For frequent moviegoers, February is usually a drag as Hollywood releases films that they do not expect to do well at the box office. In other words, these films will not turn a massive profit for the film studios and executives so they will not invest resources to these box office bombs.
This February was different. It has been one month since the theatrical release and tremendous hype of Disney/Marvel Cinematic Universe’s (MCU), Black Panther, was a massive success in the United States grossing $500 million as it surpassed $1 billion worldwide in ticket sales. A sequel to Black Panther is already in the cards. Black Panther, not only quenches the thirst of diehard Black Panther and MCU fans that waited years for a stand-alone film. For black America and the African diaspora, it places a political, social, and cultural marker that stories, non-fiction or fiction, centered around black people do matter and are bankable. In black communities grassroots initiatives to raise money and purchase tickets for underprivileged black and brown kids to see the film were a familiar story. Sports figures and Hollywood stars like Oscar-winning actress Octavia Spencer rented out entire theaters so that kids could see a hero that resembles them.
We must ask ourselves this question. Can an MCU/Disney film production address the systematic legacy and effects of racism, tribalism, colonialism, imperialism, Hollywood misrepresentation, and lack of racial and economic justice at home and abroad in two hours and fourteen minutes, particularly in this era of Trump?
The Birth of the Black Panther
The Black Panther character was born during the radical and explosive upheavals of the 60s. 1966 alone was a year of struggle, the birth of the original Black Panther Party in Lowndes County, Alabama that electorally and politically challenged the Alabama Democratic Party’s segregationist agenda. Stokely Carmichael, chairperson of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), boldly pronounced “Black Power” at a rally in Mississippi during James Meredith’s March Against Fear from Memphis to Mississippi. In October 1966 in Oakland, California, the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was born to challenge police violence and endemic racist treatment of in the black community. In some newly independent African nations emerging from under European colonial rule, radical nationalist governments were being overthrown under the guiding hand of the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). For example, Kwame Nkrumah’s Pan-Africanist government in Ghana was overthrown in 1966.
The Marvel creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were very conscious of world events and developments. In July 1966, in issue # 52 of the Fantastic Four comic series, the Black Panther/ King T’Challa leaped across the pages for the first time. That Stan Lee and Jack Kirby launched an African superhero who was also a king in a fictional sub-Saharan East African nation called Wakanda was groundbreaking for the times and spoke to the political and cultural climate in the world. Wakanda was unique because European colonialism never colonized it, despite the reality of African nations being exploited for their resources, labor, land, and possibilities for decades.
Wakanda reminds us of the monarchy of Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia, the only African nation, besides Liberia, that was never properly colonized by Europeans. Selassie’s dictatorial regime ushered in a significant modernization of Ethiopia in public healthcare, economy, and communication. Selassie centralized government under his direct control.
Mussolini’s Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935 defeating the Ethiopian military. Italy occupied Ethiopia for six years forcing Selassie into exile in Britain. The League of Nations did not come to Ethiopia’s aid despite a persuasive speech by Selassie in June 1936 appealing to them to intervene. It was not until the onset of World War II that Britain and South African troops defeated the Italian forces in Ethiopia. Selassie returned and took the throne once again in 1941. Throughout the next thirty years he became an iconic and “god” like figure during the anti-colonial struggle in Africa and the Caribbean, particularly in Jamaica. Selassie’s autocratic monarchy with its cult of personality ended in 1974 when he was overthrown in a military coup. Selassie died in 1975.
At the center of mythical Wakanda’s power is the massive deposits of “vibranium” ore which fueled its technological, scientific, economic, and cultural advancements hidden from the rest of Africa and the world.Throughout the Black Panther’s fifty-two year history the character and comic was written by various individuals like Don McGregor, Christopher Priest, Reginald Hudlin, and David Liss. More recently, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Roxane Gay that brought a different conception and ideological framework to the Black Panther universe. The film is an amalgamation of that history with a new and exciting twist.
