WE WERE WAITING for a film like Black Panther, but Black Panther is not the film we were waiting for.  The first sign of ambiguity is the fact that the movie was enthusiastically received all across the political spectrum: from partisans of black emancipation who see in it the first big Hollywood assertion of black power, through liberals who sympathize with its reasonable solution — education and help, not struggle — up to some representatives of the alt-right, who recognize in the film’s “Wakanda forever” another version of Trump’s “America first” (incidentally, this is why Mugabe, before he lost power, also said some kind words about Trump). When all sides recognize themselves in the same product, we can be sure that the product in question is ideology at its purest — a kind of empty vessel containing antagonistic elements.
The plot begins many centuries ago, with five African tribes fighting over a meteorite that contains vibranium, a metal that can store apparently limitless energy. One of the warriors gains superhuman abilities by eating a “heart-shaped herb” that bears traces of the metal. He becomes the first “Black Panther,” uniting all but one tribe to form the nation of Wakanda. For centuries after, the Wakandans isolate themselves from the world, which believes them to be an undeveloped African country; in fact, they are highly developed, using vibranium to develop advanced technology. Already this starting point seems problematic: recent history teaches us that being blessed by some precious natural resource is rather a curse in disguise — think about today’s Congo, which is an inoperative “rogue state,” precisely because of its incredible wealth of natural resources (and the way they are ruthlessly exploited for it).
The scene then shifts to Oakland, which was one of the strongholds of the real Black Panthers, a radical black liberation movement from the 1960s, which was ruthlessly suppressed by the FBI. Following the path of the Black Panther comics, the movie — without ever directly mentioning the real Panthers — in a simple but no less masterful stroke of ideological manipulation efficiently kidnaps the name, so that its first association is now no longer the old radical militant organization but a superhero-king of a powerful African kingdom. More precisely, there are two Black Panthers in the film, the king T’Challa and his cousin, Erik Killmonger. Each of them stands for a different political vision. Erik spent his youth in Oakland and then as a US army black-ops soldier; his domain is poverty, gang violence, and military brutality, while T’Challa was raised in the secluded opulence of the Wakanda’s royal court. Erik advocates a militant global solidarity: Wakanda should put its wealth, knowledge, and power at the disposal of the oppressed all around the world so that they can overthrow the existing world order. Meanwhile T’Challa is slowly moving away from the traditional isolationism of “Wakanda first!” to a gradual and peaceful globalism that would act within the coordinates of the existing world order and its institutions, spreading education and technological help — and simultaneously maintaining the unique Wakandan culture and way of life. T’Challa’s political arc makes him a doubtful hero torn between different paths of action from the usual hyper-active superhero, while his opponent Killmonger is always ready to act and knows what to do.
No, Black Panther is not the film we were waiting for. One of the signs that something is wrong with this picture is the strange role of the two white characters, the “bad” South-African Klaue and the “good” CIA agent Ross. The “bad” Klaue doesn’t fit the role of the villain for which he is predestined — he is all too weak and comical. Ross is a much more enigmatic figure, in some sense the symptom of the film: he is a CIA agent, loyal to the US government, who participates in the Wakandan civil war with an ironic distance, strangely non-engaged, as if he is participating in a show. Why is he selected to shoot down Killmonger’s planes? Isn’t it that he holds the place of the existing global system in the film’s universe? And, at the same time, he holds the place of the majority of the film’s white viewers, as if telling us: “It’s okay to enjoy this fantasy of black supremacy, none of us is really threatened by this alternate universe!” With T’Challa and Ross at the helm, today’s rulers can continue to sleep in peace.
That T’Challa opens up to “good” globalization but is also supported by its repressive embodiment, the CIA, demonstrates that there is no real tension between the two: African aesthetics are made seamlessly compatible with global capitalism; tradition and ultra-modernity blend together. What the beautiful spectacle of Wakanda’s capitol obliterates is the insight followed by Malcolm X when he adopted X as his family name. He signaled that the slave traders who brought the enslaved Africans from their homeland brutally deprived them of their family and ethnic roots, of their entire cultural life-world. An inspiration for the Black Panther Party, Malcolm X’s mission was not to mobilize African Americans to fight for the return to some primordial African roots, but precisely to seize the opening provided by X — an unknown, new (lack of) identity engendered by the very process of slavery. This X, which deprives black Americans of their ethnic tradition, offers a unique chance to redefine (reinvent) themselves, to freely form a new identity much more universal than white people’s professed universality. (As is well known, Malcolm X found this new identity in the universalism of Islam.) This precious lesson of Malcolm X is forgotten by Black Panther: to attain true universality, a hero must go through the experience of losing his or her roots.
Things thus seem clear, confirming Fredric Jameson’s insistence on how difficult it is to imagine a really new world, a world which does not just reflect, invert, or supplement the existing one. However, the movie offers signs that disturb this simple and obvious reading — signs that leave Killmonger’s political vision radically open. Reading the film in the way Leo Strauss read Plato’s and Spinoza’s work, as well as Milton’s Paradise Lost, we can recover this apparently foreclosed potential.
A careful Straussian reading draws attention to signs that indicate that the obvious hierarchy of theoretical positions has to be inverted. For example, although Milton follows the church’s official party line and condemns Satan’s rebellion, his sympathies are clearly with Satan in Paradise Lost. (We should add that it doesn’t matter if this preference for the “bad side” is conscious or unconscious to the author of a text; the result is the same.) Does the same not hold for Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, the final part of his Batman trilogy? Although Bane is the official villain, there are indications that he, much more than Batman himself, is the film’s authentic hero distorted as its villain: he is ready to sacrifice his life for his love, ready to risk everything for what he perceives as injustice, and this basic fact is occluded by superficial and rather ridiculous signs of destructive evil.
So, back to Black Panther: which are the signs enabling us to recognize in Killmonger the film’s true hero? There are many; the first among them is the scene of his death, in which he prefers to die free than to be healed and survive in the false abundance of Wakanda. The strong ethical impact of Killmonger’s last words immediately ruin the idea that he is a simple villain. What then follows is a scene of extraordinary warmth: the dying Killmonger sits down at the edge of a mountain precipice observing the beautiful Wakanda sunset, and T’Challa, who has just defeated him, silently sits at his side. There is no hatred here, just two basically good men with a different political view sharing their last moments after the battle is over. It’s a scene unimaginable in a standard action movie that culminates in the vicious destruction of the enemy. These final moments alone cast doubt on the film’s obvious reading and solicit us to deeper reflection.
Slavoj Žižek is a Slovenian philosopher and critic. He is a professor at the European Graduate School, International Director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities, Birkbeck College, University of London, and a senior researcher at the Institute of Sociology, University of Ljubljana, Slovenia. His books include Living in the End Times, First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, In Defense of Lost Causes, and others.