The following is neither a screed against nor a puff-piece for the movie. In fact, I haven’t seen it yet. I guess I am obliged to eventually go see and find out what the hoopla is all about. But the trailers I’ve seen so far on YouTube leave me somewhat disconcerted. The whole feudalistic jungle shtick, with grass skirts, spears, plate lips and all, was something to be expected from Disney/Marvel. I can’t really say at this point if Black Panther is simply a far more sophisticated and nuanced take on Jungle Jitters (a notorious Warner Brothers cartoon from 1938 full of grass-skirted and plate-lipped jungle-bunnies), or an Afro-futurist signifying on the racist “Noble Savage” trope. Whatever the case, Black viewers flocking in droves to the theaters are anything but offended.
Director Ryan Coogler has hit pay dirt. Another Official Black First. Chalk it up on the board. Black Panther has confounded all the negative expectations of naysayers (mostly non-black, and generally white) who assumed that “the first big-budget superhero movie with a black lead, predominantly black cast and a black director” would be a box-office flop. It has been just the opposite. So far this film has earned close to a billion dollars at the box-office worldwide, trumping Wonder Woman (in North America), X-Men, Suicide Squad and Star Trek.
To be entirely fair to the Black moviegoer, he or she would rather see a film in which they are in control of their lives, solidly in their own spaces, technologically advanced rather than the usual cliches of poverty, mud-huts, ghettos, drugs, prostitution or the flip side of the same stereotyped coin, ill-gained wealth manifesting itself in flashy cars, McMansions, diamonds and silk, pearls, oversized jackets and gold chains and gold grills. Wakanda is wealthy and technologically far in advance of any other civilization in the world, and even though it’s a total fantasy, provided by Marvel through a hired Black token director, at least the fantasy feels good–if only for 90 minutes.
In the make-believe world of Wakanda, the Afro-American can momentarily picture himself in a world where he or she can be strong, black, beautiful and undiluted with whiteness, with all the futuristic trappings and advanced technology that European civilization never heard of. In this CGI fantasy Black can be Black without Whitey dictating the terms.¹However, there seems to be a problem. The sensibility of Black Panther appears to derive much from Afro-futurism, a concept that (according to Patrick Gathara of the Washington Post) “cannot engage with (Africans) as human beings but, like the white and Chinese worlds, only as props for its own struggles and self-aggrandizement.” Afro-futurism is an engaging school of thought, but the very suggestion that Africans cut out for the stars–rather than engage our enemies down here on Earth–sounds like an ideological cop-out, another way of refusing to deal with an uncompromisingly ugly reality. Wakanda is an Afro-futurist’s wet dream, but it is also a feudalistic nation of greedy elites living in isolation from the rest of “Shithole Africa,” a nation “with the most advanced tech and weapons in the world” that, nonetheless, “has no thinkers to develop systems of transitioning rulership that do not involve lethal combat or coup d’etat.”² Not that Black audiences give a damn, however: they are dancing in the aisles in dashikis as I write this.
Naturally this last fact alone got the alt-Reich hopping mad. Ben Shapiro, the alt-right’s Uncle Tomsky, spluttered in his squeaky cartoon voice that “nobody’s ever gone to see a Captain America movie and said, ‘wow, look, a movie with a white hero! I’m so excited! He’s white!’ Nobody does that in America.” Well, Ben, that’s because white Americans don’t have to do that–it’s taken for granted that their screen heroes are going to be white by default. It’s taken for granted that when some scruffy “negro” appears on screen in saggy pants and with grills in his dirty mouth, he becomes the standard by which every “negro” the world over should be judged by. This does not happen with white Americans, Benny–not even Jews. Over 80% of American movies are entirely white-oriented. That should be a fucking no-brainer. But you know there’s no point in discussing anything intelligently with the American far right. They are so anti-African that they are uneasy with the very idea that an African can actually dream of a better world, much less fight for one in real time.
But that’s just the problem I have with this whole Black Panther phenomenon: it’s yet another instance of Afro-Americans opting for Escapist politics over substantive change.
“It won’t be too long before the director cuts the scene”
When I see this latest box-office smash I can’t help but be reminded that once again, Black American history–to use that old cliche–is repeating itself. It repeats itself for the simple fact that those doing the repeating of history clearly never learned a damn thing from it. We went through this cinematic escapist foolishness before on at least two occasions: once in the early Seventies (Sweetback and Shaft) and again in the late Eighties to early Nineties (Do The Right Thing and Malcolm X). What I’m saying has nothing whatever to do with the quality of either of these films. Like I said, we are not learning from history because we simply don’t like to stand back and analyze anything–let alone ourselves and our situation in the world.
