A White Guy Watches “The Black Panther”

Still from “Black Panther.”

+ It’s like a giant armored rhinoceros plowing through the cultural/political tundra trailed by critics — tick birds and scavenging rodents picking at its fleas and nibbling its droppings.

+ The plot: There are the good Africans from advanced civilization possessing superpowers and an advanced technology based on a unique natural resource. They speak with the accents of a Nelson Mandela, not the Mandela of armed struggle, but the secular saint who led a “peaceful” revolution against apartheid (which, incidentally, left most of the economic and class structures of apartheid in place). There is the renegade child of that civilization who has lived in the African Diaspora, whom we encounter in a rundown Oakland apartment complex; he is a corrupted Black man, who (like some ghetto drug dealer hawking killer cocaine in the ghetto) wants to sell off the secret superpowerful African technology and is killed by the good African. He leaves behind a son, who grows up angry, raging against the system, a Black Identity Extremist, the bad Black Panther, who wants to fight an armed struggle on behalf of all oppressed children of Africa spread throughout the planet. Diasporic African slaves brought to this country in chains are represented by a dealer and his angry, violent, revolutionary son. The good African Black Panther wages a battle against him and wins. The good African had wanted to keep the knowledge and resources of his civilization hidden from the world. But after the battle he realizes those resources must be shared and he makes a speech announcing his intention at the United Nations. He says to the world leaders assembled there, that we are all one. The good African Black Panther will bring us all together without rancor.

+ Think of the film as a dream generated for us by the entertainment/industrial complex, a dream we will all dream together for a while, and which requires interpretation. Its content is revealed and concealed at the same time. Each image in a dream may have multiple meanings. Taking into consideration that the film was undoubtedly conceived and largely filmed during the eight years of the Obama presidency, we risk an interpretation using the following equations as guides:

Obama, not quite an American Negro, the good child of Africa, well spoken, supported by a powerful women of whom he is not afraid = The Black Panther.

Michelle = The Wakanda warrior women, powerful and beautiful, without any arm flap.

Obama, always fruitlessly “reaching across the aisle “and at the same time waging war on “terrorists.” = The Black Panther, reaching across the planets political divides at the UN, but only after defeating the proponent of armed struggle and global revolution).

The good Black Panther = Ta-Nehisi Coates

His angry cousin, the bad Black Panther = Cornell West

The bad Black Panther = many candidates (I’m sure the FBI has a list)

Obama’s drone program and his CIA = The really good white CIA guy, who, on behalf of the Black Panther flies a spaceship to shoot down the spaceships of the bad African that are carrying the secret technology to forces wishing to wage struggle.

The equal signs in this case do not signify a one-to-one equivalence. That would be absurd, and is not the way dreams work. They indicate a more hidden connection, a trace, an echo.

+ Just as during the Obama’s eight years Black people enjoyed and took righteous pleasure in seeing a fine Black couple in the White House,  so now Black audience take justified and righteous pleasure in seeing  images of fine Black men and women, heroic and powerful, commanding a blockbuster film. The Obama presidency confounded those who took for granted there would always be a blanket of whiteness on the peaks of power. This film may have a similar cultural significance, confounding those who believed a film by, for, and about Black people could never be a blockbuster. And, just as real pleasure at seeing a cool, beautiful, intelligent Black President allowed some to overlook the just as real betrayal by that Black president of the struggles of African-Americans, so real pleasure at seeing Black power and beauty portrayed on the screen, allows some to overlook the message that good Blacks’ mission is to do battle with angry Blacks hankering for revolution.

+ Once he has defeated the angry Black Panther the good Black Panther decides to abandon the isolation of Afrocentrism, and open up the resources of the continent to a colorblind world, thus freely giving those resources to the colonizers who for centuries stole the gold of Ghana, the diamonds of South Africa.

+ If you go to this film hoping to see the Black Panther kick some white ass, you will be disappointed. All we have are Black people fighting other Black people.

+ The creation of The Black Panther, like the creation of any Hollywood blockbuster had to involve carefully calibrated analysis of targeted audiences, what they want and what they don’t want. The movie is Afrocentric, but not too Afrocentric, feminist, but not too feminist, a paean to black pride, but not to black anger. In little touches it signals its recognition of white supremacy and Eurocentric hegemony. It allows itself those touches, but not broad strokes. At the Grand Lake in  Oakland on opening night, the audience cheered when the Black Panther bringing the wounded CIA man to Wakanda to be healed, is greeted by an incredulous “why did you bring that “’colonist’ here? The audience laughed when the king of a neighboring African kingdom silences that same CIA man who has begun white mansplaining with a chorus of hoots.

+ How wonderful that Africa, the “dark continent” is here – finally — portrayed as the locus of the world’s most advanced civilization, not a vast jungle inhabited by half naked savages. And yet the old Hollywood tropes do not die easily and even here, they cast their shadow. The drummers accompanying the ritual combat for kingship are not playing complex polyrhythms; their ominous pounding could be the soundtrack of a Tarzan movie. And why do we have to have an African King who hoots like a gorilla?

+ In the film there are two Black Panthers, the angry renegade who wishes to wage armed revolution and the Black Panther who will ultimately speak the message of unity at the United Nations. The revolutionary Black Panther is Huey P. Newton and before him the founders of the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, whose symbol of the Black Panther Huey adopted. John Hulett, one of LCFO’s founders explained:  “The black panther is a vicious animal. He never bothers anything, but when you start pushing him, he moves backward, backward, and backward, and then he comes out and destroys everything that’s in front of him.”  Who is the Black Panther in this film? Obama? If not Obama then who? And will he still snarl and attack after he grosses multiple millions at the box office?

+ In the end, with all his superpowers, his access to the technology of an advanced civilization, its unique mineral wealth and sources of energy, what does the Black Panther do (or rather what is he allowed to do by the script writers and script doctors and directors and producers and funders of this movie)? He comes to Oakland and rehabs a decaying high-rise into a community center. He does not empty the prisons; he does not open the vaults of the banks and distribute to the wretched of the earth the wealth stored there by the 1%; he does not storm Wall Street and send all the stock brokers off for rehabilitation; he does not send all the nuclear weapons into space to travel harmlessly beyond the galaxy; he does not, take back the White House and paint it the colors of Kenti cloth. No what the poor kids of Oakland with their shitty schools, and rat infested housing get is a better place to play basketball.  # How sad.

+ No, not so sad. The audience streaming out of the theater at the Grand Lake was chattering happily. This was a woke crowd. Black men and women had dressed for the occasion in afro-futurist fashions. What mattered was that they had seen a film that celebrated Black people and celebrated Africa. Sure, there was a heavy price to pay. The character who could be a stand-in for any number of Oakland’s black revolutionaries is the bad guy. As in Hollywood gangster movies, the message has to be that crime against white supremacy does not pay. But that may not matter. Perhaps all the CGI supersized razzle-dazzle whiz bang of the Marvel superhero franchise is what is needed to animate the snarling Lowndes County Panther to leap into the 21stcentury. And perhaps at the next urban uprising, Black men and women who have dim memories of that old panther, will stand against phalanxes of police, emboldened by images of Wakanda.


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