SEPTEMBER 8, 2018
IN THE RUN UP to the opening night of Black Panther in early 2018, there was hype, hope, and skepticism: would the general public (i.e., non-black people) turn out to see a bunch of black folks in a mythical comic book masquerade centered on Africa and the diaspora? The film is set in Wakanda, a fictional African nation that evolved in secrecy, protected from European colonial interruption. Black Panther would no doubt feature beautiful black people in a fabulous action adventure, but would Marvel, Disney, and corporate Hollywood ultimately roll out an entertaining apology for colonialism, imperialism, and white supremacy? Also, this is the Marvel Universe: a fiercely male domain. What kind of women would Black Panther showcase as supporting characters while the male warriors battled to the death to lead the nation and the world?
Black Panther broke the bank, proving to be a mass market delight. All over the world, the public flocked to watch the mostly black cast tear up the screen. Folks were shocked that the film was so good, so REAL. When the DVD dropped, Stephen Colbert asked Chadwick Boseman (who played King T’Challa, the Black Panther) how he was able to invest a cartoon character who can jump over buildings with so much reality?
Colbert’s hidden question was this: Children of the Enlightenment, aren’t we too mature, too rational for a mythical masquerade centered on Africa and the diaspora? Don’t black people in particular need realism? How can a serious actor who has played Jackie Robinson, James Brown, and Thurgood Marshall take the dilemmas of Wakanda and King T’Challa seriously? Of course Jackie Robinson, James Brown, and Thurgood Marshall could all jump over buildings too, or they never would have gotten anywhere! This hidden question about the so-called “maturity” of the film popped up everywhere. How could there be such a big deal with Black Panther when the plot was so good-guy/bad-guy thin?
I’ve participated in several academic panels on Black Panther. One learned fellow suggested that the film fulfilled our deep need to see beautiful black people reveling in their Africaness and taking care of business. However, he declared this to be an adolescent need. Folks dressing up like Wakandans weren’t doing REAL POLITICAL ACTION, weren’t attempting a mature engagement with reality. Pleasure in the beautiful spectacle of blackness was thus immature, insignificant. I was taken aback, at a loss for words. I still haven’t gotten over this; we had definitely seen different movies.
In particular, he didn’t mention the women. I had come to the panel to talk about the Women of Wakanda, not to defend the validity of popular entertainment or our so-called adolescent desires to see ourselves beautiful and flawed, competent and despairing, vital and brilliant — whoever we are: dykes, fan boys, gender queer academics, grandmas, and people who never go to superhero movies. In my theater, all these different people watched performers from the African diaspora and saw themselves as beautiful. The performer-audience bond was achieved with black bodies, and I took pleasure in that too. The Empire would denude everyone. Black Panther called to our particular bodies, ideas, and beauty. When Angela Bassett, queen mother of Hollywood, says, “It’s your time,” she is talking to us all.
I am still an adolescent, a child, a young adult, a middle-aged lady, and a post-menopausal fairy god-bitch. I went to Black Panther three times, and I bought the DVD. I will dress up like Okoye or M’Baku or Ramonda or any other character if I feel the spirit. Costumes help me perform who I mean to be; performance is the moment you make meaning of your experience! Theater is not “real” or a “mature” political engagement with reality. Theater is a transcendent, out-of-time, out-of-space, out-of-skin engagement with the cosmos, a shape-shifting, time traveling SHAKE-UP of your mind/body/spirit. Theater makes reality, not the other way around. That’s the Magic of performance, of story. From random atoms, swaths of light and sound, performers and storytellers create the worlds that we all live in.
There was no time on this panel for theorizing performance; other panelists also declared that Black Panther wasn’t REAL POLITICAL ACTION because its aesthetics were a throwback to savage days — the costumes, the architectural setting, and even the style of the movie was a primitive mish-mash, not like what you’d find today in African cities. If this is Afro-futurism, some asked, why those primitive huts atop skyscrapers and primitive costumes on lady warriors who wielded throwback spears instead of guns?
