Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Black Panther and the Public Discourse Surrounding the Film


It's called 'cultural recovery and reclamation'...and that's always good no matter what the creative genre happens to be...Stay tuned...



Black Panther, Luke Cage and the First Black Artist to Draw Both

MARCH 7, 2018
New York Times

Billy Graham in an undated photo. His work for Marvel was just one facet of his career. Credit

Last summer, Shawnna Graham fired up Netflix in her Williamsburg, Va., home and looked for her grandfather’s name in the closing credits of “Marvel’s Luke Cage.” It was nowhere to be found.

It was a surprise. After all, the Harlem-based comic book artist Billy Graham had worked on the first 17 issues of “Luke Cage, Hero for Hire,” and even had a hand in writing a few of them. He’d been the only African-American person working on what was the first African-American superhero comic book series.

In fact, he was the only African-American person working for Marvel, period.

“I thought, maybe this was missed only because he had passed, and no one was thinking of his contribution,” Ms. Graham said. When she began seeing ads for the film adaptation of Black Panther, the character her grandfather drew after finishing work on Luke Cage, she prevailed upon her father, Mardine, to pull out what they called “the Treasure Chest.” It consisted of a steamer trunk, a portfolio, a briefcase and boxes of artwork that they had retrieved from her grandfather’s 143rd Street apartment after he died in 1997. She started taking pictures, and opening social media accounts “to bring Billy’s name and legacy from the shadows.”

Billy Graham (his handle in the Marvel letter columns was “the Irreverent One,” in acknowledgment of the more famous Billy Graham) was by all accounts a Renaissance man and a bon vivant with an infectious smile and a hearty laugh. There was a cost: a marriage that dissolved in the late 1960s, and limited time with the two sons who moved with their mother to Virginia. Shawnna never met her grandfather.

In 1969, Graham took a staff job with Warren Publishing, instantly becoming the first black art director in the comics industry. In 1972, he jumped ship to Marvel, where he immediately began working on its new Blaxploitation-influenced hero, Luke Cage, whose headquarters were above a Times Square movie theater. “Billy was quite at home working on that material,” said his friend Alex Simmons, the creator of the “Blackjack” comic. “His art references were on point because Harlem and the 42nd Street theater district were territories he knew very well. I roamed around with him in some of those places. To him, Luke Cage was a brother he could hang with.”

As Graham continued working on the title, the artwork got better and better. He drew from such disparate influences as Jack Cole, the creator of Plastic Man, and the “Sugar Shack” painter Ernie Barnes, rendering with a level of detail that was rare in the days of low fees. Limbs and sinews stretched, eyes bugged.

Graham moved from working on Luke Cage to Black Panther, becoming the main artist on its first major series. Credit Billy Graham/Marvel Comics

After Marvel decided to go in another direction, with more superpowered villains and more white people, it assigned Graham to collaborate with his friend Don McGregor on the adventures of the Black Panther.

The character hadn’t really been developed since Stan Lee and Jack Kirby introduced him in 1966. In issues of “Jungle Action,” though, Mr. McGregor and the artist Rich Buckler began to expand the mythos of the Black Panther’s homeland, Wakanda, and created the character of Erik Killmonger. After a handful of issues, Graham became the artist.

“Billy was the main artist on that first major Black Panther series,” said Mr. Simmons, who helped out when Mr. McGregor was designing maps of Wakanda. “And it ruffled a few feathers and there was a point where some of the editors said, ‘Where are the white people?’ And Don, this little short Scottish white dude from Rhode Island said, ‘We’re in Africa, we’re in his kingdom!’”

Their run on “Jungle Action” lasted until 1976, at which point Graham left Marvel, and the radar of comic book readers.

“It wasn’t like Marvel was his whole life,” Mr. Simmons said. “He didn’t let go of who he was and where he was from in order to be accepted in another world. He was already on to something else.”
In a sense, Graham’s Black Panther contributions were just one chapter in his larger body of work exploring his heritage. He wrote heavily researched historical plays about the tap dance master Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and Graham’s uncle Paul, a one-pocket billiards champion better known as Detroit Slim. Other subjects included street magicians, griots and the radical group Move’s standoff with authorities in Philadelphia.

Graham hung artwork from Black Panther and Luke Cage on the walls of his apartment. Credit Billy Graham/Marvel Comics

Graham won awards for his set designs; his plays were produced around the country. And so in the theater world, it was comic books that were the footnote. Billy Mitchell, who acted in some of Graham’s plays, remembers seeing the Black Panther and Luke Cage illustrations hanging on the walls of his apartment.

When Graham would tell him he worked at Marvel Comics, Mr. Mitchell found it strange: “How many cats you know from Harlem were working for comic books?” asked Mr. Mitchell, the official historian of the Apollo Theater, where Graham also performed stand-up and M.C.’d performances by the Spinners and the O’Jays.

Graham also managed to fit in small film roles: You can see him onscreen in the ’90s next to Woody Allen, as a security guard in “Scenes From a Mall,” or as a convivial nightclub patron in “Mo’ Better Blues.” Many of his appearances — in “New Jack City,” for example, or “The Preacher’s Wife” — are uncredited.

“This was a Renaissance man who very much lived his life to the fullest,” Mr. Simmons said. “I just wish he had received more acknowledgment.”

When Graham became ill in 1997, his older son, Larry, flew up from Atlanta and was surprised to find himself face to face with stars of the television shows “Good Times” and “Roc,” close friends of his father. “I got to the hospital late at night and I walked in the room and there was John Amos and Ella Joyce, and all these actors that I didn’t even know he knew.” The theater director Jerry Maple Jr., Graham’s caretaker, had been instructed to make sure the family left with his life’s work in tow. “My father said he wanted us to hold on to them for as long as we possibly could,” Larry Graham recalled. “He said, ‘At least for another 10 to 15 years’ — and that we’d be surprised what would happen if we did that.”

On a Saturday in February, the Grahams took in a “Black Panther” matinee at their local theater. They each wore a custom-made shirt: On the back was a picture of Billy Graham; on the front, one of his illustrations of T’Challa, a.k.a. Black Panther, leaping through the air, flanked by the words “Black History.” They liked the movie and stayed through the credits, but again the name they wanted to see was missing.

That week, though, Shawnna Graham found another treasure among Billy Graham’s possessions: his wallet. Tucked inside was a picture of the granddaughter he’d never met. “It almost made me feel as if this is what I am supposed to be doing for him,” she said, “and that he knew I’d be the one to unveil his life story.”

Correction: March 8, 2018 

An earlier version of this article misstated how Billy Graham came to be involved with the Black Panther comics and his role in designing Wakanda, the Black Panther’s homeland. Marvel assigned Graham to the title; his friend Don McGregor didn’t ask him to collaborate on it. Mr. McGregor and Alex Simmons designed the maps of Wakanda; Graham wasn’t involved.

Related Coverage:

Black Panther and the Public Discourse Surrounding the Film

Web Special: Extended Discussion on “Black Panther” and Why Wakanda Matters

Democracy Now!
March 1, 2018

We host an extended web-only roundtable with three guests: Christopher Lebron, a professor at Johns Hopkins University who recently wrote “Black Panther Is Not the Film We Deserve”; Robyn C. Spencer, a professor at Lehman College, who wrote “Black Feminist Meditations on the Women of Wakanda”; and Carvell Wallace, author of The New York Times Magazine story “Why Black Panther Is a Defining Moment for Black America.”

Democracy Now! is an independent global news hour that airs weekdays on nearly 1,400 TV and radio stations Monday through Friday. Watch our livestream 8-9AM ET:

Black Panther @Apollo Theater-- Full Show--February 27, 2018

Excellent discussion of the film and its popular cultural impact with two of the stars of the movie interviewed by writer and critic Ta-Nehisi Coates

Chadwick Boseman, Lupita Nyong'o and Ta-Nehisi Coates' complete conversation about the cultural significance of #BlackPanther! #BlackPantherApollo #WakandaForever

What Black Panther can teach us about international relations

Let’s analyze Wakanda as if it were a real country.

Michael B. Jordan as Erik Killmonger and Chadwick Boseman as King T’Challa in Black Panther.
Marvel Studios

Black Panther, Marvel’s newest movie, is chiefly a metaphor. 

Director Ryan Coogler uses an imaginary African country — Wakanda — that secretly possesses highly advanced technology as a vehicle for exploring issues surrounding racism, the ethical response to oppression, and the global African diaspora. 

Smart commentators like the New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb and the Atlantic’s Adam Serwer have unpacked these metaphors at length, in the process showing how much thematic subtlety Coogler managed to pack into a film that has to adhere to Marvel’s house style.

But it’s also worthwhile, and honestly pretty fun, to ask a more literal question of Black Panther’s story: What if Wakanda were real? 

How would we think through Wakanda’s history and politics if it were a real East African country? What does the emergence of Erik Killmonger, political radical and the film’s putative villain, mean for world politics? What would it mean for the United States if the strongest country in the world was an African country whose leaders use “colonizer” as an insulting term for white Americans? What would that world be like?

To try to answer these questions, I looked to science — political science, specifically. 

The subfield of international relations has spent decades accumulating knowledge about how countries decide on policies of isolationism versus interventionism, why revolutionaries like Killmonger succeed and fail, and how racism shapes the way international politics operate. A lot of this work applies just as well to a world where Wakanda is real as to our own, more mundane reality.
What follows is an attempt to do just that: apply insights from international relations to understand the story of Black Panther, and what it might mean for the world. 

The failure of Wakandan realism


King T’Challa addresses the United Nations

Marvel Studios

The Wakandan throne is, as far as we can tell from the film, a classic hereditary monarchy with a few comic book twists: Certain citizens can challenge the king to single combat and potentially win the throne. When King T’Chaka was killed in a United Nations bombing (in Captain America: Civil War, but shown in a flashback in Black Panther), his son T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) took up the dual mantle of king and Black Panther. The latter position grants the leader superhuman speed and strength, acquired via ritual ingestion of a quasi-magical plant, as well as the use of an awesome vibranium catsuit.

This monarchy, in power for centuries, seems to have adopted a consistent foreign policy — T’Challa calls it “our way” at various points throughout the film. Wakanda’s sole and overriding national interest, according to the Panther monarchs, is to avoid being conquered or otherwise interfered with. 

Wakanda’s stance is to wage no aggressive wars but defend itself in the event of an invasion. Per the comics, this happened a few times — the Romans, Crusaders, and Nazis all attacked Wakanda — but each invasion was decisively repulsed. In the film, arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) claims to be the “only” outsider ever to have seen the real Wakanda and live; that might be an exaggeration, but it’s close enough to the truth in terms of Wakanda’s impenetrability to outsiders.

Wakandan isolationism goes beyond mere military restraint. The Wakandan government seems to have cut off any economic contact with foreigners, like foreign aid or immigration. The country takes advantage of its isolated geography — it’s patterned after real-life Lesotho, which is bordered by mountains — to block unwanted trespassers, and uses fancy technological illusions to make it seem like there’s nothing there. Wakanda even dresses up a fraction of its citizens as the kind of impoverished individuals the West expects to see in African nations; near the end of the movie, a Western diplomat at the UN calls Wakanda a “nation of farmers” with nothing to offer the rest of the world.

Wakanda’s “way” will sound very familiar to IR scholars: It dovetails nicely with insights from a school of international relations theory called defensive realism.

Defensive realists believe one of the root causes of international conflict is insecurity. Because countries cannot be sure that other nations have peaceful intentions, they have to arm themselves to ensure survival. The problem, though, is that countries can’t tell if another country’s army is for defensive purposes or offensive ones — forcing them to react to by strengthening their own military, freaking out their neighbor and raising the risk of conflict. This problem, called the security dilemma, is how countries that only want to secure themselves can end up in conflict with their neighbors who want the same. (World War I is a classic example of this in real life.)

One prominent defensive realist, Harvard University’s Stephen Walt, argues that the security dilemma can be mitigated by making yourself seem less threatening. In his classic book The Origins of Alliances, Walt suggests that if countries don’t invest in offensive military technologies, and use diplomatic outreach and economic policy to build peaceful ties with foreign states, they’re less likely to be feared — and thus, potentially, less likely to get dragged into war.

