The Price of the Ticket: How Much Does it Cost to See Ourselves?

The total liberation and unification of Africa under an All-African Socialist Government must be the primary objective of all Black revolutionaries throughout the world. It is an objective which when achieved, will bring about the fulfillment of the aspirations of Africans and people of African descent everywhere. It will at the same time advance the triumph of the international socialist revolution.  – Kwame Nkrumah

…how it is that in a fantasy world where anything is possible it was not possible to paint from outside the neo-colonial gaze. And yes, it’s Disney, and it’s capitalism and it’s entertainment but is the price to be paid for big budget representation of black bodies the vilification of black liberation politics?  – Kimberlé Crenshaw

by Demetrius Noble

During the “Talks at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art,” Mao Zedong argues “In the world today all culture, all literature and art belong to definite classes and are geared to definite political lines. There is in fact no such thing as art for art’s sake, art that stands above classes, art that is detached from or independent of politics.” It is within this purview that I want to wrestle with the critically acclaimed and celebrated Marvel blockbuster “Black Panther.” Moreover, I challenge us to consider on what grounds do we celebrate this film? How do we assess its political utility? And lastly, what should we demand, if anything, of an all-black cast and writing and directing team working at the behest of the Disney corporation and beholden to its aims of generating as much revenue as possible?

On what grounds do we celebrate this film?

There is no shortage of praise for “Black Panther.” Whether remarking on the cinematic brilliance of Ryan Coogler’s vision and execution, the riveting performance of Michael B. Jordan, or the empowering display and centering of black women, or being undergirded by an unapologetic African aesthetic, there is much to applaud about this film. Perhaps the gravity of what’s celebratory about “Black Panther” can be found in Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors’s article “Black Panther Reflects a Cultural Shift in Hollywood—and in America.” Cullors recalls, “When the first trailer of Black Panther came out, and I saw the dark-skinned black people representing Wakanda—from Lupita and Angela to Danai and Letitia—I felt pride. So many of us have spent our time inside of the Movement for Black Lives pushing our political climate as well as our cultural climate. Now we are seeing a black renaissance in Hollywood.”

Cullors roots this “black renaissance” within the grounds of black resistance. Cullors explains

During my years working with Black Lives Matter, I have identified with everyday superheroes: the activists and organizers who are regular people fighting for better lives for all of us. When we first started Black Lives Matter during the Obama administration, we were living in a country that was questioning the relevance of racism. Didn’t having a black President mean we have overcome America’s ugly past? Not only were regular white folks asking this question, but mainstream media as well. But black people knew that racism wasn’t over, and when Trayvon Martin was killed by George Zimmerman, the question of America’s ugly past came to a head. For a year Trayvon’s parents and community activists called for justice. But no justice was served—and in fact, a new movement was born. Black Lives Matter became a rallying cry, one with an enormous sense of urgency. It also became a global network. We have worked with hundreds of families who’ve been directly impacted by state violence and have influenced a cultural black renaissance—a renaissance that directly supports the world of Wakanda.

Cullors’s claims warrant scrutiny before we blindly accept them as fact. Where is the proof that this black renaissance is a recognizable extension of black resistance? Where is the proof that this black renaissance subverts the hegemonic machinations of Hollwood? But if it is too much to ask that this burden of proof be obliged, perhaps we can ask a more reasonable question like what is the political character of this “black renaissance” that “directly supports the world of Wakanda”?

How do we assess the film’s political utility?

The political character of this black renaissance, and of “Black Panther” more specifically, has been the topic of intense debate. Some have gone so far as to denounce the project altogether. In his scathing critique “Black Panther is Not the Movie We Deserve,” Christopher Lebron argues that we are mistaken if we think that “Black Panther is a movie about black liberation.” To the contrary, according to Lebron, it is a film that “depends on a shocking devaluation of black American men” while ensuring that “every crass principle of modern black respectability politics is upheld.” Lebron opines, “In 2018, a world home to both the Movement for Black Lives and a president who identifies white supremacists as fine people, we are given a movie about black empowerment where the only redeemed blacks are African nobles. They safeguard virtue and goodness against the threat not of white Americans or Europeans, but a black American man, the most dangerous person in the world.” Lebron essentially condemns the film as anti-black and wonders if it is too much to hope that “this age of black heroes represents thoughtful commentary on U.S. racism rather than the continuation of it.” In an exhausted last exhale, Lebron laments, “Black Panther is not the movie we deserve. My president already despises me. Why should I accept the idea of black American disposability from a man in a suit, whose name is synonymous with radical uplift but whose actions question the very notion that black lives matter?” 

