Bottom Rail On Top This Time:
Politics, Myth, Culture, and Afro-Fantacism
in Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther
As Walter Mosley observes in his essay “Black to the Future,” the genre(s) of science fiction/fantasy neé Afro-futurism speak clearly to the dissatisfied through their power to imagine the first step in changing the world:
Black people have been cut off from their African ancestry by the scythe of slavery and from an American heritage by being excluded from history. For us, science fiction offers an alternative where that which deviates from the norm is the norm.
As such, African-descended people have long understood and utilized the power of narrative to generate the images and ideas that will spark the liberatory imaginings of the sufferers. Particularly in the realms of the fantastic have characters, scenarios, and worlds been constructed to expose the truths of the world as it is and reveal the possibilities of worlds that could be. The figures of Anansi, Brer Rabbit, Nanny of the Maroons (who, though a historical figure, has risen to mythic proportions), John Henry, Shine, and many other figures casting spells thru the genres of proverbs, folklore, folk tales, song, short story, novel, graphic literature and movies have served as prompts to address the spoken and unspoken realities of their respective times and communities. The Ryan Coogler-directed addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Black Panther steps momentously into this tradition.
The Marvel Comics character Black Panther is the creation of legendary Marvel artist and writer Jack Kirby. In 1966, Kirby and Marvel founder Stan Lee, in an intuitive bit of corporate multi-culturalism, created the fictional African nation of Wakanda, ruled by the Black Panther. Though it bears an ambiguous relationship to politics — the expanding demographics of their audience (Black children like comic books too) and the growing list of African countries winning their freedom from European colonialism — Kirby and Lee’s use of the panther as a symbol was timely. Despite being seen by Lee as a “strange coincidence,” it arrived in between the use of the Black Panther as a symbol by the Lowndes County Freedom Party, Alabama (1963-64) and the creation of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale (1966). T’Challa of Wakanda, dressed in the ceremonial garb of Wakanda’s spiritual totem as the Black Panther, made his first appearance in The Fantastic Four #52, “The Black Panther.” This character, though created in the spirit of the Black (Negro) American movement’s transition into mainstream cultural consciousness, served as a relatively peripheral character in the Marvel Universe. This continued despite efforts to maintain regular monthly issues with such titles as Jungle Action (1974-1976) and the Kirby-helmed Black Panther (1977-1979), the latter of which became the title for various volumes produced since. During this time, under the auspices of writer Don McGregor, the character himself evolved beyond an exotic marginal figure and member of the Avengers, and was instilled with a level of dignity and gravitas. Building on this foundation, later African-American writers Christopher Priest (Vol. 3), Reginald Hudlin (Vol. 4), and presently Ta-Nehisi Coates (Vol.6) added resonant characters, situations, and additions to Black Panther’s world. These additions have reflected contemporary cultural and political circumstances and deepened the character’s connection to Africa and its diaspora. The gradual evolution of the character, along with the aesthetic sensibility of Coates’ Vol. 6 artwork by Brian Stelfreeze, brings us to the Black Panther of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
The central conceit, implicitly and explicitly referenced in the film, is the fact that Wakanda has been free of foreign invasion for the entirety of its history. As Reginald Hudlin writes in his introductions to the issues of Volume 4,
Unfettered by the yoke of colonization, the African warrior nation of Wakanda flourished and became a high tech, resource rich, ecologically sound paradise — one that makes the rest of the world seem primitive by comparison.
This central feature of the Wakandan kingdom and its subject’s stories is as defining a feature of the nation’s existence as its exclusive stores of Vibranium, a rare metal whose properties are the spur for Wakanda’s technological advancement. This fact drives two central features of the movie’s dramatic tension: the scope of its Afro-speculative vision and its importance to the imagination of African diasporic communities.
