Celebrating and *Side-Eying* “Black Panther”
From the hood to the continent, the movie “Black Panther” merged global black issues in a way that allowed us to imagine a vision for a global black family. As Erik Killmonger’s character aptly expressed, Wakanda is a chance for “a kid in Oakland” [or any black kid worldwide] to “walk around... believing in fairytales," something Hollywood and the world has previously denied.
Historically, tensions between indigenous African Americans and African immigrants existed in school college campuses, neighborhoods, and community organizations. This tension sometimes overshadows both our shared experiences and the wealth of our stories. Buzz around this movie helped us stop dissecting our differences for a second and pause on the greater black cultural identity and politics, and the representations of black people in American films. With our differences pushed to the side, we wore our best ankara, kente, and kitenge fashion and showed up to theaters around the world “Coming to America” style.
We came and we slayed to watch a similarly striking representation of us. Bald heads and box braids abounding, “Black Panther: was about black women’s power. The women of the film were tech superstars (Shuri), diplomats (Nakia), and fierce warriors (Dora Milaje).
“Black Panther” was a chance for black people – of all ages, income levels, and perspectives -- to be a part of a shared experience around blackness. We LOL’d when Shuri joked, “Don’t scare me like that, colonizer!" But while the movie was a stunning visual celebration and representation of blackness, there were some problematic ideas expressed, specifically:
In the end, Shuri and T’Challa team up to operate a community and education center in Oakland, CA. That was a cute ending for a movie. But in real life, the communities impacted by issues must be leading the solutions. A top-down approach is both tone-deaf and not sustainable, and it takes agency away from people.
Are nonprofits the best lever for community change? Who leads most nonprofits? These are subjects worth exploring with a critical eye, particularly in the context of the nonprofit industrial complex.
Of course a CIA character would pop into the scene to support a seemingly complacent regime in maintaining the status-quo and eliminate elements of discontent promising liberation. Without getting into a discussion around philosophies for world transformation, can we agree that it’s better for communities to resolve issues without CIA interference?
Is the celebration of “Black Panther” a political victory, or does it amount to solely a cultural one? After all, the film is a product, and as a product it utilizes the labor – physical, creative, and emotional – of workers in order to turn a profit for a corporation, in this case Marvel Studios, which is owned by Disney Corporation (they own 21st Century Fox, too). More broadly, can black art be truly revolutionary when it is limited to such constraints? If we continue to console ourselves with works of art which are ripped from the creator and poisoned with the very same investment which enables it to become a global phenomenon, when are we having the conversations about divesting from white supremacist institutions? How do we reconcile works of art that bring us joy and empower us with images and stories of ourselves, when they mainly exist to make profits for shareholders? Is it an irresponsible use of our dialectic? Are we missing another moment to understand how insidious the systems that enforce white supremacy truly are? Will this inspiration alone amount to a political victory, or keep us distracted from one?
In spite of such cynicism, how does one quantify inspiration? After all, Nina Simone took a great deal of inspiration and influence from many cultural artifacts which have been deemed either problematic, or not progressive. With this inspiration she was able to contribute immeasurably to the canon of Black music.
None of these critiques take away from the immense good around “Black Panther” and the lessons it teaches the world about creating films for all people. “Black Panther” showed us our interconnectedness, and the nuances around our different identities, as well as the ways in which classism and patriarchy impact our people. As the movie ultimately showed, Killmonger’s character is no enemy – he exists in every subset of the diaspora and is a painful reminder of the important work we need to do to truly liberate our people.