Letter from some readers:

More Wrangling About the Movie Black Panther

March 26, 2018 | Revolution Newspaper | revcom.us


We are writing this letter to contribute to further discussion and wrangling with this very important movie, which has had a major impact, which many people have seen, and which many people are discussing and debating.

If you have not yet read the review by Noche Diaz, stop reading this letter and go read it. This letter is a reflection on the analysis of the film in that review.

Ultimately, we agree with how Noche Diaz calls out the filmmakers both for their depiction of what passes for revolution and revolutionary youth (as epitomized by the character Killmonger) and their clear stand on the side of reform and against the desirability of revolution—and if it comes down to it, on the side of counterrevolution. But there are three issues which we want to thrash out with a little bit more depth.

First, we think that the writers and director were seriously and honestly wrangling with the moral dilemma of reform vs. revolution. An important question at this moment in time is why, as Noche Diaz puts it, “they stumbled badly.” This is an important strategic question for the revolution and something to explore more deeply.

Second, we feel that it is important to explore more deeply the character of Erik Killmonger—both from the viewpoint of why the filmmakers depicted him in the way that they did and in terms of the objective effect this character is having on the audience, those among all strata of (but not only) Black people.

Third, in our wranglings with this, we are not sure if it is correct to label this movie “poisonous gas” with the finality of verdict in relation both to the intent of the filmmakers and to the objective effect of the movie on those watching it. It is one thing to point to where the logic of the movie ultimately leads (as Noche Diaz does), but at the same it’s important methodologically in evaluating a multilayered work of art (and more generally) to guard against “flattening out” contradictions and in this case, to pass judgment on a film based on what it may represent in the final analysis.

To give a very short synopsis of the central storyline of the movie: Black Panther is set in the context of Wakanda, a fictional African nation with a fantasy resource, vibranium, which has allowed it to develop advanced technology and remain unconquered because it has been able to remain hidden from the rest of the world, thus not becoming the target of the colonial forces in the world which for centuries had plundered Africa. The film depicts this fictional African country beautifully and imaginatively, bringing to life its language, dress, culture, and traditions. The creativity and artistry of the movie, in conjunction with a Black superhero, an overwhelmingly Black cast, and its portrayal of women as intelligent, strong, and courageous, have rightfully earned the movie critical acclaim and have contributed to its becoming a cultural phenomenon.

The two central characters in the film are T’Challa, the new king of Wakanda, the Black Panther; and Erik Killmonger, who was born and grew up in Oakland, California, but whose father was N’Jobu, a Wakandan who had been sent to the U.S. to keep tabs on what was going on there. We are going to rely on your having seen the movie or having read Diaz’s review to understand why Killmonger became the enemy of the Wakandan rulers and how this propelled his life forward. It is this plot line, the contradiction between Killmonger and the Wakandan rulers, particularly T’Challa, the Black Panther, which drives the film and through which the moral issue between reform vs. revolution is played out.

A key argument in the movie, being battled out in various dimensions, centers around two moral dilemmas.

The first is: Should Wakanda, with its advanced civilization and its immense resources (including the ability to heal people), take on the responsibility to help people beyond their borders, or does the horrid history of slavery, colonization, and relentless exploitation and oppression in Africa by colonial and imperial powers justify Wakanda’s choice to protect itself by staying hidden from the rest of the world? There was some dissent among Wakanda’s elite, some of whom did want to use their powers to help others (including by sharing the technology they had developed that gave individuals some superpowers). Early in the movie we see that one of the characters, Nakia, is undercover in an unidentified African nation rescuing young women being kidnapped and enslaved. In fact, this moral dilemma is something which T’Challa (who early in the movie takes on the role of a young heir to the throne of Wakanda and the title of Black Panther) struggles with throughout the movie.

The second moral dilemma, related to this and also independent of it, which becomes the central theme of the film and clearly the one resonating with masses of people who have seen this movie is, as Noche Diaz’s review speaks to with depth and insight, reform vs. revolution. Through the character of Killmonger this dilemma is further developed: Is it the responsibility of Wakanda to utilize its resources to arm the oppressed the world over and end the oppression of all those held down by their oppressors? Killmonger’s basic stand is that it is wrong for Wakanda to do nothing, thereby allowing the oppression of people all over the world to continue. (Killmonger’s view on what constitutes revolution is something which this letter will come back to later. Essentially his is a revenge-fueled vision of the oppressed rising up to become the new oppressors, in sharp contrast to a real revolution aimed at emancipating humanity.) While the plot line concerns Wakanda versus the rest of the world, the movie makes clear (as Noche Diaz points out) that this basic moral dilemma of reform vs. revolution is “explicitly speaking to and dealing with the oppression of Black people in America, and what is to be done about it.” Within this, there are two basic themes as we understand it: one, the film is wrangling with the legacy and verdict on the Black Panthers of the 1960s (which we are not going to speak to at any length here); and two, it is wrangling with the contradictions and outlook of Black youth in this country and the implications for making revolution (the latter being concentrated in the character of Killmonger—which will be explored more deeply here). Related to both of these themes, there is also an implicit warning to those of influence in the ruling class, but more directly, we think, aimed at the Black middle and upper classes, that if you don’t pay attention to what is happening at “the bottom” of society, the whole world could be ripped apart by those rising up against oppression in the ways concentrated in the Killmonger character.