Black Panther 2018
Black Panther is helmed by accomplished director and writer, Ryan Coolger, who also directed the films, Fruitvale Station, which chronicles the last 24 hours of the life of Oscar Grant, shot and killed by a BART transit officer in 2009, and Creed, both starring Michael B. Jordan. In Black Panther, Michael B. Jordan portrays the arch-villain and heart of the film, Erik “Killmonger” Stevens. The cast rounds out to be an A-list of black actors from across the diaspora like Chadwick Boseman as King T’Challa /Black Panther, Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o, Angela Bassett, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright, and Oscar winner Forest Whitaker and Oscar nominee for the film, Get Out, Daniel Kaluuya.
The film begins with the death of King T’Chaka and prince T’Challa’s ascendancy to the throne as he attempts to keep Wakanda hidden under the radar from the rest of the world and protect his people from the villainous and racist Ulysses Klaue played by the multi-talented Andy Serkis. We learn about the failings of T’Chaka/Black Panther and death of his younger brother; Prince N’Jobu in Oakland, California 1992. N’Jobu is played with great effect by Sterling K. Brown.
Black Panther is a visually stunning piece of work rooted in Afrofuturism combining African mythologies, technology and science fiction like the work of writer Octavia E. Butler. In this #MeToo moment in Hollywood and throughout society, there’s a strength, boldness, and righteous power exhibited in the women characters like Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), General Okoye (Danai Gurira) and the entire Dora Milaje female royal guard. It is estimated 45 percent of all ticket sales were to women. A potential storyline was omitted from the script — a lesbian romance between General Okoye and Dora Milaje guard Ayo portrayed by Florence Kasumba — raising criticism from many fans. In Roxane Gay’s Black Panther: World Of Wakanda #1, a prequel to Coates’ Black Panther comic series, the romance between Ayo and Aneka was a centerpiece of the plot.
The African aesthetic is on full display throughout the film thanks to the brilliant work of custom designer Ruth E. Carter. A bonus to the film is the curated soundtrack by the award-winning Hip-Hop megastar, Kendrick Lamar.
The Forgotten Son: Prince N’Jobu
“To be black and conscious in America is to be in a constant state of rage.” James Baldwin
The introduction of Erik Stevens transforms Black Panther from your average MCU entry to a conversation about birthright, ancestry, oppression, the legacy of racism and its effects on black Americans and Africans.
We learn about Prince N’Jobu who is a spy for King T’Chaka/Black Panther in the United States; in fact, there are several around the world to protect Wakanda from possible threats. In Oakland Prince N’Jobu becomes radicalized by the daily oppression and struggle of black people in the United States. At the height of the black freedom, and revolutionary nationalist movements many leading activists and thinkers like Kwame Nkrumah, traveled in the United States and observed the everyday struggles against capitalism and racism which they connected to their struggle against colonialism and landlordism. So Prince N’Jobu’s political trajectory towards Pan-Africanism reflects real life.
The film begins in 1992, a very significant year. From March 31 to April 4 the city of Los Angeles erupted in mass anger following the acquittal of law enforcement officers in the beating of black motorist Rodney King a year earlier. There was a profound lack of revolutionary leadership in the black community as the twelve years of the Reagan-Bush counterrevolution was coming to an end, coinciding with the fall of the Stalinism and global capitalist triumphalism. There was, however, a resurgence of interest in the ideas of Malcolm X, the Black Panther Party, and politically conscious Rap/Hip-Hop was a dominant feature in music. In the film, N’Jobu’s apartment has posters of Public Enemy and Huey P. Newton, a co-founder of the Panthers.
Prince N’Jobu was asking the right questions, particularly about the non-engagement of Wakanda in the struggle against global oppression and exploitation and why they weren’t using their resources to stop it. But N’Jobu does not draw the right conclusion as he seeks a coalition with the dastardly Klaue to steal vibranium from Wakanda and produce weapons to be sent around the world to begin a rebellion. The point must be made that weapons by themselves are not enough to cause a revolution.The lack of political analysis and program despite honorable intentions led N’Jobu to engage in the tactics of guerrilla warfare and a partnership with a brutal enemy of Wakanda.
