Jelani Cobb: "Chadwick Boseman's T'Challa, the Black Panther and the King of Wakanda, confronts Erik Killmonger, a black American mercenary, played by Michael B. Jordan, as a rival, but the two characters are essentially duelling responses to five centuries of African exploitation at the hands of the West. The villain, to the extent that the term applies, is history itself." Karen Attiah: "Indeed, ´Black Panther´ offers a radical vision of what black national power and internationalism could look like, if we trusted, respected, and elevated black women … In ´Black Panther,´ as in real life, black women be saving ev-ery-body, white or black."
Although it did not win the best picture award*, "Black Panther" won three Academy Awards this year, for costume design, production design and musical score. Its cultural as well as commercial success is undeniable. In addition, if there were a ´most thoughtprovoking ´ film award, it would have clearly been the top contender. A superhero film is not intended to be a portrayal of reality. But the film offered, and still offers, multiple opportunities to explore deep historical questions.
* Despite an inspired nomination speech by Trevor Noah, which included a joke only understandable to speakers of Xhosa! https://twitter.com/i/status/1099885201788948481 For more explanation visit http://tinyurl.com/y2y5mmzr
This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains excerpts from seven commentaries from a year ago, particularly noteworthy for their focus on the implications for understanding the history of Africa and the African diaspora. Karen Attiah is a Nigerian-Ghanaian-American, Boima Tucker a Sierra-Leonean-American, Jelani Cobb, Christopher Lebron, and Robyn Spencer are African-American, Thandika Mkandawire and Paul Tiyambe Zeleza are both from Malawi, and live in Sweden and Kenya respectively.
A related AfricaFocus Bulletin also sent out today and available on the web at http://www.africafocus.org/docs19/usa1902b.php, introduces a selection of books and articles exploring in greater depth the wider historical context to which the discussions about ´Black Panther´ point. These include slavery and the Atlantic slave trade, the genocidal conquest of the Americas, and the complex issue or reparations or redress for historical crimes the impact of which still shapes our world today.
For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on the USA and Africa, visit http://www.africafocus.org/country/usa-africa.php
Selected Reflections on "Black Panther"
Karen Attiah, "Forget Killmonger — Wakanda's women are 'Black Panther's' true revolutionaries," Washington Post, March 1, 2018
Most of the intellectually interesting — and heated — discussions about "Black Panther" have been about whether the film's representations of black liberation, internationalism, and imperialism are empowering, or regressive.
As a black woman and the daughter of West African immigrants, the most tragic and scary part about Killmonger and his imperialist vision is that he does not hesitate to sacrifice black women in pursuit of it.
In his blood-soaked quest to seize Wakanda, he leaves behind a trail of dead and injured black women, both American and Wakandan. He kills his African-American girlfriend and partner in crime. He chokes the female priestess of the purple heart-shaped herbs that give Wakanda's rulers spiritual access to the ancestors. Later in the film, he slices the throat of a member of the all-female royal guards, the Dora Milaje. And, if it wasn't for T'Challa's intervention in the grand battle scene, he might have killed T'Challa's younger sister Shuri, the genius responsible for Wakanda's technological achievements, including the same vibranium-powered weapons that Killmonger wants to ship to oppressed black peoples around the world. …
And this is the true tragedy of Killmonger — in his trauma-fueled quest for dominance, he does not represent black liberation — rather, he symbolizes the internalization of white patriarchy — which manifests in his external violence against black women.
Indeed, "Black Panther" offers a radical vision of what black national power and internationalism could look like, if we trusted, respected, and elevated black women — especially in maledominated fields such as the military and international diplomacy.
In "Black Panther," as in real life, black women be saving ev-ery-body, white or black.
3-minute interview with Letitia Wright, Angela Bassett, and Lupita Nyong'o - http://tinyurl.com/y36vl86m
Boima Tucker, "African America's Wakanda," Africa is a Country, Feb. 23, 2018.
It's too soon to tell if this specific cultural moment has done anything to bring African Americans closer to Africans on the continent and its many other diasporas. It doesn't help that Black Panther's depiction of the actual African continent is not any more complex than any other in the history of Hollywood. True, in the film African cultures are represented and depicted positively. We have come a long way from Birth of a Nation. However, those cultures are also used piecemeal, cut-and-paste and without context. The only time we see the Wakandans visit another African country it is of course to fight militant Islamists who are kidnapping children. The Africa of Wakanda resembles more an undifferentiated African stew, its parts floating in the red, black and green universe somewhere between Kwanza and Kente.
The arrival of Black Panther arrives at a time when black America is diversifying. But it also happens to be a time where the US itself is becoming more isolationist. I know from personal experience that it is not beyond many in the African American community to reflect nativist tendencies. In private conversations, I have heard African Americans say things like "The Muslim-ban protest isn't my fight" or "What does DACA have to do with me?"