THROWBACK SPEARS? I don’t know about you, but I’d love to have one of those light-cannon, energy-spewing spears, good whenever you need a burst of force to prevent catastrophes or other stupid-ness (and to survive car chases). This is what Africans might create if never colonized. General Okoye, the leader of Wakanda’s warrior women, derides their opponents for the primitive guns they use. The shield cloaks the Wakandans rocked were marvelous, too, and the makeup and music of the film were sublime pan-Africanism.
Baaba Maal, Massamba Diop, and Kendrick Lamar created African and African-American music that carried us to our best selves. African spirituality was never grotesque heathenism. Remember the ooga-booga cannibalism of the Voodoo Queen in District 9 and minstrel Voodooism in too many other films to name? In Wakanda, our profound connections to the ancestors need not be severed in order to participate in technological modernity. African rituals offer T’Challa wisdom and the opportunity to change. In Wakanda, African traditional worldviews do not have to be tossed aside so that black folk can become citizens of the new world. Again, this is a vision of what Africans might create if never colonized. That was a movie I didn’t expect to see.
Linear, absolute, and inevitable progress is one of our cherished neoliberal myths; Western technological superiority is the pinnacle of this supposed progress. Our capitalist, might-makes-right Empire is where everyone is heading. Kleptocracy! Brilliant Europe just got there first. This neoliberal Empire lets the natives in only if we leave everything at the door: our ancestors, spirits, and worldviews; our beauty and our wisdom. Maybe, just maybe, they let the music slip through. Wakanda interrupts this pseudo-Darwinian myth of progress that denies the rest of the world our humanity.
Still, what challenges does Black Panther ultimately offer to Western hegemony? Critics of the film insist that Black Panther supports the status quo. In the film’s troubled Hollywood narrative, Killmonger, the black man representing power to the people by any means necessary, is mortally wounded in a climactic knife fight, and he prefers death to any alternative. Accommodationist T’Challa survives while revolutionary Killmonger dies. Once again, a character trying to queer the imperialist narrative of a corporate blockbuster doesn’t make it to the credits.
But is Killmonger really the revolutionary in the film? Or is he a tragic figure masking his wounds and seeking petty revenge with revolutionary rhetoric and posture? Do we see him engaging in revolutionary struggles? Does he join with the oppressed peoples of the world or the techno-wizard Wakandans to bring about change? His partners are a disposable girlfriend (who he murders) and an unrepentant greedy thug (who he also murders). Killmonger chooses to launch Wakanda’s futuristic, superior weapons at the enemies of black people, a vague indiscriminate target. How is blasting his foes (and the black people he’d like to save) a revolutionary change from the might-makes-right, multinational, corporate imperialism that savaged Africa and continues wreaking havoc throughout the world today? Killmonger has been an assassin, trained by the CIA. Is his conquest of Wakanda and call for retributive violence really a revolution, or is it merely revenge using the tools of his former masters? Has he become his own enemy?
And what about the women? Nakia, King T’Challa’s former lover, challenges Wakanda’s traditional isolationism from the beginning. Nakia urges the Black Panther to quit hiding in the bush and step out onto the global stage in order to become a leader for the rights of black people (and all people) across the world. Nakia insists that Wakanda is strong enough to display their strength and brilliance. She is a War Dog, an undercover spy who is fighting for women’s freedom in West Africa when T’Challa intervenes to invite her to his enthroning ceremony. Nakia saves a life in the first few moments she’s on screen: a young man with a gun seems to be part of a group trafficking in women. In reality, he’s a child soldier stolen from his family and forced into service by the older gangster-warriors. Nakia has been riding in the truck as one of the women stolen from her life, and she knows the boy’s story; she saves him from the superior Wakandan warriors and also liberates the women. She sends them back to their village so that they can resume their lives. Nakia is with the people, for the people. Nakia tells General Okoye that they should save the nation, not serve a mad king. Nakia is for change, for revolution. And Nakia makes it to the credits.
