White Lion, Black Panther: An Earnest Critique of Marvel’s Superhero Blockbuster
Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.
- George Orwell, 1984
Marvel’s blockbuster superhero film Black Panther may have come out almost a year ago, and it may have grossed over a billion dollars in box office sales, but still some questions linger from my initial viewing that tug at my sense for the truth.
In essence, the first time I sat down to watch Black Panther, I had my guard up. I knew that it was a film called Black Panther. I knew that it was produced by Marvel Studios, which is owned by Disney, the world’s largest media corporation. I knew that it was being heralded as a film of urgent social importance. Yet I was skeptical. Is it possible for the most powerful, and wealthiest, entertainment company in the world to produce a work of genuine social importance? Isn’t it true that with great power comes great limitation on artistic expression? Because of this, I went in prepared for this film to try and convince me that 2+2=5. And as expected, it did just that.
To begin with, let us consider the character Erik Killmonger. This man is a disparate and abandoned member of African royalty, left to grow up rootless in a foreign land. He is the only black American male in this film, and clearly, the closest character who we could come to consider as personifying the Black Panther movement as a whole. He grew up disadvantaged and separated from his ancestral roots in a disadvantaged community in Oakland, California. He should be the protagonist, the character that we identify with. Except we aren’t. We are pulled away from him and forced to view him from the outside; to regard him as a threat. But why? Because Killmonger is portrayed as a ruthless sociopath.
Yet he is also the only character with legitimate political and social grievances. Are you confused yet? This dichotomy can establish a troubling association in the mind of the viewer. It may even be a clever and intentional way of inverting a basic historical truth. Any semblance of a revolutionary message becomes diluted when a character who personifies the Black Panthers acts in a totally immoral way and goes on inexplicable murderous rampages.
Now enters the other half of this subtle trick: Agent Ross. Ross is the only white American male in this film, and is not only portrayed as an ally of our protagonist and the rest of the Wakandan elite, but he is also a CIA agent. Right away this should set off some red flags. We know that the Black Panthers stood in opposition of American Imperialism. What instrument of power could be more closely associated with those neocolonialist forces of global aggression than the Central Intelligence Agency? Yet in the Black Panther cinematic universe, Ross is “on our side” and Killmonger is not.
There is a scene that illuminates this contradiction particularly well. In the third act, as an angry and murderous Killmonger is approaching the outer limits of Wakanda, Ross is with Shuri, a Wakandan princess and specialist in vibranium-based engineering. In order to explain to her how dangerous this new threat is, he shares the fact that Killmonger used to kill people and overthrow sovereign governments all around the world. He’s telling her that Killmonger is going to subvert Wakandan power and use their vibranium for his own aims of armed conquest.
Now consider this for a moment: overthrowing sovereign governments in service of American Imperialism is precisely what the CIA has been involved with for decades. In some cases, the purpose of this activity was to provide broader access for American corporations to the natural resources of these countries or to subvert stronger labor protections which would render it impossible for them to utilize sweatshops abroad. There is something particularly outrageous in watching Ross, the personification of the CIA, ascribe its own behaviors to that of Killmonger, the personification of the very forces which stood in opposition of that kind of activity. In this film, down is up and up is down. Killmonger should have been the one standing by Shuri’s side, warning her of the dangers of allowing someone like Ross inside of her brother’s kingdom.
This leads to my next thought:
Hypothesizing a more honest way this story could have unfolded
We know that Killmonger is the son of Wakandan royalty, but his father was killed by another Wakandan for betraying his society and smuggling out some vibranium for sale. Subsequently, Killmonger grew up fatherless and disconnected from the Wakandan society as a black male in a disadvantaged community in Oakland, CA.
Let’s remember that Wakanda is a society in self-imposed isolation because of its unique possession of vibranium. Some of those in power within Wakanda want to use vibranium to help others less fortunate, but the rule of the day is that this cannot be done, because those in power feel they should not disclose their possession of it to the wider world. To do so would deprive them of their advantage and leave the Wakandan society vulnerable to forces that would want to steal it for themselves. The kingdom is as strong as it is because it has thus far protected its self against colonialism. It was colonialism and neocolonialism that carved up Africa, that created and sustained the Transatlantic slave trade, and that disrupted democratically elected leadership. So, if this film reflected reality, it would be Ross whose motive it was to steal the precious material. In fact, we saw him doing just that when he was first introduced in the film. Yet our protagonist, T’challa, still lets him in and by extension, we the audience are expected to forgive him.