“States that are viewed as aggressive are likely to provoke others to balance against them,” Walt writes. “Nazi Germany faced an overwhelming countervailing coalition because it combined substantial power with extremely dangerous ambitions.”

The Wakandan monarchy represents a deep internalization of Walt’s insight; arguably, its kings have adopted the most realist grand strategy of any country on earth. 

The country’s incredible vibranium deposits have made Wakanda immensely wealthier and more technologically advanced than any other nation, and if these advancements became public, it would turn Wakanda into a major military power. If other countries knew how strong Wakanda truly was, they would fear it — potentially kicking off a very scary security dilemma.

Wakanda’s solution, then, is to not seem threatening at all: hide the vibranium deposits, lie about its wealth, and ban interactions with outsiders so nobody knows the truth. 

This seems to have worked. Even the CIA was fooled: Agent Everett Ross tells Klaue that Wakanda’s defining features are “textiles, shepherds, [and] cool outfits.” But it comes with a distinct downside: Wakanda is incapable of doing anything to make the rest of the world a better place.

If Wakanda had used vibranium weapons to stop the trans-Atlantic slave trade, or played host to refugees as Nakia suggested, the jig would be up: The outside world would find out the truth. Its foreign policy had to be entirely amoral, prioritizing Wakandan security policy over concerns about human rights abroad.

Yet Wakandan realism, which seemingly worked for centuries, ultimately contained the seeds of its own destruction. And that’s what the central arc of the film is all about.

Killmonger’s radicalism and the “Howard School” critique of white politics

Erik Killmonger visits Wakanda.

Marvel Studios

Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) is the physical incarnation of Wakanda’s failures. The son of an unnamed American woman and King T’Chaka’s brother N’Jobu, he grew up in Oakland, California, experiencing both the deep racism of American society and the knowledge that Wakanda was out there, doing nothing. When T’Chaka found out that  N’Jobu had facilitated a massive vibranium heist, with the intent of spreading weapons to oppressed people around the world, T’Chaka killed him — and left the young Killmonger behind, to find his father with panther claw marks in his chest.

Killmonger came to see his own story as a proof of Wakanda’s failings. When he returns to the country and challenges T’Challa for the throne, he makes a very clear argument for why he deserves to rule: Wakanda’s realist foreign policy is a moral disgrace.

“Two billion people all over the world who look like us, whose lives are much harder, and Wakanda has the tools to liberate them all,” he says. “Where was Wakanda?”

On this point, it’s hard to argue with Killmonger. He’s also echoing a long tradition in black international relations thought, going back at least to the 1920s, that argues for a need to see race as a central mover in international politics and the need to confront racial inequality as a primary issue — perhaps the primary issue — in world politics.

These scholars, sometimes referred to as the “Howard School” of international relations, include a number of luminaries typically overlooked in white histories of world politics: philosopher Alain Locke, scholar-practitioner Ralph Bunche, and Merze Tate, the first black woman to receive a PhD in international relations. These thinkers clustered around Howard University in the 1930s and ’40s, hence the name. Howard School thinkers had a diverse and complex set of interests, but one core thing that united them was deep study on the role race and racism plays in global politics — which sheds light on some of the IR of Black Panther.

In 1943, Tate published an essay titled “The War Aims of World War I and World War II and Their Relation to the Darker Peoples of the World.” In it, she argued that Americans  did not truly understand the implications of their sweeping rhetoric about defending democracy and freedom — that a war against Nazis, waged on the grounds of principle, calls into question global white supremacy (in the forms of both European colonialism abroad and Jim Crow at home).

“Those Englishmen and Americans who envision plans for and approach the problems of lasting peace have an egocentric view of the world and think primarily in terms of Europe, the Western World, the balance of power in Asia, and appear to take for granted a return to something akin to the pre-war African and Asiatic status quo,” Tate writes. “They think and write entirely too much in terms of saving European civilization, ignoring the fact that that civilization is a partial and secondary culture serving a minority of the peoples of the world.”

Indifference to the question of not just victory in the war, but what a peace settlement would look like for the world’s nonwhite peoples, would be more than immoral in Tate’s eyes — it would be impossible. Colonized and oppressed people everywhere, from Africa to East Asia to the United States, would not permanently agree to their own subjection. If they were not freed, they would fight.

“Will the white man and the colored man now find a basis for cooperation as equals? [The] alternative is an inter-continental war between the East and West, the greatest war the human race has ever seen, a war between whites and non-whites,” Tate writes. “That war will come as a result of the white man’s unwillingness to give up his superiority and the colored man’s unwillingness to endure his inferiority.”

Erik Killmonger is Tate’s warning brought to life. His plan, to distribute advanced vibranium weapons to members of oppressed groups around the world, is essentially to spark the kind of global race war Tate warned against. 

“The world’s going to start over,” he declares. “I’mma burn it all.”

What makes Killmonger villainous — and what makes him different from the many African and Asian revolutionaries who, as Tate predicted, waged war against their colonial masters after World War II — is that he wants to replace white imperialism with his own. “The sun will never set on the Wakandan empire,” he says, ironically repurposing a phrase used to describe Great Britain at the height of its colonial powers.

But in some ways, his very existence is more of the point. Killmonger shows an inherent flaw in Wakandan isolationism: the idea that isolationism is possible in a world shaped by systemic hierarchy and injustice. Wakanda’s leaders assumed that an unjust world system would be stable — or, at least, stable enough that it wouldn’t end up troubling them.

This was untrue. Tate’s core insight is about the psychology of political oppression: that an unjust system is inherently unstable because the oppressed recognize the injustice of it. Even well-meaning bystanders, like Wakanda, will be pulled in — because to do nothing is to side with the oppressors.

Wakanda’s monarchy missed this fundamental point. And it was nearly toppled because of it.

Fear of a black planet


Nakia and T’Challa in South Korea.

Marvel Studios

The person in Black Panther who understands all of this best is Nakia, T’Challa’s chief spy, played by Lupita Nyong’o. When the movie begins, Nakia is embedded with a group of women in Nigeria who have been kidnapped by a militant group, an unmistakable stand-in for the schoolgirls kidnapped by the Nigerian jihadist group Boko Haram.

Nakia is not merely there to help the girls, though she does. Rather, her goal is to understand what’s happening in the world outside Wakanda — to get a sense of what it’s like to live in an unstable and violent place, and what Wakanda could do to help. She understands both the importance of a safe Wakanda and the moral necessity of doing something about the suffering outside Wakanda’s borders.

This leads her to champion a middle ground between Wakanda’s traditional isolationism and Killmongerian imperialism. She urges T’Challa to open up to the outside world, to consider admitting refugees and sharing the country’s lifesaving technology. He is hostile, initially, but reconsiders after the shattering conflict with Killmonger — which he sees, correctly, as proof that Wakandan realism had failed.

So he comes forward, revealing Wakanda’s true nature at a United Nations meeting. He announces a program to facilitate cultural exchanges and technology transfers, with a focus on helping oppressed people, starting with an outpost in Killmonger’s old neighborhood in Oakland. He lays out his reasoning for this in a closing monologue:
Wakanda will no longer watch from the shadows. We can not. We must not. We will work to be an example of how we, as brothers and sisters on this earth, should treat each other. Now, more than ever, the illusions of division threaten our very existence. We all know the truth: More connects us than separates us. But in times of crisis, the wise build bridges while the foolish build barriers. We must find a way to look after one another, as if we were one single tribe.
Nakia and T’Challa’s ideal of Wakanda as a global power, leading through its ideas rather than imperial might or economic clout, is closely aligned with a school of international relations theory called “constructivists.”

The core constructivist insight is that world politics is driven, first and foremost, by identities and ideas. States aren’t just naturally aligned with certain states or hostile to others; they choose to partner with them or oppose them for complicated and often socially determined reasons. This means that countries and even non-state actors, like activist groups, have the power to change world politics by changing people’s beliefs and minds.

“‘Making history’... is a matter not merely of defending the national interest but of defining it, not merely nor merely enacting stable preferences but constructing them,” as Harvard’s John Ruggie puts it in one seminal constructivist article. This may sound fanciful, but there’s solid research — on everything ranging from military intervention to human rights trials in Latin America — to back it up.

Nakia and T’Challa’s project is an essentially constructivist one: They want to convince the world that the emergence of a new power essentially out of nowhere is not threatening. More than that, in fact: They want to use Wakandan technological advancements to build tighter connections between states, to develop a shared sense of international obligation. Taking in refugees and doing cultural outreach in poor neighborhoods isn’t about Wakandan security; it’s about breaking the “illusion of division” that T’Challa warns of in his closing speech. The goal is to use all the resources of Wakanda to build a new, more open and peaceful international order.

There are many reasons to believe this will fail.

First, there are the realist calculations that led to Wakandan isolationism in the first place. Military powers around the world, from the United States to Russia to China, all of a sudden have a new and powerful country, armed with weapons so advanced that the captain of their elite guard, Okoye, refers to guns as “primitive.” What’s more, this country was just convulsed by a revolution — one witnessed by a CIA officer — in which a significant portion of Wakandan military supported a ruler whose goal was to wage war on the rest of the world.

How could any responsible foreign leader not look at that series of events and at least start preparing for an eventual Wakandan attack? And how would T’Challa and the other Wakandan leaders take those preparations?

There’s also, of course, the issue of race. We’d like to think white supremacy no longer shapes the way Western powers think about foreign policy, as it did in Tate’s day, but that’s a fantasy. Backlash against racial progress and nonwhite immigration is one of the most powerful forces reshaping politics in both the United States and Europe today, leading to a surge in support for far-right populists on both sides of the Atlantic.

How would citizens and policymakers in the West react to news of a nonwhite country — no, a black country — quietly being the most powerful country on Earth? What would be the effect on America’s self-conception if it were so swiftly dethroned from the top of the international hierarchy, and what would be the effects of that on American foreign policy?

These are the kinds of barriers to Wakanda’s effort to transform the world. Nakia and T’Challa have faith in a better world, certainly much more than Killmonger did — but it’s not clear how realistic those hopes are.

February 21, 2018
"I'm for truth, no matter who tells it. I'm for justice, no matter who it's for or against."                            
--Malcolm X (1925-1965)

"A civilization that proves incapable of solving the problems it creates is a decadent civilization. A civilization that chooses to close its eyes to its most crucial problems is a stricken civilization. A civilization that uses its principles for trickery and deceit is a dying civilization."
                           --Aime Cesaire (1913-2008)

“One cannot change in one’s head that which can only be changed in society”
                          —CLR James (1901-1989)

"Knowledge is Freedom. Ignorance is Slavery.”
                         —Miles Davis (1926-1991)

"Strong people don't need strong leaders"
                          --Ella Baker (1903-1986)

“Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it.”
                      — Frantz Fanon (1925-1961)


In the explosion of public discourse on the the new Black Panther film which as one would rightly expect is expressing itself in a myriad of different contending and contentious directions at once, all seething more or less with their own ideological, aesthetic, political, philosophical, and personal perceptions, perspectives, values, opinions, ideas, biases, and desires there are emerging certain pieces that are asserting their views in a particularly dynamic, incisive, and intellectually challenging manner.
One of these that I personally find of particular interest and value is the following by Adam Serwer from the Atlantic magazine entitled "The Tragedy of Erik Killmonger." The intellectual and emotional clarity, honesty, depth, passion, knowledge, and insight that Serwer's piece demonstrates is yet another indication that the questions, issues, and concerns raised by the film have great meaning and value for many, many people far beyond any particular commercial interest one may or may not have in Marvel comic books (and movies) or the aesthetic genres of science fiction and/or fantasy.

I find that I not only strongly identify and empathize with what Serwer reveals and says in his article (and how he says it) but that I now even more appreciate and respect what Ryan Coogler the director and cowriter of this cinematic blockbuster has both attempted and accomplished with this flick within the always tricky, weirdly challenging, and often highly problematic context of what is called popular mass entertainment...Stay tuned and let the the public discourse attending this film continue to thrive and flourish...


