What follows is a guest post by James B. Haile (University of Rhode Island).
Critical responses to Marvel’s first black super hero movie have been quick, varied and numerous, ranging from the significance of an all-black cast for filmic representation (here and here), to the veneration of its depiction of strong, intelligent dark-skinned black women with natural hair as central and heroic characters (here and here), to the critique of the film for pursuing a cosmopolitan vision of “Africa” at the expense of both Africans themselves and for African Americans (here and here), to critiques of the film for promoting the ameliorative agenda of integrationist hopefulness of neo-liberalism dressed in “black excellence,” standing shoulder-to-shoulder with hegemonic power, eschewing pan-Africanist sentiments (here, here and here). And though on the surface these approaches appear diverse, they have, for the most part, a common or central focus that limits their analysis. That is, what unites these ideas is the ever-present and looming undercurrent of our contemporary social, political, and aesthetic history—individualism. Our nation is grounded in the importance of the individual both politically (we can look at the “one man, one vote” idea as central to our political system) and socially (the idea of democracy is so fundamentally rooted in the importance of the individual that no other social or political organization is given merit). But this idea is also significant aesthetically in that it grounds how we interpret, that is, think about and represent ourselves and our world socially and politically (one can think of the aesthetic quality of the voting booth as akin to the confessional booth). It is unsurprising, then, that our films also replicate individualism. This is nowhere more evident than in the recent explosion of superhero movies, highlighting the force of the great individual to impose social, political, and moral values onto the world through a very particular aesthetics—e.g., the aesthetics of Superman’s iconic red cape fluttering behind his floating body captures the idea of an all-seeing sense of justice; Batman’s highly stylized black suit replete with a black and gold utility belt gives the sense that any and every one could be the enforcer of a moral code greater than the law itself; and Black Panther’s all-black suit that gives the impression of how future technological innovation could be merged with the natural world without damaging our planet. Yet, each of these characters are individuals who come to represent larger social and political ideals rather than social collectives. It is, then, no surprise that individualism not only shaped the storyline and how Black Panther depicted its central characters and plot line, but also how it was received by the public.
As such, this filmic aesthetic analysis of Black Panther locates its “African/blackness” in the individual/individuating phenomenon of the characters themselves. (See the end of this essay for a note on the use of quotation marks.) The individual characters of T’Challa, Okoye, Nakia, and Shuri, for examples, represent the dignified king, the warrior, the sympathizer, and the genius respectively. Despite the boundary pushing elements of the film, it has largely been interpreted as “black” and/or “African” because of how the characters in the film appear—they are, save for two white characters, phenotypically dark. And, while the clothing and language present in the film have also been credited for how the film has been received, the social, political, and aesthetic influence of individualism has largely been the portal/lens through which the film has been viewed—the characters, as individuals, are “black”; therefore, the film is “black”. What we are left to answer has to do with how “blackness” and/or “Africa” are depicted in the film through individual characters, and the limitation in depicting “blackness” and/or “Africa” through individual representations of it. The difficulty with addressing “blackness” and/or “Africa” in Black Panther, then, is multiple.
Yet, like the obvious hiddenness of “Wakanda” behind a virtual cloaking device, this reading of Black Panther obscures the significance of the landscapes itself for the narrative telling of the “African/blackness” of the film. The subtle features of the film that could be highlighted as “black” and/or “African” are less tied to the individuation of particular characters, and more to the technological, political and cultural sophistication of its ecological vision. An ecological reading of the film, I will argue, offers a more substantive interpretation of the “blackness” and/or “Africanness” of Black Panther.
How do we theorize this “blackness”? This is the question of the film, the question of the “blackness” and/or “Africanness,” and the question of the “Afrofuture”.
Towards an Ecological Blackness
One of the reasons that we usually do not think of “blackness” or “Africanness” when discussing ecology is because we have generally understood the natural world to be a space of hostility, alienation and exploitation—this is why one usually thinks of the current water poisoning crisis in Flint, Michigan, of Hurricane Katrina, or of the 1992 drought in Somali that led to famine and those infamous photographs of starving African children rather than Matthew Henson, who explored the North Pole as early as 1909. Black Panther, though, introduces us to a relationship between “blackness” and/or “Africanness” and the natural world other than environmental racism. This is a really important contribution, because it challenges us to rethink “blackness” and/or “Africa” as well as how we think about the natural world.
In his essay, “Black Ecology and the Alleged Wisdom of the Wilderness,” Levi R. Bryant argues for a concept of Nature that “recognizes only relation” rather than “narratives about the special Wisdom of Nature, in a ridiculous belief in the homeostatic essence of Nature.” For Bryant, Nature is dynamic rather than fixed and static; the “black” in “black ecology,” for Bryant, references not so much “race” or the history of racialization, but the “dark and tangled reality … full of objects, flows, agencies, complexes and differential powers.” In other words, “black ecology” is the “totality of distributed beings and the possibility spaces between them.”