Because of his unique upbringing, Killmonger is the only Wakandan in the world who knows first-hand, the struggle of an oppressed person of color outside the confines of Wakandan territory. Therefore, he is the only Wakandan who truly understands why they should want to come out and use their vibranium to tip the scales and help the oppressed. It could have been his mission to return to Wakanda, motivated by a peaceful desire to bring them his message of truth, and to plead for them to use it to help and to unify the African diaspora.
Perhaps when the T’Challa, the King of Wakanda allowed Ross into his kingdom, and Ross discovers the vibranium that powers their advanced society, he could have been the one to go and convince W’Kabi, the leader of the Border Tribe, to help him overthrow the king, instead of Killmonger. This is what the CIA has done in the past, after all.
While simultaneously convincing the Wakandans to use their vibranium for the betterment of the oppressed, Killmonger could have exposed Ross for the neocolonial hypocrite that he is. If the film were truthful with its personifications, Ross could have stolen all of the vibranium that he could and attempt to flee Wakanda in desperation. Then, the conflict of resolution in the third act would have been a struggle to find Ross and stop him. Ross could have used the vibranium and and because he becomes so powerful, Killmonger’s goal could then have been to unite the hitherto unconvinced Wakandan elite to join him in a struggle against the true forces of American Imperialism, much the same as the real life Black Panthers. If Ross could be defeated, Killmonger would win and the Wakandans could have joined with him to spread independence and self-sufficiency to the oppressed around the globe.
Ultimately, the economic foundations of this country must be shaken if black people are to control their lives. The colonies of the United States—and this includes the black ghettoes within its borders, north and south—must be liberated. For a century, this nation has been like an octopus of exploitation, its tentacles stretching from Mississippi and Harlem to South America, the Middle East, southern Africa, and Vietnam; the form of exploitation varies from area to area but the essential result has been the same—a powerful few have been maintained and enriched at the expense of the poor and voiceless colored masses. This pattern must be broken.
- Kwame Ture, former Honorary Prime Minster of the Black Panther Party
In the end, the message of this film emerged to me as thus:
If you grow up fatherless and disadvantaged as a black male in America, you will become violently unrestrained and your political grievances are unfounded. You become the villain. And if you are a member of resource-rich African nobility, the CIA is your friend, and you should cooperate without question.
But I insist that 2+2≠5. Killmonger’s portrayal, although admittedly somewhat faithful to the comic books, felt like an attack on the archetype of the disenfranchised black American male. After T’Challa’s vibranium spear was in and Killmonger knew his time was up, the last thing he shared to the audience before dying, was that he wished to be buried at sea, alongside those who crossed the Atlantic aboard slave ships and chose to depart this world by jumping off. This writing is exquisite and is a very powerful line, and exemplifies his free and fighting spirit. So why undermine his legitimacy? Why develop him as a villain? It feels deeply tragic that his character wasn’t written with respect, that he wasn’t moral and his cause redeemed in the end.
This game of smoke and mirrors reminds me of the FBI’s COINTEL Program, which was launched under the direction of then director Herbert Hoover for the purpose of disrupting the potency of the country’s New Left, which included black nationalist movements. One of the stated methods used by the FBI was to undermine public opinion through the release of “documentaries” that were cleverly edited to make members of the Black Panther Party appear violent and aggressive.
On the contrary, history shows us that one of the worst offenses the Panthers were guilty of was providing free breakfasts to school children. It seems little has changed when we have a blockbuster film in which the character we should be rooting for is arbitrarily ascribed with the traits of unrestrained violence. How clever it is to have Killmonger exude the same destructive, neocolonialist behaviors (e.g. overthrowing sovereign governments) that the the real-world black nationalists fought against. This resurrection of COINTELPRO tactics is particularly interesting considering the FBI is still waging this kind of war against those it has chosen to identify as “Black Identity Extremists”.
Some movie-goers have complained that Black Panther is not radical enough; that its politics are too safe. And there are others who would prefer it this way. But perhaps the truth is only as radical as the lie it seeks to subvert. If an honest film would be too risky and revolutionary to produce, perhaps we should direct our critical gaze towards that which this hypothetical radical film would address: the inconvenient realities of the contemporary and historical relationship between American Imperialism and the African diaspora.