So what about the women? I’m not big on tragic figures who are crushed by irreconcilable forces with no hope for change. Killmonger can’t imagine different possibilities, but Nakia, Shuri (T’Challa’s sister and the young techno-genius of Wakanda), and Ramonda (T’Challa’s mother and wise woman) are able to imagine change and a different future for Wakanda. These very different women recognize the flaws in Wakanda’s relationship to the world community and to the ancestors. Tragedy often supports the status quo, but these women refuse tragedy and create better alternatives. The women bring the Black Panther back from the dead. They revolt against the mad king and the status quo of an isolationist Wakanda. The women don’t give up on Wakanda, on the dream of their ancestors. They choose life.
General Okoye, caught in a tragic struggle, also changes. She revolts against a mad king who flaunts the laws and sets himself above Wakanda. Okoye chooses to fight to the death to save her country as Nakia demanded. She is even willing to sacrifice W’Kabi, the man she loves. Like Killmonger, W’Kabi sought revenge even if it meant civil war — Wakandans killing Wakandans. As we rush to the climax, Okoye faces down a two-ton armored rhino who runs down Wakandan warriors and charges for her. The rhino is ridden by her love, W’Kabi, but Okoye is fierce and will not be moved. She stands tall. The rhino halts to lick her face and the battle is defused. When his woman declares that her love for him doesn’t supersede her love for Wakanda, W’Kabi responds to the power of her emotions (there is no good reasoning without emotion). W’Kabi understands what’s at stake. He sees the possibility of another story, and he calls off the war. He changes.
So does T’Challa; he ultimately challenges the ancestors who abandoned Killmonger to hell in America. In a sacred ceremony that sends him to the ancestors to gain the power of the Black Panther, T’Challa tells his father that it was wrong to abandon Killmonger, wrong to abandon the rest of Africa and the diaspora. T’Challa demands a change of Wakanda’s isolationist past. He does this radical act with the aid of the people — especially the revolutionary women who do not give in to revenge and tragedy. He starts a new story.
Folks have worried on Twitter and elsewhere that T’Challa might be eclipsed by the mighty women who support him. Since T’Challa isn’t the mythic rugged individualist who saves the day all by himself, some folks fear that T’Challa isn’t a real hero, but Black Panther redefines what it means to be a hero. The women stop the war machines, save T’Challa, and together they bring Wakanda out of isolation to transform the world.
Black Panther offers an Afro-futurism that is not only about projecting African diaspora people and cultures into the future; it’s also about recovering the past. Modernity is all about abstracting us from our bodies, our particular histories, our unique ways of seeing the world. But Black Panther declares, why not huts and spears and Shuri’s marvelous lab and her African-inflected genius? The glorious myth of Western progress tells us that the so-called savages have nothing to offer tomorrow — savages are just yesterday pathetically persisting in today. Black Panther, in contrast, argues that African cosmology, spirituality, and technology have much to offer the future. The histories and fictional stories that we tell ourselves create our reality. Empire always uses stories to control the present and colonize the future, to define what is “real” and normal. “Normal” is the secret weapon of the empire. “Normal” is a story masquerading as absolute truth that goes without saying. Black Panther redefines normal. Reclaiming a past the Empire would erase ultimately changes the future. We must tell our dead fathers they were wrong when we discover their flaws and inadequacies, even as we understand and celebrate their humanity, their brilliance and bounty. Killmonger can’t imagine a story he wants to live in; he has run out of future. T’Challa breaks tradition without abandoning the past and calls to the future with the help of revolutionary women like Nakia, Shuri, Okoye, and Ramonda.
It’s not just vibranium techno-wizardry that Wakanda has to offer the world. It’s a new story for tomorrow: Afro-futurism. The Women of Wakanda perform like African women before them: the Benin Queen Mothers; the Dahomey Ahosi women warriors, advisors, and reign-mates to the king; Yoruba Iyalojas — queens of the market in Nigeria; the Sande Women’s Societies of Central West Africa; the dike nwami — Igbo warrior women; Zulu Isangoma — healer women of South Africa; and the mikiri, ad hoc political institutions of Igbo women. Like these ancestors, the women of Wakanda can imagine a world and shape the future. We ignore the women at our peril!
It’s our time.