There are visual features of the film that illustrate the tensions that exist between Wakanda, free of the stain of foreign domination, and the rest of the Africana world. The differences in the landscapes occupied by Wakandans and non-Wakandan Africans provide examples of these differences. The movie opens in Oakland, CA in 1992 in an inner city neighborhood, resplendent with the signs of urban decay: poorly equipped parks, run-down housing, lack of green space, and prison-like enclosures for housing. This stands in sharp contrast to the landscape of Wakanda as three characters return from a mission: T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), and General Okoye (Danai Gurira), Commander of the Dora Milaje, the Royal Guard of Wakanda. The wide, open plains with livestock and joyful villagers, lush green forests, and roaring rivers and falls are signs of land free to develop naturally. A land open for movement, work, or pleasure. The gritty streets of Oakland are the domains of African-descended populations, routed and hemmed into decaying and dying living spaces, alienated from the natural world, whose lives admit of at best circumscribed possibilities. Again contrast the images of Wakanda’s capital, Birnin Zana. Dazzling in its architecture, it is trafficked by clean energy vehicles that float on the air among traditional market vendors. Notably absent are the smoke and fumes ubiquitous to developing world cities. Birnin Zana is a carnival of an African society that embraces the old and new aspects of its national identity. Its high-rise buildings glisten with the glow of futuristic materials, but have been shaped and designed with attention to the nation’s cultural heritage.
This is a different Africa from the one portrayed in the opening scene, where Nakia is retrieved from her infiltration of a Boko Haram-like organization that kidnaps Nigerian women and children. On this midnight ride, guns are brandished by violent kidnappers, driving along unpaved and unlit rural tracks. The look of anger, terror, and fear on the faces of all but the sole Wakandan (Nakia) hint at lives spent in desperate struggle. These contrasting images provide a graphic argument about what contact with the “West” has done to other “African” populations. The African-American community is reduced to struggling in open prison yards not of their making, and the rest of the African continent lies in great literal, moral, and technological darkness. The shining technological array of Wakanda, the resources it puts to use for its population, the internal control that derives from organic and stable leadership, and the assertion of values that unquestionably developed from thousands of uninterrupted years of intellectual, philosophical, and ethical development are all signs of what it could mean if a population could be in control of its destiny.
When T’Challa, Okoye, the Queen Mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett), or any of the film’s “traditionalists” speak of “our” or “we,” they speak in pure theories of identity. Wakanda = Wakanda, and has always been for Wakandans. The sites of African life set in contrast to Wakanda suggest the dangers of infiltration and contamination. Having been robbed of their self-determination by colonizers, these African populations have lost the ability to address their communities’ challenges, establish systems of belief and behavior that benefit these communities, and most importantly (from the perspective of a warrior culture) establish, protect and preserve their nation. If, as El-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz (Malcolm X) asserted, the basis of nationalism is land, then where one lives and the condition of that land speak to the conditions of the people, and to their ability to affect those conditions.
The story — or better, the myth — of Wakanda is a primordial myth of African peoples in the Modern World. According to the obvious villain Ulysses Klaw (Andy Serkis), it’s El Dorado. It unwinds from the most fundamental “What If?” story of Africa and its diaspora: “What if we had been left to our freedom?” This question lies at the back of every creative expression confronting the question of Black life in worlds they did not create. This question is the pulse of the film and it constructs the tension between the protagonist and antagonist, T’Challa and Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan). Klaw’s history with the Kingdom of Wakanda, wherein he stole caches of Vibranium and killed Wakadans to escape, sets him up to be the villain. However, we soon discover that Killmonger is a true antagonist in the literary sense. He is a foil; his actions are most illuminating when read, not as a villain, but as a counterpart to T’Challa.
T’Challa is a Wakandan elite raised to take up the mantle that is the single most definitive representation of the Wakandan people. Heir to thousands of years of history, philosophy, religion, culture, tradition and practice, T’Challa and the Wakandan people have always been in control of their self-image, self-imagining, and interactions with outsiders. Wakandans have agency. They are able to be the “masters of their fates and the captains of their souls.”
Killmonger is the lost son of T’Challa’s Uncle N’Jobu (Sterling K. Brown) and (we presume) an African-American woman. N’Jobu, as a “war dog,” or a Wakandan spy sent to live in and gather intelligence about foreign nations, died before he could return to Wakanda, leaving Killmonger to be raised in and informed by the circumstances of American society as filtered through the African-American experience.
The question “What if we had been left to our freedom?” or more directly the cultural question of who African-Americans would be without the “American,” is addressed in the tension between T’Challa and his American cousin. The story, though framed as a simple, if tragic, family tale, betrays the fundamental question of African-American identity.