Lebron’s final question is a heavy one and is at the crux of what I find to be the most compelling discussions of the merits and limitations of “Black Panther.” Do black lives matter to the Wakandan ruling class? This question is the crucial political inquiry posed to the Wakandan bourgeoisie and what sets into motion a Wakandan civil war. Moreover this question is the impetus for the final clash between Killmonger and T’challa and will determine whether or not Wakandan weaponry and technology will be in service of a global revolution to ostensibly emancipate the world’s subjugated and exploited black working class. The answer is loudly rendered in an amazing climax of hand-to-hand combat rich with the ironies that only Hollywood can manufacture. On an underground railroad, the Black Panther kills a militant Pan Africanist who attempts to leverage Africa’s natural resources to bolster a black revolution that will reverberate across all of the African diaspora. And if that isn’t enough, the Black Panther is aided by the American CIA in his quest to violently quell the legitimate aspirations of a long-overdue black insurrection for freedom.

Such a paradox is too much for black feminist Kimberle Crenshaw to stomach! She grieves

And we are not talking about a stand-in for the CIA, not a metaphor for the world’s big brother, but a full on embodiment of it. All day I turned it over in my gut. Like remembering a drunken night thru a hangover haze, I kept wondering how I’d come to dance on the table for the CIA? The ones that helped destroy the dream of African liberation, that had a hand in the assassination of Lumumba, staged a coup against Nkrumah, tipped off the arrest that imprisoned Mandela, installed the vicious, nation-destroying Mobutu? Why not throw in the FBI and COINTELPRO as kindly white characters? Was this meant to be ironic? What meaning do we assign the fact that the possibility of a real life Wakanda in the resource-rich Congo and Ghana, and the promise of a Pan African quest for collective self-determination were precisely the threats that the CIA worked to suppress? The consequences of Meddling and proxy wars continue to this day, with millions of lives lost. Whether intentional or not, the West’s justification for neutralizing these threats was resurrected and written all over the character of Killmonger, updated of course with the urban swag of the rabid Black American whose tragic abandonment could only be resolved by being put down. Black power has always been framed by its critics as dangerous, irrational, bloodthirsty revenge. Today’s identity extremists were yesterday’s Panthers and Pan Africanists. How did that libelous trope come to be the central tension in this celebration of Black superheroes?

How indeed? Crenshaw’s question is crucial because it is a question of ideology; it is a question that forces us to grapple with concrete power relations and who controls the modes of production. Perhaps this question of how (and why!) black liberation politics came to be the central threat to crush in “Black Panther” is best answered by Amiri Baraka. In his essay “The Revolutionary Tradition in Afro-American Literature,” Baraka contends that “far from being independent,” the literary establishment and the academic establishment (and Hollywood)

represent in the main the ideas and worldview of the rulers of this country. These ideas, and the institutions from which they are mashed on us, constitute merely the superstructure of this society, a superstructure that reflects the economic foundations upon which is built, the material base for United States life and culture, monopoly capitalism. So that in the main, what is taught and pushed as great literature, or great art, philosophy, etc., are mainly ideas and concepts that can help maintain the status quo, which includes not only the exploitation of the majority by a capitalist elite, but also national oppression, racism, the oppression of women, and the extension of United States Imperialism all over the world.

And this is why and how “Black Panther” collapses into a “libelous trope” that vilifies the aspirations and impulses of black liberation as infantile, wantonly reckless and a dangerous threat to be exterminated. Such impulses can be permitted only if they can be contained and channeled into the sanctioned and pre-approved arenas of neo-liberal progressivism.  Jared Ball provides an insightful analysis of how “Black Panther” functions to provide such an ideological bridge:

In a context where global inequality is at existential crisis threat level, where Black communities here reflect the perfect microcosm of the same and where there is still no such thing as a genuinely sovereign African nation anywhere in the world, we have among the most revolutionary international symbols of anti-imperialist, anti-colonialist, anti-capitalist politics re-presented to us in stunning beauty and style but packaged in the exact neoliberal politics, backed by the same Western-style support and assassination that destroyed the Black Panther Party, assassinated its members, imprisons to this day its survivors or hunts down with international bounties those who had the audacity – not to hope goddammit – but to organize and act accordingly.  It isn’t that the film does this or that as much as that what it does is being read by many as having real meaning in this world and that makes critiquing it so important.  

