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. Continue reading