At every moment when Wakandans participate in a ceremony, they introduce themselves either by their ethnic identity (“The Border tribe…” or “the River Tribe…”), their patrilineal identity (“I T’Challa, Son of T’Chaka…”), or both (“I M’Baku, of the Jabari people…”). But when Killmonger is introduced to the King’s Council, the ability to assert a known and recognizable identity is called into question. It is not until the River Tribe Elder (Isaach de Bankolé) asks him to state his name in Wakandan that Killmonger introduces himself as “N’Jadaka, son of N’Jobu,” the dead king’s nephew, T’Challa’s cousin, and a member of the Wakandan Royal family.
The larger implication is the diasporic Africans’ loss of a claim to their heritage, a loss that results from the cultural severance of the Middle Passage and the diminishment of familial and cultural knowledge over time. Killmonger is able to answer this question because of his father’s identity, but diasporic Africans are not able to assert their identity or heritage in this manner. This loss of name, identity, and, even deeper, a place in the world of continental African life are indicators of the gulf between those able to exist beyond Western domination and those subject to its contingencies.
The chasm that exists between T’Challa and Killmonger expresses itself both personally and politically. N’Jobu’s time as a war dog exposed him to the tumultuous lives of diasporic Africans, and he is politically radicalized by his sympathy for their relative powerlessness against the forces of oppression. He argues before King T’Chaka, in full view of Public Enemy posters, that if diasporic Africans were to be given access to Wakanda’s resources, they could have the means to challenge the powers that be. They could, in alliance with Wakanda, take over the world for it to be ruled “the right way.” Killmonger re-articulates the idea of a Wakandan Empire when he meets the King’s Council. Accusing Wakanda of hiding in power and safety as “2 billion people that look like us” suffer, Killmonger pursues his father’s plan to arm the “wretched of the earth” with Wakandan weapons and stimulate violent revolution across the Western world.
This radical Pan African Imperial vision confronts the isolationist policies of generations of Wakandan kings, in the face of genocides, including the Maafa (the “terrible occurrence” or “great disaster” in Kiswahili, referring to the Black Holocaust when millions of Africans died during the Middle Passage). It reveals a lack of identification of Wakandans with other African peoples. In fact, after two viewings, I am not sure I hear a single indigenous Wakandan use “Africa” or any other identifying term that signifies a connection to African peoples directly. Openness, when expressed, takes an attenuated form. The Wakandan elite debate whether to share Wakandas advancements with the world, but these ideas are articulated as refugee support, as infrastructural assistance in short aid packages. Some degree of openness is also expressed by W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), who is open to initiating a war of conquest to assert righteous governance over the planet. He, unsurprisingly, rejects refugee intake by saying, “when you bring in refugees, you bring in their problems.”
It is, however, Killmonger’s view of a radical militant conquest that propounds a realpolitik. Trained in CIA black ops and insurgency tactics, he repeats, “I know how they [the oppressor] thinks!” He immediately identifies with a global African community (“our brothers and sisters”) and desires an “eye for eye” historical reordering. “History will start over and this time we will be on top!” he shouts. On his first day as King of Wakanda, we see the visual embodiment of this rhetoric. A close-up, slow-motion, upside-down shot from behind shows Killmonger approaching the throne and slowly rotates until Killmonger is sitting upright, feet perpendicular to the floor. The world will be turned right-side up once Wakandan and African peoples rule it. It is a revolutionary vision, one not far out of line with Pan-Africanists and Nationalists gone by. The only difference is that, this time, under King Erik of Wakanda’s rule, Black cadres have the support of a world superpower with the most advanced weapons technology in existence.
The film offers a nuanced take on this political argument, and it is testament to Coogler’s ability to plumb the rich emotional inner life of his Black male characters, exemplified by his work with Michael B. Jordan in Fruitvale Station (2013) and Creed (2015). T’Challa’s and Killmonger’s views are unavoidably tied up with their own personal narratives.
The scenes of the ritualized ascension to the role of the “Black Panther” show a literal death and rebirth. The winner of the ritual challenge takes the heart-shaped herb in order to visit the ancestral plane and commune with spirits. T’Challa rises in the ancestral plane beneath a beautiful night sky on the African Savannah and at the foot of a tree faces the spirits of Black Panthers past, including T’Chaka, his father. He meets and takes council with T’Chaka’s spirit, receiving encouragement as he becomes the next king.
