Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Liberation and the Limits of Imagination in the Black Panther -- Guest Post by Saru Matambanazo

This guest post is part of the blog's symposium, "“Wakandan Jurisprudence: How Black Panther Challenges Us to Examine the Past, Present, and Future of Race.”

Black Panther fulfilled a diasporic desire that seemed impossible to articulate prior to its release. As a child of the Black African Diaspora, Black Panther made my heart feel full. I was hardly alone. Many African-American viewers met Ryan Coogler’s vision of the Black Panther as king of the exquisitely conceptualized Black African Utopia, Wakanda, with enthusiasm and joy. Its premiere was an emotional global event for many Black People.

But the cultural resonance has also stirred up many debates within the Black Diaspora (one example is the fascinating debate around the museum scene). However, the film’s treatment of the central struggles for Black Liberation left me dissatisfied. Black Panther is a wildly imaginative film, but its treatment of the possibilities for Black Liberation is grounded in the dualities of White Patriarchal Settler Colonial Supremacy and thus obscures the potential for alternative ways of being, becoming, and birthing freedom through solidarity.

This realization becomes clear when we explore closely the utopia of Black Panther and how the core conflict of the film is resolved.

Even before we are introduced to the Black Panther or his nemesis, we are first introduced to Wakanda—a fictional and technologically advanced African utopia that draws on the precepts of Afrofuturism and a range of African traditions and actors from across the Black African Diaspora. This Wakanda is a utopic ecosocialist African monarchy. It is untouched by the ravages of colonialism. Although perceived as poor and underdeveloped, it is actually a highly advanced confederation of five tribes whose peace and prosperity is fed by unlimited access to a mythical mineral vibranium. Tradition and technology thrive together in a complementary harmony.

But this utopia is maintained through a kind of “Wakanda First” isolationism. Wakanda relies on its technology to mask its prosperity and protect its traditions. This isolation leads to not only the fierce defense of its boarders against white “colonizers,” it also closes off Wakanda from beneficial trade and refugee protection. Furthermore, Wakanda refuses to intervene in the suffering of Black persons throughout the diaspora. The first thing viewers learn about Wakanda is that the nation failed to intervene when white colonizers enslaved Black men and women.

Accordingly, the first political act viewers see is King T’Chaka’s willing to murder his own brother, Prince N’Jobu, and leave a half Wakandan child in Oakland, California rather than either expose Wakanda’s true nature. N’Jobu offense runs deeper than this. In the course of conducting surveillance on the United States for Wakanda, N’Jobu compromises Wakandan security to arm and protect insurgent Black Americans. N’Jobu seeks a larger liberation--ending the continued terrorism and bondage that has grown from legalized slavery. Before his death, N’Jobu indoctrinated his son, N’Jadaka in Wakandaian culture and language, and ensured that N’Jadaka possessed the vibranium “mark” that identified him as a Wakandian.

To this world, we introduce Erik “Killmonger,” nee N’Jadaka (the sensational Michael B. Jordan) and son of N’Jobu. Erik is as much a product of US imperialism and foreign policy as he is of N’Jobu’s effort of liberation. A brilliant MIT graduate and an elite soldier, Killmonger fought for the United States in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Sudan. His methods include destabilization of established nations and institutions. After Killmonger wins the throne from T’Challa, he institutes a new foreign policy for Wakanda—an imperialist model of interventionalist destabilization and death that would make the Reagan/Bush era CIA proud. His strategy is to give Wakandian technology to insurgents of African descent to further their Pan-African vision of Black struggle so that the victims of the Diaspora end up “on top” of the global hierarchy.  

