Rahawa Haile | Longreads | February 2018 | 12 minutes (3,078 words)
(Spoiler alert! This essay contains numerous spoilers about the film Black Panther.)
By the time I sat down to watch Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, a film about a thriving, fictional African country that has never been colonized, 12 hours had passed since the prime minister of Ethiopia resigned following years of protest and civil unrest. It would be another 12 hours before the country declared a state of emergency and enforced martial law, as the battle for succession began. Ethiopia has appeared in many conversations about Black Panther since the film’s release, despite an obvious emphasis on Wakanda, the Black Panther’s kingdom, being free of outside influences — and finances.
While interviews with Coogler reveal he based Wakanda on Lesotho, a small country surrounded on all sides by South Africa, it has become clear that most discussions about the film share a similar geography; its borders are dimensional rather than physical, existing in two universes at once. How does one simultaneously argue the joys of recognizing the Pan-African signifiers within Wakanda, as experienced by Africans watching the film, and the limits of Pan-Africanism in practice, as experienced by a diaspora longing for Africa? The beauty and tragedy of Wakanda, as well as our discourse, is that it exists in an intertidal zone: not always submerged in the fictional, as it owes much of its aesthetic to the Africa we know, but not entirely real either, as no such country exists on the African continent. The porosity and width of that border complicates an already complicated task, shedding light on the infinite points of reference possible for this film that go beyond subjective readings.
I live with the profound privilege, as a black woman in America, of knowing where I come from, of having the language of my oldest ancestors be the first one I learned. When it comes to Black Panther, I know what it means for Namibians and fans of Nnedi Okorofor’s Binti series to see Himba otjize slathered on the hair of someone who sits on the king’s council. What it means for me as a person with ties to the Horn of Africa to see numerous meskel, the Ethiopian cross, dangling from another leader’s belt. What it means for the most advanced science laboratory in the world to always be alive with South African song. I am grateful for it because I have spent my life seeing the story of Africa reduced to its most stereotypical common denominator. And I know, with every cell in my body, what it means for Wakanda’s tapestry in this film — woven from numerous African cultures — to be steeped above all else in celebration, in pride, and in the absence of shame.
Coogler’s Black Panther tells the story of T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), the superhero Black Panther who becomes the king of Wakanda following his father’s death. He is protected by the Dora Milaje, an all-women group of formidable soldiers led by Okoye (Danai Gurira) whose lover is the conservative, refugee-averse W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya). T’Challa’s sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright), is a science genius who designs his weapons, his Black Panther suit, and all manner of related tech. His ex, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’O), is a spy for the kingdom, committed to helping the most vulnerable in Africa, despite the king’s insistence on keeping Wakanda hidden from the world. M’Baku (Winston Duke) is the leader of the Jabari, a tribe within Wakanda that has rejected the methods of the monarchy and chosen to live up in the mountains. Finally, Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), serves as the film’s rage-filled antagonist, driven by revenge and a desire for black liberation by any means necessary.
Black Panther spends the majority of its runtime examining what a hidden nation like Wakanda — wealthy, technologically advanced, and home to the planet’s most powerful natural resource, vibranium — owes black populations spread across the globe. I’ve thought extensively of the burden placed on Coogler, on what an American production of this magnitude owes the continent that cradles its story, keeping in mind what centuries of false narratives about Africa have failed to convey. I believe it is this: A film set in Africa — unable by its very nature to be about Africa — whose cosmology, woven from dozens of countries exploited by empire, consists of its joys. It is a star chart of majesties more than simulacra.
How then does one criticize what is unquestionably the best Marvel movie to date by every conceivable metric known to film criticism? How best to explain that Black Panther can be a celebration of blackness, yes; a silencing of whiteness, yes; a meshing of African cultures and signifiers — all this! — while also feeling like an exercise in sustained forgetting? That the convenience of having a fake country within a real continent is the way we can take inspiration from the latter without dwelling on its losses, or the causes of them. Black Panther is an American film through and through, one heavily invested in white America’s political absence from its African narrative.
When Killmonger goads a museum curator early on in the film, calling out a history of looting, it is condemnation that falls squarely on Britain’s shoulders. Rarely must the audience think about the C.I.A.’s very real history in Africa. The fact that viewers were steered, at any point, into rooting for Martin Freeman, a British actor playing an American C.I.A. operative who attempts to purchase stolen resources from a white South African arms dealer, means that even a cinematic turducken of imperialist history gets a pass.
For all the Jabari barking and jokes made at Freeman’s expense as a colonizer, none of it makes up for the fact that a C.I.A. agent who casually speaks about destabilizing governments in an African monarch’s house doesn’t get punched in the face. The fact that every black character in that scene takes Freeman’s words in stride is indicative of a disconnect that has nothing to do with Wakanda’s self-isolation — not if Okoye is out here making “Greased Lightning” jokes, Shuri asking “what are thooooose?,” and T’Challa not blinking at the mention of SoundCloud. This blurring between who Freeman is, in a Wakanda where T’Challa is attempting to reclaim the throne, and what he is to America is clearest in a sequence where he follows Black Panther’s orders to shoot down Wakandan planes carrying Wakandan weapons that could destabilize the most powerful nations. The fact that these orders are aligned with the C.I.A.’s interest is an unimportant coincidence, buried beneath the viewer’s excitement to see the titular hero succeed.
