactory of mass consent that is the American corporate entertainment complex.
Did you expect something different? If so, why?
Afrofuturism in One Hidden Monarchy
The plot is a little complex. There’s a secretly rich, technologically hyper-advanced nation called Wakanda magically concealed beneath the bush in the heart of Africa. This fabulous Afrofuturistic state has escaped the ravages of white colonialism and imperialism.
Wakanda hides in plain sight through Star Trek Next Generation-like cloaking.
It is run by smart, warm, attractive, and benevolent Black royals. Despite its technical hyper-modernity, it is not a democracy. It’s a hereditary monarchy where the ruling family makes the decisions in consultation with a handful of elders from different tribes.
Its scientific wonders (far surpassing anything that exists in the rich white nations) notwithstanding, Wakanda remains wedded to absolutism, aristocracy, and tribalism. That seems fairly classist.
The everyday people of Wakanda are backdrops at best in “Black Panther.” All the action in the movie revolves around the royals and their top warriors. Ordinary Wakandans do not merit any attention. It’s all about the rulers.
The king periodically defends his throne from challengers through grand physical battle conducted before tribal leaders who chant and carry spears. Some might consider that a little racist.
The secret to Wakanda’s greatness is its possession and use of a super-powerful natural substance – a mysterious and many sided form of mineral wealth called vibranium. It is vibranium that has made Wakanda exceptional.
“Wakanda remains wedded to absolutism, aristocracy, and tribalism.”
We learn that a vibranium meteor hit Wakanda millions of years ago. Just exactly when Wakanda became a super-advanced vibranium-fueled state is not made clear in the movie but the impression is that goes back at least to the 19th century.
The film could have constructed a story about how Wakandan culture and society generated the nation’s capacity to discover, activate, and deploy the powers of vibranium. No such narrative appears in “Black Panther,” however. Perhaps it is implicit, or maybe not.
Wakanda could have used its great power to help Black Africa and the Black diaspora abroad (including tens of millions descended from people stolen from Africa as slaves) resist the ravages of white supremacism, colonialism, and imperialism. That is certainly the path that great pan-Africanists like Kwame Nkrumah, Ahmed Sékou Touré, Frantz Fanon, Patrice Lumumba, W.E.B. DuBois, and Malcolm X (among others) would have counseled Wakanda to take. But Wakanda’s royal rulers decided instead to build a technologically fantastic Black utopia (though the experience of ordinary Wakandans remains largely invisible) within just one country, their own. They kept the country hidden behind its cloaking devices, keeping the wonders of a vibranium-enriched life – glories that apparently don’t include the democratic empowerment of the Wakandan masses – for itself.
Superhero vs. Super-Predator: “First They Must be Brought to Heel”
The plot revolves around the conflict between the young, handsome, dignified, and newly crowned Wakandan king, T’Challa, and a challenger to his throne – Killmonger.
Killmonger is T-Challa’s cousin. His father, N’Jobu, was killed by T-Challa’s father, King T’Chaka, in 1992, in a public housing apartment in Oakland, California.
(Oakland is the city that gave birth to the real-life Black Panthers, the Black nationalist and Marxist-Lenninist group headed by Huey P. Newton in the late 1960s. The real historical Black Panthers are never mentioned in the movie, but the choice of Black Oakland as the only U.S. setting to appear in the movie makes it clear that the script-writers know about the organization.)
The ill-fated N’Jobu was stationed in the U.S. as a Wakandan agent. He was killed by his brother T’Chaka as the king was trying to arrest him and bring him back to Wakanda to be prosecuted for selling vibranium to a white South African black-market arms dealer named Ulysses Klaue.
Killmonger is left behind to grow up in white-imposed misery and poverty in Oakland. (The movie doesn’t show any images of U.S. race-class oppression other than small scenes of a dingy basketball court outside an ugly Oakland apartment building.)
As a boy, we learn, Killmonger learned from his father about Wakanda. It became his dream to reach the hidden African wonder state, to claim the throne, and to turn Wakanda into an open revolutionary agent of Black liberation by all means necessary, including military force. He wants to avenge his father and his own left-behind status. He also wants to reverse Wakanda’s commitment to Afro-futurism in one hidden country. He wants to export revolution like an Afrofuturist Trotsky or Che Guevara.
