Bringing Light to the Shadows: The Release and Reception of Marvel’s Black Panther
by Shane Connell
Examinations of the rise of a new right-wing culture must address the standpoint of Black culture and politics. The release of Marvel’s most recent super hero film Black Panther comes at a crucial time. As Right-Wing demonstrations and dialogue becomes increasingly prevalent, Black Panther affords us a crucial conduit through which we can study a Black perspective on the rise of the Alt-Right. Black Panther's box-office success sparked intensive discussion about Black culture, Afrofuturism, and of their significance and possibilities in the context of the rise of the Alt-Right. What can the release and reception of Black Panther tell us about the logic of the Alt-Right and about the importance of Black culture and political struggles to take a stand against the rise of new forms of right-wing extremism and racism? Although at times humorous, Black Panther shows that strong, clear, and politically loaded language is necessary to fight back a new tide of racism (and its historical connections). This paper shows how concepts such as Afrofuturism, National Consciousness, and Literature of Combat can be used to combat the increasingly prevalent neo-Nazi, White Nationalist, and Alt-Right sentiments.
Since Black Panther's February 16, 2018 box office release, a plethora of articles, podcasts, blogs, and more have been devoted to deciphering the meaning behind the film. As opposed to contributing to this attempt, I will point to Carvell Wallace, a well-known Afrofuturist critic, who writes “we can’t look to this film as the meaning. It’s the fact of this film and the moment of it and what it inspires for the rest of us. That’s the meaning.”[i] Similarly, I will not attempt to decipher a meaning of the film. Instead, I will attempt to decipher the meaning of the moment of the film, and the implications this has on concepts such as Afrofuturism, National Consciousness, the Black Community as a culture in its own right. Before this, however, we must determine why this film, as opposed to previous ‘Black Super Hero’ films.
To this effect, we must address the relative popularity of the film. Even before its February 2018 release, Black Panther was the most-tweeted-about movie in 2017. It became apparent very early in the release of this film, that Black Panther was not just another super-hero movie. To be the first large budget film of its nature sporting a majority black cast, as well as the 1.3-Billion-dollar revenue worldwide, there is no doubt that director Ryan Coogler rivaled Jackie Robinson in this home run. This movie has been consumed by people spanning all races, classes, and countries. The timing of this film, coupled with its popularity, suggests an establishment of precedent in African-American-centric film production. The goal of this paper? To begin investigating one question. Why now?
Black Panther is not the first black super hero movie. Movies such as Hancock and Black lightening, though popular, stand in the shadow cast by Black Panther. However, they are not the only thing in this shadow. To begin bringing light to this shadow, I believe we must look at what makes Black Panther different than other black super hero films. First; the majority black cast seen in Black Panther. Where similar films such as Colombia Pictures’ Hancock have a black protagonist among a multitude of white supporting characters, ninety percent of Black Panther’s cast is of African dissent. Importantly, though, out of the characters themselves, only one character, Killmonger, played by Michael B. Jordan, is of African-American dissent. This lack of portrayal of Western “blackness” interestingly implicated the nation in terms of its inclusion in Black Culture, as well as making claims regarding the misrepresentation of blackness in the west. Here I defer to Sheridan Tucker, a prominent figure in Afrofuturism, who says “I’m speaking of doing away with negative portrayals or misrepresentations of blackness in the west.” “It’s allowing people to decide how they want to be represented and being the author of that representation instead of the other way around.”[ii] Many look to the inclusion of only one African American character in Black Panther as an oversight on behalf of Ryan Coogler, but perhaps we can derive some reasoning from Tucker here. One could suggest that this was perhaps a safe move for Coogler, to avoid this “misrepresentation of blackness in the west.”
Black Panther has been credited for finally bringing Afrofuturism into the light of the mainstream. However, despite its name, the concept of Afrofuturism has its roots in the 1950s, with Jazz musician Sun Ra taking to stage in futuristic garb. While its unsure exactly how this concept began, there is no doubt that its been around for quite some time. However, there is an equal amount of doubt that Black Panther has sparked discussion of Afrofuturism, and Ryan Coogler has even gone so far as to claim that it was one of the reasons for making the film[iii].