Through the course of the film, T’Challa and the Wakandan elite decide that Wakanda will come out of hiding, break with its isolationist policies, and use its resources to attempt to render reforms to help the world. In one of the last scenes of the movie, T’Challa and Nakia return to Oakland, to the basketball court and apartment building where young Killmonger had grown up. Wakanda had bought up land in the area and is in the process of putting up housing and resource centers for the people of the area. A little boy comes up to T’Challa and asks him, “Who are you?” Of course he is the Black Panther, and we believe that this was the filmmakers’ way of saying that this is the road (breakfast programs and health clinics, etc.) which the Black Panthers of the ’60s should have stayed on, whereas their ideas of revolution would ultimately lead to where Killmonger ended up. We think that this can be reasonably deduced from this scene and the whole trajectory of the movie, even as it could also be possible that the filmmakers likely have great respect for the Black Panthers, including some of their more militant ideology and self-defense actions.

This gets to the core of an urgent and strategic question for the revolution: Why, around this basic moral issue of revolution vs. reform, did the filmmakers, as Noche Diaz puts it, stumble so badly?

Noche Diaz calls out the class outlook of the filmmakers: 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.”

Again, ultimately we think how he is describing the class outlook of the filmmakers is true, but we also think that the filmmakers were struggling with this viewpoint, in regards to themselves and sections of the Black middle strata and Black bourgeoisie. This is something which we should look at more deeply in terms of how we approach this.

We think the dynamics of what the filmmakers failed to understand or refused to confront is framed by the following insight of Bob Avakian, leader of an actual revolution and the architect of a new framework of human emancipation:

Now, when you come up against the great gulf that often, and even generally, exists between the conditions and the suffering of the masses of people, on the one hand, and what you are able to do about that at any given point—when you run up against that repeatedly, everyone feels a definite pull which expresses itself in moral terms: how can you stand by and not do something about what’s happening to the masses of people?...

But moralities are a reflection of class outlooks, ultimately. They are a reflection of your understanding of reality, which takes a class expression in class society, in an ultimate and fundamental sense. And there is a morality that corresponds not to reformism and seeking merely to mitigate the conditions and the suffering of masses of people—not merely to addressing some, and only some, of the symptoms of that suffering—but to uprooting and abolishing the causes of that suffering. This morality corresponds to a revolutionary understanding, that we cannot eliminate the suffering of the masses, and in fact it’s only going to get worse, as long as this capitalist-imperialist system remains.
—“Reform or Revolution—Questions of Orientation, Questions of Morality,” Supplement to Chapter 1 of BAsics, from the talks and writings of Bob Avakian

Sometimes people with good intentions want to see the mitigation of the suffering of masses of people—but at the same time they do not want revolution. We think that the director and screenplay writer, Ryan Coogler, sincerely cares about the masses of oppressed people. His film Fruitvale Station, on the life and murder of Oscar Grant at the hands of the police, could not have been so powerful and affecting if this were not the case; nor could he have crafted the character Killmonger in some of the ways he did, with great affection (something we will speak to later), if this were not the case. One can see oppression, one can see horrible injustices, and sincerely yearn for a “better world,” but if the “understanding of [this] reality” does not start with a scientific understanding of, as BA says, “the causes of that suffering” and the recognition that “it’s only going to get worse, as long as this capitalist-imperialist system remains” then there is a basis for people to deceive themselves into believing that the only road is that of reform, and when masses do rise up, to possibly oppose them with counter-revolution. [Italic emphasis added to quote.]

Can people with a middle class or petit-bourgeois outlook (which is also the outlook of most of those from the basic masses) break with this outlook and unite with the need for an actual revolution? Yes, but no matter how sincerely they may agonize over the suffering of the masses, if they stubbornly refuse to take up a scientific materialist understanding of reality they will end up in the wrong place. This is an epistemological battle which needs to be waged very fiercely in its own right.

