Some Thoughts on Black Panther—Fresh Air, or Poisonous Gas?

by Noche Diaz

March 5, 2018 | Revolution Newspaper |


Black Panther tells the story of Wakanda, a fictional African nation with a fantasy resource, vibranium, which has allowed it to develop advanced technology and remain unconquered and hidden from that world. The King of Wakanda assumes the mantle of the superhero Black Panther. This film tells how T’Challa takes on the role of a young heir to the throne of Wakanda and the title of Black Panther.

The oppression of Black people in America... and what is to be done about it

With all of the film’s at times imaginative and beautiful (in my opinion) African envisionings, it is explicitly speaking to and dealing with the oppression of Black people in America, and what is to be done about it. The filmmakers set the prologue scenes in Oakland partly because of director Ryan Coogler’s previous film, Fruitvale Station, about the life and murder of Oscar Grant by the police, and the whole outrage of police terror that it concentrates, and partly to address the revolutionary legacy of the Black Panther Party (BPP), which began in Oakland in 1966. And the choice of setting the prologue in 1992, flashing brief news coverage of what appears to be the LA rebellion, focuses up on the periodic eruptions of resistance to the oppression of Black people.

This is made even more explicit in those early scenes at the apartment of N’Jobu, T’Challa’s uncle and the father of Erik Killmonger, a young boy playing basketball outside who will grow up to become T’Challa’s nemesis. The apartment is decorated with posters on the walls including BPP leader Huey P. Newton in the wicker chair, an Emory Douglas (BPP artist) poster from the revolutionary days, and a poster for the Public Enemy album It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. Right toward the beginning of the film, in a scene that sets the main plot of the movie into motion, we see N’Jobu confronted by his brother T’Chaka (T’Challa’s father and, in this prologue, still Wakanda’s King and Black Panther). N’Jobu runs down why he has betrayed Wakanda and sold off some of their resources to fund his weapons. He sincerely runs down why he could no longer carry out his mission of just observing, that he has seen the way people here are suffering and that when masses try to rise up, the oppressors kill their leaders, flood their neighborhoods with drugs, over-police them, massively incarcerate them... and he CAN’T JUST WATCH. And this also sets up what is major theme of the movie: reform versus revolution.

Killmonger, who becomes the film’s main antagonist, is the son of N’Jobu and an African-American woman (who is not a character in the film). After the killing of his father by T’Chaka, Killmonger is abandoned in America. He feels bitterness toward Wakanda for doing nothing about the oppression that he and people like him have faced, and aims to make his way into Wakanda to steal its vibranium in order to arm and fund uprisings of oppressed people throughout the world, and to rule over an upside down empire where those who were oppressed are now ruling over and oppressing everyone else.

How to view the Killmongers of the world

Many of the artistic beats are very conscious in their messaging, right down to soundtrack and how they use it. There is a scene that really concentrates something about the movie. Shortly after Killmonger wins the ritual battle with T’Challa and becomes the new king of Wakanda, he is shown walking to the throne. You hear heavy bass pounding hip-hop beats blasting along with the ascendancy of the bad guy, thus symbolizing through both the character of Killmonger, and the music that accompanies him to the throne, the pent up rage of the masses of Black people in the inner cities who are demonized, cast off, and cast down, and then presenting this unleashed rage ascending to power as something to truly fear.

The movie tries not to blame the people who feel the rage. That’s part of what’s so sophisticated about this treatment, and part of what I think makes it so effective and so dangerous. You start off hating Killmonger because he’s so cartoonishly bad: he works with the evil white guy (Klaue) who is stealing Wakanda’s resources and killing important characters, and then Killmonger heartlessly and without hesitation kills his own love interest to get the upper hand. Early on, the movie makes the idea of revolution seem like comic book bad guy stuff, almost as a joke. The way the film handles it, this gets somewhat flipped on you by the end as if it is not so much of a joke: Killmonger IS the enemy, but maybe we made him that way by ignoring the problems he’s raising, and maybe he has half a point.