But besides the obvious technological advancement of the people of Wakanda, why Black Panther so proliferated the discussion of Afrofuturism? Carvell Wallace defines Afrofuturism quite effectively, stating “The artistic movement called Afrofuturism, a decidedly black creation, is meant to go far beyond the limitations of the white imagination. It isn’t just the idea that black people will exist in the future, will use technology and science, will travel deep into space. It is the idea that we will have won the future.”[iv] Black Panther is so important because it is perhaps the first Black superhero film where the primary plot line is not one of regression. The overcoming of slavery is long in the rereview mirror during this film, and crucially, it isn’t that black culture has become equal to that of white culture. In Black Panther, Black Culture is the superior. Through this metal they call vibranium, Wakanda has surpassed the “colonizers” technologically, artistically, and militaristically.
Often, artistic takes on Afrofuturism have taken to space, displaying people of colour as astronauts, or even so far as aliens. I find this portrayal of African Americans in space to be quite the expected result of how this world has treated the culture for most of history. We live in a world now where we’ve alienated a portion of our population so viscously that the dominant way in which they see their future is quite literally taking flight into deep space. And can we blame them? No. But this is why Black Panther is so interesting. Not only is the movie credited for bringing Afrofuturism into the mainstream, but it’s quite evident that the movie makes a different claim about the future of the African American culture than traditional the African-American perspective. Black Panther, crucially, doesn’t involve a version of the future where black people have “won the future” in space. Instead, Black Panther shows an alternate reality, in which Africans have wont the future right here on earth. But again, why now?
Its no secret that white supremacist ideology has become more popular in recent history, particularly since the Trump Administration has come to govern the United States. Despite how recently something so devastating as slavery was abolished, people who are close to me, people whom I believe possess above average moral compasses, have referred to our strives toward equality as “reverse discrimination.” Evidently, the privileged don’t like having their privilege taken away. Why, then, is this movie so important today? One could point to Black Panther’s release in Black History Month, or to the Trump administration’s recent rise to power. And I believe they would be half-right. When intellectuals look at the Trump Campaign, and more so at various white nationalist parties, we tend to turn the cold shoulder, and argue using facts. Whether is be pointing out his “inaccuracies,” or simply discounting the claims he makes, we must realize that what those of us who consider ourselves intellectuals are doing, simply isn’t working. Black activists, liberals, intellectuals, and even pro-black whites have been taking the proverbial “high road” since the rebirth of these white nationalist organizations. We fight the war of facts, use peaceful protests, and appeal to those in power. However, as we’ve seen, this is ineffective. In a Nazi-like fashion, these organizations have discredited these facts. Hannah Arendt suggests that, while certain mass movements, such as the Trump administration should not be considered Totalitarian movements, completely, they do share some similarities. One such characteristic, is the discredit of the media, and facts.[v] Once the truth of facts becomes ambiguous, politics becomes a war of “your word versus mine.” And, quite frankly, the privileged tend to like the word that leaves their privilege intact. Many believe that neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and the like thrive on creating alternate realities, where individuals feel that their livelihood is threatened by something like equality. Perhaps this is why Black Panther is so important right now. As Hannah Arendt argues, the Culture Wars are fought not by soldiers, but by authors, not with guns, but with keyboards. They are fought on the field of narratives, and as such, can only be won by creating narratives in which various cultures thrive and greet a mutually successful future. Black Panther shows that African Americans, too, can create alternate realities, and combat the white nationalism and supremacy on the level of the narrative. It is completely feasible that historians in the future will look to black panther as first counter punch in these “Culture Wars,” that fights on the same battle field as the Neo-Nazis have been fighting on for years. Its not a war of facts, rather a war of narratives.
To this effect, many organizations known to support white nationalism, such as the American Freedom Party[vi], and the National Socialist Movement[vii] often focus debate on the issue of “illegal aliens,” Suggesting that these people whom illegally immigrate to the United States are at fault for removing some of the privilege “normal” citizens possess. I find the use of the world alien, here, to be quite interesting. Is it a wonder why African-Americans, who were brought here those hundreds of years ago, can only see themselves in the future as aliens, if that is how we treat them now. This systemic creation of the “us versus them” mentality in these nationalist parties effects not only the radicals in this group. It’s true, yes, that it is most evident in these groups, but that’s not to say it isn’t present in the general population.
However, one must realize where this systemic alienation of African-Americans comes from. Here, I would like to reference well known critic Walter Benn Michaels. Michaels criticizes diversity, stating that diversity masks the true problem, of class inequalities systemic in todays post-modernist era. In one of his best-known speeches[viii], Michaels directs attention to a college that appears to be at the forefront of diversity politics, insofar as this college had the most “diverse group of students” he had spoken to, and yet, also the least diverse. What he meant by this, is that while the room showed many different people from many different ethnicities, they were overwhelming of the same, wealthy, class of citizens. Michaels points to the continued separation of classes in recent years as the true problem with racial politics.