“Killmonger dreams of turning Wakanda into an open revolutionary agent of Black liberation by all means necessary, including military force.”
Killmonger developed advanced warrior and regime-change skills by becoming an elite Special Forces murderer in the employ of the American Empire. He totaled up hundreds of kills, each of them marked with a knife on his body.
Beneath and partly thanks to his imperial training, Killmonger is a menacing sociopath. He is pathologically scarred by the horrors of his ghetto upbringing and military experience. He has become every bit as evil as – the amoral equivalent of – the racist oppressors he hates.
In “Black Panther,” there are no warm, attractive, and inspiring advocates of Black pan-African revolution like Nkrumah, Sékou Touré, Fanon, DuBois, or Malcolm. There is only the cold and repellent Killmonger. The revolutionary is portrayed as a noxious urban gangster, someone to be hated and feared. Black revolutionary consciousness is merged with white and bourgeois Urban Nightmare images of Black “underclass” “thugs” and “Super-predators.”
Killmonger arrives in Wakanda (how he broke through the cloaking is not revealed) with the corpse of Klaue and challenges T’Challa to a battle for the throne. Killmonger wins the clash and hurls T’Challa down a waterfall.
After dispatching (he thinks) T’Challa, Killmonger is given special royal (“Black Panther”) power and tries to militarily initiate the export of Wakanda-led Black revolution against the global white oppressors. But he is stopped at the last minute by a miraculously revived T’Challa, who (it turns out) was saved from death by one of Wakanda’s allied tribes. As he comes back to life in a vibranium-enabled resurrection, T’Challa realizes that his royal ancestors were wrong to turn away from the needs of the oppressed Black (and perhaps other oppressed) people of the world. He resolves to take back his throne and shepherd Wakanda’s de-cloaked emergence as a progressive and benevolent force on the world stage.
A great high-tech Marvel Comics battle ensues pitting the noble and bourgeois (see below) T’Challa and his forces against the morally degraded pan-Africanist thug Killmonger and his gang.
It’s another Hollywood update of white America’s longstanding distinction between the good Black and the bad Black. The good Black pursues moderate ends in dignified and polite ways. He doesn’t take to the streets. He is respectful and respectable. He can be trusted and included. He believes in law and order and the maintenance of existing hierarchies. He is mindfully at peace with himself and his surroundings. He’s “constructive” – “someone you can work with” to “get things done.”
The bad Black is angry, violent, and undignified. He is sick and agitated, out of control, malignant, and sociopathic. He burns shit down. He’s destructive. He is unworthy of admiration. He is a bad guy. He is to be feared. He is to be put down and locked up. He must to “brought to heel,” to use white racist First Lady Hillary Clinton’s colorful 1996 language on what needed to be done with urban Black youth. “They are not just gangs of kids anymore,” Mrs. Clinton said. “They are often the kinds of kids that are called superpredators — no conscience, no empathy. We can talk about why they ended up that way, but first, we have to bring them to heel."
“The good Black pursues moderate ends in dignified and polite ways. The bad Black is angry, violent, out of control, malignant, and sociopathic.”
The bad Black wants to wage war on the white oppressors.
The good Black wants to reassure the whites and knows that the war that must be waged is on the bad and unrespectable Blacks, who make the race look bad.
The prince-like T’Challa is Booker T. Washington, Sidney Poitier, Colin Powell, Oprah Winfrey, Eric Holder, and, last but not least, Barack Obama. He’s good.
The frog-like Killmonger is Toussaint Louverture, Denmark Vesey, Nat Turner, Bigger Thomas, Malcolm X, Jeremiah Wright, Huey Newton, and the nightly urban crime reports all wrapped up together. He’s an all-around bad Black. He must be chained and perhaps put down, brought to heel.
The good Black is enlisted in the job.
It’s Good Black Panther vs. Bad Black Panther. It’s Black moderate Superhero vs. Black radical Super-Predator.