And, it is here, with this notion of “blackness” and “black ecology” that we can begin to think about the “African/blackness” of Black Panther. In the opening scene of the film, a young boy (who we later come to know as N’Jadaka or Erik Killmonger) asks his father (T’Challa’s uncle, N’Jobu) to tell him “the story of home,” the story of “Wakanda,” to which his father replies, “millions of years ago, a meteorite made of vibranium…struck the continent of Africa affecting the plant life around it. And, when the time of men came, five tribes settled on it and called it, Wakanda.” After being struck with vibranium, we learn that the Earth has been “affected,” changed, and that everything emerging from it, too, has been altered. It is in this change that it provided new possibilities for “objects, flows, agencies, complexes” to become and exist in many different and unpredictable forms and states—for example, it is the unpredictably of the natural world that generated the “heart-shaped herb” that the “warrior” ingested to give him “super human strength, speed, and instincts” making him the “Black Panther,” the first king and defender of Wakanda.
While Bryant was not actually talking about “race” or “Africa/blackness” as it is traditionally understood, it is, nonetheless, important for our discussion. Shifting the conversation of “blackness” and/or “Africa” and its relationship to the natural world, though, highlights the irony in the conversation itself. Just as we are constantly in search of a stable, unchanging “natural world,” for exploitation and to judge our own progress against, we are also in search of a stable, unchanging definition of “blackness” and/or “Africa” to exploit and judge our humanity against. The irony of Black Panther is that it referred to as a “third world nation,” and it is this fixed and stable idea of “Africa” as impoverished that allowed “Wakanda” to hide, under the shield of the social imagination of “Africa” as permanently “third world”. In other words, “Wakanda” hides its “blackness” and/or “Africanness”—that is, a constantly evolving place where the natural and technological merge with the cultural to create an alternate present—under the guise of an accepted idea of “blackness” and/or “Africanness”—that is, the idea of social, economic and cultural deprivation.
What this hiddenness reveals is the idea of “home” that N’Jadaka asked his father about in the beginning of the film—a space of self-possession and self-determination outside of external influence. It is significant that it was N’Jadaka that asked about “home,” for it is not only the idea that alluded him, but the physical space itself. From narratives such as Richard Wright’s Black Boy and Isabel Wilkerson’s non-fiction about the Great Migration, The Warmth of Other Suns, we learn that African-Americans were not alienated from the land, but had their lands taken from them, forced to migrate to northern, urban centers in search of work and safety, and that this migration not only had social and political effects, as well as economic effects, but also had aesthetic consequences. In asking the question of “home,” N’Jadaka is asking a political and social identical through the aesthetic of the land. A “black” and/or “African” ecological reading of Black Panther reveals it as an aesthetically informed politics of social identity.
The Golden City, Birnin Zana
In the exhibition “Africa is not a Refugee Camp,” curator Mpho Matsipa set out to reconfigure the “expectations that are set when people go to see exhibitions about Africa.” Rather than experiencing the “narrative of a continent in dire need of developmental aid,” museum goers experience an exhibition that “actively reimagines African cities and presents ideas that touch on themes of migration, architecture, and Afrofuturism … as sites of innovation, rapid transformations, new architectural typologies, infrastructures and technologies” [source]. In reimagining the continent as a place of home rather than a source of alienation, the exhibit allows us to not only understand “Africa” in terms of the “organic interactions between the city’s inhabitants and its spaces,” but it also allows us to think of the continent in terms of technological innovation rather than social and political crisis. The exhibit, set in futuristic dreamscapes, offers the artists and viewing audience space to imagine what and how “African” solutions to “African”—and also the world’s—problems might appear. Some of the images from the exhibit are below:
In the first image, we see contemporary urban design with concrete block buildings in shades of yellows and pinks, and streets congested with cars and people, but we also see buildings and overpasses lined with trees, suggesting that the problem of smog and global warming in the present world is met with innovating designs of naturally informed architecture. (This brings to mind the Liuzhou Forest City in China.) In the second image, we see in the foreground a woman gardening with a modern urban skyline in the background. Between these two images, we see wooden structures reminiscent of traditional South African granaries, striking a balance socially, culturally, and aesthetically between tradition and urbanization. In the exhibit as in Black Panther there is a statement that tradition and modernity are not in competition, and that they can and do exist simultaneously in contemporary and future ideas of “blackness” and “Africa”.
A more detailed accounting of the conceptualization of Wakanda’s capital city, Birnin Zana will help to flesh out how “rapid transformations” and “new architectural typologies” currently exist and how they might futurally exist even in the contemporary world.
Charles Mudede has argued what is most intriguing about Black Panther is the landscape. He writes, “The capital of Wakanda has skyscrapers, a monorail, sidewalks of grass, green buildings, farmers markets, and no cars. The whole idea of private transportation is foreign to this fictional society. And this is what makes the city so unfamiliar. It’s big but has no suburbs… This is a radical urbanism concept indeed. If this black African capital has anything to share with the world, it’s its city planning.” Below is an image of the capital city as theorized by designer Till Norwack.