 

Two quick examples: 1) Please compare the 1960 UN speech delivered by Patrice Lumumba to that of T’challa’s in 2018.  The former condemns the West, its colonialism, theft and abuse of Africa and Africans and declares it all must end.   His European audience was furious and moved to have him assassinated within a year whereas in 2108 the West’s representative, the CIA no less, smiles in full agreement and support having himself participated in the assassination of a true pan-African revolutionary (dismissed and demeaned as an angry lunatic blinded by his own imperial grandeur.) 2) Please note how the film ends with the antidote developed precisely to crush a Black Panther revolution: a wealthy benefactor imposing “help” in the form of neoliberal non-profit “reform.”  This is in lock-step with the state’s response to the BPP and its programs and political education.  “Oakland doesn’t need a BPP, it needs philanthropy and neoliberalism.”  The heroic Malcolm, I mean George, I mean Huey, oops, no, i mean, Killmonger (N’Jadaka! “That’s not my name!”), reduced symbolically to the anti-Black “American” ‘hood stereotype, who would have been reported in Wakanda as Baltimore was on CNN, as a “thug” and “hooligan,” who cannot survive so that we can be left with Obama, sorry, no, I mean Corey, my bad, woops, Van, no, Oprah, sorry, no I mean, T’challa.

Conclusion

In the interests of time, I would like to quickly leave several additional considerations for us to wrestle with during our discussion.

  1. Most, if not all of the critiques I have seen of “Black Panther,” construct a binary between Killmonger and T’challa. This dichotomy is forced by the film itself and the critiques are responding to it accordingly. I find this binary problematic and insufficient as it tends to compel us to privilege one over the other rather than subjecting them both to an intense scrutiny via a critical juxtaposition and not a false dichotomy. As revolutionary socialists, we need to be prepared to discuss the political and ideological limitations of both T’challa and Killmonger and clearly advance what revolutionary politics look, sound and feel like. We must resist the urge to equate militancy with revolutionary or substitute righteous passion for theoretical clarity and praxis.
  2. I was surprised at how fast critical responses to the politics of the movie surfaced. I anticipated that “Black Panther” would reek of the foul, stale politics that most superhero movies are ensconced with. I thought it would take a while however for black folks to overcome the euphoria of this triumph of representation to mount the types of principled critiques that I saw emerging just hours after the film released. Upon serious reflection of what engendered such immediate critical readings to the film, I was motivated to consider whether or not Killmonger subverts the ideological force of “Black Panther.” As Lebron, Crenshaw and Ball all note, along with a loud chorus of others, Killmonger was painted as grotesquely and flat as a villain could be depicted. Yet, his rage and aims found deep ideological, political and emotional resonances for large swaths of “Black Panther” patrons. This was not intentional. What explains then the overwhelming sympathy that black audiences developed for Killmonger and his project? It means that despite the best attempts of “Black Panther” to demonize black liberation struggle, black folks’ hunger to actualize self-determination and liberate themselves from the yokes of racial and class oppression could not be easily supplanted. Killmonger spoke to this ravenous appetite in palpable ways despite being a disaster of a character that resembled some Tarantinoesque mash-up of Tupac, Eldridge Cleaver and Django in the hands of Coogler. How do we now seize upon this moment where black folks are discussing the meaning and merits of what constitute black revolutionary politics like I have never before seen?
  3. In our haste to highlight the reactionary politics of this film, we must not dismiss or trivialize why “Black Panther” positively resonates with so many working-class black folks. It would serve us well to understand this movie’s cultural gravitational pull and what ideological suppositions enable such a forceful attraction. Discounting the importance of this task at best reflects our inability to recognize the material forces that give rise to such backwards ideological expressions and outlooks. At worst, it paints us as vulgar class reductionists and demonstrates a refusal to see or care how the culture industry perpetually produces and updates an atmosphere of anti-blackness that black folks are terrorized and traumatized by and must struggle against. In either scenario, neither our theoretical incompetence nor our political callousness will enable us to advance compelling and persuasive arguments that can win working class blacks over to more revolutionary politics and praxis. The desire to see one’s self in positive and affirming ways is healthy. To tightly embrace such representations when they come packaged in counter-revolutionary politics that work to preserve status quo power relations and inequality is not healthy. How do we effectively intervene to confront reactionary cultural production that satisfies an immediate and legitimate need for representation?
  4. To bring us full circle back to Mao, “There is no such thing as art for art’s sake… Proletarian literature and art are part of the whole proletarian revolutionary cause; they are, as Lenin said, cogs and wheels in the whole revolutionary machine.” With that said, I ask what type of work are we doing to develop a cadre of revolutionary cultural workers that can espouse our politics and analysis in compelling, riveting and engaging ways? Are we equipping our members with the tools to perform cogent leftist analysis of popular cultural production as pop culture is a fertile, real-time site to discuss ideology, power relations and alternate possibilities for the world we can struggle to transform and create?   

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