Culturally, we are living in a very sad time. It has become expected of Afro-Americans to pantomime the most idiotic and puerile stereotypes that non-blacks have of us–as if our very identity as Afro-Americans is predicated upon being, in a nutshell, primitive, bestial and inferior. This collective neurosis is not new, of course–there’s simply far more of it than there ever has been in the past. Outside of Wakanda many of us can barely relate to each other as human beings. It should be no secret why this is so. When one is constantly tapering his personality to dimensions acceptable to his persecutors, you can barely look your own brother in the eye because deep down, you know that you have failed morally–you have failed to confront your own persecutor, you have failed to challenge his twisted system of reality; you have repeatedly failed to achieve what you set out to do and what you know, in your heart of hearts, is the right thing to do. As Afro-Americans, we have not only continued to fail in challenging white reality, but worse still we persistently–by our own confused, emotional, childish blundering–reinforce the very racist juggernaut we set out to destroy. How else can one explain the absurdity of the Umar Johnson debacle, the Tariq Nasheed-Boyce Watkins fracas, or the sudden emergence of this new Hotep minstrel show?
There may actually be thousands of unknown, struggling black filmmakers toiling away with enough power of expression to turn the entire cinematic world upside down. But who would be willing to represent such artists, where would they obtain the money to make their films and, assuming they got these films distributed and in theaters, who in the United States–least of all in Afro-America–would be willing to watch such films?
One would have to wonder if Black Panther really represents a step forward for Afro-American cinema, in which case (naturally) we would not need to wonder too much about the matter. In fact, the thing that has escaped most observers about the Black Panther phenomenon is that, in reality–and this especially concerns independent Black film makers–it is a step down. And not because of White Hollywood–after all, White Hollywood is what it is, and generally has made it perfectly clear as to what it thinks about Afro-Americans up till now. No. Black Panther’s success sent a clear message to Afro-American indie film-makers that if you want a smash hit, you’d better create something else other than a realistic, thought-provoking and nuanced film about Africans and Afro-American life; you’d better stick to escapism and fantasy. Forget about Art, forget about Truth, forget about Knowledge. Forget about Reality. Black audiences aren’t fucking interested in seeing these things.
Just ask Charles Burnett, or Haile Gerima, or even Nate Parker. Killer of Sheep, Bush Mama, Birth of a Nation and other such films barely raised eyebrows because those same Black eyes were too busy grooving on Shaft, Pam Grier’s panties, or lost in the CGI jungles of Wakanda. Black Americans put their money into Marvel and other capitalist ventures because frankly, this is where their hearts lay. They certainly think American, contrary to what they might feel about their position in American society. Their hearts do not lay in building their own things; they want what Uncle Sam has, even if what Sammy has may not be worth a damn. They are not interested in cultural or any other revolution; they were not interested in it 80 years ago, 50 years ago, nor 25 years ago and definitely not now. It’s not because Blacks have any particular love for it, or even so much because they are afraid of the ultimate showdown between themselves and White Supremacy. Black Americans are disinterested in confronting White Supremacy because–up till now–it has been extremely difficult for them to imagine living under a system in which they aren’t having their every breath monitored. And why would they? They have hardly known anything else!!
All this talk about “liberation,” “revolution,” “independence” and all this crap is really just abstract bullshit to the average Afro-American. He may agree with it, but how do you really picture all this in concrete terms? What does “liberation” really look like, anyway? What does a truly independent Black nation look like–one that is not dependent, in any way, shape or form, on either Europe, America, the so-called “Middle East” or China?Eight generations of living (for better or for worse) under the iron heel of a European-settler regime has virtually wiped out any idea of what that might be like for the Afro-American. This fact alone explains the smashing success that Black Panther has had with Black audiences in the United States.
In the average African American mind group therapy, or an individual desire to blow off steam to survive the grueling and humiliating grind of living under a white-dominated society gets confused for revolutionary thought. Those of us who ARE serious about revolution wind up in prison, the insane asylum, six feet under or worse. Or, they go into exile in China, Algeria or Cuba. Black Americans are so happy merely to be recognized, merely to be seen by a society that pretends they only exist as a cheap stereotype, that when crumbs in the form of a Disney film (Disney, another corporation that pretended for decades that Black people didn’t exist) are tossed their way, Black Americans savor each crumb as if they were individual pearls.
Yeah, it’s true: Black Panther ain’t really your life. It ain’t nothin’ but another movie. It’s a great movie–so I’ve heard. And if you want to see this film then damn it, just see the film. There’s nothing wrong with 90 minutes of good, clean fun. But for Christ’s sake, do you have to boogaloo in the fucking aisles or wear dashikis to see it, in the meantime?
¹“(T)he Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world,” DuBois wrote in 1897–“A world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”
²Patrick Gathara, “Black Panther Offers a Regressive, Neocolonial Vision of Africa,” Washington Post, February 26, 2018