Gee, guess who prevails? Was there any doubt? Seriously?
As Hollywood knows very well, millions of white Americans love good, nice, moderate and measured “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” Blacks who help them feel safe and better about themselves. (Morgan Freeman has made a lucrative film career out of that role to no small degree.) And part of being a good Black is helping white authorities keep and put down the bad Blacks. T'Challa kills Killmonger….
….With the Help of the CIA
At the end of “Black Panther,” the Hollywood-approved Good Panther T’Challa defeats the demonized revolutionary thug Bad Panther Killmonger with the critical space age battleship assistance of, get this, a kindly white veteran CIA agent named Everett K. Ross.
We first encountered Ross earlier in the film during a shootout with Klaue in South Korea – a shootout in which Ross is gravely injured while protecting T’Challa’s fiancé. T’Challa repays Ross by bringing him back to Wakanda, where Ross is healed by the nation’s spectacular medical technology.
Portraying the CIA as a friend of an independent and strong African state is a great historical and imperialist insult – a longstanding Hollywood specialty. As Milton G. Allimadi reminds us at Black Star News:
“When Congo won its independence from Belgium in 1960, Lumumba became Prime Minister. All he wanted was for Congo to get a fairer slice of the profits from exports of its riches. The CIA worked with the Belgians to have him deposed in three months. The following year he was murdered and the notorious thief and dictator Mobutu was installed in power and supported by the U.S. for 37 years….One of Lumumba's mentors was Kwame Nkrumah who led Ghana to become one of Africa's first countries to win independence from Britain in 1957….it was Nkrumah's passion to help liberate the other African countries from colonial rule that contributed to his demise. He also tried to industrialize Ghana – this is the only way for Africa to break dependency from the West and to create prosperity. Nkrumah also was overthrown in 1966 with the involvement of the CIA.
“An African hero whom many consider to be Africa's T'Challa of T'Challas, Nelson Mandela, was also a victim of the CIA. In 1962, it was the U.S. spy agency that provided the South African intelligence services a tip about Mandela's hideout when he was underground and fighting the racist regime; this led to his arrest and later trial, conviction and 27 years’ incarceration. Who knows, with Mandela actively involved in the struggle from outside apartheid may have collapsed earlier.
“If these African giants – Lumumba, Nkrumah, and Mandela – were alive today, what do you imagine they would think about a film that transforms a CIA agent into a hero on behalf of Wakanda an African nation, albeit imagined, of culture, high science, technological achievement and wealth?...This is akin to a fictional account of the FBI as savior of U.S. Black communities. After it's hounding of Malcolm and Dr. King and the destruction of Black consciousness organizations in the 1960s including the Panthers with COINTELPRO, who would buy this storyline?” (emphasis added).
But we are talking about Orwellian Hollywood, a critical wing of the American Empire and military-industrial thought-control complex, where real history goes down the memory hole. So what if the U.S. military police and intelligence state has been a critical, blood-soaked arm of racist and imperial anti-Black oppression within and beyond the U.S, undertaking the bloody repression of the U.S.-grown Black Panther Party in the 1960s and 1970s? So what if the CIA backed the racist South African apartheid regime that hatched Klaue?
“This is akin to a fictional account of the FBI as savior of U.S. Black communities.”
The movie, to keep things a little bit real, has T’Challa’s sister call Ross “colonizer.” It tells us that the U.S. military trains its elite soldiers in the darks arts of imperial murder and regime change. And it has the tribal leader who saves T’Challa (after Killmonger threw him down a waterfall) hilariously shut Ross up, making it clear that the white spy has nothing to say to African people about African affairs.
Still, “Black Panther” absurdly portrays a white senior CIA agent as a friend of an independently developing and autonomous Black African state. Actual U.S. foreign policy (imperialism) has moved in precisely the opposite direction in Africa and across the Third World for seven-plus decades.
(Here, though, it is worth noting that Ross shoots down Wakandan air-ships heading off to foment revolution and punish white imperialists abroad under Killmonger’s command. That part of the story is certainly consistent with how the CIA has understood its mission).