In one interview, Nowack, the conceptual artist hired by production designer Hannah Beachler to design Wakanda and its capital city Birnin Zana, says he conceptualized the direction of the project as an “Afro-futurist Eden,” of a “hidden African country that had never been colonized.” Till went on to argue that, “it was very important to them [director Ryan Coogler and Hanna Beachler] to incorporate elements from all over Africa while also pushing it into a futuristic, yet undiscovered direction.” The “Africa” and “blackness” of Wakanda and Birnin Zana was of a parallel history, culture, and aesthetics—one in which Wakanda had not been colonized, yet was not located in a distant “African” past. We see in the concept image both an urban cityscape, urban congestion, and the presence of the natural world. Similar to the images from the exhibit, we see signs of traditional culture—most notably, the awnings of a city-market.
Coogler and Beachler began researching Black Panther with extensive trips throughout the African continent to get a better sense of the film, to “create something that felt African in its influences, without seeming strained through the white gaze which relies so often on stereotypes and clichés.” Till continues, “We studied an enormous amount of traditional African buildings, art, and design… Hannah [Beachler] wanted the flowing, repetitive patterns of traditional African textiles to be the inspiration for the city’s footprint, so they became the basis of a curvy street layout and the intertwined layered terraces of the palace.”
In other words, that element of homeness and peace that Killmonger sought and Till, Coogler, and Beacher hoped to capture with Wakanda was not just the power and control over natural resources (i.e., vibranium); the “home” that Killmonger sought and Black Panther captured was a technologically advanced society that still had a sense of its own historical, cultural past, one that had not been infiltrated with Western standards. As such, it is not just that Wakanda had never been conquered—enslaved and/or colonized—that marks its achievement, but that it had a sense of its own existence and identity within a specific territory that made it “home”. In other words, it is this sense of self-defined space and self-understanding within the natural world—expressed in the aesthetics of the city-architecture and planning—that mark the film as subtlety “black” and revolutionary. A more detailed image of “Birnin Zana,” here, is helpful.
In the image above, we get an idea of the everyday life of Wakanda. We see up-close the integration of traditional customs and folk life with technological innovation, and how this insight might give a different perspective of what constitutes the “blackness” or “Africanness” of Black Panther. For examples, under closer inspection, one sees a “trotro”-like vehicle running through the center of the city. A “tro-tro” is a vehicle traditionally used by a majority of African populations throughout the continent. It is largely a cheap mode of transportation involving a van or similar vehicle that has been gutted to add additional seating, usually the two to three rows of a traditional van have been adjusted to make room for usually five to six rows. Alongside the “tro-tro” are woven baskets, informing us that even with technological development, the technology of traditional customs still has a place within people’s lives. These are important elements for the film because they signal to the audience that “tro-tros” and woven baskets do not exist within traditional culture because they are inexpensive, but because they are a part of the culture of the countries themselves, and not a mark of poverty. In shaping the “background” of the city, Nowack, Coogler, and Beachler were actually constructing the main metaphor of the film itself—the relationship between the natural and technological environments and the social, political and economic aspects of the people themselves.
In his novel, In the Castle of My Skin, George Lamming writes of the central role the landscape of his village has for the narrative telling of a people. Lamming writes, “The book is crowded with names and people, and although each character is accorded a most vivid presence and force of personality, we are rarely concerned with the prolonged exploration of an individual consciousness. It is the collective human substance of the Village itself which commands our attention. The Village, you might say, is the central character” (xxxvi). In other words, instead of viewing T’Challa, Okoye, Nakia, and Shuri as expressions of “Africa/blackness” in their visual representation, we should look at their individual presentation/representation as much a misdirection as our contemporary views of “blackness” and/or “Africa”. These ideas do not illuminate as much as they hide the function of the city itself—its the architecture, the technology, etc.. The city operates as the exchange between human beings and the natural world, giving a material expression to the idea of “home”. An ecological reading reveals this.
Note: “Blackness”/”Africanness”/”race” in quotation is meant to refer to an historical group of people referred to as “black”/”African”/”raced” and understood largely in terms of enslavement, colonialism, and neocolonialism; while, blackness/Africa without the quotation is meant to refer to the existential and aesthetic expression of those persons deemed “black,” and is understood largely in terms of human relationships to space and place, in particular geography and the natural world. The complexity of the film, Black Panther, is that we have a human population that is deemed “black,” even though they were never part of the “blackness” that is defined by historical facts attached to “blackness,” and all-the-while exhibits the existential and aesthetic elements of a black cultural population. The significance of the distinction between “blackness” and blackness is that while the former points to significant historical events that have shaped the development of the modern world, it largely cannot and does not account for the specific expressions emergent due not to transatlantic enslavement, internal enslavement, colonialism or neo-colonialism, but rather to how these populations in the New World adapted differently to the specificities of weather patterns, natural/environmental changes, differential geographies and unique modes of self and the world articulation/interpretations that developed therein.
Notes on the Contributor
James B. Haile is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at University of Rhode Island. He specializes in Africana philosophy, philosophy and literature, philosophy of art and continental philosophy. He has published an edited collection on Richard Wright, Philosophical Meditations on Richard Wright and is currently completing an edited volume on James Baldwin and a text on black male literary studies.