Why Eric “N’Jadaka” Stevens Matters
“ I want to learn more about Killmonger,” Shia Malcolm Hawkins, age 9
Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger is the heart of the philosophical and political questions in the film but also in the real struggle and experience of black people in America. Erik Stevens carries the burden of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, slavery, reconstruction, Jim/Jane Crow, and the social movements for freedom. Upon the death of his father Prince N’Jobu at the hands of T’Chaka/Black Panther, his heart is filled with rage and a yearning to discover his ancestry and complete his father’s political vision.
The Killmonger character is portrayed as an MIT educated special ops expert that fought in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Africa as a killing machine trained by the United States military. He takes those combat skills, life experience in Oakland, and radical ideas to advance a struggle against the tyranny black people have endured globally. Elements of Killmonger’s character remind us of Sam Greenlee’s 1969 spy novel, The Spook That Sat By The Door whose main character, Dan Freeman, is a black CIA agent who uses his skills to challenge the CIA and the political establishment through urban guerrilla warfare. In Black Panther, CIA agent Everett K. Ross played by Martin Freeman makes it clear Killmonger is one of “theirs.” Ross’ is a supporting role, taking orders from black women and told to stay silent, which excited many in the theater I attended. But the presence of the CIA is a crucial element for the overall political context of the film.
Upon his arrival to Wakanda and announcing his royal bloodline as the son of N’Jobu, he is rejected as an outsider, a question that has been part of the discussion around an ancestral home for black Americans for generations. Killmonger challenges T’Challa to the throne and defeats him soundly almost killing him. Killmonger takes the throne. As part of a Wakandan ritual he drinks the heart shape herb to gain his powers as the new king and black panther; he then returns to the ancestors to receive guidance and affirmation. Tragically, Killmonger’s spirit returns back to Oakland, and only N’Jobu is present in a heartbreaking scene where both father and son are isolated without an ancestral home.
Killmonger’s rage against Black Panther and Wakanda is undeniable. Michael B. Jordan’s inspiration in portraying Killmonger is Heath Ledger’s posthumously Oscar-winning performance as the Joker in the Dark Knight trilogy. Killmonger’s appetite for revenge led him to destroy the ancient and sacred heart shape herb garden where the Black Panther derives his powers. Kilmonger is a brutalized and brutal character including in his attitude towards women which makes him even more troubling as a sympathetic villain. What is interesting, Killmonger’s mother is mentioned once, but her name and identity never revealed, this suggests he was an orphan after N’Jobu’s death at the hands of T’Chaka/Black Panther.
What draws audiences towards Killmonger is that he is an authentic product of American capitalism and institutional racism. He embodies the nightmare so many black and brown youth face throughout the nation, including lack of jobs, decent education and housing, and being subjected to law enforcement terror in the face of opulent wealth and advancement for the few. Out of his predicament he fearlessly sets his own course, ruthlessly aiming to achieve his goals at all cost. Killmonger is a form of enraged rebellion that youth across the racial and ethnic spectrum can relate too.
The Politics of Black Panther
The politics of Killmonger and T’Challa/Black Panther stand out in the film. It leads us to a proxy discussion on celluloid about what methods will lead us to black liberation. Killmonger believes Wakanda should use its resources to lead the way in a global revolt and build its forces to be a modern-day empire. T’Challa faces the failures of his father, the emergence of Killmonger and the realities that Wakanda’s isolationist position has created for Wakandans and perhaps the world. He must reevaluate his position and Wakanda’s role in the world. Throughout the long history of the freedom movement, constant discussion and debate about the most effective approach to end our collective suffering under structural racism and capitalism have been ever present.
We must remind ourselves this is a Hollywood production that cannot answer our serious questions about how we get free. Black Panther is a massive box office success with a broad mass appeal, the politics of Killmonger and T’Challa should be examined because within the freedom movement their ideas have corresponded with consciousness and moods among black workers and youth at different stages of our social movements. Killmonger represents the history of an oppressed people and T’Challa a member of a privileged elite whose country has never been subjugated by European colonialism.
