I resisted reading the movie reviews before seeing Black Panther. In fact, I reveled in my friends and colleagues post-viewing display of elated exuberance; and I also hurried away to not be within earshot of important plot reveals. That said, I liked the movie, as far as movies go, I hold it in good regard. I particular like the post-viewing reactions of those to whom I am invested. I will not write a review here; this has been done eloquently by a number others, most notably Jonathan W. Gray February 13, 2018 review in The New Republic.
While I enjoy the feel good energies Black Panther by revenue calculations succeeds in doling out in droves, the movie made me pause. Really, I walked out of the movie theater in a state of suspended pause. I wanted the exuberance I have witnessed from those close and dear to me, but something in me felt decidedly flat emotionally. In the immediate hour following the movie I intellectually rummaged though my memory of it, in an attempt to discover what has hit me the “wrong way” and why, although I had experienced two plus hours of Black people in Afro-futuristic splendor on the movie screen, I un-appreciatively flat. A friend hit on it first, “why do you think there were no women leaders in the movie?” As I began to list the general and her army of women, in speaking I realized that she was not a leader. She was a (for all intensive purposes) a drone, serving whoever sat in the seat of the throne, even if the ideals of the throne ran counter to the occupant’s actions. I will return to the notion of drone later; for now, I will list my concern about the movie:
- Wakanda appears to be a fantastical place where sameness, one cultural family or five communities. Outsiders to Wakanda are not welcome, unless of course it happens to be a white man who in a moment of ill-fated bravado takes the bullet for the King.
- Regardless of race, in the end the privileged, wins
- On the note of privilege, privileged in life mean also privileged in the spiritual world (in death), with ancestors to fill the tree of life. But interestingly, no female ancestors. Or, maybe, the female ancestors only speak to female royalty.
- Healing technology is limited to the mechanism of technology understood from a western framework. Spiritual technologies, which has served many in diaspora spaces are auspiciously absent from this movie. In short there is no medicine in Wakanda for the post-traumatic- racism syndrome (disorder?) evident in many African diaspora bodies, especially those from the U.S., the diaspora space focused on in the movie.
- Now speaking of drones: really? What we have in Wakanda is an entire society tuned to drone for whomever is the sitting king.
I am fully aware that Black Panther is just a Disney movie. I accent the word just because the cultural and social imagination of the past and future are shaped be cultural products such as Disney movies. In fact, Disney movies have been an essential social tool, shaping ideas of gender, class, and body-value for generations; often doing so with the assent of those destined to be most harmed by Disney rubric wielded as an appropriate assessment tool. For me it is imperative to not surrender to the uncritical somatic elation that Disney has mastered for generations, and Black Panther is full of this. You cheer (or feel a sense of relief) when the super-awesome ‘bad guy’ dies. His death (through the dual tensions of conquest and ill-timed martyrdom) allows the movies to have the ‘neat pseudo-moralistic’ ending necessary for Disney movies. Now, the world can go on as it has been, only with the added veneer of change also necessary for the Disney formula. Forget that in the end the rich privileged guys (yes men) continue to make decisions for the decidedly un-rich voiceless (leader-less). Also, forget that traditional western gender roles are strongly inculcated (regardless of the brilliance, physical and mental prowess, or wisdom) and left unchallenged. Here, forgetting is a necessity as audiences to the tune of one billion-plus U.S. swam to the box office, and ‘Wakanda forever!’ slogans and physical gesturing play out on the global stage. Uncritical somatic elation… I left this movie with the gut knowing that all the feel good was problematic given that I am an African Diaspora person.
A word or two more on the social and cultural imagination: Prior to 2018, when the term Black Panther was deployed it pointed to the revolutionary group that began in the 1960s, the Black Panther Party, who redefined, through tangible social, cultural, and political action, what change looked and felt like in a world bent on negating and erasing the value of African Diaspora lives and bodies. Now, and for the foreseeable future, when the term Black Panther is deployed the cultural imagination will routinely rest on Black Panther, the Movie. This is more than just a casual tragedy, as if such a thing exists.