To this, I will decidedly agree. Many white nationalist organizations utilize language which is littered with concepts of theft. It is the view of these individuals that any out-group culture is taking something which is their right to possess. This is due to the systemic nature of this competition in the postmodernist era. Modern Capitalism depends upon a portion of the population competing for the jobs held by the remainder of that population. The U.S.’s own census bureaux admits that 22 % of African-Americans live in poverty in the country (the most of any ethnicity), compared to the 8 percent of whites living in poverty. When white nationalists make the claim that people of other ethnicities[ix], which they call aliens, are “stealing their jobs,” it appears to be the case because of how the current capitalist structure sets these individuals to compete for the same jobs.
However, when discussing political structure of, particularly the western world, we must discuss the history of colonialization, and its impacts upon the African America population. Specifically, Black Panther makes several claims about the importance of culture in combating the colonialist radicals such as the rising neo-Nazi and white nationalist organizations. While the slavery of Africans does not necessarily fit the description of colonialism, as suggested by critic Frantz Fanon in his book The Wretched of the Earth,[x] one cannot help but draw parallels in his arguments. Fanon argues that there are three ways in which a culture reacts when said culture is colonized.
The first way a culture reacts to colonization, Fanon claims, is the turncoat. These individuals tend to adopt the culture of the colonizing nation, and tend to be the wealthier members of the nation, or the citizens of higher socioeconomic class. This can lead to a dissolution of the original culture. The second reaction to cultural takeover Fanon outlines is the substantivist. This reaction tends to be from citizens of lower socioeconomic status. Substantivists realize that the threat to their culture, and rush to defend this culture. However, as a result, they tend to retreat to the stereotypical form of their culture, which leads to an unchanging and stagnant culture. However, Fanon argues that there is a third alternative, one which can use culture as a way to combat colonization. Fanon calls this “National Consciousness.” He stresses that this should not be confused with Nationalism, which Fanon agrees is wholeheartedly negative. National Consciousness involves a population working together to maintain an evolving culture separate from that of the colonizer’s. This creates cohesion in culture, and combats the takeover of colonialism, which often targets culture as a point of assimilation.
While classifying slavery as colonialism may be a reach, we can draw several parallels from Fanon’s claims to the current rise of white nationalism today. Fanon uses the example of the aboriginals. He claims that we treat them as a culture of the past, one without an adaptive future. Similarly, common criticism and dialog with regards to the black perspective often focuses on slavery, and the implications thereof. However, if we think of this in terms of Fanon’s model of colonialism, we would classify this as substantivism. Defining the black perspective as one of working through slavery has caused a stagnation in African-American culture. There is not doubt that white-nationalism and the like behaviour opposes black culture. But how might the black community combat the uprising of this colonialist-nationalist behaviour? Fanon would suggest that only by establishing a national consciousness; a group of people imagining an adaptive future for the culture.
Fanon also speaks to the importance of establishing a literature of combat. He claims that literature, as it is consumed by members of a culture, has extreme impact on the ideology of those inhabitants. A literature of combat strives to address the problems of the present, and imagine an image of the future. Crucially, the language used here allows for extrapolation to the black community. Black Panther has been celebrated for bringing Afrofuturism into the mainstream. My question was why now? And perhaps Fanon offers us an answer. Black Panther comes at an instant where white nationalism and the Alt-Right are returning in popularity. It seems, then, that a national consciousness is required to combat this rise in outward racist behavior.
Crucially, Black Panther does not suppose to offer a version of Black Culture not as overcoming the roots of slavery, but as an absolutely adaptive culture. This serves to combat the stagnation that can result from defining Black Culture using stereotypical substantivist themes of slavery. I do not mean to suggest that Black Culture need discard the rich history that defines and unites many individuals. I do, however, suggest that this need be incorporated into this national consciousness, in order to combat the recurrence of white nationalism. Crucially, Black Panther offers the potential of a future where black individuals need not compete to be regarded as equals with other cultures. Instead, Black Panther proposes a world in which Black Culture has won. This is perhaps most significant due to the need for a Literature of Combat. The effects of this ignition of a National Consciousness could be seen before the release of the film. One such example that has gone semi-viral involves two African-American men standing next to a Black Panther poster[xi].
