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Celebrating and Taming Black Power: ‘Black Panther’ and the Limits of Liberalism

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It’s easy to understand the adulation around Black Panther. No film has elevated black characters to such a lofty position. 12 Years a Slave is about the freedom and dignity of a slave, but it’s not the tale of a wealthy, highly developed civilization with an all-female royal guard, and of a king that boasts of superior fighting skills and runs around with cool, sophisticated equipment.

Black Panther represents a different level of celebration of black heritage—its dances, its fashion, its music, its traditions. For it comes from no less than Hollywood itself. This is Marvel, man. How mainstream can we get. A black monarch who stands alongside Captain America, Thor, and the rest of the Avengers? It’s a kind of honor that would have been unthinkable 50 years ago.

Even so, whatever the faults of Eric Killmonger, Black Panther refuses to countenance the fact that we have to go far and all the way—symbolized by Killmonger’s misguided dream of world conquest—to effect a widespread social transformation. In short, the film rejects the extremism that is revolutionary change, painting it simply as hatred and ignoring it as a legitimate response to oppression.

But then again, this is Hollywood. This is Marvel. And for that same reason, I am skeptical. Yes, Black Panther inspired many in the black community, and that is all to the good. But Marvel just raked in millions by tapping (or taking advantage of?) the long-standing desire of the marginalized for recognition. It’s one of the trickiest features of our time that our meaning-making—our desire for relevant stories—is tied to commodity production.

My skepticism, however, primarily comes more from the politics of the film. “Your heart is full of hatred; you are not fit to be king,” Eric Killmonger is told. The line is delivered at a time when there are good reasons to be angry: the racism of the alt-Right and the ongoing oppression of black Americans. But no. We are told not to hate like Eric Killmonger, despite the injustice done to us.

Setting aside notions of just war and the ethics of revolutionary violence, I’d rather that we didn’t shed blood. Enough of it has been spilled. And it’s time we break the cycle of violence. Even so, whatever the faults of Eric Killmonger, Black Panther refuses to countenance the fact that we have to go far and all the way—symbolized by Killmonger’s misguided dream of world conquest—to effect a widespread social transformation. In short, the film rejects the extremism that is revolutionary change, painting it simply as hatred and ignoring it as a legitimate response to oppression. Black Panther’s antirevolutionary stance is akin to Batman’s eschewing the radicalism of Ras al-Ghul — raze Gotham to the ground for a fresh start—in Batman Begins. It’s also not unlike the contrast between Crisostomo Ibarra and Elias in Noli Me Tangere, or between Basilio and Simoun in El Filibusterismo.

Black Panther sympathizes with Killmonger even if it rejects his politics and opts instead for a liberal, less radical route: engagement, dialogue, and sharing. This sympathy explains why their clash is cast as a family feud, one between cousins; the film shows that their conflicting political visions stem from a common source—the history of black oppression. Black Panther thus does not simply celebrate black heritage, but also reflects on, and grapples with, that history and legacy: how do we come to terms to the oppression of African-Americans?

The answers to that question has a long complex genealogy: the defiance of Rosa Parks, the civil disobedience of Martin Luther King, the Islam of Malcolm X, the radicalism of Stokely Carmichael, the writings of W.E.B. Dubois, and the Black Panther Party in the 1960s and 1970s. Today, amidst the growing power of the alt-right, the rise of President Trump, persistent racism, and #BlackLivesMatter, the very same challenge is being raised. But while, say, The Black Panther Party of the 1960s pressed for radical change, its cinematic counterpart comes down on the side of the liberals.

And like a good liberal, the T’Chala rightly emphasizes dialogue, sharing, and cooperation. “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 tribe.” It’s liberalism expressed in African garb (tribe), and a subtle dig at President Trump’s isolationist, America First Policy, and the racism that he has indirectly unleashed.

All these stand in contrast to Killmonger, who has become what he hates.” Yes, Killmonger behaves like a typical imperialist and colonizer, trained by no less than the CIA; and we are made to think that T’Challa, as our liberal hero, is not like that at all. Yes, T’challa is not. But is the king of Wakanda completely different? The accusations toward Killmonger — of becoming what he has despised — also apply to T’Challa, whose liberalism and internationalism represents the benign (or just less brutal?) face of American politics, domestic and foreign. Throughout the 20th century, the United States brought down governments, interfered in elections, supported dictators, and launched wars, but it also provided aid, shared resources, and supported development projects that sought to contain the spread of communism. We rightly praise for T’Challa for changing his nation’s isolationist policy, but his vision at the end works in similar fashion. Like a good liberal and many an anticommunist, he learns his lesson well: ensure that there should never be another Eric Killmonger, i.e. radical activists. And one must not forget that his allies launch a coup against a legitimate king, one who acquired it through ritual combat. That T’challa didn’t yield feels like a lame excuse to justify the coup, a practice that the United States is not unfamiliar with.