Killmonger’s position of arming and assisting the African diaspora in ending their oppression brings to mind the history of real revolutionary movements in the past two centuries and the genuine traditions of of internationalism and solidarity. The bourgeois-democratic French revolution of 1789-1799 that overthrew the monarchy of French King, Louis XVI had a catalyzing effect throughout Europe and the world as did the American revolution of 1776 against the British empire.
The ideas and results emanating from the bourgeois revolution like democratic rights of man, ending serfdom and establishment of a national assembly were inspiring particularly in the colonies of the French empire. The most valuable and significant territory of the French Empire was San Domingo (Haiti) with its massive slave population. Despite various rebellions throughout the years the slaves had failed to end the rule of the French empire.
Beginning in 1791, two years into the French revolution and, especially following the execution of Louis XVI in 1793, the struggle to end slavery and colonial rule surged forward under the leadership of Toussaint L’Ouverture. The Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804 was an earth-shaking event that ended slavery and French domination over the black masses. After defeating Napoleon’s army on New Year’s Day 1804, Toussaint’s successor, Jean Jacques Dessalines, made a Declaration of Independence. San Domingo was renamed Haiti and became the first black republic in the world.
Following the 1917 Bolshevik led Russian Revolution, the Bolsheviks built a new international of communist organizations and movements to advance the struggle against global capitalism and colonialism around the globe known as the Third International.
The work of Paul Robeson, Max Yergan, Alphaeus Hunton, Dr. W.E.B. Dubois and countless others built organizations like the Council on African Affairs (CAA) in the 1940s and early 1950s that linked the struggle against racism at home and abroad.
After World War II the revolutions in the colonial world including China, Algeria, Vietnam, Cuba had a profound effect on the consciousness of leading black activists who spearheaded the new phase of the black freedom movement in the U.S. So did the murder of Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba in 1961, and the Non-Aligned Movement which produced the influential Bandung Conference of 1955.
The 1959 Cuban revolution played a particularly significant role in radicalizing this generation . Cuban internationalism became legendary particularly in the Congo where Che Guevara trained Congolese freedom fighters for two weeks against the U.S. backed military dictatorship. Cuban troops were pivotal in 1975 in defeating apartheid South Africa’s effort to crush Angolan independence. Tragically, Stalinism (of which Maoism was derivative) and left nationalism squandered the heroic efforts of tens of millions. While capitalism was overthrown in a number of countries none of the emerging regimes were based on a workers democracy as in Russia in 1917 and they reflected the model of the degenerated Soviet Union. These revolutions were therefore unable to point the way to the decisive overthrow of capitalism on a world scale and the emergence of an egalitarian, democratic socialist order.
While Killmonger evokes the revolutionary spirit of the past and present, on the other hand, his “let the world burn” approach and imperial designs for Wakanda are also rooted in world history. Killmonger’s bold statement, “The sun will never set on the Wakandan empire,” reminds us of the colonial history of the British empire a universal declaration by the British political establishment throughout its reign of terror and accumulation of unprecedented wealth from the colonial world.
The revolutionary/proto-imperialist dichotomy embodied in Kilmonger’s worldview reflect a lack of clarity about how thoroughgoing change really occurs. What do revolutionary movements and the governments that emerge from them really look like, from Haiti to Russia to Cuba to the movement that brought down apartheid and could have brought the black working class to power in the 1980s? These were not fantasies and they were not brought about simply or even mainly by distributing weapons to the oppressed. These are the real struggles which this generation must study thoroughly — including the terrible lessons of defeats and betrayals — in order to chart a course to true freedom.
T’Challa at the end concludes Wakanda could no longer hold an isolationist position and that it should use its resources to help the world beginning in Oakland.
T’Challa outside of his Black Panther identity seems be more in the mode of South Africa’s Nelson Mandela who as the leader of post-apartheid South Africa promoted neoliberal capitalism with a philanthropic veneer. T’Challa plans to create foundations, programs, and social service initiatives that sound like Oprah Winfrey’s Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa or Bill and Melinda Gates countless charities. These may help a few, but will not make a dent in the more profound structural problems of poverty and income inequality under capitalism. T’Challa promotes the mythology of the benevolent monarch or capitalist who will take care of his/her subjects as long as they know their place in life and never question or challenge their power. And in the real world, for good or ill, there is no mountain of vibranium!