Killmonger’s spiritual ascent sees him revisit the apartment he and his father shared in Oakland, and the site of his father’s murder by his uncle T’Chaka. He retrieves the diary his father kept, which contains his royal ring, military plans, and reminiscences of home. He is interrupted by his father’s spirit, who suddenly speaks to a now ten-year-old Erik (reflecting his stunted spiritual growth), expressing regret that he never took Erik to their homeland. When N’Jobu asks if there are any tears of grief for him, young Erik simply shakes his head and says, “People die. That’s the way it is around here.”
Whereas T’Challa is able to ascend to an enlightened place and benefit from the wisdom of his predecessor rulers, Killmonger visits a place of trauma, betrayal and psychic pain. This contrast, too, becomes metaphor by gesturing to African diasporic populations trapped in the spiritual stasis of diremption from the parental support of indigenous African cultures. This hurt informs and pervades the consciousness of the diasporans, who are unable to transcend their psychic-spiritual injury, owing partly to incessant wounds delivered by the dominant culture. In the case of Killmonger, this is especially salient. He identifies as one of the wretched of the earth (perhaps his mother’s heritage), as one of those who were trapped in the Atlantic Slave Trade and orphaned in the wilderness of America. Consequently, his politics and policies are those of fire and anger and Old Testament justice. While perhaps justified, this sense of justice renders him out of step with the traditions, beliefs, and rituals of his Wakandan heritage. The Wakandans have not suffered as the rest of Africa and its diaspora have. It is a culture that, though able to maintain its integrity, has not developed a larger vision of itself in the forge of suffering and the alembic of survival.
The spirit of N’Jobu declares that perhaps he and Killmonger are both lost, having chosen a path antithetical to those of N’Jobu’s ancestors. But Killmonger is a son of the West: a student of the streets of Oakland, an Annapolis Naval Academy graduate, and a CIA black operative (“one of us” as the CIA agent, Everette K. Ross (Martin Freeman) says). He understands himself to be something new, terrible, and pained, but clear in his spirit visions. At the climax of their battle, T’Challa argues that Killmonger has absorbed too much of the pain and anger of his oppressors, and has as a result become too much like them. Killmonger maintains that his insight into the psychology and the ways of those that have hunted African peoples will give him the strategic advantage. He implies that it is his very experiences in the West that have taught how to most effectively fight back. His experience in the West, far from undermining the purity of his vision, has taught him many useful lessons.
The dynamics of identity, culture, and political ideology in Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther add to the ongoing examination of these questions within the fantastic literatures of African diasporic creative artists. Despite the seeming absurdity of examining these issues through a fictional African country in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), Black Panther is an important contribution to this conversation. Of course, it hits all of the beats of superhero genere and the corporate model of the MCU:
1) Hero’s origin story
2) Villain challenges hero
3) Hero falls
4) Hero attains moral clarity
5) Hero challenges villain
6) Hero wins.
Ryan Coogler’s vision adds textures and resonance to what could easily be bubble gum entertainment. Black Panther understands itself as existing within the culture and ideological politics of African diasporic history and philosophy. It leverages its position in the pop culture marketplace to have open conversations about the histories of exploitation and alienation endured by African peoples. Though positioned as the villain, Erik Killmonger is not a cardboard cutout but a complex character whose grassroots message of African liberation is as old as the African Diaspora itself. It would have been familiar to figures such as Dessaline of Haiti, David Walker, Nat Turner, and Frantz Fanon. His position is as compelling as the contrasting position of faith, inclusion, and cultural maturity presented by T’Challa. African-descended populations have long struggled with the absence of self-reflective images in popular culture, having only experienced representations of their lives and concerns in the creative expressions of the African diaspora. Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther is a bold step that dares to imagine political and cultural tensions within Africana history as being of world historical import. Which, of course, they are.
Notes on the Contributor
Charles Peterson is Associate Professor of Africana Studies at Oberlin College and writes on film, political theory and fronts a cover band for spiritual nourishment. He is a co-editor of De-Colonizing the Academy: African Diaspora Studies (Africa World Press, 2003) and author of DuBois, Fanon, Cabral: The Margins of Elite Anti-Colonial Leadership (Lexington Books, 2007).