The convenience of having a fake country within a real continent is the way we can take inspiration from Africa without dwelling on its losses.
Nonetheless, Black Panther is an undeniable joy to watch, even it if it is, at times, hard to experience. I can tell you that one of the most important things I saw, in a film set in Africa in 2018, wasn’t just the film’s lack of whiteness, but the almost complete absence of China, a country whose economic expansion throughout the continent has been singular and complicated. What’s more, for all of Killmonger’s liberation talk, Black Panther is also about the unrooted feelings of first-generation Americans, which for all intents and purposes Killmonger is. People who, despite knowing their origins, know that they will to some extent always be lost to them. Killmonger’s Wakandan-American rage and potential liberation comes from a uniquely complicated place, but we’ve yet to conjure a word for the pain of that proximity. Understandably, Black Panther only has room for so much politics, but it is important to acknowledge that it is in this selection that it reaches and abandons so many people. The film was never going to be everything to everyone — even if it meant everything to everyone. The film’s righteous anger is grounded in a real America with real problems, while its hopes lie in a fictional country distinctly removed from the reality of Africa.
In Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, Black Panther spent its opening weekend sold out five times a day out of a possible five showings. A question I repeatedly found myself asking is where Africans watching this film fit within the Afrofuturist possibility of Wakanda? How do you watch the dream of Africa, set within the real Africa, created by filmmakers in the diaspora, and then emerge to martial law? How hollow does Killmonger’s posturing and desire for a bloody uprising of the masses come across to a viewer living in the throes of one?
I know that when I leave my theater in Oakland, a disabled elder and real Black Panther will be on the verge of a no-fault eviction from her home. Five months will have passed since I watched the premiere of an Oakland-based web series about the racialized disaster of gentrification in the Bay Area at the Grand Lake Theater, the same place where Coogler made an appearance on the opening night of Black Panther. It is worth noting that the word “capitalism” does not appear once in Black Panther, despite its focus on black liberation. Killmonger’s slash-and-burn approach to freedom, and T’Challa’s future coding boot camp for black American youth, both fail to address how oppression, particularly in the 21st century, is systemic.
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The divides across the diaspora about the limitations of Killmonger’s methodology hinge on whether one believes all black revolution is created equal, if the ends justify the means. But this is all a sleight of hand. Black Panther left me unconvinced that Killmonger’s desire for black liberation outweighed his desire for revenge, and it is difficult to see revolution driven by personal revenge as more than a selfish grab for power. No damaged villain is sympathetic enough to be granted carte blanche as an agent of chaos. Killmonger may want black liberation from white oppressors around the world, but he needs Wakandan monarchy to cede to imperialism under his rule. When Killmonger says, “The sun will never set on the Wakandan Empire,” he is also referring to himself. His tenure as autocrat will never end.
It seems ludicrous and deeply conservative to think that the final form of black radicalism is imperialism buoyed by unchecked global arms distribution — just ask America. And there is no Black Power Dark Cerebro in Black Panther with which to target the world’s elite. An uprising by scattered, armed masses in the 21st century is less likely to result in a thousand Toussaint L’Ouvertures than an ending like that in Ousmane Sembene’s Camp de Thiaroye, where West African troops are slaughtered by the French after protesting how they’re forced to live.
As for Wakanda’s responsibility to the world, it’s safe to say that after 20 years of watching the latest incarnation of superhero movies — 16 years of cringing at the consequences of Peter Parker not using his superpowers to stop a thief — isolationism is never the answer. Early on in the film, audiences are encouraged to consider the middle ground proposed by Nakia, one where Wakanda helps to make the world a better place without razing it to the ground. She is quickly dismissed by T’Challa, whose allure is unsurprisingly nominal compared to the women with whom he surrounds himself. And it confounds me that the film’s ending is seen as T’Challa meeting Killmonger halfway as opposed to deferring to Nakia’s original proposal minutes into the first act.
I live with the profound privilege, as a black woman in America, of knowing where I come from. Of having the language of my oldest ancestors be the first one I learned.
If T’Challa as a character feels like the least interesting part of Black Panther, it might be because he is not the primary character pushing the narrative forward. Instead, he is in a constant position of defense. He defends the kidnapped women from the militia in Nigeria. He defends against M’Buku when he challenges the throne. He defends Agent Ross when Klaue starts shooting at him in the casino. He defends his throne, yet again, against Killmonger when he comes for it. He tries to keep the planes from leaving Wakanda. Black Panther is a king who is always catching up, both ideologically and physically, such as when Nakia and Okoye rush after Klaue and leave T’Challa to follow. (That car chase marks one of the few times T’Challa is the one actively in pursuit, while the action sequence that thrilled me most didn’t involve the Black Panther at all, but featured the Dora Milaje fighting Killmonger as a unit.)