Intervention Without Revolution: A Happy Bourgeois Ending
At the end of the movie, T’Challa reveals what his supposed spiritual conversion to Black peoples’ internationalism is really all about – not much. As one of his futuristic spaceships stands nearby no longer cloaked, admired by inner-city youth, the young Wakandan king stands on Killmonger’s boyhood basketball court in Oakland. His aristocratic sister sneers at the grubby neighborhood but T’Challa tells her that he is buying up and rehabbing some ghetto buildings there and will set up some social “outreach” networks.
No doubt he will be hiring some youth counselors to preach personal responsibility and Black self-help ala Booker T. Washington and Barack Obama. The underlying power and oppression structures of class and race remain untouched. Empire grinds on. “In the end,” writes Osha Neuman:
“with all his superpowers, his access to the technology of an advanced civilization, its unique mineral wealth and sources of energy, what does the Black Panther do (or rather what is he allowed to do by the script writers and script doctors and directors and producers and funders of this movie)? He comes to Oakland and rehabs a decaying high-rise into a community center. He does not empty the prisons; he does not open the vaults of the banks and distribute to the wretched of the earth the wealth stored there by the 1%; he does not storm Wall Street and send all the stock brokers off for rehabilitation; he does not send all the nuclear weapons into space to travel harmlessly beyond the galaxy; he does not take back the White House and paint it the colors of Kenti cloth. No, what the poor kids of Oakland with their shitty schools and rat infested housing get is a better place to play basketball. # How sad.“
So, at the end of the day it all comes down to capitalism, well Black capitalism. Can anyone say “Enterprise Zones”? Market forces – the very same forces that brought the world Black chattel slavery and modern racist imperialism – to the rescue.
Capitalism is the problem. No, scratch that. Capitalism is the answer, the solution. Call in the Urban League.
Barack Obama, a great fan of the profits system, wins. The democratic socialist Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who was killed by fascist white America after writing (in accord with the teachings of the great Black Marxist and pan-Africanist DuBois) that “the real issue to be faced” was “the radical reconstruction of society itself,” loses.
The movie is a monument to the persistence of the old regime. It’s all so bourgeois and neoliberal, so Ta-Nehesi Coates. The revolution will not be cinematized. The king is dead, long live the king.
Open for Global Corporate Whitesploitation
Global capitalism, that is. The movie ends with the CIA agent smiling as he watches his friend T’Challa tell the United Nations that Wakanda is joining the international community to help the world move beyond tribalism and make the planet a better place.
Hey, maybe vibranium will be offered for sale on the world market and opened up for transnational corporate “development” (exploitation).
That’s what good Blacks do after defeating bad Blacks: align their communities and nations properly with global capitalism, leaving the basic class and imperial structures intact – like what happened in South Africa after the end of the apartheid.
(Actually, the movie ends with a with a teaser after the full credits, when we see a forgotten white Marvel superhero – Bucky Barnes, a onetime sidekick to Captain America – emerge from a Wakandan hut while T’Challa’s sister laughs at three Wakandan children startled by his white and one-armed presence.)
Perhaps a follow-up movie will tell us what sorts of glorious miracles of human liberation the predominantly white masters atop Boeing, Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, Goldman Sachs, Microsoft, Google, (Tony) Stark Industries, and their Pentagon and CIA partners can cook up once they get their hands on Wakandan vibranium! We know what a wonderful job the white-owned U.S. and the West have done with Congolese uranium, diamonds, gold, and coltan, Brazilian timber, Ecuadorian lithium, and Middle Eastern oil – look at the miraculous capitalist world system we inhabit today, where environmental catastrophe looms and thermonuclear war beckons, where millions of Africans and others face starvation, and where the five richest white people possess as much wealth between them as the bottom half of humanity!