That T’Challa is cast as an oppressor is strikingly hinted in the movie’s most memorable line. Defeated, Killmonger is offered a place in Wakanda. But true to his revolutionary credentials, he refuses because he knows that he will simply be locked up. “Just bury me in the ocean with my ancestors that jumped from the ships. Because they knew death was better than bondage.” The line recognizes and expresses solidarity with African slaves brought to the New World. But it also draws parallels, if not an equivalence, between the oppressors then—the slavers—and the tyrants today—Wakanda itself. Wakanda is not exactly an oppressor in the traditional sense (a la, say, Voldemort), but the equivalence hints at the darker, more problematic aspects of Wakandan society and its liberal politics. We may cheer for T’chala, but his father remarks, “it’s hard to be a good king,” especially if you have a good heart. One of the movie posters, where T’chala looks at his claws, hints at this uncertainty and the moral dilemmas of governance. It is as if he asks, “What am I to do with this power and technology?”

To be fair, we do not know whether Wakanda’s engagement with, and involvement in, the world will yield positive (less angry and radical) results, but judging by US’s experience in the last century or so, the liberal approach, despite the best of intentions, will falter and fail to solve the problems that breed Eric Killmongers in the first place. For instance, America pinned its hopes on modernization theory, and, starting in the late 1970s onward, on neoliberal economics. But look what happened. In 2003, America sincerely believed it would restore democracy in Iraq, if not in the entire Middle East. That too didn’t turn out well. Will Wakanda under T’Chala suffer a similar fate? That’s a good theme for Black Panther 2.It would be interesting to see how Wakandan liberalism plays out in the second, undoubtedly much-anticipated, installment.

Far be it from me to impose my reading; and I can only hope that many more audiences can learn from the strengths and limitations of Killmonger’s revolutionary, albeit, imperialist project and Black Panther’s liberal politics, and reflect how else we can respond to ongoing realities of oppression. That’s what Black Panther is ultimately about, even if it’s also a commodity, a visual spectacle, and a distraction.

The similarity of Wakanda to American foreign policy can be foregrounded if we recognize that the the complex nature of power is part of the politics of the Marvel superhero series. Black Panther does not simply deal with questions of racial pride and black power; it also speaks to the nature of American politics: its excesses, ambiguities, ethics, and dilemmas. How is power to be exercised? With great responsibility, as Uncle Ben taught us. How do we grapple with the military-industrial complex? Well, Tony Stark grew a conscience and criticized the war economy of the United States even as he developed the ultimate weapon to defeat it: Iron Man. And T’Chala’s father knows the moral dilemmas of kingship. “You’re a good man, with a good heart—and it’s hard for a good man to be king.” The question of power understandably preoccupies a global hegemon, even in this putative age of American decline, and especially so in the 1960s when many of the Marvel comics first came out, and when the U.S. was practically involved in global affairs.

Nuances and ambivalences are evident too in the nature of Black Panther as a cultural product. It celebrates the heritage of African-Americans and proudly showcases a virtually all-black cast, but does so only as a product of society that marginalizes them in the first place, and has now made millions in the process. Is Black Panther just a way to make money, a way to exploit and assuage the anger of African-Americans, and defuse radical impulses by giving them a dose of respect and acknowledgment that they receive little in other aspects of their lives?

It’s also easy to deplore commodification and the liberal politics of the film in the name of an radical anticapitalism. But to do so is to devalue the agency and responses of the very people—the African-Americans, among others—for whom one criticizes capitalism in the first place. It is to ascribe, moreover, only a singular meaning, ideology, or politics to a cultural artefact, to which people will not necessarily subscribe anyway. They can engage, learn from, and respond to a cultural form in different, creative ways that overlap and diverge from the intentions and politics of its producer (Hollywood).

Far be it from me to impose my reading; and I can only hope that many more audiences can learn from the strengths and limitations of Killmonger’s revolutionary, albeit, imperialist project and Black Panther’s liberal politics, and reflect how else we can respond to ongoing realities of oppression. That’s what Black Panther is ultimately about, even if it’s also a commodity, a visual spectacle, and a distraction.

janus isaac v nolasco is University Researcher at the Asian Center, UP Diliman. He has a BA in Comparative Literature from UP and an MA in Asian Sudies, for which he majored in West Asian Studies
Image from: https://www.cosmopolitan.com/entertainment/movies/a15873989/black-panther-movie-what-to-know/