In a perfect world, Black Panther fever would lead more African Americans down a path of knowledge that would inform them that African migrants are crossing oceans, deserts and jungles on foot to get in to the US. That Haitians and African migrants are flooding the Canadian border out of fear of being deported by a xenophobic Trump administration. That Black Lives Matter applies to a mudslide in Sierra Leone or miners killed by police in South Africa. That there is a real life ethno-nationalist, technologically advanced isolationist dictatorship, in Paul Kagame's Rwanda. That their tax dollars are going to build a giant drone base in Niger. That this knowledge would help open them to a Pan-African political project.
Jelani Cobb, "'Black Panther' and the Invention of 'Africa'" The New Yorker, Feb. 18, 2018
There is a fundamental dissonance in the term "African-American," two feuding ancestries conjoined by a hyphen. That dissonance—a hyphen standing in for the brutal history that intervened between Africa and America—is the subject of "Black Panther," Ryan Coogler's brilliant first installment of the story of Marvel Comics' landmark black character. "I have a lot of pain inside me," Coogler told an audience at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, on Wednesday night. "We were taught that we lost the things that made us African. We lost our culture, and now we have to make do with scraps." Black America is constituted overwhelmingly by the descendants of people who were not only brought to the country against their will but were later inducted into an ambivalent form of citizenship without their input. The Fourteenth Amendment, which granted citizenship to all those born here, supposedly resolved the question of the status of ex-slaves, though those four million individuals were not consulted in its ratification. The unspoken yield of this history is the possibility that the words "African" and "American" should not be joined by a hyphen but separated by an ellipsis.
Chadwick Boseman's T'Challa, the Black Panther and the King of Wakanda, confronts Erik Killmonger, a black American mercenary, played by Michael B. Jordan, as a rival, but the two characters are essentially duelling responses to five centuries of African exploitation at the hands of the West. The villain, to the extent that the term applies, is history itself.
it is all but impossible not to notice that Coogler has cast a black American, a Zimbabwean-American, and a Kenyan as a commando team in a film about African redemption. The cast also includes Winston Duke, who is West Indian; Daniel Kaluuya, a black Brit; and Florence Kasumba, a Ugandan-born German woman. The implicit statement in both the film's themes and its casting is that there is a connection, however vexed, tenuous, and complicated, among the continent's scattered descendants. Coogler said as much in Brooklyn, when he talked about a trip that he took to South Africa, as research for the film: after discovering cultural elements that reminded him of black communities in the United States, he concluded, "There's no way they could wipe out what we were for thousands of years. We're African."
Christopher Lebron, "'Black Panther' Is Not the Movie We Deserve," Boston Review, Feb. 18, 2018
Black Panther presents itself as the most radical black experience of the year. We are meant to feel emboldened by the images of T'Challa, a black man clad in a powerful combat suit tearing up the bad guys that threaten good people. But the lessons I learned were these: the bad guy is the black American who has rightly identified white supremacy as the reigning threat to black wellbeing; the bad guy is the one who thinks Wakanda is being selfish in its secret liberation; the bad guy is the one who will no longer stand for patience and moderation—he thinks liberation is many, many decades overdue. And the black hero snuffs him out.
When T'Challa makes his way to Oakland at the movie's end, he gestures at all the buildings he has bought and promises to bring to the distressed youths the preferred solution of mega-rich neoliberals: educational programming. Don't get me wrong, education is a powerful and liberating tool, as Paulo Freire taught us, but is that the best we can do? Why not take the case to the United Nations and charge the United States with crimes against humanity, as some nations tried to do in the early moments of the Movement for Black Lives?
Robyn C. Spencer, "Black Feminist Meditations on the Women of Wakanda," Medium, Feb. 21, 2018
Killmonger is a monarch seeking a throne, a familiar figure in the history of Black protest. Despite his flawed ideas and violent actions as a CIA operative, he is presented as having a redeemable vision of Black futurity. The struggle between T'Challa's way and Killmonger's alternative have fueled some of the most provocative think pieces about the meaning of the movie to Black history and politics. However, it is the women of Wakanda who have offered the most justice centered view of what Wakanda can mean in the world. Black Panther" reflects a deep, global and collective hunger for cultural products that represent people of African descent with dignity and power, but that doesn't mean that one has to swallow everything uncritically. There is potential in this moment. Activists have raised awareness about the 1960s Black Panther Party, rallied for support for political prisoners and held voter registration drives at movie screenings. Fewer have asked why the African future—as imagined in "Black Panther"—and the African past—as sold by ancestry.com—is so much more appealing to some Americans than the African present. There is no better time to launch critical conversations about what liberation could look like; connect new people to pre-existing organizations and political networks; re-center aesthetics in freedom making projects and have some frank transnational diasporic dialogue.
