FEATURE

BLACK PANTHER AND COLONIALIST METHODOLOGY

BY LUNGOL WEKINA

THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SPOILERS FROM THE 2018 FILM BLACK PANTHER

Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther has shattered box office records, raking in one billion dollars worldwide on its 26th day of release and unseating James Cameron’s Titanic as the third highest grossing film of all time.[1] The film’s success is not only impressive, but powerful - Black Panther proved that not only is Black talent abundant, but that it’s bankable too. An all-black cast (almost, with the exception of Martin Freeman and Andy Serkis), in a film not focused on slavery or ghettos, appears to be just as financially viable as any of the other blockbusting Marvel Studios films.  Black actors, writers, directors, and artists sell tickets just as well, if not better, than their white counterparts.

 

Black Panther has also garnered praise for its positive representation of the Black community. All Black characters in this film are the subjects in a complex and multilayered story, in stark contrast to their traditional roles in film, in which Black characters typically play objects acted upon by white characters or victimised by social systems. Beyond this, the film progressively represents Black women, a group who are particularly vulnerable to being portrayed stereotypically, or used only as scantily-clad props for eye-candy. The female characters in Black Panther transcend the trope of existing solely to advance the male protagonist’s character development, by driving the plot and being heroes themselves. While Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa was the titular hero, female characters like Okoye, Nakia, Shuri and the formidable Dora Milaje saved the day alongside him, not because of him. This simultaneously addresses and challenges the colourism and misogyny often surrounding the portrayal of Black women in media.

 

This representation of Black people is so unprecedented that everything it does right has dominated the conversation surrounding the film. By doing the bare minimum, Marvel has been showered with praise for showing that Black people are actually people, and that women can kick ass regardless of how dark-skinned they are. Upon further examination, however, a white supremacist attitude remains within the final messages of Black Panther, although its presence is difficult to detect.

 

In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Wakanda is the only African nation without a violent history of colonisation, and its existence is a utopian exaggeration of what Africa could look like without the interference of the West. This Afro-futuristic paradise stands in stark contrast to modern day Black America, a juxtaposition personified through T’Challa and Erik “Killmonger” Stevens, the film’s antagonist.

 

T’Challa, for the first half of Black Panther, prioritises the best interests of his people above all else, believing that Wakanda should stay hidden from the rest of the world, or else risk its safety and stability. Killmonger, on the other hand, wanted to use Wakanda’s technological superiority to empower oppressed peoples all over the world to liberate themselves from their oppressors. Killmonger, therefore, serves to challenge T’Challa’s isolationism within the larger narrative of a world plagued by anti-Blackness.

 

The struggle between T’Challa and Killmonger is a mirror of the dichotomy between their respective fathers, T’Chaka and N’Jobu who were themselves brothers. T’Chaka believed that Wakanda’s sole purpose was to protect its people and hide their technology from the rest of the world. Many years before the events of the film, N’Jobu was sent as a spy to live among Black communities during the height of the Civil Rights Movement in America. This informed his very different opinion of what Wakanda should do with its power and technology:

 

"I observed for as long as I could. Their leaders have been assassinated. Communities flooded with drugs and weapons. They are overly policed and incarcerated. All over the planet our people suffer because they don't have the tools to fight back. With vibranium weapons they can overthrow every country and Wakanda can rule them all the right way."

- N’Jobu to T’Chaka

 

N’Jobu’s exposure to the plight of Black America inspires him to smuggle Wakanda’s source of technological power, a metal called vibranium, into the hands of an arms dealer named Ulysses Klaue. When confronted with his treason, he responds with violence and is killed by T’Chaka, leaving Killmonger fatherless.  Thus the stage is set for the ensuing drama: having highlighted from the very beginning the plight of Black America, and acknowledging Wakanda’s uniqueness in being untouched by the violence of colonisation, T’Challa, an African monarch entrenched in his own culture, must fight against Killmonger, an African prince robbed of one.

 

A key theme in Black Panther is the heartbreaking loss of identity felt by the modern African diaspora following the era of slavery and colonisation. This was explicitly embodied by Killmonger, and was a point of connection the film had with many of its viewers. To those living through the difficulties faced by Black communities, particularly in the United States, Killmonger’s search for unity in the face of oppression and severed cultural identity make him a deeply relatable villain.  This is why, arguably, it is easier for a Black audience to see Killmonger’s destructive means as motivated by pure intentions. He wanted justice; he wanted freedom. And this is where the problem lies.

 

In Black Panther, Marvel essentially takes the concerns and plight of Black people and infuses them with the more ethically unambiguous elements of Killmonger’s actions: misogyny, violence, and extremism. This makes Killmonger’s character easy to condemn, yet his desire for liberation is valid. Thus, by conflating racial struggles with overwhelming violence, Black Panther delegitimises the unapologetic call for equality by Black people who empathise with Killmonger. The radicalisation of Killmonger subtly suggests that the change he wants is not only destructive, but impossible, implied by the natural course of the story. If the antagonist and his motives fail to succeed, the assumption is that they must have been weak in the first place, as Marvel movies almost universally feature endings that are “desirable” to the audience.  And if this is the case, the audience is forced to question if Black liberation and autonomy are even worth fighting for.