Again, I feel the way they handle opposing revolution is not just done cheaply and without sophistication, and that’s part of what makes it so bad. Even the choice of making the revolutionary character the villain from the start may have been an artistic choice more sophisticated than “revolutionary = bad guy,” where they may be trying to speak to an audience that, in these kind of movies, may typically identify more with the villain already anyway. In one of the key scenes toward the end, when Killmonger is suffering from a mortal blow he recounts his father telling him about how beautiful Wakanda is and promising to take him there one day, and then Killmonger bitterly remarks about himself “You believe that? A little kid running around Oakland believing in fairy tales.” As a way of acknowledging the feeling that growing up in this situation that masses of people like him are trapped in, it seems impossible to hope. Watching this movie, I could feel like it was made for people like the person I used to be. People who have imagination and are alienated, and filled with rage. I could see a little Noche watching this movie and being pulled by the heartstrings.

By the end of the movie Killmonger seems somewhat redeemed. He is acknowledged to have been a product of oppression having been ignored for so long. The movie tries to come off as not blaming people who hate this system, but focusing the audience on the system’s excesses, and the danger of ignoring those excesses. The movie aims to not blame Killmonger or people who feel like him, but to hammer the message that all that could come of unleashing that rage is becoming the thing you’re fighting against, and that the road to actual redemption for that character (and by proxy the masses of the most bitterly oppressed) would have been (and remains) to renounce revolution. At the end when Killmonger is dying, T’Challa says, “Maybe we can still save you.” Basically offering him a chance to live if he renounces revolution. Killmonger refuses, seeing only the possibility of prison or death. He invokes the ancestors who jumped off of slave ships into the ocean because they knew it was better to die than to live in bondage.

“But these are NOT the only choices”

Here, the movie painfully draws you into a literal dead end. Killmonger actually captures how millions of youth see their future under this system: Prison or death. But these are NOT the only choices. And as long as people think these are the only choices, you see them going along with it and getting caught up in destructive rivalries with people just like them. In the Revolution Club, we see this every day. But Bob Avakian, an actual revolutionary leader, puts it this way:

People say: “You mean to tell me that these youth running around selling drugs and killing each other, and caught up in all kinds of other stuff, can be a backbone of this revolutionary state power in the future?” Yes—but not as they are now, and not without struggle. They weren’t always selling drugs and killing each other, and the rest of it—and they don’t have to be into all that in the future. Ask yourself: how does it happen that you go from beautiful children to supposedly “irredeemable monsters” in a few years? It’s because of the system, and what it does to people—not because of “unchanging and unchangeable human nature.”
BAsics 3:17

And we ARE building a movement for a real revolution that recognizes the importance of winning people to be emancipators of humanity. This takes struggle, at times ferocious struggle, but it is possible. And as part of that struggle, where one of the things we fight for—and fight with youth like Killmonger over—are the six Points of Attention for the Revolution that concentrate this revolutionary morality.

Instead, where the logic of the movie goes is that since we don’t want to become what we’re fighting, any attempt at revolution would set us back and so must be suppressed and put down. Yes, you can’t ignore the problems, so... buy up some buildings, show kids a spacecraft and give at least one of the kids on the playground something to dream about, all while playing a noble Mandela figure at the UN. It’s a message of counterrevolution, which is explicit at times.

An unintended consequence of this film could be people who feel that rage against this system actually celebrating the revenge-fueled outlook, and identifying more with the Killmonger character, played by the charismatic Michael B. Jordan, who is way more compelling than the exceedingly boring king put on the stage by Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa, who is just much more boring than the other major characters in the movie. And, again, the danger of revenge IS a real problem facing a real revolution.

