Editors’ note: The new film Black Panther continues to win rave reviews and set box office records, but some viewers are more critical.
By Eric Brooks
February 25, 2018
The Atlantic magazine’s Christopher Orr offered up a glowing review of Marvel Studios’ movie, “Black Panther”. In “Black Panther Is More Than a Superhero Movie” (16 February 2018), Orr notes that the interplay between “Afrocentric visions is heady stuff, and not what one generally anticipates from a superhero film.”
True, central to Black Panther is a dialogue on how to address the conditions under which African-Americans (and many others) live their lives today.
The dialogue is limited to the contradiction between the isolated individual versus engagement. Should one remove oneself from the struggles of the larger community in order to protect one’s individual or “tribal” well being? Should one engage with the world to fix socioeconomic ills?
Who is engaged in resolving this contradiction in the movie? The feudal ruler of a secret African kingdom versus his royal cousin. Regular working people have no role in resolving this issue at all.
Black Panther, a paean to racist stereotypes of Black maleness, illustrates only two poles of struggle for political and economic power for Black people: the enraged, destructive, individualistic, anarchist Black male destroying everything around him versus the calm, thoughtful, individualistic, male working within the system to bring knowledge and wealth to the downtrodden.
Self-actualized working class women and men united organizationally in struggle against oppression have no voice in the film’s discourse.
While, happily, the film is populated with working Black actresses, the parts they play are subservient to their overlords. The female characters play no part in the feudal, individualistic decision-making process. The strong presence of Black actresses in the movie was welcome, the thinness of their characters was not.
The enraged Black man, aptly named Erik Killmonger (excellently played by Michael B. Jordan), disrespects every woman he sees, at one point threatening an older Black woman when she refused to destroy her life’s work at his behest, grabbing her neck and lifting her off the ground. Killmonger goes on to kill Black women warriors who challenge him. This protector of abstract Black humanity is completely disrespectful of Black womanhood and all Black people that he encounters.
Killmonger’s mother has no presence in the story. It is only his father’s death that appears to have made any impact on his personality, turning him into a killing machine excellently trained by the US military establishment and acting on their orders until he goes rogue.
The heroic King T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) works with his white CIA ally to defeat his Black male enemy. This partnership between a Black feudal lord and the imperialist ally has many regrettable corollaries in history and in current events.
In the period of the transatlantic slave trade, some African rulers enriched themselves transporting African women and men prisoners to the coast for sale to Europeans into chattel enslavement.
During the anti-colonial, anti-apartheid, and civil rights struggles of the last century notably the 1950’s through 1980’s, found police agencies teaming up with Black opportunists to subvert Black- led movements for power around the world.
The relationship between the Black Panther and his CIA ally is very disturbing. It becomes more so when one considers that the Black Panther Party for Self Defense was very active in the same Oakland, California area where the film locates its US scenes.
Black Panther, the comic book hero, was first introduced as a character in Marvel Comics’ Fantastic Four #52 in July, 1966. The Black Panther Party was founded on October 15, 1966. The ferment that led to the creation of that party, which was associated with socialist and communist anti-colonial struggles in Africa, began earlier on multiple continents.
The Black Panther reflected in today’s movie is an unsubtle denunciation of the struggle for working class self-determination represented by the Black Panther Party (1966), Freedom Riders (1961), and the broad civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr. (beginning around 1955; his murder was in 1968). These movements did not await a savior; working-class African Americans led a movement that included white people and many others and which undertook to change the power structure in response to their just demands.
The Black Panther in the movie is a Jesus-like figure, in that he returns from the land of the dead to save his people. This can be read that the Black people of Oakland were correct to wait (as far as we are shown in the movie) for the coming of their royal savior rather than taking matters into their own hands and demanding an end to racist oppression and capitalist exploitation.
Black Panther – the movie – presents no investigation into the underlying political and economic forces that are central to its thematic tension. The limited paths to addressing challenges facing members of the African American community are presented with no context, no investigation of the economic and political oppression that Black people face consistently throughout their lives. In fact, the movie, by choosing only the two paths that it does depict, deliberately excludes a more systemic analysis and any united mass activity.
The response to the racist oppression and capitalist exploitation in the experience of the African-American community is narrowed down to rage, not to the creative struggles that have been a continuous presence in that community since at least the time of Africans’ arrival in the Americas.
The oppression and exploitation that systemically burden Black people in meeting their subsistence needs is not linked to the same exploitation that white people experience, which is conveniently ignored.
Black Panther devolves to an argument for “giving back”. Black Panther comes to believe that he can resolve socioeconomic challenges to African Americans and other downtrodden people by sharing some portion of his vast wealth and wisdom with them, as if the downtrodden are the source of their oppression. “Giving back”, corporate “diversity” and “equality” programs, and similar “good works” programs with a focus on individual action on the fringes of vast class challenges are distractions from central struggles for systemic change.
Similarly, the concept of “white privilege” voids the continuity of systemic exploitation and oppression uniting Black and white workers in common struggle.
All these individual-centered solutions take for granted the continued existence of capitalist socioeconomic relations. They imply that the US political economy, which arose from genocide of the Native Americans, the chattel enslavement and death of hundreds of millions of Africans, and the relentless terror and oppression of white peasants and workers can be reformed into sunshine and joy through small acts of kindness.
It is important to note, as Christopher Orr’s Atlantic article does, that current luminaries of the Black bourgeois intelligentsia were inspirational to the message of the movie. Orr stated, “Though my colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates played no direct role in the film, his recent work on the Black Panther comics was a substantial inspiration.”
Please enjoy the film if you see it. The film sports gorgeous sets, beautiful people, good acting, and lots of action. Just please also keep in mind that the message the film is introducing into your thoughts is unhealthy and destructive, and needs to be rejected.
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