Once people do come to understand things more clearly, more scientifically, then one finds oneself at a place where, as Bob Avakian has put it, epistemology and morality meet. In THE NEW COMMUNISM, BA speaks to this:

I have made the point ... that there is a place where epistemology and morality meet. What does that mean? It means that, if you come to understand certain things, then the question poses itself: What do you do about what you’ve come to understand? Do you follow it, or do you turn away from it, or adulterate it, water it down and change it into something else? These are the places where epistemology and morality meet. And this doesn’t happen just once, it happens repeatedly in life and in an ongoing way, for everyone. The challenges repeatedly pose themselves. As you’re learning about life and the world, what do you do with what you’re learning?
THE NEW COMMUNISM: The science, the strategy, the leadership for an actual revolution, and a radically new society on the road to real emancipation

This is the challenge which must be put to filmmakers, artists, and intellectuals like Coogler (and of course more generally with the broad masses of people) in order to win them over, through struggle, to the side of revolution.

So the question is: Did the filmmakers “stumble badly” because they don’t have a scientific understanding of reality and therefore don’t recognize that the oppression and suffering of the masses of people is rooted in the functioning of the system of capitalism-imperialism (and they haven’t done the work to achieve this scientific understanding), or do they understand this on some level but have refused to confront the implications of this understanding—that revolution is the only solution? (We won’t go into this here because Noche Diaz did so in his review, but what the fuck were they thinking making a CIA operative a hero in the film? What does this reveal about their outlook?!) These are the kinds of questions which need to be taken up and put to the filmmakers; and more to the point, we do think the film raised these questions and it is our responsibility as revolutionary communist leaders to pull such questions out of the film and struggle with others about them.


We feel that it is important to explore more deeply the character of Killmonger―both from the viewpoint of how he was depicted by the filmmakers and the objective effect this character is having on the audience, those among all strata of (but not only) Black people.

This is where we are not sure if we totally agree with Diaz’s interpretation of the character Killmonger, or what the intent of the filmmakers was in the depiction of this character. We thought that there was a very conscious crafting of this character—with Killmonger concentrating the historic anger and angst, the rage and hopelessness of getting any justice out of this system, and at the same time concentrating an outlook that the only way to fight the system was to become like the system. Killmonger had joined the U.S. military Special Forces and killed people all over the world in order to learn, as we would say, to “fight their way.” This means fighting in correspondence to his vision of “revolution,” which was to use Wakanda’s technology to initiate a worldwide uprising of the oppressed in order to take over empires and become the new conquerors. At one point, Killmonger declares, “The sun will never set on the Wakandan Empire.” This distorted conception of revolution is one where the oppressed rise up only to become the new oppressors. And how Killmonger fought, including killing people close to him as well as anyone else who got in his way, is a reflection of “the end justifies the means.”

This is where we do need to step in and challenge the filmmakers, who themselves could not see beyond the framework of bourgeois reform or imagine a real revolutionary uprising. You do want to yell, if you are going to pit reform vs. revolution, at least have the integrity to depict what an actual revolution would look like! What those under the leadership of Bob Avakian are fighting for is a revolution whose goal is the emancipation of humanity—the most radical revolution in human history, one that aims at nothing less than overcoming all forms of oppression and exploitation all over the world, a society where humanity could truly flourish. Furthermore, we will “fight our way,” meaning in ways corresponding to the objectives and principles of such an emancipating revolution. In discussing the character of such a revolution, Bob Avakian has pointed out that a revolution would be possible: “when there is a qualitative change in the objective situation, when a revolutionary situation and a revolutionary people in the millions and millions have been brought into being.” And in terms of the character of that revolution, he goes on to say:

...And when that revolution is made, when a new, revolutionary state power is brought into being, there would not just be a new army, but that new army would be guided by very different principles. There would be a culture in that army, but it would definitely not be (as in the hymn of the imperialist Marine Corps): “From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli”—that’s just not going to be what guides the new state apparatus! .... The principles we’re talking about here, and the reason we’re going out to win people to be emancipators of humanity, is that they’re going to be the actual backbone of the new state.
BAsics, from the talks and writings of Bob Avakian , 2:15

From what we have read, Killmonger is being embraced and is being recognized not as the villain of the film, but as its hero and (while this is debated) the “real revolutionary” (as opposed to T’Challa, the Black Panther character), by many who have seen the film including many film critics. The reason we believe this is the case is that even as Killmonger’s program of revenge (which essentially comes down to “they have ruled long enough, now it’s our turn”) mirrors that of the oppressors, it was clearly coming from the experience of the oppressed and the justness of the oppressed rising up against their oppressors.

