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Black Panther raises tough arguments about liberation

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Marvel’s latest superhero film stands out for its proud portrayal of African people—but it draws some uncomfortable conclusions, writes Ken Olende
Issue 2592
Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa—the superhuman Black Panther
Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa—the superhuman Black Panther (Pic: Allstar/Marvel studios/Disney)

Black Panther is a superior superhero film—with a spectacular punch up in a casino, an explosive car chase and a battle involving armoured rhinos.

It is better plotted, scripted directed and acted than most. But what makes it unique is the black cast, black writer and black director—though it does feature a couple of token whites.

To the outside world the tiny central African state of Wakanda, is among the world’s poorest countries.

It’s known as the only source of the metal vibranium, needed for hi-tech machines. But it is in fact unimaginably rich, built on a vast mountain of vibranium. The country’s rulers long ago decided to hide this fact to avoid invasion by “the colonisers” of the West.

Yet this isolationist policy means taking no part in Africa’s struggles or the wider fight against racism. One character asks if Wakanda cares about the “two billion people who look like us”.

T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is the king, which means also being the superhuman Black Panther.

He has split with his partner Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) because she rejects isolationism. As the film opens she is using Wakandan technology to covertly infiltrate Boko Haram in Nigeria to thwart their kidnap of more schoolgirls.

Erik Killmonger (Michael B Jordan), from Oakland, California, challenges T’Challa’s rule in Wakanda. It is no coincidence that the revolutionary Black Panther Party in the 1960s was set up in Oakland.

Killmonger says the Black Panther’s duty is to use Wakanda’s arms to liberate black people the world over.

Black Panther is a revelation with its black is beautiful look and celebration of Africa—where Africans are key players

The film’s design is a glorious evocation of Afro-futurism of musicians from Sun Ra to Parliament.

Wakanda’s capital recalls the hopeful modernism of the centre of African capitals such as Nairobi or Cote D’Ivoire built in the years immediately following after independence.

This fits with how the Black Panther first appeared in Marvel comics in 1966 as a positive portrayal of a black character.

He appeared coincidentally three months before the revolutionary Black Panther Party launched. Marvel then briefly tried to change his name to the Black Leopard, but it didn’t stick.

The film is a revelation with its black is beautiful look and celebration of Africa—where Africans are key players.

It may seem harsh to demand more, but there are problems with the politics.

Killmonger gets many of the best lines, including, “Bury me in the ocean. My ancestors knew death was better than bondage”.

But he is both militant and villain, reflecting “the hate that hate produced”. The CIA represented by Martin Freeman are good guys and much more trustworthy.

Through the film it becomes increasingly clear that Wakanda can no longer exist in sublime isolation. But the solutions suggested in the film do not have real world parallels.

Kendrick Lamar curates a powerful soundtrack

Kendrick Lamar who curated the Black Panther soundtrack album
Kendrick Lamar who curated the Black Panther soundtrack album (Pic: Merlijn Hoek/Creative Commons)

Kendrick Lamar is one of the greatest rappers of this generation, and knows how to strike the right political tone.

So he was the ideal candidate to curate Black Panther’s soundtrack album.

It’s a celebration of the vibrant cultural epicentre of South Africa. It features upcoming artists such as Babes Wodumo, a product of the South African genre of dance music ‘gqom’.

There’s also singer Sjava from Johannesburg and rappers Saudi and Yugen Blakrok.

The artists incorporate South Africa’s diverse languages, mixing Zulu language isiZulu with English in their lyrics.

The album explores black identity, opening up discussion about how blackness is defined—a heavily debated subject.

Paramedic! by rap artists SOB x RBE confronts black masculinity and image, emphasising how it’s often shaped by poverty and racism.

The album’s strength comes from a select few tracks that deal with issues that face black people on a daily basis.

The tracks Opps and Seasons touch on the institutional racism on the US prison system.

I Am by singer Jorja Smith deals with the relationship between black identity and “colour blind” anti-racism.

Black Panther encourages us to look back at the past as a way to focus on a future where opportunities aren’t determined by your postcode or the colour of your skin.

Lois Browne

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