Salim Washington’s Thoughts after viewing the film Black Panther

Black Panther, riffing on the flick.

The social media commentary has been so interesting and in some cases brilliant, I had decided not to add my $0.02. After all there are many who are better equipped to do so for many reasons (I haven’t even read the comic books yet). But the challenge of my friend and mentor, Peter Hardie, in particular, but others as well (Gwen Ansell, Ayanda Tshazi) makes me decide to give it a whirl. this might be a little bit long, so forgive me if it is. just riffing, you dig. i wanna know what you think.

The resonance with the historical Black Panther Party is of course deliberate–both the one that was organized to register black voters in murderous Mississippi (Mississippi Goddamn!) and the later one organized to feed and teach the black community and to protect it against police brutality. Both organizations were declared the enemies of racist America and suffered homicidal reprisals throughout the land. The movie does not reference the historical Black Panthers, except that Kilmonger is from the Oakland ghetto. Those who thought the movie would be about the revolutionary agenda of the Black Panthers will necessarily be disappointed. But if we look at the film for what it is I see a complex work, constrained by genre and other concerns, but definitely at the very least interesting and at the most fun. But now also we should add important.

A work of art can exists on three levels, the poesic or level of authorial intent, but then there is also the textual level, what is actually there, and equally important is the reception level. I am a jazz musician, and as such I regularly collaborate with other improvisers AND with audiences. Some of you know my upbringing in the black Pentecostal church and the ways in which it informs my epistemology with respect to music. Put simply, the interaction and reception of black people around the world adds to the meaning and fact of this film. Even the most ” more revolutionary than though” type of cat has to admit this i think. For me it was revealing to watch the film among mostly isiZulu speakers in eThekwini. As in African America, Zulu speakers will talk back to the film and will also answer each other’s quips.

A practice that adds a layer to the screening experience. The reaction to the word “colonizer” for instance was so robust I could not hear the next minute of dialogue. Another instance involved comments being made about the ancestral realm and the characters’ access to it inflected through the Durban situation of city dwellers needing their family homes to access enthakini. So even before analyzing the text of the film, the reception already tells us that we are having a public conversation/demonstration of our pride in ourselves, our need to envision ourselves as beautiful, cool, powerful, wise and visionary. Our need to celebrate the genius and courage of our women in particular.

And so on and so forth. The actual celebration raised the screening to a cultural event. At some point there is the question of the revolutionary efficacy of black pleasure, especially of this kind. After all, when i think of the iconic power of Fannie Lou Hamer saying “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired” (along with her steadfast courage and integrity of course) and Huey Newton’s “Off the pigs” I am confronted with the role of symbolic actions and words as part of the struggle. For now the Wakandan salute is almost like raising the fist was back in the day (ok, an exaggeration, but…).

Here is a film that is gorgeous in its production values and so meticulously Pan African. Its nice that African Americans are presented as part of the Diasporic reality. But the tropes of the rude, culturally-challenged, bastard children consumed with “attitude” and anger are applied rather thoughtlessly and while I recognize those aspects of our cultural reality, African Americans do have good attributes as well and we have contributed mightily to Pan Africanism as well. of course Killmonger (dig the name) wants to continue this contribution, but he is demonstrably reckless and a part of you want him to succeed and a part is afraid of the potential harm that one can forsee without great imaginative powers.

here is a film in which Africa is in the present and future not as primitives, weak conquered souls still squandering their riches to their (ex) colonizers, but as modern actors in science and politics, while firmly respecting the African perspectives on the Ancestors, and other philosophical and cultural aspects.

Its also nice and important to see the feminist vision of the text. Wakanda is a world in which women are by turns, fierce, playful, intelligent, courageous, and ethical. And let’s not forget powerful.

Where we run into problems is that the thug like nature of Kilmonger is too uncomfortably close to the thug like elements reputed among the historical Black Panthers (I know we not supposed to speak on that, but again…) without showing the parts of the social analysis that was well thought out and internationalist in its scope. That the antagonist was black doesn’t bother me as much as it does some commentators–don’t think we are going to march to freedom without confronting one another. the historical record speaks volumes on this as well. That the underdeveloped character is killed before we can mine the depths of his potential, that the family is not able to overcome the problems represented within, is perhaps the most damning flaw of the movie. Its then that the almost obligatory Pax Americana of the super hero genre (and other sci fi genres like the space opera, for instance) rears its ugly head. To have the CIA represented as friendly to black people and to Wakanda in particular is patently absurd. Geez.
Likewise the UN as the site of justice seeking.

Look, I like the underlying drama of the enslavement of African Americans, the role of Africans ourselves in this holocost, and the social death of the descendants of slavery (to use Orlando Patterson’s phrase) are all things we need to talk a lot more about. We are not really having that conversation yet, and there is a lot of shit talking back and forth on these issues. yes, I see the film as participating in that shit talking (African Americans are hooligans, continental born Africans don’t care about Af Am, etc.)

The movie within the strictures of its genre expectations tries to at least give a nod to these dilemmas even if its solution was the worst one possible. And here is where the reception of an artistic work is so valuable. Nobody seems to accept that ending as ok. Abantu have reworked the meaning of this film away from anything that Stan Lee and company envisaged. For many of us Wakanda is not the province of royal entitlement, and Kilmonger is not the spoiled brat of the West. Rather they are the embodiment of what is possible. We can be beautifully powerful and morally upright, fight our oppressors and WIN.

Dr Salim Washington (c)

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