Hollywood’s latest blockbuster movie, The Black Panther, has been met with a huge amount of praise and box office success. It grossed more than a half a billion dollars in its first 3 weeks, making it the third fastest movie to do this, ever. It is now the highest grossing superhero movie of all time.
The success of the movie has been attributed to the hype centred on it being different, mostly due to its predominantly black cast. But is the movie different?
Essentially the movie tells the story of the African country, Wakanda (where the Black Panther Marvel character comes from, his family and the technology behind the country’s wealth and the Black Panther’s power – Vibranium (a special substance only found in Wakanda).
Wakanda is under the undemocratic rule of a benevolent monarchy, which leads and protects its people (though we only see these “people” once in the two hour long film). The world is inherently anti-black. In order to protect the country’s wealth for the benefit of the people, the monarchy hides its wealth by pretending to the rest of the world to be an extremely poor undeveloped country. The king assumes the role of the Black Panther.
The previous king, T’Chaka, killed his brother, N’Jobu, because he was caught stealing Vibranium. But he stole it for a noble purpose – to forge super weapons to fight against the global oppression of black people. So T’Chaka prioritised maintaining the wealth and security of Wakanda, rather than using the country’s abundance of resources to support the liberation of black people around the world. The myth of socialism in one country? Utopia for the few, like an island of socialism in a world of barbarism. This underpins the conservative message that threads through the movie.
Response to the movie
“To be able to see at least ninety percent of people on the screen is black is empowerment.” This is from a review of Black Panther, that conveys the general consensus about the movie. This highlights the contemporary tendency to essentialise the importance of diversity. Race is an absolute and an absolute priority. Often the struggle for diversity is seen as the same as (or at least strongly associated with) the struggle against racism. This helps to perpetuate the very entrenched logic that the differences between us are not related to issues of wealth and class, but rather of race, gender and/or nationality etc. It is true that patriarchy and racism are inherent forms of oppression. But if there is no sense of class, then an exclusive focus on diversity perpetuates oppression instead of dismantling it.
The Black Panther movie is unique in one way. But otherwise it is no different to any other Hollywood movie that simply reflects the dominant view of society. Angela Davis a former member of the Black Panther Party, in a 2006 speech titled “How does change happen” spoke critically about diversity for this very reason. She argued that “the term diversity has colonised so much of what we were once able to talk about with much greater specificity”.
Embracing weak conceptions of diversity creates at least two major problems: firstly it allows the system to continue functioning, often even more effectively than before, failing to pose a critique of the class structure of society or even to begin to question it. Secondly, it implicitly encourages seeking individualistic solutions to society’s problems. This individualisation of problems and solutions detracts from the salience of collective strategy and struggle. In accordance with Hollywood culture, the Black Panther movie glorifies the individual to do exactly that.
And so, even though it is important to affirm ourselves and our humanity as black people, I think it would be good to reflect on who is in the position to do this. Often I suspect it is the privileged few (myself included), who can afford to go to the cinema to watch this movie, who are in a position to affirm ourselves but not the vast majority of black South Africans who in fact really need to see their power and agency.
Originally published in Amandla! Magazine, Issue 57 April 2018