The Tragedy of Erik Killmonger

The revolutionary ideals of Black Panther’s profound and complex villain have been twisted into a desire for hegemony.

by Adam Serwer
February 20, 2018
The Atlantic

PHOTO:  Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) and W'Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) in Black Panther

Black Panther is a love letter to people of African descent all over the world. Its actors, its costume design, its music, and countless other facets of the film are drawn from all over the continent and its diaspora, in a science-fiction celebration of the imaginary country of Wakanda, a high-tech utopia that is a fictive manifestation of African potential unfettered by slavery and colonialism.

But it is first and foremost an African American love letter, and as such it is consumed with The Void, the psychic and cultural wound caused by the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, the loss of life, culture, language, and history that could never be restored. It is the attempt to penetrate The Void that brought us Alex Haley’s Roots, that draws thousands of African Americans across the ocean to visit West Africa every year, that left me crumpled on the rocks outside the Door of No Return at Gorée Island’s slave house as I stared out over a horizon that my ancestors might have traversed once and forever. Because all they have was lost to The Void, I can never know who they were, and neither can anyone else.

Related Story:

Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o), T'Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), and Okoye (Danai Gurira)

The Provocation and Power of Black Panther

It is also The Void that creates Michael B. Jordan’s Erik Killmonger, the antagonist of Black Panther, cousin to Chadwick Boseman’s protagonist King T’Challa and a comic-book villain so transcendent that he is almost out of place in a film about a superhero who dresses as a cat. Black Panther is about a highly advanced African kingdom, yes, but its core theme is Pan-Africanism, a belief that no matter how seemingly distant black people’s lives and struggles are from each other, we are in a sense “cousins” who bear a responsibility to help one another escape oppression. And so the director Ryan Coogler asks, if an African superpower like Wakanda existed, with all its power, its monopoly on the invaluable sci-fi metal vibranium, and its advanced technology, how could it have remained silent, remained still, as millions of Africans were devoured by The Void?
“Two billion people all over the world who look like us whose lives are much harder, and Wakanda has the tools to liberate them all,” Killmonger scolds the Wakandan court. “Where was Wakanda?”
Killmonger has come to Wakanda as a conqueror. His father N’Jobu facilitated the theft of vibranium in an attempt to arm black people all over the world against their oppressors; N’Jobu is killed by T’Challa’s father T’Chaka for his insubordinate attempt to end the centuries of isolation that have kept Wakanda safe. T’Chaka abandons Killmonger in Oakland, California (the birthplace of the Black Panther Party), leaving Killmonger literally and figuratively an orphan, who sees in his lost homeland a chance to avenge the millions of black people extinguished in The Void, and those who still suffer in its wake.
Killmonger’s stated purpose, to liberate black people all over the world, has sparked a lively discussion over whether he is a bad guy to begin with. What could be so bad about black liberation? “I fist-pumped in the silent, dark theater when he was laying out his plans,” writes Brooke Obie at Shadow and Act. “IT’S A GOOD IDEA!” That Coogler’s villain has even inspired this debate is a testament to how profound and complex the character is.
“In the end, all comes down to a contest between T’Challa and Killmonger that can only be read one way,” writes Christopher Lebron in a well-argued piece in Boston Review, “in a world marked by racism, a man of African nobility must fight his own blood relative whose goal is the global liberation of blacks.”
This is not actually what happens in the film. Killmonger’s goal is, in his eyes, the global liberation of black people. But that is not truly his goal, as Coogler makes clear in the text of the script and in Killmonger’s interactions with other characters. Like Magneto, another comic-book character who is a creation of historical trauma—the Holocaust instead of the Middle Passage—Killmonger’s goal is world domination. “The sun will never set on the Wakandan empire,” Killmonger declares, echoing an old saying about the British Empire, to drive the point home as clearly as possible. He sees no future beyond his own reign; he burns the magic herbs Wakandan monarchs use to gain their powers because he does not even intend to have an heir.
It is remarkable that many viewers seem to have taken the “liberation” part at face value, and ignored the “empire” part, which Jordan delivers perfectly. They are equally important. Killmonger’s plan for “black liberation,” arming insurgencies all over the world, is an American policy that has backfired and led to unforeseen disasters perhaps every single time it has been deployed; it is somewhat bizarre to see people endorse a comic-book version of George W. Bush’s foreign policy and sign up for the Project for the New Wakandan Century as long as the words “black liberation” are used instead of “democracy promotion.” Killmonger’s assault begins in London, New York, and Hong Kong; China is not typically known as a particularly good example of white Western hegemony in need of overthrow.
There are other Wakandan characters who wish to end the kingdom’s isolation for reasons of their own. Lupita Nyong’o’s Nakia is seen at the beginning of the film rescuing people from a Boko Haram–type militia, and later urges T’Challa to take in refugees; T’Challa refuses, citing Wakanda’s tradition of isolationism. Killmonger seeks more than aid or revolution—he seeks hegemony. Here, there are echoes of the breakdown of the original Black Panther Party in its later years, as radicalized chapters sought a direct armed struggle to overthrow the U.S. government—a plan that most of the Party’s established leadership saw as folly. In so doing, the film’s conflict symbolizes, as my colleague Vann Newkirk writes, an old argument over “the nature of power and the rightness of its use” that has long “dominated black thought in the United States,” and even beyond.
“You want to see us become just like the people you hate so much,” T’Challa tells Killmonger during their climactic battle. “I learn from my enemies,” Killmonger retorts. “You have become them,” T’Challa responds. That the climactic battle in Black Panther is a bloodbath between Wakandan factions is no accident; it is Killmonger putting the never-colonized Wakanda through a taste of colonialism in microcosm. In one of many sly references to the Black Panther Party, it is Wakanda’s women—Nakia, Danai Gurira’s General Okoye, Letitia Wright’s Princess Shuri, Angela Bassett’s Queen-Mother Ramonda—who sustain Wakanda through its darkest moments. Where T’Challa cannot survive or triumph without Okoye, Shuri, or Ramonda, Killmonger is alone. His African American mother is absent from the story; Killmonger kills his own lover the moment her body stands between him and his ideological ambitions.
The following distinction is crucial: Black Panther does not render a verdict that violence is an unacceptable tool of black liberation—to the contrary, that is precisely how Wakanda is liberated. It renders a verdict on imperialism as a tool of black liberation, to say that the master’s tools cannot dismantle the master’s house.
Yet because Killmonger’s plans are rooted in a recognizable idealism and a wounded soul, the audience is supposed to empathize with him, even care for him. Viewers are meant to mourn him as T’Challa does when he dies, invoking his ancestors who chose to be consumed by The Void rather than toil in bondage. When T’Challa goes to the spirit world, he sees his ancestors. When Killmonger goes, in one of the most moving scenes in the film, he sees only his father; the rest of his ancestors have been lost to The Void. He is alone in a way T’Challa can never comprehend. So like his father N’Jobu, Killmonger is radicalized. “We can rule over them all the right way,” N’Jobu says during a flashback.
Killmonger himself is a kind of avatar of the BPP’s deterioration in its latter years, when rebelling against white supremacy gave way to internecine bloodshed. He embodies the Black Panther Party’s revolutionary possibility and noble intentions, but also its degeneration into fratricidal violence, and a sexism that persisted despite party doctrine. The film’s title thus has a double meaning, an indication of the gravity of Killmonger’s character—a Black Panther against the Black Panther. In one of the many subtle touches Coogler adds to a film in a genre not known for them, Black Panther ambiguously refers to either of them.
It is also a mistake, to, as Lebron does, view Killmonger as “as a receptacle for tropes of inner-city gangsterism.” Killmonger is not a product of the ghetto, so much as he is a product of the American military-industrial complex. Here too, the script is explicit. Noting Killmonger’s technical background (he studied at MIT) and his war record (tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, even in Africa where, he acknowledges, “ I killed my own brothers and sisters on this continent”). The CIA agent Everett Ross says of Killmonger, “he’s not Wakandan, he’s one of ours,” later observing that Killmonger’s coup is what the U.S. government “trained him to do.” The part of Killmonger that makes him a supervillain is not the part of him that is African.
Ross’s inclusion is perhaps the weakest part of the storyline—the history of the CIA in Africa is a history of the suppression of democratic movements like the African National Congress, the backing of brutal dictators, and opposition to racial equality in the name of anti-communism. Shuri hints at this history when she derisively calls Ross a “colonizer.” Nevertheless, Ross’s heroism in the film, even in a fantasy, feels like a kind of propaganda.
In spite of his ambitions for global domination, Killmonger does something remarkable and perhaps unprecedented for the superhero genre—he wins the argument. When T’Challa learns that his father killed N’Jobu and abandoned N’Jadaka (Killmonger), he is horrified: The truth shatters his faith in his father and in his father’s infallibility. On the spirit plane, T’Challa declares to the manifestations of his ancestors, the previous Black Panthers, “You were wrong. All of you, you were wrong.”
Where was Wakanda? Wakanda failed. Killmonger was right. He is blinded by his pain to the evil of his own methods, but he is correct that Wakanda abandoned its responsibility to use its unmatched power to protect black people around the world. They could have stopped the endless march of souls into The Void. They did not.
After defeating Killmonger, T’Challa ends Wakanda’s isolationism and, beginning in Oakland, starts to deploy Wakandan capital toward an international social-service project focused on impoverished black neighborhoods—again echoing the legacy of the Black Panther Party. Killmonger is dead, but he has changed Wakanda forever, ended the isolationism that defined its existence for all time, and unleashed a powerful new ally to oppressed black people all over the world. Is this inadequate? Too little, too late? Maybe. But it is folly to think that Killmonger’s preferred plan of Wakandan world hegemony through massive bloodshed, using a method that has never once worked as intended, is a preferable outcome.
Lebron laments that “Killmonger ... will not appear in another movie. He does not get a second chance. His black life did not matter even in a world of flying cars and miracle medicine.” On the contrary, Killmonger’s ascension and death is the event that catalyzes Wakanda’s redemption from its greatest failure, and his death ensures that unlike Loki, Thanos, the Red Skull, or any other of Marvel’s endless stable of world-conquering despots, the pathos of his tragic end cannot be infinitely repeated as farce. His death not only matters, it is also why he matters more than all the rest of them.
Shortly after he is crowned King, during his vision on the spirit plane, Killmonger sees N’Jobu and recalls a moment from his childhood, when N’Jobu expressed the fear that should Killmonger return to Wakanda, they would not accept him, but instead see him as lost. “Maybe your home’s the ones that’s lost,” a young Erik tells N’Jobu.

And thanks to Killmonger, now they are found.

Adam Serwer is a senior editor at The Atlantic, covering politics.


Black Panther and the Public Discourse Surrounding the Film
The Panopticon Review

Black Feminist Meditations on the Women of Wakanda (Spoiler Alert)
February 21, 2018
by Robyn C. Spencer, Ph.D

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Dr. Robyn C. Spencer
Like hundreds of thousands of people in the US, my week was defined by the opening of Ryan Coogler’s long awaited Marvel Film, “Black Panther.” Coming on the heels of the American president dubbing African countries as “shitholes” and renewed national attention on the sexual harassment and discrimination women face in Hollywood, “Black Panther” offered a stunningly beautiful technologically advanced African country that had escaped the ravages of colonialism; and storylines where Black women were central. The main character T’Challa is surrounded by Ramonda, his mother; Shuri, his brilliant younger sister; Nakia, his political comrade and ex; and Okoye, his loyal protector, general and head of his intelligence structure which includes the Dora Milaje, a group of female elite fighters. Given the often-stereotypical depictions and thin roles often available for Black women actors, any two of these characters in a film would be notable. The presence of all of them was nothing short of path breaking. I knew I had to take my 12 year old daughter.
I watched the film through my eyes and hers. In hushed tones, she marveled at the flawlessness of Nakia’s skin in one of the many closeups of the dark skinned Black women of Wakanda who effortlessly subverted Eurocentric standards of beauty. She buried her head and watched through her fingers as Black women led the charge in one explosive fight scene after the other. And she fell in love with Shuri, the millennial princess who demonstrated that technological mastery is where the real power lies and that elder brothers can be annoying, even in advanced societies.
After leaving the theater, I reflected on the portrayal of Wakandan women. I asked myself how could a Black feminist lens enrich the vibrant conversations about the political meaning and historical resonance of this film? What political messages could be distilled? What would I discuss with my daughter, the day after?

