Wakanda First: some thoughts on watching "Black Panther" March 6, 2018

I understand filmmakers didn’t make this one for me. Maybe I should probably just let others have their fun. Permit viewers to decide what significance the movie had for them. My European ancestry in particular might disqualify me from saying very much.  From the huge numbers who saw this film, I assume people delighted at the fantasy of power and accomplishment of the imagined African people of Wakanda.

But popular culture holds up a mirror to our country. The film’s popularity reflects what our society thinks and feels. Even odd ducks such as myself, a Vietnam War draft-resisting old geezer, might ask what the film reveals about our depiction of warriors and war machinery.

Black Panther seeks to evoke the excitement of those engaged in deadly combat and celebrate their prowess. We might thus place it alongside The Iliad, Beowulf, Star Wars and other contemporary accounts of heroes and battles. We delight in these tales, told around the hearth, the mead-hall, now the multiplex. Even American pacifist A.J. Muste relates how Civil War vets thrilled him as a youngster with their war stories.

Yet all those interred at Antietam, Verdun, Omaha Beach, Khe Sanh and Anbar Province, and the millions of civilians slaughtered, raped, and driven from their homes when armies let loose their terrible swift sword, demand we examine a popular portrayal of war-making. The sacrifice and suffering of actual people indicate how deeply war imbeds itself in human consciousness. Before we again send our loved ones to die, or kill other loved ones, before explosives from the air tear apart bodies and houses, we ought to inquire how our imaginative portrayals provide the psychic landscape for war.

Others who profess to have enjoyed this movie immensely seem able to compartmentalize the story’s science fiction aspects. That Wakanda possesses superior war-fighting and medical science strikes these viewers as quite cool, even wondrous. They regard the magical aspects of this imagined country as comeuppance to those who consider Africans incapable of such advanced technology. But such viewers then seem to leave it at that.

But let’s say this fantasy world existed. How are we to regard that some African people possessed an ability to ward off the ravages of colonialism, could have driven from the continent the British, the French, the German militaries, and didn’t do so? Could have crushed apartheid, Idi Amin, Joseph Kony, or the other home-grown butchers like Hutu Power, but instead hid their immense power? Wakanda’s little medicine balls might have prevented the vast spread of AIDS on their continent. Millions of Africans who have perished from malaria, typhus, and cholera might have lived long lives.

Wakanda becomes thus a metaphor for America’s response to African history.  Our country had the ability, both militarily and technologically, to accomplish many, if not most, of those good things for Africa listed above, but did not. Those fighting Hutu Power’s genocide in Rwanda begged President Clinton to bomb the single radio station broadcasting the directions to kill the Tutsi people. He was too busy fighting off impeachment to take notice. Clinton later apologized to the Rwandan survivors. (But who prevented his wife from winning her own election? I say the ghosts of all those who refused to accept his apology.) How are we to connect to this fantasy African country whose self-absorption reflects our own?

While many of us may be grieving the current fruits of our democracy at the national level, our country’s founders intended above all to ensure a clear line of succession. Wakanda’s civil war divided the people between those forces loyal to the deposed king, T’Chalia, and those who upheld as within their rules the successful challenge to the king’s power by the Oakland cousin Erik Killmonger.  Wakanda didn’t have courts or constitution where they might have settled the dispute. All they could do was kill each other, until those left standing could declare they were the political power. The 20th Century political philosopher Isaiah Berlin offers that the advantage of democracy lies in its potential to make politics less murderous. Does the film seek to harken us back to the War of the Roses? Democracy, despite its evident shortcomings, seems vastly preferable to a hereditary monarchy, yet we’re supposed to celebrate how advanced Wakanda society is?

Killmonger, in his brief hold on political power, attempted to implement a policy dreamed of by fighters against oppression at least since Nat Turner led his rebellion, if not 18th Century Irish rebels or the indigenous peoples of the Americas.  Killmonger wished to arm the wretched of the earth with Wakanda’s superior weapons. That may have led to more bloodshed and misery, but it is hard to blame those subjugated because they didn’t have an adequate military to defend themselves. Palestinians, Syrian rebels, Rohingya, even African-American young men in Ferguson, Missouri might view Killmonger’s efforts far differently than most American audiences. We may wish for a peaceful method of wealth transfer to those in want. After all, we already live in Wakanda.

How are we to understand the CIA agent, who prevents the Wakandan weapons from leaving by shooting down the transport planes? Particularly in light of another film, Charlie Wilson’s War, where we see that it was the CIA that armed the Afghan rebels against the Soviets? Our country helps out those who fight our enemies, but certainly not those who oppose those the US supports. An alliance between the CIA and Wakanda reflects a desire to support the existing structures of power.  

How should we understand Killmonger’s demise at the hands of the restored monarch? The dying man says he prefers not to live in prison. Why was that the only option for a defeated challenger to the throne? Was Killmonger hearing the chants of “lock her up?” Couldn’t the king have articulated something about “binding up our nation’s wounds?” Couldn’t there be some tasks he might be convinced to do, in the now-awakened Wakanda, or in Oakland, or Chicago or Baltimore? Or even help dispense little balls to revive Michael Brown, and all the others? By the end, Wakandan foreign policy seems to echo the Gates Foundation. To go from utopia to mere American philanthropic practice serves to protect the established order. Buying an apartment building or two in Oakland really won’t do much to solve the severe housing shortage for poor people of color in the Bay Area.

While there might be some point to seeing women armed to the teeth, the film doesn’t show them being very effective fighters. They win a few bouts with their adversaries. But mostly the men overcome them. Killmonger takes on a bevy of the female palace guard and sends them flying through the air. The civil war battle ends with the other male-dominated Wakandan tribe, that had initially refused to be part of the battle of succession, imposing a cease fire. By the time of the charge of the rhino, stopped by the angry wife, the battle is over. A woman may walk us through the technology lab. She demonstrates the terrific battle armor. Is she the scientist or the communications director? It was the Wakandan men who were in charge of making the decisions throughout the ages, as shown by the brief scene of T’Chalia’s father and male ancestors. The women, even the soldiers, had beautiful costumes, befitting their status as ornamentation not as equals.

Vibranium, that magical substance found deep in the Wakandan earth, produces uniquely powerful guns and armor. Weapons makers around the world desired this substance. Most American viewers have lost sight of how delighted Truman and American warmakers were, when they understood they, and they alone in 1945, possessed a single bomb that could destroy one city. We’ve seen this movie before.

Isn’t this film a recruitment film for boys and girls to imagine being part of a military power? Isn’t it a recruitment tool for the US Armed Forces?

Black Panther thus emerges as a conservative film. It upholds patriarchy, tribe, monarchy, Wakanda First. It glorifies war. The warriors fought as they always have, for territory, for political power, for their vision of what their government ought to do. Black Panther celebrates the Masters of War. Portraying all that in a movie isn’t going to help us figure out how to get along in a post-tribal world.