Analyzing the film’s antagonist is more complicated. Killmonger is written as pure rage, and it’s hard for a man written as pure rage, however justified, to be a good villain. What’s impressive about Black Panther is that it asks us to examine the grey area of that designator. Unfortunately, the Killmonger we see on screen is one who has read the Baldwin line “To be black and conscious in America is to be in a constant state of rage,” and ignored Audre Lorde’s “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” The film is an ode to the exceptionalism of black American rage that, while singular, cannot speak for the majority of the diaspora. There is no precedent for worldwide liberation.
What’s more, Killmonger’s politics completely ignore the ways power structures overlap to oppress individuals. He is the type of man who would shoot down the concept of intersectionality if he met it in the streets. He kills his girlfriend. He brags about killing people of color in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as his own brothers and sisters in Africa. He is quick to assault an unarmed priestess who questions his orders. He delights in killing one of the Dora Milaje. In truth, I can only see him as a sympathetic victim if I squint hard enough at the past that made him instead of his actions on-screen.
Regardless, from T’Chaka and W’Kabi’s isolationist approach, to T’Challa’s inability to choose between isolation and visibility, to Killmonger’s ruthless pursuit of power — one fueled by the belief that America was built on the rage of white men and that a better world might emerge from the rage of black ones — men were never going to save Wakanda. Danai Gurira is the most exceptional actor in the film, and it’s worth noting, to Coogler’s credit, how the majority of humor in Black Panther is performed by the women at the expense of the men, especially T’Challa. It is what makes the king’s relationship with the women in his life who ground him feel familial, a humbled framing of masculinity I wish more filmmakers would employ. T’Challa anchors the narrative, but it is the women he is surrounded by who anchor the film and save him from himself. Killmonger has no such luxury, and despite his desire for a global community of free black people, his end is a lonely one.
The film is an ode to the exceptionalism of black American rage that, while singular, cannot speak for the majority of the diaspora. There is no precedent for worldwide liberation.
It is these quiet scenes that haunt me most throughout the film. The looks T’Challa, Okoye, and Nakia have on their faces when they see Wakanda from midair, which also serves as the audience’s first glimpse of the country. The awe with which T’Challa says, “This never gets old.” It’s one of the most important scenes of the film: To not just know where home is but to have access to it, to know that they belong. Later, the desperate exchange between Nakia and Okoye after Killmonger defeats T’Challa is equally heartrending. These are women whose allegiances are subtly examined and confronted: Okoye’s to protocol, Nakia’s to Wakanda, and both to each other. The way Okoye, anguished, all but vomits the words, “I am loyal to that throne, no matter who sits on it.” These actors do so much with so little while conveying incalculable pain in a matter of minutes. For all the talk of Black Panther’s technological accomplishments, it is important to remember that the film doesn’t just give us a star-studded cast but the full extent of their talent.
Black Panther may be a Disney product, but it would be foolish to see a film of this historical significance as intended solely for casual consumption. “This is not just a movie about a black superhero; it’s very much a black movie,” wrote journalist Jamil Smith for TIME. That blackness is global. Its very existence — Coogler’s singular execution of its $200 million budget — is a declaration of self-worth, an act of defiance aimed at an industry that has long undervalued black creatives on both sides of the camera. The film as a statement on black virtue should be celebrated, its examination of black possibility exalted, and its disparate philosophies parsed to the extent the viewer wishes.
The fact that my focus in this piece was less about the film as product and more about its politics is itself an accomplishment, a signifier of its exceptional quality. Every frame in Black Panther felt like a gift. A beautifully lit, well-moisturized, spectacularly choreographed gift. What I will remember about Black Panther’s opening weekend is the tragic relief of arguing the ideological calisthenics of a fictional African country instead of whether it is a shithole.
Black Panther’s audience hears the question “Who are you?” repeatedly over the course of two hours. The Queen-Mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett) shouts at T’Challa, “Show him who you are!” when M’Baku has the upper hand at Warrior Falls. It is the question Killmonger, bound by Wakandan chains, begs the king’s council to ask him when they first meet him. Indeed, it is the line that ends the film, uttered by a young black boy in Oakland peering up at a king no longer in hiding. That we have spent the week that follows asking ourselves the same question is the film’s lasting gift. Not only reflecting on who we are, but who are we to each other. T’Challa never apologizes to Killmonger for what his father did, for everything that was taken from him, and it is the film’s most damning omission. There is no healing that can come without the voiced expression of empathy. And I hope those who navigate the waters of their identity can eventually be greeted at a lasting shore with just that.
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Rahawa Haile is an Eritrean-American writer. Her work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the Atlantic, Outside Magazine, Pacific Standard, BuzzFeed, Hazlitt, and Rolling Stone.