Black Panther as a Red Herring
Marvel’s latest (2018) installment of the super-hero Black Panther is essentially a fully-fledged special effects story of a man, this time a black man, fighting for the One of the community or simply for collective unity. Indeed, the oldest story in the book. It is a story of an heir to a lineage of Black Panthers—literally, old black men-kings turned panthers upon death. The heir becomes King T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), and is then challenged by an internal-outsider named Eric Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) aspiring to liberate all blacks, universally. What does all that mean you ask? Without spoiling the narrative, there is an internal split within the “black imagined community.”
On the one traditional side, the king and his allied tribes of Wakanda maintain their flourishing life with isolation from the world, keeping in secret their possession of some special material, Vibranium (descended long ago from space), that rejuvenates bodies and animates objects into tech-wonders. On the other revolutionary side, there is the internal-outsider—a native-born who was living outside Africa—that wins over the crown. He does so in the name of his murdered father (the king’s uncle), and all blacks on the planet who are devoid of Vibranium and thus powerless in-front of the subjugating post/colonial oppressive system.
For Killmonger, all black lives matter, and there is no reason for the secret to be kept. Instead, he wants to proliferate it to all blacks so they can fight their oppressors and be liberated. However, for the elders and the king, keeping the (special material a) secret is (what is) keeping the community alive. So the rebellious challenger is dethroned by the former true king, who learns the “universal” lesson and develops an outreach program to the rest of the world, sharing the ancient secrets, power and technology, with it.
The wide reception of the film is varied yet generally positive. Many celebrate the all black cast and the representation of Africans as rich, developed, peaceful, and powerful—everything that Africa as we know it is not. This shift from real-Africa to movie-Africa is an ideological fantasy—a general relation to reality—which offers solace to many publics while suppressing the real social antagonism: Africa’s place in today’s global capitalism. Thus the price for this ideological fantasy is tantamount to living in a lie, namely, keeping in secret their collective identity as well as the sublime object which made them so advanced. The movie’s ideological move covers up an internal social tension with an external ideal object. In doing so, the movie opens up a space that opposing viewers can fill in while keeping the opposition intact, as I explain in several levels.
Black Panther continues the recent growing art the of the mashup, which, like Kung Fu Panda being black-white-Asian, has a bit of everything: paganism and animism mixed with some monotheism: Judaism—the chosen knowledgeable people of Wakanda doomed to live in isolation; Christianity—the king’s second coming that extends their singular uniqueness to the universal world; and Islam—the king’s lover Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) who, like Khadija to the Prophet, reminds him what he really is so he can fulfill his destiny.
Beyond these religious nuances, the bulk mashup follows today’s dominant cultural oppositions, to which director Ryan Coogler replies ‘bring’em on’: first, old vs. new—so we get rock-spears AND laser-cannons, horseback riding AND spaceship flying, communication-holograms AND herb-rituals. Second, south-east vs. north-west—so we get an ancient traditional African tribe-nation in the middle of nowhere, engulfed with futuresque super-progressive Elon Musk style technology. Then, there is the conflation between hereditary tribe-kings and proto-democratic council, composed of representatives of the five ethnic groups united as Wakanda. Fourth, mashing-up masculine and feminine roles boils down to an army of women-worriers or the princess who is also a tech-science engineer. Either case, always alongside yet never in front.
However appealing as it may be, this ideological fantasy that resonates with our common cultural oppositions, and blends them together into an externalized heavenly object, is a false reconciliation. It can only come at a hefty price: in reality it is our repressed passivity while feeling better about our progressive society to have produced such a “black” film; and in the movie it is the symptomatic image by which Africans can be modern only if they keep their modernism (embodied in Vibranium) a secret, and maintain an appearance of “yet another third-world country.”
This is related to another ideological mechanism in the film that could be called “the materialization of the mana,” which in the African context receives a somewhat authentic meaning. Defined by anthropologist Lévi-Strauss as “a zero symbolic value, that is, a sign marking the necessity of a supplementary symbolic content,” here mana is materialized and externalized as the “strongest metal known to men”—Vibranium. This, in fact, is the common ideological reification of objet petite a—the object-cause of desire that operates as the (unrepresentable) glue of society, and which today’s ideology, as the ruling set of ideas, just cannot bear to think in its real autonomous and abstract manner. As if there must be something material, tangible that sustains the community of believers, other than belief itself. Just like it is much easier to think that a chip can make us hate an enemy (as in one of Black Mirror episodes), than to accept that we actually need no chip since language (as a social order) does that work perfectly.
The ultimate lesson for the viewer is also ideological, since the rebel who is fighting for the liberation of all blacks is characterized (even by name) as a hot-headed violence-seeking savage, opposed to the rationally moderate king who eventually wins. The conclusive lesson is first, politically, that mild reforms are better than violent revolutions; second, ethically speaking, we should give up on our desire for the sake of tradition; and third, psychologically, it also repeats from within the black community the white argument of superior rationality against black excessive emotionality.
Therefore the real ideological message is the fantasy that only “technology will save us,” coupling ancient wisdom of a benevolent king with communal science outreach. This ideology leaves aside the ethical question: who is the hero? Is it the king who preservers the power, authority, lineage, and tradition, or is it the rebel-orphan with the universalist dream? The one who compromises his desire and community by opening out to his lover and the world, or the one who does not give up even at the price of his life? Or maybe, the true hero is the community itself, as a collective subject that sustains internal changes and developments while keeping true to itself?
For these reasons, both leftists and rightists would find something to love or hate this movie about. For the right, if they see beyond the all black cast, the nationalistic, separationist sentiment may be appealing. While for the left it is the cosmopolitan, alternative representation and ideal that would be attractive, if they could see beyond the alleged violence of “extremists.” And here lays the film’s ideologically-central position: it simultaneously says all and nothing at all, for and against the All. So at the level of content, there is nothing but ideology—in all its forms. The novelty, perhaps, just like with Wikileaks, is in the form not the content. The latter is purely ideological: false reconciliation between oppositions; real obfuscation of social antagonism, etc. Nevertheless, at the level of form this is new(s): a big Hollywood blockbuster with a single white actor; a movie which celebrates rather than ridicules the ancients, as the African roots of humanity along with their “superstitious” theories and belief systems. So we should resist the temptation to interpret the movie’s content, and keep revolutionizing its form.