Spoilers Throughout: Constructing the agonies of Black Panther

Black Panther is an OK film. It’s not as good as Thor Ragnarok. Thor’s plotline is a bit more stable; the characters are more distinct; the script is a little more deft with the usual Marvel mixture of peril and humour.

But, that’s not the point is it? Or is it?

I had mixed feelings about going to see Black Panther. As someone who researches African politics, I am keyed into a lot of Africa-focused social media, and it is fair to say that the film has generated a degree of debate, analysis, and commentary unlike any other ‘blockbuster’ film. I have not read any of it, only partly for fear of spoilers. I also didn’t read any of it for fear of spoliation: the relentless deconstruction of a film – a Marvel film by the way – by educated analysis. It is not just jokes that lose their cultural effect with analysis; it is in some degree all culture. My expectation that meticulous analysis might draw the enjoyment out of the film was reinforced by the titles of blogs and tweets about the film which readily fell into two camps: Black Panther has failed to generate a challenge to prevailing racialised tropes of blackness and reinforce existing pernicious representations of Africa; Black Panther radically changes the way that race is portrayed in popular film genres. I’m going to guess that the former bases itself on the pastiche neo-tribalism that pervades the film. And, I’m going to guess that a lot of the latter is focused on the rather restrained aesthetics of Afro-modernism: cutting edge technology set within a bundle of African cultural references.

I might be wrong. But, of course, as I watched the film, my mind was buzzing with deconstructive and analytical energy, noting a list of possible moderating and correctional points. Occupational hazard. I cannot tell to what degree I treated the film as a spectacle, an adventure, a fantasy even though surely these are the principal properties one would expect from a Marvel film.

My first impression of the film was that it is weird. The entire focus of the film is a meditation on the value of home. All of the characters – including BP himself – are rather shallow and also old-fashioned. It feels pre-Deadpool, that superhero film which so wonderfully shat on the serious protagonist genre. The various plot arcs condense into the value of Wakanda as a place and as the repository of a set of values concerning responsibility. It is a dramaturgic about what researchers in Africa call autochthony: the derivation of political power from a place of origin, interlaced with clunky R2P language.

Wakanda itself is a mash-up. It has the military monarchical accoutrements associated with the historiography and mythology of a Great Lakes king during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when these tributary monarchs were expanding and centralising power. At the start of the film, I thought the exciting meteor thing landed pretty much in Rwanda. And, there are – with some license – parallels one might draw between contemporary Rwanda and Wakanda. But, there is also something of the Biafra in Wakanda. The secessionist state; the country fighting against much of the rest of Africa; and the depiction – offered both by Western journalists and Igbo intellectuals – of a chosen people. Additionally, there is a loosely southern Africa composite as well: the Zulu, the ersatz Amandla! chants, the ‘clicks’ of Khoi-San. And, finally, the Maasai warrior, gendered female for a Western audience.

As I say, a mash-up. Full of chanting and dancing, spears, the neo-traditionalism of anthropomorphisms (man/panther man/gorilla) that resemble what old fashioned anthropologists of Africa called ‘animism’.

But, who cares? Every shallow and spectacular popular Hollywood superhero film is stuffed full of pastiched cultural references and aesthetics. Or, if you like, these films are semiotically overloaded surfaces. That is all part of the fun. It is an unanswered question the extent to which neo-tribal or frankly silly (I found the times that everyone crosses their arms in front of their chests when something serious happens unintentionally funny) bits reinforce any pre-existing racialisations or prejudices about Africa that people might have. It is flattery to consider the film as making any contribution at all to the ways in which people understand history of the nature of the global. It is too daft for that.

No culture comes out well from Hollywood mass-audience films. Everything is there to be pillaged, and pillaged again in sequels, prequels, and re-makes. If a film is spectacular, a bit funny, a bit stupid, and at some point briefly poignant then the job is done. Why should ‘Africa’ be treated any differently? There are no gross stereotypings of the kind that existed in the truly poisonous outputs of TV and film in the 1960s and 1970s and in declining degrees form the 1980s. If African characters are silly or derivative its because everybody is.

There is a sort of prequel here. There was something of a furore about District Nine, although in 2009 the bunfest of social media was protean. Part of the concern in relation to the film was that it was equally cute with cultural tropes, mashed cultural phenomena up relentlessly in search of a good action plot and some laughs. Some were concerned about the stereotyping of Nigerians, the socio-political meaning of the ‘prawns’, the way it portrayed the ‘new’ South Africa. District Nine was a considerably better film than the oft-misfiring Black Panther, and it was very much focussed on the nuances of South Africa in particular. But it was also a popular global film in which everyone is a bit crazy, there are aliens, and – oh by the way – the vast majority of characters are black African.

There is something to say about both films which is not so much about their merits as films or as vehicles for hidden curricula about the nature of racial oppression but simply that there is no reason why fun popular films shouldn’t be loosely located in Africa, involve mainly black actors and hopefully black African actors and largely be aimed at presenting lots of people with some welcome entertainment.

The characters in Black Panther are pretty stupid, just like the characters in all of the other Hollywood superhero films. The aesthetics are shamelessly appropriative and disrespectful of cultural integrity, just like all the other Hollywood films. There was an analogous moment for China in the mid 1990s during which Hollywood films purloined all manner of Orientalisms post-Crouching Tiger. Mysticism chic has been succeeded by tribal chic. Both can be cool. For a while.

So, what is the problem exactly with a daft film like Black Panther, messing about with Africanness? In the context of action adventure films, it was rather anaemic in its violence – no Ugandan martial arts film this. Nor did it have the high drama of a Nollywood action film. In a way, it was depressingly mainstream-American, full of reasonable deliberation and no visible kills (the commercial pressures of staying within the 12A category I suppose). So much for the mighty kingdom: more a well-adorned Kantian republic, something Immanuel himself would never have imagined in his racist armchair anthropology.

Blandness cohabiting with splendour was perhaps the source of the film’s weirdness. The transatlantic references boiled down to the two Black Panthers’ moral and physical combat. One Black Panther was a foedus pacificum protagonist. The other antagonist Black Panther was closer to the ideas of the actual Black Panthers as an organised movement of resistance and liberation against White domination and oppression. I liked ‘bad’ panther. He made a lot more sense and seemed more interesting. It is perhaps something of a failure of the film that it resolves the righteous fury of Bad Panther in the establishing of a new ‘outreach centre’ in LA rather than the kind of vision articulated by, say, the remarkable and fascinating Malcolm X.

But, that is not really the point, is it?

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