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Black Panther and Unforgivable Radicalism

By Christian Rozier

Without an image of tomorrow, one is trapped by blind history, economics, and politics beyond our control…Only by having clear and vital images of the many alternatives, good and bad, of where one can go, will we have any control over the way we may actually get there in a reality tomorrow will bring all too quickly.”—Samuel R. Delany

Bubbling up from the primordial soup of the Mississippi Delta mud, warbling and otherworldly notes of transcendence emerged from the dusky throats of sharecroppers and the guitar strings of convicts to transport the spirits of their communities to some dimension of eternity in which they were momentarily and ecstatically free from the daily humiliations and hardships of daily life.Delta blues musicians including Geeshie Wiley and Charlie Patton used their haunting voices to construct rocket ships to a new promised land. Earlier, enslaved Africans in 18th century New Orleans gathered each Sunday in Congo Square and with drums, bells, and bodies, conjured chariots for their spirits to escape the temporal and touch the eternal plane. From Alice Coltrane to Octavia Butler, George Clinton to Janelle Monae, the Black Imagination is the principal scaffolding of liberation. As Clinton and Eddie Hazel remind us, first you gotta free your mind, and your ass will follow.

Black Panther draws from this rich gumbo of Afrofuturist tradition, and adds gorgeously to the canon. From its opening frames, the film announces its agenda to transport us to an imagined parallel utopia in which one single African nation was able to avoid the ravages of European colonialism and to preserve its precious natural resources. This is a singularly potent utopian dream: to imagine what that continent might look like had its riches not been so systematically and thoroughly ripped from its bosom over the centuries. The film brings this dream to life with astonishing visuals of a hyper-advanced civilization that has flourished precisely because it found a way to keep itself hidden from the outside world and its dysfunctions.

As an audience member for Black Panther, I clutched my movie ticket like a child at his first amusement park, giddy at the anticipation of riding on an immersive, Afrofuturist rocket ship to a cosmos that operates according to different codes of race and power. Visual pleasures notwithstanding, I experienced in this film an incomplete fulfillment of the Afrofuturist mission to bring us somewhere new, where we as a diaspora may revel in utopian waters, however briefly.

Perhaps I had allowed my own imagination to conflate the unapologetic, liberatory cry of the Black Panther Party (or the organized resistance of the Lowndes County Freedom Organization that adopted the black panther as its logo in late 1965) with the fictional universe that sprang from the corporate vision of creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in the summer of 1966.

I loved much of this film. The cast was exceptional, the editing razor-sharp, the art direction mind-blowing. I regard Ryan Coogler as one of the most exciting young directors working today, and he helmed this massive ship with style, expertise, and funk. One sequence in particular, during which T’Challa undergoes a burial ceremony and travels to an astral plane upon which he is able to commune with his ancestors and access the akashic book of karma, inspired me in a way I thought impossible for a tent-pole blockbuster. The film is, in so many ways, a perfect triple-axle of a feat.

Still, as someone pretty ignorant about these complex comic book universes, may I ask a question? Why is it that within the superhero film genre—in which we as makers and audiences are able to imagine entirely different and utopian realities unburdened from the constraints of realism—the most politically progressive platforms are always held by the villains? Bane, the vocally challenged nemesis in The Dark Knight Rises (2012), was a passionate proponent of the redistribution of wealth and self-governance. Because of genre conventions and other factors, this Occupy Movement cry of Bane’s is encrusted with sociopathic drive toward social anarchy. From Watchmen (2009), the character of Ozymandias was odiously arrogant but motivated principally by a desire to end the Cold War and create a multinational coalition against a common threat.

Similarly, Black Panther’s N’Jadaka articulates the thirst for justice that sparked the formation of the actual Black Panther Party and many such resistance groups around the world. He wants to share the vast wealth of Wakanda’s vibranium supply with the people of the diaspora so that they may seek liberation in their own contexts – a move from isolationism to global social justice. He is the Spook Who Sat by the Door* who, having mastered the warrior techniques of the colonial power, is now ready to deploy them to move the levers of freedom.

This position is disappointingly couched as untenable and psychopathic within the purportedly Afrofuturist imagination of Black Panther, and the Huey Newton-esque N’Jadaka is banished from the village, presumably until he has been humbled enough by exile to begin seeing things their way. The status quo in Black Panther remains entirely undisturbed by new utopian visions.

And why, pray tell, is the white ally a C.I.A. agent? Given the well-documented campaigns of deceit and violence that this agency launched to take down many of the most effective leaders in the civil rights movement, why are we being asked to hold in our Afrofuturist fantasy the idea that a C.I.A. agent is helpful to black liberation?

At the end of the film, T’Challa walks with his sister through an Oakland neighborhood and gestures to various buildings — “I bought this building. And that one. And the one over there”— and describes the vibrant community center that he will develop for the people. This, then, is the film’s utopian offering: a non-profit organization gentrifying a Bay Area neighborhood already too expensive for the working class to continue living in. A humble, quiet, confusingly underwhelming project for the most technologically advanced people on the planet.

During a recent audience Q&A, author and avowed comic book fan Junot Diaz was asked if he was excited about Black Panther’s imminent arrival in our multiplexes. After reflecting for a moment, he replied that he was “as excited as I can be about any product served up by corporate America for our consumption.” Indeed. Personally, I’m profoundly grateful for the existence of Black Panther and the commercial and creative possibilities that it may create for other innovative black films that are enthusiastically received by global audiences. Let this leverage yield more variety than simply more Black Panther sequels.

*Sam Greenlee’s novel Spook Who Sat by the Door (1969) was also made into a film in 1973.

Christian Rozier is a documentary filmmaker whose work focuses on stories of social justice within indigenous communities.  He serves as Assistant Professor of Film Studies and Digital Storytelling at the University of Missouri School of Visual Studies.

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