Empire is not liberation

The rivalry between T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) and Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) is a key plot point of the movie. Given Black feminism’s deep anti-imperialist roots it is important to start with a criticism of Killmonger’s plan to arm the children of the Diaspora with Wakanda’s weapons and technology. While this plan was introduced as a means to achieve liberation from oppression, it was intertwined with the language of empire — specifically a Wakandan empire where the sun never sets. The use of this infamous phraseology, which is widely associated with the glorification of the British colonial project, is a jarring reminder of the slippery slope between domination and liberation that has historically vexed masculinist visions of Black liberation. Killmonger, as a figure associated with the CIA (an organization presented uncritically in the film despite its well documented role in political repression, surveillance and disruption of foreign governments and murder of leaders), represents a flawed vision of power.
He is the primary African American figure in the film and carries the burdens of the afterlife of slavery and the struggle for Black self-determination in the US. He greets his father’s death with a world-weary resignation about violence that demonstrates the precarities of Black childhood. His solution is to share Wakanda’s technical prowess and military might with oppressed people of African descent so they can invert white supremacist hierarchies of race and power (not be rid of these hierarchies). His vision held the promise of selective liberation, not revolution.
Killmonger is a monarch seeking a throne, a familiar figure in the history of Black protest. Despite his flawed ideas and violent actions as a CIA operative, he is presented as having a redeemable vision of Black futurity. The struggle between T’Challa’s way and Killmonger’s alternative have fueled some of the most provocative think pieces about the meaning of the movie to Black history and politics. However, it is the women of Wakanda who have offered the most justice centered view of what Wakanda can mean in the world.

Wakadan Women as Thinkers

Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) first appears in a scene where she is coming to the aid of African women and children, an unmistakable nod to Boko Haram kidnaping of women and girls and a comment on the reality of child soldiers. From the start, her character presents a challenge to the isolationist policies of Wakanda and suggests the potential of justice driven interventions into the outside world. This history follows her throughout the film as she hints at entanglements in North Korea and other places around the globe. It is this political commitment that is the wrench in the works in her love story with T’Challa. She is an ideologue hidden in plain sight, advocating a different path than T’Challa’s isolation or Killmonger’s expansionism with her praxis.
It is Nakia’s way that seems to have the most radical potential. History is not fiction but the mechanisms that silence Black women’s intellectual production even while seeming to herald their numerical presence is present in each realm. Scholars of Black women’s intellectual history have pointed to the ways that racism and sexism combine to easily dismiss Black women as “doers,” rather than thinkers. This allows commentators and pundits to herald Nakia as one of Wakanda’s most visible and brave women, analyze her character’s bold style politics and paradigm shifting beauty, while engaging with the male characters (rather than her) as thinkers.

Hidden (leadership) Figures

Shuri (Letitia Wright), Wakanda’s brilliant scientist and technological powerhouse, steals every scene she is in. She masterminds everything from T’Challa’s fight strategy to the high speed train system that will frame T’Challa and Killmonger’s battle to the death. Her centrality and power is evident in the scene where she coaches Everett Ross (Martin Freeman) through his mission to short circuit Killmonger’s plan while simultaneously fighting for her country, family and life. However, her ability to create technology and master science is narrowed in the end when T’Challa imposes his vision of skill transfer between Wakanda and Oakland. She arrives to an impoverished Oakland confused about the location and her purpose there. Taking the role of teacher, she answers the preliminary questions curious urban youth in an ending which juxtaposes her tremendous knowledge with the contested notion that STEM education is a panacea for structural inequality.
In the end T’Challa, the king of the most advanced country in the world, has purchased a few buildings and committed to a plan of education in the inner city. This is as anti-climatic as it sounds. He has positioned his sister and comrade, his two closest allies and the two characters with the broadest and most intriguing vision of Wakanda in the world, at the helm of his first attempt at outreach. However their hand in the project is unclear and the result is a cooptation of their vision and a blunting of the radical edge of their politics.

Matriarchs and Generals

While the film revolves around the loss of T’Challa’s father T’Chaka, his mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett) is in a supporting role in the film. Basset brings deep gravitas to her every line in her role as a royal elder but does not serve as a strong counterpoint to her son. Killmonger’s mother, and entire upbringing, is also missing in the film. Viewers are left to surmise that it is men, through their presence or absence, who leave the strongest imprint on their boys. This is an inversion of the role that Black mothers have historically played in the lives of their children.
Okoye (Danai Gurira) is fierce as a loyal general but once Killmonger becomes king it is clear that her power is channeled through the throne, a symbol of maleness. She is trapped in a structure that leaves her with few choices until the very end when she boldly decides to help T’Challa regain power and fights for Wakanda. The notion that “we were kings and queens” (and generals) resonates deeply in an anti-Black world where Black history and culture is often presented as debased and nihilistic. But these are also deeply limiting tropes. Ryan Coogler has discussed how the film focuses on the interplay between the modern and traditional , a key reminder about the perils and possibilities of making the future out of the cloth of the past.

Mothering Futures

“Black Panther” reflects a deep, global and collective hunger for cultural products that represent people of African descent with dignity and power, but that doesn’t mean that one has to swallow everything uncritically. There is potential in this moment. Activists have raised awareness about the 1960s Black Panther Party, rallied for support for political prisoners and held voter registration drives at movie screenings. Fewer have asked why the African future — as imagined in “Black Panther” — and the African past — as sold by — is so much more appealing to some Americans than the African present. There is no better time to launch critical conversations about what liberation could look like; connect new people to pre-existing organizations and political networks; re-center aesthetics in freedom making projects and have some frank transnational diasporic dialogue.
Perhaps the best thing about “Black Panther” is that it grounds these conversations in intergenerational soil. The day after the film, I will ask my daughter to use the tools of Black feminism to re-imagine Wakanda. How should it be organized, run and led? Could she think beyond monarchy and create an alternative system of governance based on values like egalitarianism and collectivity? How might she redistribute, rather than hoard, the wealth of Wakanda for the greater good? What would she do with Killmonger, who at the end finally grasps the splendor of Wakanda yet is incapable of imagining that it had evolved beyond imprisoning vanquished enemies. (A burning question in a country where 2.3 million people are incarcerated.) Most of all, I will ask her about her favorite thinkers and suggest that the women of Wakanda might be the leaders that we have been calling for.

Dr. Robyn C. Spencer is a historian and author of The Revolution Has Come: Black Power, Gender and the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California, Duke University Press, 2016. She is an Assistant Professor of History at Lehman College (CUNY) in the Bronx, New York and has a B.A. from the State University of New York at Binghamton; and M.A., M.Phil., and Ph.D., from Columbia University

Professor Spencer taught African and African American studies and history at Penn State University from 2001-2007. Before that, she was a Visiting Predoctoral Fellow at Randolph College in Lynchburg, Virginia. 
Her areas of interest include black social protest after World War II, urban and working-class radicalism, and gender. She is completing a book on the Black Panther Party and will teach courses at Lehman on twentieth-century African American history.

In 2016-17 she received a Mellon fellowship at Yale University to work on her second book project, To Build the World Anew: Black Liberation Politics and the Movement Against the Vietnam War. This project examines how working class African Americans’ anti-imperialist consciousness in the 1950s-1970s shaped their engagement with the movement against the Vietnam War. In 2020-2021 work on this project will be supported by an ACLS Frederick Burkhardt Residential Fellowship for Recently Tenured Scholars at the Institute for Advanced Study, School of Social Science. She is also working on a short biography of Angela Davis for Westview Press’ Lives of American women series.

'Black Panther and the Public Discourse Surrounding the Film':…/black-panther-and-pu……/why-black-panther-is-a-defining-m…

Why ‘Black Panther’ Is a Defining Moment for Black America

Ryan Coogler’s film is a vivid re-imagination of something black Americans have cherished for centuries — Africa as a dream of our wholeness, greatness and self-realization.

February 12, 2018
New York Times

 Photo Illustration by Najeebah Al-Ghadban. Source photographs: Matt Kennedy/Marvel Studios.

The Grand Lake Theater — the kind of old-time movie house with cavernous ceilings and ornate crown moldings — is one place I take my kids to remind us that we belong to Oakland, Calif. Whenever there is a film or community event that has meaning for this town, the Grand Lake is where you go to see it. There are local film festivals, indie film festivals, erotic film festivals, congressional town halls, political fund-raisers. After Hurricane Katrina, the lobby served as a drop-off for donations. We run into friends and classmates there. On weekends we meet at the farmers’ market across the street for coffee.

The last momentous community event I experienced at the Grand Lake was a weeknight viewing of “Fruitvale Station,” the 2013 film directed by the Bay Area native Ryan Coogler. It was about the real-life police shooting of Oscar Grant, 22, right here in Oakland, where Grant’s killing landed less like a news story and more like the death of a friend or a child. He had worked at a popular grocery, gone to schools and summer camps with the children of acquaintances. His death — he was shot by the transit police while handcuffed, unarmed and face down on a train-station platform, early in the morning of New Year’s Day 2009 — sparked intense grief, outrage and sustained protest, years before Black Lives Matter took shape as a movement. Coogler’s telling took us slowly through the minutiae of Grant’s last day alive: We saw his family and child, his struggles at work, his relationship to a gentrifying city, his attempts to make sense of a young life that felt both aimless and daunting. But the moment I remember most took place after the movie was over: A group of us, friends and strangers alike and nearly all black, stood in the cool night under the marquee, crying and holding one another. It didn’t matter that we didn’t know one another. We knew enough.

On a misty morning this January, I found myself standing at that same spot, having gotten out of my car to take a picture of the Grand Lake’s marquee. The words “Black Panther” were on it, placed dead center. They were not in normal-size letters; the theater was using the biggest ones it had. All the other titles huddled together in another corner of the marquee. A month away from its Feb. 16 opening, “Black Panther” was, already and by a wide margin, the most important thing happening at the Grand Lake. 

Marvel Comics’s Black Panther was originally conceived in 1966 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, two Jewish New Yorkers, as a bid to offer black readers a character to identify with. The titular hero, whose real name is T’Challa, is heir apparent to the throne of Wakanda, a fictional African nation. The tiny country has, for centuries, been in nearly sole possession of vibranium, an alien element acquired from a fallen meteor. (Vibranium is powerful and nearly indestructible; it’s in the special alloy Captain America’s shield is made of.) Wakanda’s rulers have wisely kept their homeland and its elemental riches hidden from the world, and in its isolation the nation has grown wildly powerful and technologically advanced. Its secret, of course, is inevitably discovered, and as the world’s evil powers plot to extract the resources of yet another African nation, T’Challa’s father is cruelly assassinated, forcing the end of Wakanda’s sequestration. The young king will be forced to don the virtually indestructible vibranium Black Panther suit and face a duplicitous world on behalf of his people

This is the subject of Ryan Coogler’s third feature film — after “Fruitvale Station” and “Creed” (2015) — and when glimpses of the work first appeared last June, the response was frenzied. The trailer teaser — not even the full trailer — racked up 89 million views in 24 hours. On Jan. 10, 2018, after tickets were made available for presale, Fandango’s managing editor, Erik Davis, tweeted that the movie’s first 24 hours of advance ticket sales exceeded those of any other movie from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. 