We do not think that Ryan Coogler, the director and one of the writers, was only using the character of Killmonger as a precautionary warning to those in power. We think he is conflicted on how to view the Black youth, especially those locked in the hellhole cities of this country. Yes, his depiction of Killmonger and more broadly what is represented by Killmonger is a warning shot, so to speak, to those in power about the powder keg that they are sitting on; likewise we are sure it is also a cautionary tale to those in the middle and upper classes of Black people who see the oppression of the masses and are just “letting this be.” However, based on what we know about Coogler, there is good reason to think that he himself is in angst not just that the system has no future for Black youth (and Black people more generally), but that it has carried out such oppression and savagery for centuries. We think that he has real problems seeing beyond the hopelessness of the situation and is in fact anxious about where this hopelessness might lead. We think that this is what he is wrangling with in this movie—we do not think his humanizing of Killmonger (in various ways in the movie) was merely a sophisticated cynical device to sneak in why revolution might seem like something you want, but really it is a dead end.

At the end of the movie, Killmonger refuses to give up on opposing the system (or as Noche Diaz puts it, refuses to denounce revolution) when he refuses T’Challa’s offer to allow him to live, because obviously it would be on T’Challa’s terms. Killmonger’s defiant response to T’Challa was, “Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from the ships, because they knew death was better than bondage.” We did not think that this was a cynical move by Coogler to say to the masses, give up of any hope of revolution—your only choices are to give in to the system or die. We do not think this was Coogler’s only intention (though it could have been one possible interpretation), nor do we think this is the objective effect it is having on the masses of Black people as well people more broadly. But to be honest, we do not know for sure, but in things we are reading about the responses to the film, this is not the hit we are getting. To anyone who watched this film and has any heart, we think this scene might have been meant to legitimize Killmonger’s hatred of the historic oppression of Black people and to keep open the question of revolution. Even if this was not the intent of the filmmakers, we think this is the objective effect it has been having on many in the audience. Whether this was the intent of the script or the result of the moving and powerful performance by Michael B. Jordan, we are not certain—but we do think this is the objective effect. But in any case, the Killmonger character was crafted with both an emotional and intellectual core that was meant to be admired and wrangled with in a number of dimensions. Finally, it has created a lot of controversy and debate around how to understand Killmonger.

None of this is to argue that the filmmakers have or support a more liberating view of an actual revolution.

Clearly, the filmmakers are much more comfortable with some kind of fairytale of reform. The last scenes in the film where Wakanda comes out of “hiding,” joins the world “community,” and starts dispensing charity to the oppressed are very clear on this. But this was not the emotional core of the ending of the movie—it was definitely Killmonger’s defeat and then death. We interpreted this to say, to rebel is just, but to rebel the way Killmonger tried is a dead end—but we think the filmmakers were possibly leaving open this question of revolution as something to be wrangled with.

By pitting T’Challa, the king of Wakanda and the Black Panther, against Killmonger and siding with a benevolent bourgeoisie over Killmonger and what is represented by his character, this film (whether this was the intention of the filmmakers or not) squarely raises a very strategic question for the revolution: “Are the masses fit to rule?” Clearly this film says no! Two things here: One, when was the last time this question has even been raised in a mass way in the culture; and two, related to this, we need to see this as an opportunity to struggle with the filmmakers (as well as other artists and intellectuals) and the masses more generally around this strategic question.

What it means and how to approach preparing the masses to be fit to rule is spoken to in “On the Strategy for Revolution”:

Fight the Power, and Transform the People, for Revolution is a key part of our strategic approach, which provides a way for the Party to unite with and give leadership to people to change themselves as they take part in the struggle to change the world...to lift their heads and broaden their vision, to recognize what kind of world is possible, what their real interests are, and who their real friends and real enemies are, as they rise up against this system...to take up a revolutionary viewpoint and revolutionary values and morals as they join with others to resist this system’s crimes and build up the basis for the ultimate all-out revolutionary struggle to sweep this system away and bring in a whole new way of organizing society, a whole new way of being...to become emancipators of humanity.

For all this to happen, and for the revolution to have a real chance of winning, leadership is essential. And there is such leadership. But there is also much work to do.
A Statement from the Revolutionary Communist Party, “On the Strategy for Revolution”


As Noche Diaz points out, this film has been seen by millions and millions of people, and among Black people it was “so welcomed as a breath of fresh air.” We do think it is necessary to call out, as Noche Diaz has done, what is “poisonous” in the film. Yet, our thinking is that even with all the serious problems with this film, the film has opened up “air” or space to delve into, wrangle with, and sharply struggle out these questions with individuals and blocs of people—comparing and contrasting different approaches, different world views, different epistemologies, and where they will lead. Further, because we think that the filmmakers are themselves wrangling with some of the questions raised above, we do not think it is correct to label this movie “poisonous gas” with the finality of verdict in relation both to the intent of the filmmakers and especially to the objective effect of the movie on the audience.




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