But this has been addressed and answered in a completely different way, with science and heart, by Bob Avakian, who puts it this way:

In the final analysis, as Engels once expressed it, the proletariat must win its emancipation on the battlefield. But there is not only the question of winning in this sense but of how we win in the largest sense. One of the significant if perhaps subtle and often little-noticed ways in which the enemy, even in defeat, seeks to exact revenge on the revolution and sow the seed of its future undoing is in what he would force the revolutionaries to become in order to defeat him. It will come to this: we will have to face him in the trenches and defeat him amidst terrible destruction but we must not in the process annihilate the fundamental difference between the enemy and ourselves. Here the example of Marx is illuminating: he repeatedly fought at close quarters with the ideologists and apologists of the bourgeoisie but he never fought them on their terms or with their outlook; with Marx his method is as exhilarating as his goal is inspiring. We must be able to maintain our firmness of principles but at the same time our flexibility, our materialism and our dialectics, our realism and our romanticism, our solemn sense of purpose and our sense of humor.
BAsics 5:24

THIS is the example and model for people who really want to see all oppression ended. This is the take home message people need to be getting when they have their spirits and imaginations lifted. I can remember when I first read those words from BA feeling like finally I wasn’t just crazy for fucking hating the way the world was, and feeling challenged to be part of taking responsibility for how we win in the largest sense, and to reach for something higher than revenge because that wouldn’t get us past this world.

The Class Outlook Behind the Film

But what we get coming through in the film is the vision and aspirations characteristic of sections of Black middle strata and Black bourgeoisie, along with their fear of basic masses of Black people, their destructive potential, and the upheaval that would come from their rising up. The fear that if this gets unleashed, the only place it can go is a bloodbath of revenge with despotic new rule over the people. This is part of the intentions of settings in Oakland and 1992. To put front and center the “Baltimores and Fergusons” and that “problem.” It seems to say that you can understand why people feel that way, but this potential rage should still be feared, put down, and have the edge taken off by giving something to at least some of the kids in the neighborhood. The best thing that can be done, and what such uprising and upheaval would jeopardize, is those with some status spreading the resources, investing in the community, and trying to teach kids better. You have to renounce revolution, and accept the whole framework of this system and only then can you do something and have some position and carve out some arrangement in this world.

This feeds into the idea that there’s some romanticized past (a utopia of benevolent African kings ruling over subjects who are either warriors, scholars, or contented workers) to look back to, and maybe some future greatness to hope for, but nothing to come out of the horrific experience of Black people in America. The film doesn’t ignore the ugly, but does not see anything good that can come of it all. What came to mind for me was the sharp contrast with Bob Avakian’s statement:

There is the potential for something of unprecedented beauty to arise out of unspeakable ugliness: Black people playing a crucial role in putting an end, at long last, to this system which has, for so long, not just exploited but dehumanized, terrorized and tormented them in a thousand ways—putting an end to this in the only way it can be done—by fighting to emancipate humanity, to put an end to the long night in which human society has been divided into masters and slaves, and the masses of humanity have been lashed, beaten, raped, slaughtered, shackled and shrouded in ignorance and misery.

Crawling into bed with the REAL monsters and murderers... the CIA

And then there’s the way the message of this film gets tied together with America as a force for good through this CIA agent, the movie’s only redeemable good guy white character. This is a total upside down presenting of the CIA, pretending it exists to stop bad guys in world, including the really bad one, Klaue, who sees Wakanda as a land of savages and a place only good for stealing resources.

And there’s this important personal bond and strategic relationship T’Challa has with this CIA agent. With this, the movie falls into more straight up whitewashing and presenting this CIA character as some cutesy guy who is trying to do the right thing. Even if he might be a little arrogant, he is a friend, and by the way a veteran U.S. Air Force pilot, and America’s Air Force and bombing power can be used for good, like aiding the good guys in the Wakanda Civil War toward the end. (Because America always intervenes on the side of the good guys, or at least with good intentions. This is the GTF—the great tautological fallacy—BA talks about.)