During the movie’s concluding minutes agent Ross is seen smiling as T’Challa addresses the United Nations and indicates Wakanda’s increasing participation in world affairs. What must be highlighted is the role CIA agent Ross plays in assisting T’Challa in recapturing the throne from Killmonger. It implies Wakanda and the United States will have a “collaborative” or “progressive” relationship going forward — Wakanda could play a dominating role in African politics enhancing the influence of the United States on the continent. This could be seen also as referring to the “progressive” era of Obama as opposed to reactionary, racist and sexist individual currently in the White House. Unfortunately the Obama era, while raising expectations of black people in America, also saw a further relative decline of the position of the black working class and a thoroughly imperialist foreign policy.
The filmmakers are clearly advancing the politics of T’Challa/Black Panther as a more reasonable approach to our everyday suffering under this system. Killmonger’s multi-layered and contradictory prescription is rendered as “extreme” and “utopian.” A new freedom movement will have to wrestle with these ideas and history.
Black Panther and the Movement
The commercial success of Black Panther will hopefully open up more possibilities for diversity and storytelling outside of the MCU/Disney paradigm. Black Panther has invoked a sense of racial and cultural pride during the dark days and nights of the Trump presidency and Wall Street domination.
The release of Black Panther has motivated individuals and NGO organizations to organize among black workers and youth. A Change.org petition is calling upon Marvel to invest 25% of its worldwide ticket sales. Many believe since this film is centered around black people a significant portion of profits should be invested in the black community and provide much needed economic and social relief. Due to that pressure Disney donated $1 million to the Boys & Girls Clubs of America’s science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs. In reality this is a pittance.
A voter registration group, Electoral Justice Project, has launched #WakandaTheVote setting up booths at theaters to register black people to vote. The response to Black Panther, is also powered by Black Lives Matter (BLM) and its cultural importance to black workers and youth. Black Lives Matter has hit a brick wall under this reactionary administration as the FBI designates BLM activists as “Black Identity Extremists.”
Many continue to promote the Democratic Party as the force to which black people should owe allegiance. At the inception of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) in 1971, a political organization made up of the black members of Congress, it was described by some as the “conscience” of the nation. Some of its members, like Ron Dellums, reflecting events and the radical consciousness among wide layers at the time, spoke to the realities of racism and capitalism in the centers of power. But at the same time, the Democratic Party of which these congresspeople were part, while ditching the racist Dixiecrats, began in the mid-70s to move steadily to the right towards neo-liberal policies. The outcome of this was devastating for the black working class — the loss of good industrial jobs, mass incarceration and the “end of welfare” under Bill Clinton
The black mis-leadership class in Congress today represents that political shift of the past 47 years and in no way stands up to the neo-liberal agenda of Wall Street. The CBC members recently protested Trump’s racist comment describing Haiti and African countries as “shithole” countries during the debate around immigration reform by wearing kente cloth at Trump’s State of the Union address or government functions to exhibit their “blackness” and “solidarity.” Frankly, we need more than symbolism and gestures to challenge Trump, racism, and capitalism.
Black Panther, is a magnificent work of cinematic art and the groundswell it has caused is justified in these challenging times. Black Panther has the potential to inspire many, particularly youth of color, to learn about black and African history across the globe.
To effectively enact the fundamental change we so desperately need, an independent, sustained mass movement rooted in the multiracial working class, youth, poor must be built in our schools, communities, and workplaces.
We need dedicated revolutionary leadership that thinks globally and acts locally to lead the revolutionary transformation that can end capitalism and thereby begin uprooting historical oppression in the U.S. and internationally. We need to construct a new global socialist society based on solidarity, cooperation, and shared resources. A movement that draws on our beautiful and painful history can forge us forward to make our world anew.