February 28, 2018

on Black Panther's meek undertone

One of my guilty pleasures is anything produced by Marvel Studios, and so when Black Panther came out, I made sure to see it right away. It was arguably one of the best films Marvel has produced, and I’m very happy to see it continue to shatter box-office records. There is much more positive to say than there is negative.

With that said, there is one unimaginative aspect of the film I wish to zero in on, and then draw attention to its wider implications. The film is wildly popular and so I’m not under any impression that this post will win me cool points, but I’ve been meaning to get this out of me for a while now.

Spoiler alert: I completely ruin the movie below. You have been warned.

For those of you still reading, but haven’t seen the film and don’t care to (you really should reconsider this!), here’s a quick summary: King T’Challa leads an incredibly technologically-advanced society in Africa named Wakanda. Far beyond any earthly civilization, Wakanda has hidden itself from the world through the use of cloaking. The King of Wakanda defends his land as the Black Panther, endowed with Wakandan technology and superhuman strength and reactions (thanks to a special herb taken only by the reigning King). His half-Wakandan cousin—known by the moniker of Killmonger from his army days—grew up outside of Wakanda. (Killmonger’s father was a Wakandan spy stationed abroad who committed treason and was killed for it). Killmonger, his father taken away from him, grows up fatherless in the ghetto, vowing revenge. He returns to Wakanda, seizes the throne from T’Challa in a duel, and lays in motion a plan to use Wakandan weaponry to arm the black people of the world to rise up. He blames T’Challa and his father, the previous king, for being selfish and cowardly. Wakandans live in luxury in a hidden paradise, while black people around the world are getting stomped on. T’Challa defeats him and the day is saved. Fin.

In a nutshell, Black Panther’s ending sends a clear political message: Yes, injustice and evil is real, but the existing power structure should not be replaced, because doing so would inevitably involve unconscionable levels of violence. Rather than revolt, we must realize that we share this planet, and must work together and pool our resources to fight shared threats. This on its face seems banal enough.

Let me make a few things clear. Killmonger’s strategy—arming the black people of the world with Wakandan technology to take over by force—is the equivalent of terrorism. I’m not saying Killmonger was right or that he shouldn’t have been stopped. He definitely should be stopped. My issue is that the movie sets up a false dichotomy. The subaltern is stuck between an ISIS-style ends-justify-means brutality strategy to shake off their oppressors and another approach which has the oppressed reconceiving themselves not as downtrodden, but rather a part of a “global” community with whom cooperation is the only way forward—past and present grievances be damned.

But are these the only two options? I don’t believe that at all. And given that, I wish the movie was more bravely radical. Surely, there could have been some way to bring a sense of justice to the real systemic wrongs that Killmonger had been subject to his whole life as a black American.

Is there a “third way”? As a non-white American Muslim that is also subject to a degree of discrimination in society, this got me thinking about the Prophetic example. For me, one of the most incredible aspects of the Prophet Muhammad’s ﷺ life was near the end, when he re-enters the town of his birth, Mecca, with over 10,000 followers. Mecca’s townsfolk had exiled and gone to war against him and his nascent community for years. Unable to mount a defense, the Prophet ﷺ enters Mecca with very few casualties inflicted out of self-defense (two Muslims, 12 polytheists).1 Upon taking the city, three additional men and two women were also put to death for war crimes.2 Mecca is thus conquered effectively peacefully; it was easily within the Prophet’s ﷺ power to make the streets run red with blood for decades of oppression, war, defilement, and more. Instead, he occupies the town, assumes power, and the first thing he does is shatter the idols of Arab polytheism housed in the holy sanctuary of the Ka’ba— effectively destroying the previous rulers’ symbological order, the source of their economic strength and political legitimacy. In so doing, he also grants a general amnesty to all, breaking the cycle of violence. But there is no question in anyone’s mind as to who the new sharīf in town is.

Don’t ask me how this critique could have fit into the Black Panther’s story arc. But it would have been cool, funny, and, above all, cathartic to see a less bloodlust-driven Killmonger peacefully annex some place like Orania and start a breakaway empire. Or maybe shatter Cecil Rhodes’s statue and replace it with a 500 foot tall Vibranium panther. Whatever.

Part of Black Panther’s appeal was that it gave its viewers an image of the world where non-whites were not simply equal to whites, but actually superior in pretty much every way—technologically, scientifically, militarily, everything. The movie thus expanded the horizon of what is possible in the imagination of all those watching, especially for those of African background. For that, it should be thunderously applauded.

Yet in one critical and telling aspect—that of actually instituting a brave new order, however uncomfortably necessary it may be—it fell short. And while I readily admit that I am neither black nor an expert on Afro-futurism, I couldn’t help but see in all this a sort of meek undertone. Overall, this is a minor point, especially in relation to the regular dumpster fire of stereotypical nonsense coming out of Hollywood. But if Black Panther taught us anything, it’s that dreaming big and dreaming rebelliously matters. A small point of reflection as we all breathlessly wait for the sequel.

  1. See A.I. Akram, Khalid bin Waleed: Sword of Allah

  2. Ibid. 

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