Diplomacy v Radicalism: A Look at the African Diaspora in “Black Panther”
By: Dakota Arnold
Black Panther is game changing. Not just for the ethos of Hollywood, but also for its representation of a culture and the social/political themes that it conveys about our current events.
Black Panther doesn’t just showcase the Afro-futurist vision of a generation. It has a lot of political commentary that is conveyed through the constant motifs used to represent an isolationist perspective and an open border alternative within the context of our current modern day, as well as the effects of past colonialist and imperialist efforts.
The cold open of this movie sets up these themes perfectly. The tradition and duty of the leader of Wakanda is established through the oral telling of its history. The film immediately gives the viewers an idea of the main conflict in the story by maintaining that the reason that Wakanda is benefitted by removing themselves from the international sphere is because if they hadn’t, their resources and people would have been pillaged by imperialism and colonialism like the other inhabitants of Africa.
Black Panther continuously addresses issues of traditional isolationism and open borders through its dialogue. During the first third of the movie, W’Kabi takes a stance on the former by stating, “If you let immigrants in, they bring their problems with them.” It’s an argument that was very notably used by Donald Trump during his 2016 campaign when he stated, “They [Mexico] are not our friends, people. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” This comment earned him criticism. Accusations of xenophobia and racism towards Latin Americans followed him through his campaign and into the White House.
In this context, however, Wakandans who believe that they should remain out of foreign affairs believe so out of self-preservation and fear of exploitation of resources, rather than out of blatant xenophobia and extreme nationalism. Wakanda fear of outsiders comes from a place of having witnessed the colonisation of Africa and the violent seizing of resources from once great kingdoms. Most famous are the kingdoms of Benin and Mali. They were two of the richest places in the world – each with a very intricate social system – before Europeans forcefully stole their natural resources, art, and people for their own personal gain, ruining the functionality of these kingdoms. Fear of the knowledge that they would surely be stripped of the vibranium that powers their country is what kept them from being trusting of outsiders, rather than ethnophobic stereotypes.
There are also more subtle ways this point is made. Through Shuri’s humorous line, “don’t scare me like that colonizer!” the film outlines the fact that “colonizer” is the way that Wakandans often see outsiders, as well as acting as a tamer way to reinforce Erik’s point about the extent to which White Europeans and their descendants made a negative impact on Africa and its economy, politics, and social state.
The use of set and costume designs also reinforces the tradition of Wakandan isolationism as well. The film draws from traditional clothing designs and architecture from African tribes across the continent as well as very Afrocentric natural hair designs, due to the lack of influence of Eurocentric beauty standards. A good example of such is when Okoye (T’Challa’s bodyguard) has to wear a Eurocentric wig for a disguise and asks, “When can I take this thing off my head, it is an abomination.” When they are attacked in the South Korean casino, she almost immediately yanks it off and throws it in the face of her attacker, reinforcing and perhaps symbolizing Wakandan resistance to colonial ideals and the prevalence of isolationist principles.
In many ways, Wakanda as a nation is a great example of Afrofuturist ideals that arose in the 1960s to address and critique the present-day dilemmas of Black people and their racially inferior position in all parts of the world, as well as a means to reinvent historical events. Which, in this context, would be a country that was not affected by colonialism or imperialism. The comic book itself was created in 1966 and was as much a direct example of Afrofuturist ideals then as the movie is now.
For all intents and purposes, Wakanda is a country that has thrived on isolationism and would theoretically suffer from trying to assist victims of the African diaspora and revealing itself to the world. This, of course, is where the movie brings up a counter argument in the form of Erik Stevens.
Born N’Jadaka, he had to strip himself of his name, westernize it, and live as an American, not fully knowing the experience of the place he comes from, except through the writings that his father left for him. Black slaves who were brought to the Americas during the Transatlantic slave trade experienced the stripping of their identities and their tribal ties by slave masters who wanted them to have as few ties to their homeland as possible. As a result, Black Americans lost the history of where they came from and could only find it through the extremely rare chance that their ancestors left some documents that would help them trace their ancestry back to the beginning. Erik Stevens is the symbolic embodiment of the experience of Black Americans (born in America).
Black Panther continuously reinforces the fact that T’Challa (a representation of traditionalism and isolationism in Wakanda) and Erik (a person who has lived around the experience of victims of the African diaspora and blames Wakandan inaction for the suffering of Black people) could have had identical experiences if either one of them had lived under such slightly different circumstances.
Erik’s insistence on buying the Wakandan weapon from the museum is based on the fact that European colonizers stripped the weapon from Africans and placed it there. This interaction puts front and center what Black people have known for years, that almost every single piece of ancient African art was stolen from Africans after the slaughtering of a city’s citizens and put on display in European museums as a “shocking idea” that the people they thought were savages could make such intricate art. Even the local Carnegie Museum of Art has a small collection of African pieces that were not donated by generous Africans who were willing to give up a part of their history.
From this exchange the audience has a basis to sympathize with a character whose motivations are to uplift the victims of the African diaspora because he very clearly outlines a seemingly small but important point in the movie that black people around the world are suffering because more than just art was stolen from them.
The conflict between the two characters, as well as the themes they represent, is conveyed through their very first meeting in which Erik criticizes T’Challa’s inaction towards what he insists are “his people” by stating, “But didn’t life start right here on this continent, so don’t that make all people your people?” And T’Challa argues, “I am not the King of all people, I am the King of Wakanda.” In the end, though, they share the same goal – the protection of what each claims as “their people.”
Their familial bond and similarities is what moves T’Challa to see eye to eye with Erik. He argues with his father in the Wakandan Ancestral Plane and blatantly states that he was wrong for sitting by while ‘their people’ suffered around the world.
Though their motives are the same, the means they use to achieve their goals are a direct parallel of the motives of different groups during the Black Empowerment movement of the 60s. The dilemma of using peaceful means to receive change, often argued by the older (traditional) members of the movement was juxtaposed with a more radical means to change offered by the younger people (usually a part of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), the Nation of Islam, the Black Panther Party, and its iconic leader Malcolm X.
The death of Erik, and subsequent buying out of a city block to start a Wakandan outreach program, as well as the announcement of Wakandan assistance to the rest of the world, clearly outlines the argument that the way to uplift black people around the world is not through violent resistance and hatred of oppressors, but through the love and uplifting of one’s own people wherever.
Black Panther will forever have a large impact on the Hollywood ethos due to being one of the first mainstream movies with an almost entirely black cast, using white characters as bland plot devices, and being the Marvel movie with the most pre-ordered copies. Further, it offers more complex black (more importantly complex black women) characters on the big screen for black kids to look up to and for white kids to redefine the concept of black that Hollywood has shown moviegoers for years. Its impact goes even deeper than that. Not only does this pre-summer blockbuster hit address the issues facing victims of the African diaspora and the philosophies used as arguments to fix these issues, it does so under the mantle of being a superhero action movie.
This movie addresses many of the problems that are being talked about in our current cultural ethos and revolutionizes what it means to be a superhero movie. Superhero movies in our current social sphere are popularized because they represent an ideal, something to provide a utopian escape in which someone can swoop in and improve reality, as well as something larger than life to look to for inspiration for oneself to improve our own lives. Black Panther does so in a more explicit fashion. Daring to attempt to solve the problem to a very complex social issue and place it on the big screen so that it’s hard to ignore the way that it is affecting a large chunk of the human population. Black Panther manages to effortlessly be the movie that has been a long time coming for the black community around the world.