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Black Panther: Porn, Propoganda… Protest?

Arts & Culture | March 5, 2018

a warning:

We should always be wary of White acceptance and, further, the mainstream cultural and critical acceptance of our art and our expression as Black people. When we see Black Panther and, deservedly so, it becomes a huge success, it’s necessary for us to remember: it is part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which is a part of Marvel Studios, which is itself a smaller franchise within Walt Disney Studios – an American mass media institution that has historically perpetuated racist and stereotypical narratives, messages, and imagery, effectively shaping mainstream understandings of Blackness.

With that in mind, we are always going to be wary of Black Panther. While we are incredibly proud and rejoiceful of this blockbuster superhero film that was directed by a 31 year-old Black man from Oakland, California, and features an all-star cast of Black folk from all parts of the globe, we still feel the need to ask a difficult question of ourselves. How much is this film meant to be a narcotic—a cinematic opiate that plays on our desire for Black visual representation while cheaply borrowing, and ultimately bastardizing African continental and Afro-Diasporic narratives?

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Vibranium is the central matter of this film. It is what makes Wakanda special. It is the source of Wakanda’s strength. It powers their technologies, their health, their advancements, their structure, their power, their mystique. Without Vibranium, we would never see the heart-shaped herb, whose powers are responsible for the strength of the Black Panther. Though it is extraterrestrial matter, Vibranium is also Earth-matter; it has an intimate relationship with Wakanda, quite like the relationship between the heart and body. The Wakandans—specifically Shuri, King T’Challa’s sister—learned how to work together with Vibranium; it’s a symbiotic relationship.

Vibranium is akin to oil reserves, diamond mines, and uranium deposits; it’s a (super)natural resource that can transform human activity. Therefore, it’s one that has been exploited by Ulysses Klaue, an arms dealer, and by Captain America as the material for his shield. Wakanda is hamstrung by its fear of consumption by the White world. Vibranium is at once Wakanda’s greatest asset and its weakest link, and as a result of its fear of the outside world’s desire for its precious metal, Wakanda hides its true nature for generations.

Wakanda can be viewed as America’s isolationist wet dream; it has effectively sequestered itself underneath a protective, invisible shield while horrors befall those around it. Wakanda is a projection of White America’s feverish desire to absolve itself of its insurmountable culpability while relating itself to the racialized other—the cool, the exciting, the risqué, the sexy and alluring. That’s not a knock on the film—rendered through the lens of an American camera, the film lives in the world of American cultural consumption.

And in some levels, Black Panther is culturally consumptive pornography for White Americans; through the arc of the film, White audiences are able to both imagine themselves as allies to a powerful, hard-to-get Black nation, and reaffirm their own position of discursive supremacy. The final, post-credit UN scene featuring King T’Challa preaching a message of strength in ‘unity’ is the culmination of that fetishistic imagination, where White America can poignantly insert itself, in the form of the CIA’s Agent Ross, into the fantasy it financed. The fact of that scene’s existence—that it survived multiple stages of editing and filtering, that it ended the film, and that it spoke sardonically to a powerful, white institution—speaks to the film’s performative palatability. Even in the Blackest blockbuster film since Moonlight, White consumers are still those to whom one must make themselves accessible. Though the UN scene depicts the old White diplomats as hubristic and bumbling, the film editors’ decision to assert Wakanda’s legitimacy on such a stage further acquiesced to a White assumption of normative objectivity. This depiction of legitimacy lives in stark contrast to the politics of the soundtrack, which was executive produced by Kendrick Lamar, and the characterization of Killmonger as the lead villain.

Having a soundtrack is a particularly Black thing. Imagine Shaft without it’s legendary soundtrack, or Spike Lee’s entire body of work without his carefully and craftily curated playlists, as recent as the Netflix series She’s Gotta Have It. We walk to music, we move to music. We breath to music, we live to music.