We’re supposed to ignore all the crimes committed by the CIA around the world, including Africa, backing and installing brutal regimes and bloody coups to enforce the American empire. Just look at the CIA-orchestrated murder of the revolutionary leader Patrice Lumumba in the Congo and the installation of Mobutu, a vicious act that set into motion consequences that have caused decades of misery for the Congolese people and directly cost over six million African lives. You can look at the American Crime series on for a true sense of the scale and depth of mass murder and brutality that has been let loose by America, including by its CIA.

I say “ignoring” because, here too if you want to acknowledge this ugly history, they supposedly have something for you too! The only one who seems to know of the massive crimes of the CIA is the CIA agent himself, who points out that Killmonger is “one of us” (American Black Ops, Navy seal assassin) who is trained to and has carried out mass murder. That what he is doing in Wakanda is exactly how they are trained to do, sabotage and overthrow sovereign governments and destroy their mechanisms of political rule, whether it’s sabotaging their elections or destroying their lines of succession. Killmonger also briefly hints at the mass murder he committed in service of America in order to get where he is. And while we’re here, let’s note this: This movie tells us that a character like Killmonger cannot be saved, but the CIA who gives the orders can be made into an ally... GIVE ME A BREAK!

This is all said straight up in the movie, but it’s done in a way so it’s easy to skip over, and any implications of it are ignored by all the characters in the movie, and by extension the audience can look past that too. But the point of it being there, I think, is so that even if you think America is not a force for good in world, you can still have this friend in the CIA who is trying to do good within it.

And after all, the supposed answer to all this is that Wakanda can be a model of what a true nation being a force for good in the world can be, and that this is what can bring out the best of even America. This is captured in the scene of the movie where they’re in the interrogation room handling Klaue, and the CIA agent is swaggering around as if he is in charge of everything and setting terms while the main characters are speaking Wakandan and laughing about him because they know they are more powerful than he is and are really the ones who are setting the terms. So even if you are one of those who may think America is no good now, don’t look any deeper at the system, because if we have a Black capitalist country, we can set terms and America can act better.

Glimmers of possibility... and painful disappointment

There is more to speak to both in the film and the mass phenomenon associated with it, and the thinking and intent of the people who made it, as well as why it was so welcomed as a breath of fresh air among huge numbers of (especially Black) people.

It does say something about this country that it was received as a collective triumph to even have a big budget mainstream movie like this. And there are other artistic choices in the movie that are speaking to real contradictions that Black artists face in the art world, such as being allowed to portray the whole human spectrum in the cast of Black characters (T’Challa’s little sister Shuri for example, who is a geeky tech whiz, and breaks restrictive Black character archetypes).

And there is the way women are portrayed here. It portrays women as fully capable of fighting for the nation, not just fighting for or supporting their husbands or the men in general. This is concentrated in the scene toward the end where Okoye, the woman who is Wakanda’s greatest general stands off with and is ready to kill the man who is her lover, W’Kabi, for her country and what she believes is right, and he is not able to do the same (“You would kill me, my love?” and when it’s clear she would he dismounts his powerful Rhino and bends his knees in submission). Women are warriors, spies, tech experts, and Shuri has no romantic interest at all. I can’t remember any of the Wakandan women portrayed as weak or as sex symbols or objects. I don’t remember a single scene where the camera hangs on a woman’s body part for titillation.

One of the real hurtful things about this movie is that director Ryan Coogler’s first movie, Fruitvale Station, was truly one of the truly great films of the past 25 years, in which the brutal injustice of this system, and the humanity of people usually demonized and killed twice (murdered by police, and then vilified after being murdered) shone through. Whatever his intentions were with Black Panther, he (at best) stumbled badly.

In other words, there are real artistic reasons, along with the hype of an almost all-Black superhero movie, that I could see why this would be welcomed with such anticipation and excitement by masses of people. All that goes to underscore the danger and damage of this movie’s counterrevolutionary theme.

Everyone’s “waiting to exhale” and take in a breath of fresh air... then finally that fresh air seems to come along, only to be mixed in with a poisonous gas.




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