Killmonger is, perhaps, the film’s most compelling character. His intellectual and physical swagger trigger unconscious nostalgia for “[the] sexified second coming of the extremist Nat Turner.” It is unsurprising that Killmonger’s desires for revolution resonate with viewers, particularly with African-American viewers who feel the tensions of his struggle in a visceral way. Killmonger, like other revolutionary villains before him (Magneto), engenders feelings from ambivalence to passion to sadness.  Many Black audiences have received Killmonger as a woke Pan-African anti-hero who is on the right side of history. In his battles with T’Challa, it was difficult for many of us to determine who the real villain was. Killmonger is unapologetically angry but his anger is legitimate. He believes the Black elites of Wakanda have abandoned peoples of African descent globally when they could have made a difference. And while Killmonger is defeated, he is not all wrong.

After Killmonger’s death, T’Challa takes Wakanda in an alternative direction. T’Challa adopts a policy of openness, increased transparency, and global assistance. But this policy is nonetheless squarely within the neoliberal model. T’Challa buys up real estate in Oakland to open the “first of many” Wakandan technology and science education embassies headed by his sister, and chief technology officer, Princess Shuri. And in the first “reveal” scene in the credits, T’Challa announces his openness policy to the unsuspecting members of the United Nations.

While I admire the film and I believe Black Panther somehow, renders my existence more intelligible, I am at the same time deeply dissatisfied with the film’s the political elements. While I feel the pull of Killmonger’s wrath and revolution, I must reject the film’s oppositional way of thinking about Black Liberation. When we are dreaming dreams of liberation, I find it fascinating that we are so tame and so timid in how we can imagine alternative possibilities for liberation. 

In the film, strategies for Black Liberation are filtered through a Western lens that privileges what is as opposed to expressing what could be. The knowledge and praxis of indigenous persons, particularly women of color who draw on these traditions, remains invisible and unintelligible. Liberation is seen as emerging from one of three possibilities:  (1) isolation of Black Persons from others, (2) Neo-Imperialism designed to colonize the historical colonizers, and (3) Neo-Liberalism’s investment in globalization, open markets, trade, and education. Neoliberalism, in Black Panther, is presented as a healing third way that enabled T’Challa to embrace both Wakanda and the highest objectives that Killmonger represents. But I found myself feeling dissatisfied and annoyed that STEM education, technology, and market trade are represented as a path to liberation – because such approaches carry costs and entrench existing institutional structures of power. Why tame the possibilities of Wakanda with neoliberal normativity? Neoliberal answers to inequality center individualism, mythologize merit, and valorize markets at the expense of community and solidarity. They refuse to disrupt dominant norms and fail to make reparations for past transgressions. The path to liberation cannot be won through real estate development, hackathons, and coding camps. 

Though many claim claim Black Panther as feminist (because of the fierce women stars and in spite of the erasure of queer women), the film failed to offer an intersectional feminist approach for liberation. A key premise of the work of feminists of color who work toward liberation—from bell hooks to Lilla Wilson—is that we are bound to one another. Our liberation is entwined. Those who oppress and those who are oppressed must seek liberation together or none shall be free.

Killmonger and T’Challa could take a lesson from feminists of color. Their praxis reveals the paradox of bondage and the possibility of liberation.

Bondage binds both victims and oppressors. Liberation, in its truest form, frees not only the marginalized but also the privileged. Liberation cannot be accomplished through only individuals acts. It requires a radical recognition of interdependency and solidarity. And liberation cannot be accomplished by merely inverting the hierarchy. Reparations must be made. The path to liberation requires forging communities across difference and making institutional amends for past transgressions. It also requires unprecedented forms of accountability where those who have done wrong acknowledge the wrong and alleviate it.

In one of the most iconic moments of the film, Killmonger is confronted by Queen Ramonda (played by Angela Bassett) and he says, “Hey, Auntie.” Killmonger and T’Challa alike would do well to listen to the wisdom of Aunties, particularly feminist women of color. It is my hope that Black Panther, as much as it sates these diasporic desires, has the potential to create the ground for future possibilities that we can use to envision what liberation could be beyond isolation, neo-imperialism, and neo-liberalism.


Saru Matambanadzo is the Moise S. Steeg Jr. Associate Professor of Law at Tulane University Law School.

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