Perhaps the best thing about "Black Panther" is that it grounds these conversations in intergenerational soil. The day after the film, I will ask my daughter to use the tools of Black feminism to re-imagine Wakanda. How should it be organized, run and led? Could she think beyond monarchy and create an alternative system of governance based on values like egalitarianism and collectivity? How might she redistribute, rather than hoard, the wealth of Wakanda for the greater good? What would she do with Killmonger, who at the end finally grasps the splendor of Wakanda yet is incapable of imagining that it had evolved beyond imprisoning vanquished enemies. (A burning question in a country where 2.3 million people are incarcerated.) Most of all, I will ask her about her favorite thinkers and suggest that the women of Wakanda might be the leaders that we have been calling for.
Thandika Mkandawire, Facebook post, March 14, 2018
When Africa's sagging pan-Africanist spirits are their nadir, its Diaspora has stood up to remind us of the dream - from William Blyden, Marcus Garvey, George Padmore, Malcolm X, Bob Marley, W.E.B Dubois, and, of course, Bob Marley "Africa's Must Unite".
The history of pan-Africanism is characterized by seesaw-like shifts in emphasis as continental or Diasporic issues have become dominant. In Africa, as elsewhere, Diasporas have played an important role in the reinvention and revitalisation of the "homeland" identity and sense of itself. And today, with the increased capacity to participate in the political life of their homelands, there can be no doubt that the Diaspora will be even more immediate to the rethinking of a new Africa.
The sheer size of the continent and the dispersion of peoples of African descent has meant that the pan-Africanist project has had to come to terms with a wide range of identities, interests and concerns which include gender, ethnicity, nationality, religion, race and geographical allocation, to only name some major one. However, as I have said on several occasions, I do not believe that the failure of pan-Africanism can be attributed to lack of identification with Africa by Africans chauvinistically mired in their diverse identities, as it is often stated. Nor is it because individual countries have firmly established successful national identities that somehow militate against the pan-African ideal.
"Africa" is probably the most emotionally evoked name of any continent. Its people sing about it, paint it, and wear it more than any continent. Its artists produce hundreds of icons of this much "beloved continent". Every major African singer has at least sang one song about Africa. Even national anthems often evoke Africa much more than individual country names.
This said we need all the cultural reinforcement to the panAfrican project. Black Panther has contributed in a spectacular way to the cultural underpinnings and imaginary of pan-Africanism.
Paul Tiyambe Zeleza, "Black Panther and the Persistence of the Colonial Gaze," Pulse, March 31, 2018
Thus the film bears the great weight of racial representation, of the brilliant possibilities of the past, present and future for African peoples on the continent and in the Diaspora. This is a burden it carries because of the paucity of Black films in Hollywood and one that it ultimately fails to uphold because it's too much for one film to bear.
While I found the film interesting even engrossing in parts I was underwhelmed. In fact, I left the theater quite troubled by the pervasive tropes of colonial discourse that frame the film despite its eagerness to invoke a progressive Pan-African aesthetic.
The tropes of the colonial gaze are signaled at the outset. We are told Wakanda is a 'tribal' nation-state. None of Africa's major precolonial states—from the ancient Nile valley civilizations to the great empires of Western Africa, not to mention others elsewhere on the continent—were 'tribal' states; they were multiethnic or to use contemporary terms multi-cultural and multinational states and societies. And contemporary African states, formed out of the historical geography of European colonialism, are almost invariably multi-ethnic, multicultural, and multireligious.
The term 'tribe' is the 'N' word of colonial denigration for African societies. There is nothing authentic or liberating about referring to African communities as 'tribal,' a term that evokes atavistic identities and primordial politics.
The representations of Wakanda reek with other Eurocentric stereotypes. The accession to and defense of the throne are marked by ferocious and bloody fights. The contestation between the king of Wakanda, T'Challa, the Black Panther, and his estranged African American cousin and interloper, Erik Kilmonger, degenerates into the 'inter-tribal' warfare of colonial folklore, together with the Tarzanian animalistic chants by the neighboring kingdom that comes to intervene. There are also the shields and spears and gyrations of old Hollywood films about 'tribal' African warfare.
In other words, despite all its best counter-hegemonic efforts, Wakanda's Africa is quintessentially sub-Saharan Africa, the truncated Africa of Eurocentric cartography, of Europe's ultimate other. Black Panther offers us an Afrocentric projection of an Africa invented by the racialized and racist realities and rhetoric of American history and society. It is not a reflection of the bewildering complexities, contradictions, and diversities of Africa itself.
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