 

This subtle delegitimisation is fortified by decisions made by T’Challa which align him with the status quo, as opposed to T’Challa making any meaningful action toward Black liberation. For example, T’Challa discredits Killmonger on the basis of information provided to him by the CIA, a racist institution notorious for destabilising the governments and regimes of people of colour simply because they didn’t align with the best interests of America. Furthermore, T’Challa aligns Wakanda with the United Nations at the conclusion of the film, a Eurocentric institution with a tendentious commitment to prioritising the political and economic desires of Western powers. By placing his trust in the CIA and the UN, T’Challa essentially becomes the white population’s poster child for positive change in global race relations by forfeiting Wakanda’s agency. Even T’Challa’s first attempt to share Wakanda’s wealth with the world – in the form of an outreach program in the impoverished area of Oakland, California where N’Jobu lived and died – seems no different than the efforts of other aid organisations to donate wealth, rather than to promote and build autonomy.[2]

 

T’Challa, therefore, becomes an agent of “respectability politics”, the term used to describe attempts by marginalised groups to demonstrate that their goals are both continuous and compatible with the mainstream, irrespective of whether more just options can be conceived. The King of Wakanda is, in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, framed as “The Good Negro”, a Black man palatable to those who already hold privileged economic or social status. He’s the hero white people want because he keeps them comfortable; he’s passionate about his people and protecting his family, but without seriously shaking the structures of power that contribute to the oppression that so troubled N’Jobu and Killmonger. This is why T’Challa can be seen as an unknowing agent of colonialist methodology.

 

The colonialist methodology is characterised by the comprehensive, exhaustive oppression of the colonised peoples. This goes beyond the physical exploitation of a people and their indigenous resources - this oppression also includes systemic cultural and psychological manipulation, which is designed to improve social control and enforce a hierarchy. Frantz Fanon, a postcolonial political theorist, argues that the lasting effects of colonisation, even after independence, often manifest as intergenerational psychological traumas and conditioning that remain lodged in the collective psyches of colonised peoples.[3]

 

Many forms of racial disparity in modern life can be seen as the resultant effects of colonialism, including colourism (prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone, typically among people of the same ethnic or racial group), internalised racism (racism knowingly or unknowingly performed against one’s own ethnic group), the bias legal systems have against people of colour, and the vilification of indigenous belief systems. One specific example of postcolonial oppression is the prison system in the US; David A Love and Vijay Das argue that the American prison system is simply a reiteration of pre-Civil War slavery, as African-Americans are incarcerated at a disproportionate rate and are often punished with greater severity than their white counterparts.[4]The accuracy of this comparison is strengthened by the exploitation of American prisoners - convicts are often required to do manual and/or high-risk labour, such as construction or firefighting.[5]

 

Colonialist methodology manifests as the rivalry between T’Challa and Killmonger.  Killmonger, unlike his cousin, openly challenges white supremacy and advocates for the validation and liberation of Black people around to world. He puts the needs of the oppressed before those of the oppressors, and will stop at nothing to achieve their freedom. This is why his intentions were so seductive to victims of racial oppression. In spite of his violence, his desires were pure. He wanted an end to racial injustice and subjugation.

 

Thus, Marvel’s radicalisation of what could have been an effective revolutionary was intentional. Without the violence and misogyny, Killmonger would have held the morally correct position. Had Killmonger been peaceful, and had used nonviolent means for the liberation of his people, he would have been presented as a man with valid grievances, not just advocating for equality, but holding non-Black individuals and populations accountable. Killmonger demanded that structures and institutions upholding white supremacy and perpetuating racism be dismantled and rebuilt from the ground up. He fought to empower oppressed peoples to reclaim their autonomy and finally live their lives with the humanity and dignity that they deserve.  It is evident from Killmonger’s beliefs that racial equality cannot exist alongside white supremacy; the existence of one is antithetical to the other. White people cannot maintain their privilege whilst simultaneously hoping for racial equality, as said privilege exists at the expense of marginalised groups.

 

Killmonger, with the above modifications made to his methods, therefore represents a harsh reality that many people aren’t willing to face - true liberation from racism and anti-blackness requires sacrifice. Non-Black people would need to sacrifice the systems and institutions affording them privilege on the basis of their skin colour in order to realise a world of racial equality. This would mean actively dismantling centuries of structures which contribute to Black inequality, such as the US prison system. On a personal level, this requires non-Black people to confront individual biases and challenge bigotry in their lives, every single time it surfaces. This work is hard. And for many, this work involves sacrifices that challenge their comfort and privilege - sacrifices they are unwilling to make.


 

Black Panther will always be a cultural phenomenon. The now-iconic “Wakanda Forever” salute will take its place permanently in modern pop culture alongside Star Trek’s Vulcan salute and the dab. Not only is it culturally significant, but there is no denying the positive impacts this film will have on audiences today. However, Black Panther may have shown us Black people in a way we’ve never seen them before, but it does not do more than that. So take this action movie for what it is, and read up on postcolonial theory for a genuine look at modern race relations.

 

 

 

References

 

[1] Singer, Matt. “Black Panther Passes Titanic, Becomes the Third Biggest Hit Ever.”ScreenCrush, 8 Apr. 2018, screencrush.com/black-panther-passes-titanic/.

[2] Ghani, A., Lockhart, C. (2009) Fixing Failed States: A Framework for Rebuilding a Fractured World. Oxford University Press, New York, United States

[3]Hook, Derek (2004). Fanon and the psychoanalysis of racism [online]. London: LSE Research Online. Available at: http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/2567/1/Fanonandthepscyho.pdf

[4] Love, D. and Das, V. (2018). Slavery in the US prison system. [online] Aljazeera.com. Available at: https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2017/09/slavery-prison-system-170901082522072.html

[5] The Constitution of the United States of America, Amendment 13.