From left: Lupita Nyong’o, Chadwick Boseman and Letitia Wright in ‘‘Black Panther.’’ Credit Marvel Studios

The black internet was, to put it mildly, exploding. Twitter reported that “Black Panther” was one of the most tweeted-about films of 2017, despite not even opening that year. There were plans for viewing parties, a fund-raiser to arrange a private screening for the Boys & Girls Club of Harlem, hashtags like #BlackPantherSoLit and #WelcomeToWakanda. When the date of the premiere was announced, people began posting pictures of what might be called African-Americana, a kitsch version of an older generation’s pride touchstones — kente cloth du-rags, candy-colored nine-button suits, King Jaffe Joffer from “Coming to America” with his lion-hide sash — alongside captions like “This is how I’ma show up to the Black Panther premiere.” Someone described how they’d feel approaching the box office by simply posting a video of the Compton rapper Buddy Crip-walking in front of a Moroccan hotel.

None of this is because “Black Panther” is the first major black superhero movie. Far from it. In the mid-1990s, the Damon Wayans vehicle “Blankman” and Robert Townsend’s “The Meteor Man” played black-superhero premises for campy laughs. Superheroes are powerful and beloved, held in high esteem by society at large; the idea that a normal black person could experience such a thing in America was so far-fetched as to effectively constitute gallows humor. “Blade,” released in 1998, featured Wesley Snipes as a Marvel vampire hunter, and “Hancock” (2008) depicted Will Smith as a slacker antihero, but in each case the actor’s blackness seemed somewhat incidental.

“Black Panther,” by contrast, is steeped very specifically and purposefully in its blackness. “It’s the first time in a very long time that we’re seeing a film with centered black people, where we have a lot of agency,” says Jamie Broadnax, the founder of Black Girl Nerds, a pop-culture site focused on sci-fi and comic-book fandoms. These characters, she notes, “are rulers of a kingdom, inventors and creators of advanced technology. We’re not dealing with black pain, and black suffering, and black poverty” — the usual topics of acclaimed movies about the black experience.

In a video posted to Twitter in December, which has since gone viral, three young men are seen fawning over the “Black Panther” poster at a movie theater. One jokingly embraces the poster while another asks, rhetorically: “This is what white people get to feel all the time?” There is laughter before someone says, as though delivering the punch line to the most painful joke ever told: “I would love this country, too.”

Ryan Coogler saw his first Black Panther comic book as a child, at an Oakland shop called Dr. Comics & Mr. Games, about a mile from the Grand Lake Theater. When I sat down with him in early February, at the Montage Hotel in Beverly Hills, I told him about the night I saw “Fruitvale Station,” and he listened with his head down, slowly nodding. When he looked up at me, he seemed to be blinking back tears of his own.

IMAGE: Cover of Fantastic Four comic book from 1966, Black Panther’s debut. Credit Marvel

Coogler played football in high school, and between his fitness and his humble listening poses — leaning forward, elbows propped on knees — he reminds me of what might happen if a mild-mannered athlete accidentally discovered a radioactive movie camera and was gifted with remarkable artistic vision. He’s interested in questions of identity: What does it mean to be a black person or an African person? “You know, you got to have the race conversation,” he told me, describing how his parents prepared him for the world. “And you can’t have that without having the slavery conversation. And with the slavery conversation comes a question of, O.K., so what about before that? And then when you ask that question, they got to tell you about a place that nine times out of 10 they’ve never been before. So you end up hearing about Africa, but it’s a skewed version of it. It’s not a tactile version.”

Around the time he was wrapping up “Creed,” Coogler made his first journey to the continent, visiting Kenya, South Africa and the Kingdom of Lesotho, a tiny nation in the center of the South African landmass. Tucked high amid rough mountains, Lesotho was spared much of the colonization of its neighbors, and Coogler based much of his concept of Wakanda on it. While he was there, he told me, he was being shown around by an older woman who said she’d been a lover of the South African pop star Brenda Fassie. Riding along the hills with this woman, Coogler was told that they would need to visit an even older woman in order to drop off some watermelon. During their journey, they would stop occasionally to approach a shepherd and give him a piece of watermelon; each time the shepherd would gingerly take the piece, wrap it in cloth and tuck it away as though it were a religious totem. Time passed. Another bit of travel, another shepherd, another gift of watermelon. Eventually Coogler grew frustrated: “Why are we stopping so much?” he asked. “Watermelon is sacred,” he was told. “It hydrates, it nourishes and its seeds are used for offerings.” When they arrived at the old woman’s home, it turned out that she was, in fact, a watermelon farmer, but her crop had not yet ripened — she needed a delivery to help her last the next few weeks.

When I was a kid, I refused to eat watermelon in front of white people. To this day, the word itself makes me uncomfortable. Coogler told me that in high school he and his black football teammates used to have the same rule: Never eat watermelon in front of white teammates. Centuries of demonizing and ridiculing blackness have, in effect, forced black people to abandon what was once sacred. When we spoke of Africa and black Americans’ attempts to reconnect with what we’re told is our lost home, I admitted that I sometimes wondered if we could ever fully be part of what was left behind. He dipped his head, fell briefly quiet and then looked back at me with a solemn expression. “I think we can,” he said. “It’s no question. It’s almost as if we’ve been brainwashed into thinking that we can’t have that connection.”

“Black Panther” is a Hollywood movie, and Wakanda is a fictional nation. But coming when they do, from a director like Coogler, they must also function as a place for multiple generations of black Americans to store some of our most deeply held aspirations. We have for centuries sought to either find or create a promised land where we would be untroubled by the criminal horrors of our American existence. From Paul Cuffee’s attempts in 1811 to repatriate blacks to Sierra Leone and Marcus Garvey’s back-to-Africa Black Star shipping line to the Afrocentric movements of the ’60s and ’70s, black people have populated the Africa of our imagination with our most yearning attempts at self-realization. In my earliest memories, the Africa of my family was a warm fever dream, seen on the record covers I stared at alone, the sun setting over glowing, haloed Afros, the smell of incense and oils at the homes of my father’s friends — a beauty so pure as to make the world outside, one of car commercials and blond sitcom families, feel empty and perverse in comparison. As I grew into adolescence, I began to see these romantic visions as just another irrelevant habit of the older folks, like a folk remedy or a warning to wear a jacket on a breezy day. But by then my generation was building its own African dreamscape, populated by KRS-One, Public Enemy and Poor Righteous Teachers; we were indoctrinating ourselves into a prideful militancy about our worth. By the end of the century, “Black Star” was not just the name of Garvey’s shipping line but also one of the greatest hip-hop albums ever made.

Never mind that most of us had never been to Africa. The point was not verisimilitude or a precise accounting of Africa’s reality. It was the envisioning of a free self. Nina Simone once described freedom as the absence of fear, and as with all humans, the attempt of black Americans to picture a homeland, whether real or mythical, was an attempt to picture a place where there was no fear. This is why it doesn’t matter that Wakanda was an idea from a comic book, created by two Jewish artists. No one knows colonization better than the colonized, and black folks wasted no time in recolonizing Wakanda. No genocide or takeover of land was required. Wakanda is ours now. We do with it as we please.

Until recently, most popular speculation on what the future would be like had been provided by white writers and futurists, like Isaac Asimov and Gene Roddenberry. Not coincidentally, these futures tended to carry the power dynamics of the present into perpetuity. Think of the original “Star Trek,” with its peaceful, international crew, still under the charge of a white man from Iowa. At the time, the character of Lieutenant Uhura, played by Nichelle Nichols, was so vital for African-Americans — the black woman of the future as an accomplished philologist — that, as Nichols told NPR, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. himself persuaded her not to quit the show after the first season. It was a symbol of great progress that she was conceived as something more than a maid. But so much still stood in the way of her being conceived as a captain.

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. There exists, somewhere within us, an image in which we are whole, in which we are home. Afrofuturism is, if nothing else, an attempt to imagine what that home would be. “Black Panther” cannot help being part of this. “Wakanda itself is a dream state,” says the director Ava DuVernay, “a place that’s been in the hearts and minds and spirits of black people since we were brought here in chains.” She and Coogler have spent the past few months working across the hall from each other in the same editing facility, with him tending to “Black Panther” and her to her much-anticipated film of Madeleine L’Engle’s “A Wrinkle in Time.” At the heart of Wakanda, she suggests, lie some of our most excruciating existential questions: “What if they didn’t come?” she asked me. “And what if they didn’t take us? What would that have been?”

From left: Chadwick Boseman and Daniel Kaluuya in “Black Panther” Credit Marvel Studios

Afrofuturism, from its earliest iterations, has been an attempt to imagine an answer to these questions. The movement spans from free-jazz thinkers like Sun Ra, who wrote of an African past filled with alien technology and extraterrestrial beings, to the art of Krista Franklin and Ytasha Womack, to the writers Octavia Butler, Nnedi Okorafor and Derrick Bell, to the music of Jamila Woods and Janelle Monáe. Their work, says John I. Jennings — a media and cultural studies professor at the University of California, Riverside, and co-author of “Black Comix Returns” — is a way of upending the system, “because it jumps past the victory. Afrofuturism is like, ‘We already won.’ ” Comic books are uniquely suited to handling this proposition. In them the laws of our familiar world are broken: Mild-mannered students become godlike creatures, mutants walk among us and untold power is, in an instant, granted to the most downtrodden. They offer an escape from reality, and who might need to escape reality more than a people kidnapped to a stolen land and treated as less-than-complete humans?

At the same time, it is notable that despite selling more than a million books and being the first science-fiction author to win a MacArthur fellowship, Octavia Butler, one of Afrofuturism’s most important voices, never saw her work transferred to film, even as studios churned out adaptations of lesser works on a monthly basis. Butler’s writing not only featured African-Americans as protagonists; it specifically highlighted African-American women. If projects by and about black men have a hard time getting made, projects by and about black women have a nearly impossible one. In March, Disney will release “A Wrinkle in Time,” featuring Storm Reid and Oprah Winfrey in lead roles; the excitement around this female-led film does not seem to compare, as of yet, with the explosion that came with “Black Panther.” But by focusing on a black female hero — one who indeed saves the universe — DuVernay is embodying the deepest and most powerful essence of Afrofuturism: to imagine ourselves in places where we had not been previously imagined.

Can films like these significantly change things for black people in America? The expectations around “Black Panther” remind me of the way I heard the elders in my family talking about the mini-series “Roots,” which aired on ABC in 1977. A multigenerational drama based on the best-selling book in which Alex Haley traced his own family history, “Roots” told the story of an African slave kidnapped and brought to America, and traced his progeny through over 100 years of American history. It was an attempt to claim for us a home, because to be black in America is to be both with and without one: You are told that you must honor this land, that to refuse this is tantamount to hatred — but you are also told that you do not belong here, that you are a burden, an animal, a slave. Haley, through research and narrative and a fair bit of invention, was doing precisely what Afrofuturism does: imagining our blackness as a thing with meaning and with lineage, with value and place.
“The climate was very different in 1977,” the actor LeVar Burton recalled to me recently. Burton was just 19 when he landed an audition, his first ever, for the lead role of young Kunta Kinte in the mini-series. “We had been through the civil rights movement, and there were visible changes as a result, like there was no more Jim Crow,” he told me. “We felt that there were advancements that had been made, so the conversation had really sort of fallen off the table.” The series, he said, was poised to reignite that conversation. “The story had never been told before from the point of view of the Africans. America, both black and white, was getting an emotional education about the costs of slavery to our common American psyche.”

To say that “Roots” held the attention of a nation for its eight-consecutive-night run in January 1977 would be an understatement. Its final episode was viewed by 51.1 percent of all American homes with televisions, a kind of reach that seemed sure to bring about some change in opportunities, some new standing in American culture. “The expectation,” Burton says, “was that this was going to lead to all kinds of positive portrayals of black people on the screen both big and small, and it just didn’t happen. It didn’t go down that way, and it’s taken years.”

Here in Oakland, I am doing what it seems every other black person in the country is doing: assembling my delegation to Wakanda. We bought tickets for the opening as soon as they were available — the first time in my life I’ve done that. Our contingent is made up of my 12-year-old daughter and her friend; my 14-year-old son and his friend; one of my oldest confidants, dating back to adolescence; and two of my closest current friends. Not everyone knows everyone else. But we all know enough. Our group will be eight black people strong.