Obama as Context
Like the wildly popular Broadway musical “Hamilton” (where some of the United States’ founding white slave-owning capitalists get to be Black), “Black Panther” is very much about the Obama years, when the American white and capitalist Empire was nominally headed by an elegant, silver-tongued, partly African, and drone-wielding Black prince. Recall that the good Black Obama killed "bad" people of color (Africans included) with drones and special forces. He took the U.S. military presence in African to new levels. He devastated North Africa with the Libyan assault, which unseated the pan-Africanist ally Muamar Gadaffi (the African leader whose ugly death the white imperial gang-banger Hillary Clinton recounted with grisly glee seven years ago). He lectured unruly and "bad" homeland Blacks on their own personal and cultural responsibility for poverty and on their need to respect "law and order” even as white-racist U.S. superpredator cops murdered young Black men from sea to shining sea.
“Recall that the good Black Obama killed ‘bad’ people of color (Africans included) with drones and special forces.”
Like the Obama phenomenon and presidency, “Black Panther” exploits Black people’s understandable desire to see Black heroes and heroines (elite Wakandan females play key and leading roles in “Black Panther,” to the delight of some feminists) on the big stage by insidiously embedding those heroes/heroines within the vicious and eco-cidal projects of white-supremacist and U.S.-led capitalism and imperialism. As Neuman notes:
“Just as during the Obamas’ eight years Black people enjoyed and took righteous pleasure in seeing a fine Black couple in the White House, so now Black audiences take justified and righteous pleasure in seeing images of fine Black men and women, heroic and powerful, commanding a blockbuster film. The Obama presidency confounded those who took for granted there would always be a blanket of whiteness on the peaks of power. This film may have a similar cultural significance, confounding those who believed a film by, for, and about Black people could never be a blockbuster. And, just as real pleasure at seeing a cool, beautiful, intelligent Black President allowed some to overlook the just as real betrayal by that Black president of the struggles of African-Americans, so real pleasure at seeing Black power and beauty portrayed on the screen, allows some to overlook the message that good Blacks’ mission is to do battle with angry Blacks hankering for revolution.”
Hurray for bourgeois and imperial Hollywood, every bit as significant part of the “manufacturing consent” apparatus as the leading corporate newspapers and networks.
Back to Real History – Bringing Congo Back to Hell
Meanwhile, there’s the real world. The “real Wakanda” is the Congo. “Tragically,” Allimadi reminds us,
“today Congo is still exploited for its riches, including coltan. In recent years as many as 6 million Congolese have been murdered. Western corporations no longer need European colonial governors or armies. They use neo-colonial leaders – Nkrumah warned of sell-outs such as these in Neo-Colonialism The Last Stage of Imperialism – like Gen. Yoweri Museveni and Gen. Paul Kagame in neighboring Uganda and Rwanda, respectively. These two basically rent their armies to invade and plunder; they and some Western multi-nationals are beneficiaries of the loot.”
Right before I walked over to the theater at the mall to see "Black Panther" I happened (at a Barnes & Noble) upon a depressing cover story (in the neoliberal but candid Economist) about the Congo's re-escalated descent into imperialism-imposed Hell. The solutions to the Congo’s plight have nothing to do with what “Black Panther” imagines and recommends. The Good bourgeois African and American prince Obama had no answers for Africa and in fact carried the rapacious, wealth-stealing, development-crippling, and neo-colonial U.S. military presence to new levels on the Dark Continent. With the great white nationalist “America First” circus freak Donald Trump – a real-life orange-tinted character like something out a comic-book portrayal of supremely stupid evil – in the White House, the chances of a renewed decent into calamitous civil war (the last U.S.-fueled one took as many as 5 million lives between 1998 and 2003) is on the rise in the Congo. Meanwhile the nation’s vast mineral wealth flows out of African soil into the hands of malignantly sociopathic, eco-cidal, and white-owned transnational corporations and banks, corrupt empire-captive and sold-out government officials, and tribal warlords.
Don’t hold your breath waiting for Coates, Marvel, or Hollywood to create a new Black Superhero who merges the grace and attractiveness of T’Challa with the aims not of a Whitney Young, a Colin Powell, or an Obama but of a Nkrumah, a DuBois, a Lumumba, a Fred Hampton, a Malcolm X, or, for that matter a Dr. King.
Did you expect something different and more radical from Hollywood? Why?
Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (2014)