The film’s soundtrack and score both focus on a presentation of Blackness-as-Africanness, yet the soundtrack, through its American roots, sonic duality, and macabre subject matter (“if that nigga want me dead, I can’t let that nigga breathe”), relates itself to a conception of Blackness that crossed the Atlantic Ocean in the hulls of slave ships.

If the film’s score, composed by Ludwig Göransson, a White Swedish composer and record producer, is meant to immerse viewers in the refined and dramatic evocations of Afro-Diasporic soundscapes, complete with a massive, 132-piece orchestra, then the soundtrack is meant to bring you back to the reality of diaspora, of a people’s traumatic bifurcation.

The soundtrack, which was co-created largely by Top Dawg Entertainment collaborator Sounwave, is duality writ musical at times, mixing the sultry ballet of Jorja Smith and SZA’s voices with the sulfuric rasp of Ab-Soul and Vince Staples. The soundtrack presents a contradictory elucidation upon Blackness to the film’s score, thus it fills in the blanks present within much of the film’s perspective.

Given the film’s obsession with the dual perspectives of the Black-African T’Challa and the Black-American Killmonger, the resonant quality of the soundtrack complicates the qualities, be they written, suggested, or omitted, of the characters themselves, especially Killmonger.

The first shot introducing Killmonger immediately paints him as a Black American Urbanite—and at the very least, not Black-African. He stands with his back to the camera, rocking a hefty distressed jean jacket, baggy black cargo pants, and gold-rimmed glasses. His clothes, his prideful stance, and his stylish locs immediately juxtapose him to his surroundings—the highly curated “West African” section of a museum. However, upon closer inspection, his appearance is akin to the many of the artifacts in the museum—of obscure African origin, of inflated aesthetic importance, and, most painful of all, placeless. His first scene culminates in the poisoning of a White woman museum curator, who is at once heavily guarded, yet unknowingly susceptible to the contents of her drink. Killmonger then proceeds to spends most of the film inflicting physical harm directly upon Black Women, with only the exceptions being the moments he disposes of Klaue, Zuri, and T’Challa.

Killmonger’s consistent antipathy is further complicated by his parentage and their presentation, or lack thereof, within the film. His father, N’Jobu, was a Wakandan ‘war-dog’ (spy), who becomes radical in response to White Supremacy’s poisoning, imprisonment, and persecution of Black people in Oakland, California, ultimately deciding that the rest of the Black world deserves the power Wakanda has to offer. Not only is N’Jobu killed all-too-swiftly by his own brother, given only a herb-induced moment to share his last words with his son, but Killmonger’s Black-American mother remains invisible for the entirety of the film. As the film’s sole Black-American main character, Killmonger is the film’s only opportunity to illustrate most potently its conceptions of Blackness as it exists in an American context. But who really is this dude? After N’Jobu died, did he go to an orphanage? Who took him in? Who raised him? Why is he so mad at Black Women? His mother’s filmic invisibility turns Killmonger’s pursuit of Wakanda into the pursuit of a mother, of a motherland—a womb, a place to regenerate, to return to his natural state of Africanness.

Killmonger fails, but not as much as Wakanda fails him. The film fails him, perhaps in an even more ironic and realistic manner than Wakanda does. His scripted approach is flawed; he shirks tradition and practicality by burning the heart-shaped herb, and he alienates his kinfolk by ruthlessly and hastily usurping the throne. Thus, he dies, pulling a spear from his chest, exclaiming: “Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from the ships, because they knew death was better than bondage.” Here, the film engages the Black tradition of doublespeak. Killmonger’s words work like the songs sung in the dead of night by enslaved Africans. He is imploring us to free ourselves, by any means necessary. His exaltation works as both a rallying cry and an interrogation—sure, we can feel righteous indignation when confronted with Killmonger’s final words. But are we really ’bout it? If bondage is better than death, then a follow-up question becomes: What is our definition of bondage? Is it only what we are taught of as “chattel slavery?” Killmonger’s words implore us to inquire as to the nature of our freedom. What kind of freedom works for you? Partial, or whole?