Beyond the question of what the movie will bring to African-Americans sits what might be a more important question: What will black people bring to “Black Panther”? The film arrives as a corporate product, but we are using it for our own purposes, posting with unbridled ardor about what we’re going to wear to the opening night, announcing the depths of the squads we’ll be rolling with, declaring that Feb. 16, 2018, will be “the Blackest Day in History.”
This is all part of a tradition of unrestrained celebration and joy that we have come to rely on for our spiritual survival. We know that there is no end to the reminders that our lives, our hearts, our personhoods are expendable. Yes, many nonblack people will say differently; they will declare their love for us, they will post Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela quotes one or two days a year. But the actions of our country and its collective society, and our experiences within it, speak unquestionably to the opposite. Love for black people isn’t just saying Oscar Grant should not be dead. Love for black people is Oscar Grant not being dead in the first place.

This is why we love ourselves in the loud and public way we do — because we have to counter his death with the very same force with which such deaths attack our souls. The writer and academic Eve L. Ewing told me a story about her partner, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago: When it is time for graduation, he makes the walk from his office to the celebration site in his full regalia — the gown with velvet panels, full bell sleeves and golden piping, the velvet tam with gold-strand bullion tassel. And when he does it, every year, like clockwork, some older black woman or man he doesn’t know will pull over, roll down their window, stop him and say, with a slow head shake and a deep, wide smile, something like: “I am just so proud of you!”

This is how we do with one another. We hold one another as a family because we must be a family in order to survive. Our individual successes and failures belong, in a perfectly real sense, to all of us. That can be for good or ill. But when it is good, it is very good. It is sunlight and gold on vast African mountains, it is the shining splendor of the Wakandan warriors poised and ready to fight, it is a collective soul as timeless and indestructible as vibranium. And with this love we seek to make the future ours, by making the present ours. We seek to make a place where we belong.

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A version of this article appears in print on February 18, 2018, on Page MM26 of the Sunday Magazine with the headline: Making A Motherland. Today's Paper

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‘Black Panther’ Movie: What You Should Read After Watching the Boundary-Breaking Film

February 20, 2018
New York Times 
A scene from “Black Panther.”Matt Kennedy/Marvel — Disney
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After years of anticipation and months of hype, the Disney-Marvel superhero epic “Black Panther” finally debuted in theaters on Friday. The movie garnered almost universal acclaim from reviewers and earned an estimated $387 million in its opening weekend. It’s already the highest-grossing film of all time by a black director (Ryan Coogler, who also directed “Creed” and “Fruitvale Station”). And, of course, it has audiences and critics talking.

In her New York Times review, Manohla Dargis said the film “becomes an emblem of a past that was denied and a future that feels very present.” Whether you’re interested in the movie’s racial and gender politics, curious about the future of the Marvel Universe or you simply want to sample the best spoiler-filled essays, our list of essential post-“Panther” reading is here to help.

Spoiler Chat

‘Did You Watch “Black Panther”? Let’s Talk Spoilers’ [The New York Times]

In the mood to celebrate Shuri (Letitia Wright)? Have some thoughts on the movie’s white characters? If so, you’ll want to read Reggie Ugwu’s recap and dive into the comments.

‘“Black Panther”’s 2 End-Credits Scenes, Explained’ [Vox]

Alex Abad-Santos dissects two clips that may include clues for upcoming Marvel movies. “T’Challa promising to reveal Wakanda’s unrivaled capabilities and power seems to put Wakanda in an extremely important position going into ‘Avengers: Infinity War,’” he notes. “The idea is that, when Thanos shows up to wreak havoc on Earth, the fate of the planet will ultimately depend on the efforts of its mightiest country: Wakanda.”

‘In Defense of Erik Killmonger and the Forgotten Children of Wakanda’ [Shadow and Act]

Brooke Obie defends the ostensible villain of “Black Panther,” arguing: “The fact that T’Challa can choose love when Killmonger is consumed with vengeance isn’t so much a testament to T’Challa’s character as it is an indictment of Wakanda. When its king abandoned Killmonger, he never had a chance. Whatever is good in him exists by miracle.”

‘Black Panther’ and Black Identity

‘“Black Panther” and the Revenge of the Black Nerds’ [The New York Times]

In an Op-Ed, Lawrence Ware recalls feeling isolated as a black teen who read comic books in the ’90s. “Now I know that to be a black nerd is by no means anomalous; millions of people who look like me grew up loving comic books,” he writes. “Yet despite our numbers, we were underground for a long time. Today, though, there appears to be a widening cultural appreciation for what black people have always known: There are many ways to be black in America.”

‘Why ‘Black Panther’ Is a Defining Moment for Black America’ [The New York Times Magazine]

Ryan Coogler’s film is a vivid re-imagination of something black Americans have cherished for centuries, writes Carvell Wallace: Africa as a dream of wholeness, greatness and self-realization. “We have for centuries sought to either find or create a promised land where we would be untroubled by the criminal horrors of our American existence,” he writes, and Coogler is contributing to those deeply held aspirations.

‘“Black Panther” Forces Africans and Black Americans to Reconcile the Past’ [Buzzfeed]

“Black Panther,” writes Kovie Biakolo, tackles the intricacies of identity in the African diaspora. “What if the African diaspora could point to a country with a history unpenetrated by oppressive contact with Europeans?” she asks, and makes the case that in the film, viewers can now find this in the nation of Wakanda.

‘The Revolutionary Power of “Black Panther”’ [Time]

Jamil Smith revisits the Black Power movement, explores the origins of Black Panther and discusses issues of representation and identity with Coogler and his cast in this wide-ranging cover story. He points out that “Black Panther” is “both a black film and the newest entrant in the most bankable movie franchise in history,” and he rightly predicts that, “For a wary and risk-averse film business, led largely by white film executives who have been historically predisposed to greenlight projects featuring characters who look like them, ‘Black Panther’ will offer proof that a depiction of a reality of something other than whiteness can make a ton of money.”

‘“Black Panther” and the Invention of “Africa”’ [The New Yorker]

“Africa — or, rather, ‘Africa’ — is a creation of a white world and the literary, academic, cinematic and political mechanisms that it used to give mythology the credibility of truth,” Jelani Cobb observes in an essay on how the film addresses the West’s long history of exploiting Africans. “No such nation as Wakanda exists on the map of the continent, but that is entirely beside the point. Wakanda is no more or less imaginary than the Africa conjured by Hume or Trevor-Roper, or the one canonized in such Hollywood offerings as ‘Tarzan.’ It is a redemptive counter-mythology.”

The Women of Wakanda

‘Finally, “Black Panther” Is a Movie Black Women Can Celebrate’ [Independent]

The film is earning heaps of praise for its female characters. The journalist and activist Adebola Lamuye writes: “For those of us who have struggled to find multifaceted representations of ourselves, this is it. The dark-skinned female superhero finally looks like me, my sister, my mother, my friends. Female suffering is not used as a narrative device — instead women are the best spies Wakanda has to offer, fearless warriors and scientific genius responsible for the nation’s technological advancements.”

‘Kevin Feige on the Future of Marvel’s Women’ [Vulture]

Will “Black Panther” fan favorites like Lupita Nyong’o’s Nakia and Letitia Wright’s Shuri ever get their own movies? “It is all about figuring out when and how,” said Kevin Feige, the president of Marvel Studios, in an interview with Vulture’s Kyle Buchanan. “But by the way, many of them have already filmed additional scenes in upcoming movies, so some of that is gonna come sooner rather than later. All of them will be seen again.”

The Look of ‘Black Panther’

‘Behind the Scenes of “Black Panther”’s Afrofuturism’ [Wired]

Angela Watercutter explores various elements of the movie’s aesthetic, from its architecture to its weaponry, through conversations with Coogler and his crew. “A big question I was interested in exploring was, What makes something African?” the director told Watercutter. “For us, we said, ‘Let’s make it human, let’s make it tactile.’”
‘How “Black Panther”’s Costume Designer Created a New Vision of Africa’ [Refinery29]

Ruth E. Carter designed costumes for “Do the Right Thing,” “Malcolm X,” “Love & Basketball” and many other films before clothing the nation of Wakanda in “Black Panther.” In an interview with Channing Hargrove, she explained: “Our aesthetic was always to bring about positive visuals to the African diaspora in this country. And to dispel stereotypes. To be about a forward-thinking community that empowered the black community, women and even natural hair.”

A Few Thought-Provoking Critiques

‘“Black Panther” Is Great. But Let’s Not Treat It as an Act of Resistance.’ [The Guardian]
Although she’s as excited about the film as anyone else, the writer Khanya Khondlo Mtshali cautions viewers, “If we behave as though purchasing a ticket to see a film produced by Disney is a form of resistance, we fail to distinguish between black art that touches on revolutionary themes, and the actual work required for revolution itself.”

‘“Black Panther” Is Not the Movie We Deserve’ [Boston Review]

Christopher Lebron was troubled by Coogler’s representation of black American men. “In 2018, a world home to both the Movement for Black Lives and a president who identifies white supremacists as fine people, we are given a movie about black empowerment where the only redeemed blacks are African nobles,” he writes. “They safeguard virtue and goodness against the threat not of white Americans or Europeans, but a black American man, the most dangerous person in the world.”

The Rumored Love Story That Never Panned Out

‘“Black Panther” Screenwriter Joe Robert Cole Addresses Rumors of a Deleted Gay Scene’ [ScreenCrush]

Last spring, Vanity Fair’s Joanna Robinson got her hands on early footage of a flirtatious moment between two female characters, Danai Gurira’s Okoye and Florence Kasumba’s Ayo. The scene never made it into the movie. So, what happened? In a conversation with ScreenCrush’s E. Oliver Whitney, the screenwriter Joe Robert Cole, one of the writers for “Black Panther,” says he vaguely recalls some discussion of whether to include the lesbian love story. “There wasn’t some major theme through that we were looking to explore with [those characters] in terms of the story,” Cole clarifies. “We didn’t like, pull out a full thread of some theme.”

‘Don’t Play With Our Emotions: “Black Panther” and Queer Representation’ [The Root]

Briana Lawrence, who identifies as a queer black woman, was surprised that the scene’s exclusion didn’t bother her. “I should’ve been cursing Ryan Coogler out, swift and fast like my mama taught me when someone pisses me off,” she writes. “But after thinking it over, I’m happy the scene didn’t make it into the movie, and that feels blasphemous to admit as someone who is always championing representation — especially for queer folks of color like me.”

Heartwarming Bonus Read: ‘I Took 7th Graders to See “Black Panther.” Here’s What They Said.’ [The New York Times]

Prof. Kevin Noble Maillard watched the film with a handful of tweens from a Brooklyn public school. A lively post-screening conversation prompted insights like this observation from Jaheim Hedge: “For people of color, it shows us that we can get through any obstacles that are thrown at us if we work together. We can also help the world by sharing our resources.”
Interested in more great movies by black American directors? Try these titles.

‘Black Panther' and the degeneration of Black public and popular discourse
by Rayfield A. Waller
February 21, 2018
The Panopticon Review

 'Black Panther' cast.  Marvel Studios

I am willing to see “Black Panther” as entertaining and exciting fantasy, as in some ways less noxious fare than usual for young Black Americans, as entertaining, though a little too cultural nationalist. However, do young blacks really need to idealize concepts like monarchy in the name of pride?  Some people are trying to ascribe the manufactured popularity of “BP” to the emerging re-interest over the last two decades that we see in ‘The Mother Country’ on the part of all diasporic African peoples, and on the part of beleaguered and currently re-segregated African Americans suffering from ‘negative media imagery’ that “BP” assuages.

Yes, it’s true that African diasporic peoples are returning in appreciable numbers to our homeland, but that homeland is a place which is NOT a paradisiacal kingdom of super Negros but is, as Wole Soyinka used to remind we his graduate students at Cornell, "A very non-idealized and challengingly flawed absolute diversity of hundreds of states, traditions, histories, nations, tribes, villages, city states, ideologies, myths, clans, and communes." 