AFRICAN-AMERICAN MAN 1: What? All the time?
AFRICAN-AMERICAN MAN 2: So, we’re sitting here looking at this dope-[bleep] Black Panther poster. And the conclusion that we have come to—
AFRICAN-AMERICAN MAN 1: All the time?
AFRICAN-AMERICAN MAN 2: —is that this is what white people get to feel all the time.
AFRICAN-AMERICAN MAN 1: All the time! All the time!
AFRICAN-AMERICAN MAN 2: Since the beginning of cinema—
AFRICAN-AMERICAN MAN 1: All the time!
AFRICAN-AMERICAN MAN 2: —you get to feel empowered like this and represented.
AFRICAN-AMERICAN MAN 1: This? This what y’all feel like all the time? I would love this country, too.
This inspiration of a unity in empowered thinking about a culture is precisely what Fanon suggests is required to combat nationalist and colonialist ideologies. However, this inspiration didn’t cease with the advertising of the film. Nor did is cease at the majority-Black cast, showing a unified front of national culture against these harmful ideologies. Even the sound-track for the film exuded National Consciousness. Kendrick Lamar, who produced much of the soundtrack for the film[xii] went so far as to say, in an interview on the release of the soundtrack album “Marvel Studios’ ‘Black Panther’ is amazing, from its cast to its director. The magnitude of this film showcases a great marriage of art and culture. I’m truly honored to contribute my knowledge of producing sound and writing music alongside [director] Ryan [Coogler] and Marvel’s vision.”[xiii] Lamar’s sentiments regarding the marriage of culture shows the importance of literature in defining culture, and in a more precise way. While mass-consumed film is rarely viewed as a credible source of cultural critique, lyricism in popular music has become an area of cultural critique as of late. Lamar’s production of a soundtrack that inspires unity is therefore all the more important in producing the Literature of Combat needed to fight substantiavism.
Similarly, in an interview discussing Afrofuturistic concepts in Black Panther, Carvell Wallace states “An idea is created, and some people say, “This is the greatest thing ever!” And then someone like [Christopher Lebron] comes along and says, “Well, wait a minute. Can’t we do this better?” And so, someone comes along and does it better. And this is how we move forward.”[xiv] She speaks to the importance of adapting literature and films. She suggests that Black Panther, while an important point in African-American history, it is one that should be built upon. To adapt this to Fanon’s logic, I argue that Black Panther is not only a crucial point in the creation of a Literature of Combat, but one that needs to be built upon, if the Black Community, and left-wing individuals wish to combat the rise of the Alt-Right, and similar Radical-Right organizations.
[i] Carvell Wallace, Afrofuturism, Liberation & Representation in "black Panther": A Roundtable Discussion
[ii] Sheridan Tucker, Before Black Panther: Afrofuturism Takes Flight At Chicago Museum
Nadja Sayej - https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2018/apr/10/afrofuturism-exhibition-in-their-own-form-museum-contemporary-photography-chicago
[iii] Ryan Coogler, Black Panther Brings Afrofuturism Into the Mainstream
Clarisse Loughrey - https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/features/black-panther-afrofuturism-ryan-coogler-definition-explainer-watch-release-date-a8209776.html
[iv] Carvell Wallace, Afrofuturism, Liberation & Representation in "Black Panther": A Roundtable Discussion
[v] Why Arendt Matters: Revisiting "the Origins Of Totalitarianism"
Roger Berkowitz - https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/arendt-matters-revisiting-origins-totalitarianism/#!
[vi] American Freedom Party
[vii] Nsm : National Socialist Movement Party Headquarters
[viii] Walter Benn Michaels - Celebrating Difference: The Trouble With Diversity
WGBHForum - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-k-I4kaLlwc
[ix] U.S. Poverty Statistics
[x] The Wretched Of the Earth
Frantz Fanon - Grove Press – 1966
[xi] How the "black Panther" Film Is "a Defining Moment For Black America"
[xii] Black Panther: The Album (music from and Inspired By) By Kendrick Lamar, The Weeknd & Sza
[xiii] Kendrick Lamar Unveils 'black Panther The Album' Track List
Kirsten Chuba - http://variety.com/2018/film/news/kendrick-lamar-black-panther-album-track-list-1202683173/
[xiv] Afrofuturism, Liberation & Representation in "black Panther": A Roundtable Discussion