The last straw was Rolling Stone’s “The Black Panther Revolution … Making of a Radical Superhero” headline splashed across its cover with an iconic warrior-god photo of Black Panther film star Chadwick Boseman.
“Radical?” Not even close. Let alone “revolutionary,” as trumpeted by the headline accompanying the story.
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Call Black Panther’s gorgeously overwhelming vision of Black global genius and moral leadership just about any visionary thing you want, but don’t even think of calling this movie “radical” or “revolutionary.” Those terms are reserved for acts and ideas that attack and refute the foundational power of a given era. Today’s era is one of corporations becoming nations, with corporate financing of political campaigns in the US defining national policy on every important human issue, from health care to climate survival, in flagrant defiance of the public will.
There are times when confusing the institutionally defined with the societally possible is an especially lethal error. The Trump era is one of them. With a ruthless grifter channeling centuries of US white supremacy through the White House in a desperate final appeal to whiteness in a Browned nation and world, we simply don’t have time for the effusive patter of well-meaning, corporate-leashed cultural critics, of all colors and backgrounds, who wouldn’t know a structurally revolutionary concept if it burned down their block. The normalization of the ethic of US corporate inevitability is now both complete and humanly useless.
Which is why what Black Panther colossally fails to deliver is something it is unrealistic to ask of any corporate Hollywood blockbuster — particularly a blockbuster that was constricted by both the Marvel formula and by corporate money, but somehow still managed to inspiringly break through some megaplex-movie precedents.
Black Panther creates a momentous sensory experience of Black technological superiority, intellectual prodigiousness and social virtue. Black Panther manifests physically, in a vocabulary that no deductively functional US moviegoer can misunderstand, what the Black presence means for the possibilities of the world. Even some who cared so little for Black people as to vote for Donald Trump will see this film and “feel” it. Black Panther raises the mainstream movie standard by which popular culture can rebut the impotent-Black-protesters narrative and inspire a new generation of Black children with a vivid everyday understanding of who, as the film asks, they actually are.
And that leads to the problem: Despite its feats, Black Panther, by its nature as a corporate creation, is required to sidestep a massive opportunity to bring a genuinely progressive Black narrative to a wide audience at the very moment when Americans of all colors desperately need a compelling alternative to the competing corporate-friendly scripts of racist populism and patiently indulgent liberal hope.
The soul-killing fault of Black Panther is that it dodges and demonizes a truly winning narrative for defeating what ails Black people in the US, global people of color and, in fact, non-rich people as a whole. (Spoiler alert: if you have not yet seen the film, you may want to do that before reading what follows.)
Black Panther provides the brilliantly executed plot setup of an enlightened Black civilization poised to liberate the world through technology and egalitarian values. But the film then manufactures an obscenely false choice: We can side with the protagonist — a well-meaning ruler in the Obama mold of eliciting more kindness and generosity from those who already structurally control the world’s resources — or we can side with the film’s challenger, a caricature of oppressed people’s anger who is determined to do unto the world’s white people what they have done unto people of color. Left on the cutting room floor, though, is the scenario whereby the potential leader is a passionate fighter for forcibly expropriating the corporate rulers and empowering, instead, through enlightened technology and humanism, people of color around the globe.
Leslie Lee has pointed out how the rage of Black Panther’s movie villain, Erik Killmonger, conveniently embraces corporate rule. But the crucial and betraying element is that Killmonger does so through the deviously corporate-friendly agenda of racial hate. Through his character’s race hatred, the movie’s script limits us to an easily dismissible agenda of global revolt: Kill all the white people. And that’s the real problem: In movie script meetings underwritten by corporate subsidiaries who think the current patterns of global resource ownership are ok, we will never get a serious challenge to that underlying economic point of view. The supreme irony is that, while Black Panther transparently and correctly ridicules the Trump agenda of wicked divisiveness, the film caricatures a Black version of the same mentality as the only alternative to continued corporate rule.
We — the world’s vast majority across racial lines — do not have to agree. Imagine, instead, a Black Panther movie where, as the drama comes to its thrilling climax, the ultimate hero is a Black ruler who stands tall on the global stage and proclaims to the world, through his or her ordeal of ultimate triumph, “We peoples of the world are not one another’s enemies. Our enemies are the global corporate rulers, and their collaborators in all of our nations, who hack away at the Earth’s riches and squander the future of humanity and all life in the interest of short-term profit. With my culture’s vast resources of technology and learning, I call upon the majority of us on Earth, who are ignored and taken for granted, to rise up, fight for, and reclaim the world for global good instead of private profit.”
Black Panther’s ignoring this path in favor of a capitalistically permissible script did not happen by its makers’ conscious design. It happened by default. It is not a conscious choice by any of those who assemble in a closed, corporate-funded space to frame narratives. It is an unconscious given, an automatic limitation of options brought to the table by those who are allowed into the room.
That is what is fatally missing from Black Panther, and from much of the film’s corporate media adulation. The fact that we do not see this pointed out in Rolling Stone and other major media should tell you something. It does not diminish this film’s greatness as a catapult for inspiring kids who look upward for, literally, superheroes. It merely makes Black Panther yet another vessel limited by the powers of its bearers.