I know three people who picked up and moved to South Africa, which has been anything but ideal thanks to the flaws of the ANC, the venality of political leadership, continued injustice for the trade union movement, and to its still lacking adequate land reform, and lack of a will to nationalized diamond and gold resources that ought to have made South Africa hands down the wealthiest Black nation on Earth after the revolution. All those lost opportunities are the things Nelson Mandela claimed to stand for. Everyone I know who went there is happy they did, admittedly. Struggle in one's own home is better than triumph in the prison founded by one's oppressor.

The problem, those who've moved to South Afrika, Ghana, and Cote d'Ivoire have told me, is that one has to banish naive idealization of the homeland and deal with corruption, pollution, capitalism, misogyny and class injustice just like everywhere else one might be drawn to live. Once returning to the real African continent not as super heroes but as citizens, we will have to deal with Africa not as a fantasy of glorious esteem and muscle padding in our spandex costumes, but as a real polity demanding struggle, disappointment, sacrifice, and even critique. I'd move to Capetown's De Waterkant, Green Point, or Mouille Point at the ocean the moment I could get a good job there, though, and say screw the US, if that were the end point of the debate.

To my alarm, though, I am finding dear friends, degreed, published, otherwise politically conscious people my age (Generation X), collapsing into overweening positivism over this little movie. This morning at the supermarket a Black man and Arab-American came almost to blows over whether “BP” is really about any real Africa that ever existed, and because the Arba-American expressed distrust that “BP” is real or even should be real, I must admit I sided silently with the Arab American brother even as he was driven out of the frozen food section to take cover in produce with angry African Americans on his heels. This irruption of discussion can take on the character of cathexis, and as Jung taught, the relative non-importance of the OBJECT of cathexis drops away in analysis, because the cathexis ITSLEF and what it betrays about the psyche, is the real issue. 'Movies' as opposed to film, never deserve a great deal of critical energy, as far as I'm concerned, even when Arab Americans are sent afoot into the spinach, but along with other diatribes I’ve overheard a recent spate of comments I've seen and heard comparing "BP" to the film, "Color Purple" troubles me.

          “Color Purple”? Time out. 

That is unfair to "Color Purple" (Spielberg and Meyjes, released in 1985) which was a serious film, not a movie. Comparisons to other Hollywood product from that much earlier in our history is begging the question; the issue is not that we ought to be starting out by accepting conversations about 'movies' as if they de facto reflect some desired reality, but we should be drawing a distinction BETWEEN movies (particularly capitalist Hollywood cartoon movies) and reality, both positive AND negative.

Anyone who criticized OR complemented Color Purple decades ago as a reflection of reality was given a hard time, as I recall clearly since I was involved in public debates and panel discussions about "CP" at the time, in Detroit. Most Black public intellectuals were saying something or other about "CP" that it had this or that historical significance as a film, not at history, and even those who favored "CP" kept in sight of the understanding that it was a Hollywood rhetoric. We were that conscious back then. To cite “The Color Purple” is to re-enter the realm of actual cinema (as opposed to the fantasy and wish fulfillment of “BP”). Cinema demands that we raise the level of discourse now, by taking to task all Hollywood films as clearly not comparable to reality. MARVEL Hollywood even more so. Marvel movies are not nor are they meant to be real or meant to be allegories of the real.

What's problematic about euphoria over this (bad comic book based) movie, "BP", is the way “BP” does the same thing all profit driven 'blockbuster' product is intended to do: manufacture a shift in focus from history to fantasy. We can safely say that whatever its flaws and virtues, "CP" was not primarily constructed to do that. American capitalist culture had changed immensely since “The Color Purple” was produced, shot, and released; specifically, American film has degenerated a great deal since then. Furthermore, it is not at all fair to draw a comparison between "Color Purple", a film that can legitimately be either supported or criticized history, as regional reality, as a depiction of life under southern segregation, and as an artifact that captured in many ways a failure of critical capacity in a Hollywood film that we all argued over IN THOSE INTELLECTUAL TERMS (how accurate is it, we asked, how fair? How racist? How open to interpretation of author intention, and how acceptable as an American-Jewish and Netherlandish production (Steven Spielberg- -director and Menno Meyjes--Screenplay/adaptation) instead of being a Black production? And,  how representative of the Hollywood ethos was it?). 

I would resist comparing "CP" to "BP" therefore, inasmuch as “BP” is not being discussed at that level, but is increasingly being discussed in a way that begs whether we are even still capable as Americans of discussing our popular art forms in terms of history, politics, economics, and even ethics (all of the things that "Color Purple" DID evoke as any legitimate cinematic work does). "BP" too frequently evokes discussions about 'positive images', 'feeling proud', 'grandeur (??)" , "pride", and how 'magnificent' the fictional characters are. "CP" was an adaptation of a critically acclaimed novel by one of our most gifted authors, while "BP" is an adaptation of a largely failed Marvel comic book which I collected every copy of, and had long discussions with my boyhood friends  about, as we cited the flaws therein. The comparison to "CP" is unfair to "Color Purple," as it is unfair to "In the Heat of the Night," "Cotton Comes to Harlem," "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," even "Shaft," all of which were problematic as all get out, but were also challenging American filmmaking and social reality in some way or other and thus evoking Americans to have thoroughgoing debates over these artifacts as touchstones of social and political reality. These films were not confined to a superficial level of debate in terms of simplistic concepts (public relations, mass media, advertising, image, self-esteem, and let's be honest, Black Christian positivism).

          These were films, even the Blaxploitation genre that were not primarily 'entertaining' though they entertained, yes, but whose primary significance as public topics was not how 'good' (OR bad) they made us 'feel', but rather how much in touch with material reality they were, and where they fit into what were then the current sociopolitical struggles we were engaging, thus they were reflective of how materially engaged we all used to be. How adult we used to be.

          In the end, the movie "BP" is not the point, it's just a movie, based on a comic book by multinational, corporate sell out Stan Lee's Marvel Comics conglomerate--it would do well to not lose track of the source. The point, the crucial issue particularly in these times of peril not just for African Americans but for people of color all over this planet, is whether or not African Americans still have the guts, the critical faculties and the will toward dialectical analysis that we used to display only twenty years ago when we had serious debates over the reality and significance of Denzel Washington's performance in the film "Fallen," a strange and in many ways disturbingly unreal fantasy based in White Christian dogma about Satanic possession, but one which because it was rooted in narrative reality (unlike “BP”) still drew critical, and religious, social, political, and even cinematic argument.

          Black Americans were more than up for THAT kind of debate twenty years ago, before cell phones and global visual culture through internet regimes.  It is telling that very little has been said so far by us about BP's cinematic techniques (which in some ways, as with “Avengers”, remind me of fascist, Leni Riefenstahl), it's mise-en-scene, it's direction, it's strategic passages of cinematographic high key schemes (ala Disney), and all of the same suspect visual elements that make it just another questionable, socially revisionist Marvel movie (not unlike the VERY suspicious "Iron Man",  another of Marvel's adolescent revisions of real technocracy, and real geopolitical, post-colonial issues as fantasy and wish fulfillment).

          African Americans have never been of the sort that we would disregard the larger social and political issues of American cinema ITSELF while being narcissistic about our own place in a specific film. "BP" is not the point, WE are.  Are we willing to buy into one of the most destructive and negative developments in American cinema (many critics say the Marvel regime’s supremacy is in fact ruining cinema through its degrading of complexity of plot, adult theme, and complexity of characterization) simply because a monopolist Marvel movie is doing it now in Blackface?


Rayfield A. Waller is a poet, cultural critic, labor activist, and political journalist who is a professor of literature, history,  Africana Studies, and the social sciences at Wayne State University and Wayne County Community College in the postindustrial city of Detroit, Michigan


“One cannot change in one’s head that which can only be changed in society”
—CLR James (1901-1989)


This is an excellent piece by Christopher Lebron and thank you for sending it. Here’s my take on what he says:

I thoroughly agree with Lebron that the film’s depiction of the conflict between T’Challa and Killmonger is the direct result of Africa--as represented here symbolically by Wakanda and Black America as represented by Killmonger and his family in Oakland— not taking full moral or political responsibility for its historical complicity and neocolonial role in the ongoing oppression and exploitation of its diaspora in the West and especially in the United States. This is a very serious historical and ongoing reality that can and must be addressed. That said however there are some major issues here that Coogler and his co-writer raise in their script about the complex questions of what the profound and fundamental differences are between freedom and license, justice and vengeance, equality and moral/political depravity, revolution and oppression in this film that I think Lebron ultimately fails to take seriously enough in his own otherwise important analysis.

For example in his analysis of the film Lebron has an unfortunate tendency to conflate the struggle for genuine revolution with the very understandable yet ultimately indefensible desire for revenge on Killmonger’s part and to thus incorrectly identify the necessity to combat and even defeat this tendency with what he calls “respectability politics.” This is a recurring problem and blindspot that I keep seeing cropping up among far too many critics, intellectuals and activists under 50 who far too often think that the phrase “by any means necessary” by Malcolm and the subsequent black revolutionary movements and organizations in the wake of his assassination like the BPP and many, many others is a statement about what social revolution is and isn’t. In Lebron’s piece the entire argument about the depiction of black American men while accurate to some degree fails to address the larger issue of how and why white supremacy and colonial politics and its neocolonial extensions among both Africa and Black America continues to contribute to this overall dynamic.

I share your discomfort with how as you put it "Radical black liberation was beat down by those who for millennia supported the status quo.” But I would suggest that this discomfort and its ongoing reality as depicted to some degree in the film is the result NOT of the film’s basic politics or POV but is really the net result/outcome/fallout of our real actual history and the politics that we and others have used or tried to use in combatting this fundamental problem. No film or artistic representation or statement can possibly address this crisis in and of itself which to Coogler’s great credit he thoroughly understands. The film can only raise these issues in a critical context artistically and philosophically but only WE can resolve them in any meaningful way IN SOCIETY and not merely in art itself. Lebron and others is deeply frustrated by that fact and thus goes overboard in his analysis of what the film can or should do about this problem but he should realize that EVERYONE inclusing T’Chaka, T’ Challa, and Killmonger among many others are ALL deeply responsible for what they do (and don’t do) and what it ultimately means. Needless to say that principle goes double/triple/quadruple for the rest of us in real time in the society beyond the confines of the movie theatre…


On Feb 19, 2018, Linda wrote:

This is the thing: Radical black liberation was beat down by those who for millennia supported the status quo. That made me VERY uncomfortable.

On Feb 19, 2018 Linda wrote:

I don't agree with everything in this review, but this explains my discomfort with the dueling motives of Killmonger and T'Challa and the way they are resolved.…/christopher-lebron-black-panther


‘Black Panther’ Is Not the Movie We Deserve
by Christopher Lebron
February 18, 2018
Boston Review

‘Black Panther’ Is Not the Movie We Deserve
Black Panther cast.  Marvel Studios

Black Panther, the most recent entry into the Marvel cinematic universe, has been greeted with the breathless anticipation that its arrival will Change Things. The movie features the leader of a fictional African country who has enough wealth to make Warren Buffet feel like a financial piker and enough technological capacity to rival advanced alien races. The change that the movie supposedly heralds is black empowerment to effectively challenge racist narratives. This is a tall order, especially in the time of Trump, who insists that blacks live in hell and wishes that (black) sons of bitches would get fired for protesting police violence. Which makes it a real shame that Black Panther, a movie unique for its black star power and its many thoughtful portrayals of strong black women, depends on a shocking devaluation of black American men.

To explain my complaint, I need to reveal some key plot turns: spoiler alert.

Wakanda is a fictional nation in Africa, a marvel beyond all marvels. Its stupendous wealth and technological advancement reaches beyond anything the folks in MIT’s labs could dream of. The source of all this wonder is vibranium, a substance miraculous in ways that the movie does not bother to explain. But so far as we understand, it is a potent energy source as well as an unmatched raw material. A meteor rich in vibranium, which crashed ages ago into the land that would become Wakanda, made Wakanda so powerful that the terrors of colonialism and imperialism passed it by. Using technology to hide its good fortune, the country plays the part of a poor, third-world African nation. In reality, it thrives, and its isolationist policies protect it from anti-black racism. The Wakandans understand events in the outside world and know that they are spared. This triumphant lore—the vibranium and the Wakandans’ secret history and superiority—are more than imaginative window-dressing. They go to the heart of the mistaken perception that Black Panther is a movie about black liberation.

A movie unique for its black star power depends on a shocking devaluation of black American men.

In Black Panther, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) has risen to the throne of Wakanda. We know that his father, T’Chaka, the previous king, died in a bomb attack. T’Challa worships his father for being wise and good and wants to walk in his footsteps. But a heartbreaking revelation will sorely challenge T’Challa’s idealized image of his father.

The movie’s initial action sequences focus on a criminal partnership between arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) and Eric Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan). They both seek vibranium but for different reasons: Klaue is trying to profit from Wakanda’s wonder-material; Killmonger is trying to make his way to Wakanda to make a bid for the throne. He believes he is the rightful king.

Killmonger, it turns out, is T’Challa’s cousin, orphaned by T’Chaka’s murder of Killmonger’s father and T’Chaka’s younger brother, N’Jobu (Sterling Brown). Why did T’Chaka kill his brother? N’Jobu was found with stolen vibranium. The motive for the theft is where the tale begins—and where the story of black wonderment starts to degrade.

We learn that N’Jobu was sent to the United States as one of Wakanda’s War Dogs, a division of spies that the reclusive nation dispatches to keep tabs on a world it refuses to engage. This is precisely N’Jobu’s problem. In the United States, he learns of the racism black Americans face, including mass incarceration and police brutality. He soon understands that his people have the power to help all black people, and he plots to develop weapons using vibranium to even the odds for black Americans. This is radical stuff; the Black Panthers (the political party, that is) taken to a level of potentially revolutionary efficacy. T’Chaka, however, insists N’Jobu has betrayed the people of Wakanda. He has no intention of helping any black people anywhere; for him and most Wakandans, it is Wakanda First. N’Jobu threatens an aide to T’Chaka, who then kills N’Jobu. The murder leaves Killmonger orphaned. However, Killmonger has learned of Wakanda from his father, N’Jobu. Living in poverty in Oakland, he grows to become a deadly soldier to make good on his father’s radical aim to use Wakanda’s power to liberate black people everywhere, by force if necessary.

By now viewers have two radical imaginings in front of them: an immensely rich and flourishing advanced African nation that is sealed off from white colonialism and supremacy; and a few black Wakandans with a vision of global black solidarity who are determined to use Wakanda’s privilege to emancipate all black people.

These imaginings could be made to reconcile, but the movie’s director and writer (with Joe Cole), Ryan Coogler, makes viewers choose. Killmonger makes his way to Wakanda and challenges T’Challa’s claim to the throne through traditional rites of combat. Killmonger decisively defeats T’Challa and moves to ship weapons globally to start the revolution. In the course of Killmonger’s swift rise to power, however, Coogler muddies his motivation. Killmonger is the revolutionary willing to take what he wants by any means necessary, but he lacks any coherent political philosophy. Rather than the enlightened radical, he comes across as the black thug from Oakland hell bent on killing for killing’s sake—indeed, his body is marked with a scar for every kill he has made. The abundant evidence of his efficacy does not establish Killmonger as a hero or villain so much as a receptacle for tropes of inner-city gangsterism.

In the end, all comes down to a contest between T’Challa and Killmonger that can only be read one way: in a world marked by racism, a man of African nobility must fight his own blood relative whose goal is the global liberation of blacks. In a fight that takes a shocking turn, T’Challa lands a fatal blow to Killmonger, lodging a spear in his chest. As the movie uplifts the African noble at the expense of the black American man, every crass principle of modern black respectability politics is upheld. 

In 2018, a world home to both the Movement for Black Lives and a president who identifies white supremacists as fine people, we are given a movie about black empowerment where the only redeemed blacks are African nobles. They safeguard virtue and goodness against the threat not of white Americans or Europeans, but a black American man, the most dangerous person in the world.

Even in a comic-book movie, black American men are relegated to the lowest rung of political regard. So low that the sole white leading character in the movie, the CIA operative Everett Ross (Martin Freeman), gets to be a hero who helps save Wakanda. A white man who trades in secrets and deception is given a better turn than a black man whose father was murdered by his own family and who is left by family and nation to languish in poverty. That’s racist.

Who could hope that this age of black heroes represents thoughtful commentary on U.S. racism rather than the continuation of it? Black Panther is not the first prominent attempt to diversify the cinematic white superheroics and thus not the first to disappoint. After Netflix’s Daredevil affirmed the strong television market for heroes, the media company moved to develop shows for other characters that populate the comic. Jessica Jones, about a white heroine, was a critical success. It handled its tough female protagonist intelligently. That show introduced the character of Luke Cage (Michael Colter), an indestructible black man. When Netflix announced that Cage would have his own show, the anticipation was intense: a bulletproof black man in the age of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown? And he would wear a hoodie and fight police? Instead we got a tepid depiction Harlem poverty, partly the consequence of institutional racism but more closely tied to the greed expressed by two of its big bad black baddies, Black Mariah (Alfre Woodard) and Cottonmouth (Mahershala Ali). But that was not the worst of it. The ultimate evil in the show’s first and only season is Willis Stryker (Eric Laray Harvey), another black man whom Luke Cage must defeat. Stryker is not only a black villain, but Cage’s adopted brother. Cage must beat his brother to a pulp, just as Panther must kill his cousin.

Killmonger isn’t a hero or villain so much as a receptacle for tropes of inner-city gangsterism.

The offenses don’t end, though. If one surveys the Marvel cinematic universe, one finds that the main villains—even those far more destructive than Killmonger—die infrequently. They are formidable enemies who live to challenge the hero again and again. A particularly poignant example is Loki, brother to Thor, the God of Thunder. Across the Thor and Avengers movies that feature him, Loki is single-handedly responsible for incalculable misery and damage; his power play leads to an alien invasion that nearly levels all of Manhattan. Yet Thor cannot seem to manage any more violence against Loki than slapping him around a bit and allowing other heroes to do the same—even as Loki tries to kill Thor. Loki even gets his turn to be a good guy in the recent Thor: Ragnarok. Loki gets multiple, unearned chances to redeem himself no matter what damage he has done. Killmonger, however, will not appear in another movie. He does not get a second chance. His black life did not matter even in a world of flying cars and miracle medicine. Why? Perhaps Killmonger’s main dream to free black people everywhere decisively earns him the fate of death. We know from previous Marvel movies that Killmonger’s desire for revenge is not the necessary condition to eliminate him; Loki’s seeming permanence is proof.

My claim that Killmonger’s black life does not matter is not hyperbole. In a macabre scene meant to be touching, Black Panther carries Killmonger to a plateau so that he might see the sun set on Wakanda before dying. With a spear stuck in his chest, he fulfills his wish to appreciate the splendor his father described, when Wakanda seemed a fairy tale. T’Challa offers Wakanda’s technology to save Killmonger’s life—it has saved the white CIA agent earlier in the film. But Killmonger recalls his slave heritage and tells Panther he’d rather die than live in bondage. He knows the score. He knows that Panther will incarcerate him (as is disproportionately common for black American men). The silence that follows seems to last an eternity. Here is the chance for the movie to undo its racist sins: T’Challa can be the good person he desires to be. He can understand that Killmonger is in part the product of American racism and T’Chaka’s cruelty. T’Challa can realize that Wakanda has been hoarding resources and come to an understanding with Killmonger that justice may require violence, if as a last resort. After all, what else do comic-book heroes do but dispense justice with their armored fists and laser rifles? Black Panther does not flinch. There is no reconciliation. Killmonger yanks the spear out of his chest and dies. The sun sets on his body as it did on Michael Brown’s.

It is fair to wonder whether the movie merely reflects the racial politics of the comic books that serve as its inspiration. Yes and no. In the movie, Killmonger’s relationship to T’Challa is as the comic-book canon portrays it. Killmonger is a deadly killer in the comics as in the movie, but he is also extremely intelligent, studying at MIT to understand the technology he goes on to deploy. In the movie, Killmonger’s only skill is killing; if Coogler intended to make Killmonger a hood-born genius, he has failed badly.
In the comics, Killmonger also dies at Black Panther’s hands. But KIllmonger dies long after he has come to live in Wakanda, albeit under a veil of deceit, before attempting a coup. The comic thus opens (but ultimately rejects) an opportunity to save Killmonger to fight for another day, just as Loki is repeatedly saved. The movie completely forecloses this possibility, which is odd since we can all be fairly certain that there will be a sequel.

Black Panther is a movie about black empowerment in which the only redeemed blacks are African nobles.

What alternative story-lines might have satisfied?

I couldn’t help think of Ulysses Klaue, a mainline villain in the comics who lives a long, infamous life. He would have been a perfectly good villain to motivate the movie’s attempt at wokeness. In the comics, there is bad blood between the Klaue clan and Wakanda’s royal lineage (Klaue’s Nazi grandfather died by the hands of Chanda, an earlier Wakandan king and Panther). In Klaue, we had a white villain whose bloodline is imbued with the sins of racism. Ramonda, played by the ever-regal Angela Bassett, is temporally misplaced in the movie. In the comics canon, T’Challa takes the mantle of the Panther while Ramonda, T’Challa’s stepmother, is being held captive by a white magistrate in apartheid South Africa. If Coogler had at all been interested in making Panther a symbol of racial reparation he could have easily placed Klaue in South Africa, even post-apartheid, and the rescue of Ramonda—with Klaue in the way—could have driven the narrative. Ramonda is prominent in the movie, but she does not animate the movie’s central drama. Instead, Black Panther is set on a course to kill off his cousin in his first outing, suggesting yet another racist trope, the fractured black family as a microcosm of the black community’s inability to get it together.

You will have noticed I have not said much about the movie’s women. They are the film’s brightest spot: the black women of Wakandan descent are uniformly independent, strong, courageous, brilliant, inventive, resourceful, and ethically determined. I take it that a good deal of this is owed to Ta-Nehisi Coates’s success at elevating the series’ women to central characters with influence and power that turns more on their minds and integrity than their bodies. T’Challa’s sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright), is sufficiently brilliant to make the Q character from James Bond films seem a clever child with some interesting ideas, while Nakia (Lupita N’yongo) is the ethical center of the film, thoughtful and lacking any stereotypical hysterics or emotional cloudiness that so many movies use to savage the intellect of leading women. Thus the movie deserves praise for its gender politics—save in relation to the only black American woman. The character, Tilda Johnson, a.k.a. the villain Nightshade, has, by my count, less than fifteen words to say in the movie, and is unceremoniously murdered by Killmonger because Klaue is using her as a shield and Killmonger just ain’t got time for that. The lone American black woman is disposed of by black-on-black violence. She is also invisible and nearly silent. In the comic books her character is both a genius and alive and well.

Black Panther presents itself as the most radical black experience of the year. We are meant to feel emboldened by the images of T’Challa, a black man clad in a powerful combat suit tearing up the bad guys that threaten good people. But the lessons I learned were these: the bad guy is the black American who has rightly identified white supremacy as the reigning threat to black well-being; the bad guy is the one who thinks Wakanda is being selfish in its secret liberation; the bad guy is the one who will no longer stand for patience and moderation—he thinks liberation is many, many decades overdue. And the black hero snuffs him out.

When T’Challa makes his way to Oakland at the movie’s end, he gestures at all the buildings he has bought and promises to bring to the distressed youths the preferred solution of mega-rich neoliberals: educational programming. Don’t get me wrong, education is a powerful and liberatory tool, as Paulo Freire taught us, but is that the best we can do? Why not take the case to the United Nations and charge the United States with crimes against humanity, as some nations tried to do in the early moments of the Movement for Black Lives?

Black Panther is not the movie we deserve. My president already despises me. Why should I accept the idea of black American disposability from a man in a suit, whose name is synonymous with radical uplift but whose actions question the very notion that black lives matter?