Wakanda Forever: Imperial Apologia in Kente Cloth

Four years after the release of the record-shattering first Black Panther movie, and two years after the unexpected death of the original film’s star Chadwick Boseman, Disney/Marvel bring us the inevitable sequel. Rather than recast the protagonist, King T’Challa, aka the Black Panther, dies offscreen in the opening five minutes. From there, his sister Princess Shuri (Letetia Wright) and mother Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) try to process the death while being confronted with a new menace to their fictional kingdom of Wakanda, home of the powerful vibranium metal that has granted their scientists all sorts of advanced technology.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has always been a funhouse mirror of American liberalism, which can be attributed in part to how the franchise began life reliant upon an open door policy with the Pentagon, trading script approval for access to military locations and hardware. (For further details, readers are encouraged to peruse 2017’s National Security Cinema: The Shocking New Evidence of Government Control in Hollywood by Alford and Secker.) After the George Floyd protests and the blossoming of grassroots mutual aid networks that were created to support the most vulnerable Black and Brown populations during the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was next to inevitable that director Ryan Coogler would reflect this by bringing into discourse the Afro-futuristic Wakanda with an Indigenous Latin American polity, Talokan, and its lord-protector, Namor (Tenoch Huerta).

This occasions several questions. First, does the conflict between Black Wakandans and Latin American Talokan-ians adequately estimate the complexities of real world Black and Latin American communal intercourse? Second, should we expect such complexity from a comic book movie? Third, can we truly grapple with such questions in a picture that still holds allegiance with the American empire?

In response to the first question, I feel that the picture missed some key components. Even though the film features a brief moment set in Haiti (and even includes a precious tyke named Toussaint, as in the L’Ouverture, the leader of the Black Jacobins who overthrew French slavery and colonialism), one would never know that the Caribbean island is also home to the Dominican Republic, which has its own Afro Latin American population. In other words, with regard to the second query, the film vocally invites the critics to grapple with such complexity but shirks actual engagement.

And the reason why it missed this mark is directly linked to the negative answer for the last inquiry. The imperium is the elephant in the room and the third rail of Marvel’s chic wannabe-wokeness. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and many more thinkers in the long-lived Black Radical Tradition understood that it was impossible to liberate the people from the scourges of racism and white supremacy until and unless the imperium was put on the chopping block. By contrast, this film yet again features Martin Freeman as a Wakanda-friendly CIA agent whose allegiance to Langley is never fundamentally negated. Yes, the picture virtue-signals to radical concepts, such as having Wakandan characters call Freeman’s character a “colonizer.” But an adjective is utterly meaningless unless it is corroborated by a meaningful discussion of the underlying concepts, which I would argue does not occur. The continued failure to dismantle allegiance to Langley reifies an American Exceptionalism in Kente cloth.

When the original picture was released, I saw it as impossible for me to adequately estimate the work, due in no small part to my whiteness. But my friend and fellow geek, Dr. Todd Steven Burroughs, whose book on the Panther is essential reading, said it best in a recent interview:

The comic book geek and the Africana scholar forever warring inside me go back and forth on it. This is a white corporate product starring characters originally created by white Americans with some later help from African-Americans, and now it’s a film produced by a white conglomerate, one written and directed by African-Americans starring both African-Americans and the children of continental Africans. This is not an authentic, organic African cultural product–which shows our powerlessness to do one ourselves. Remember: America was comfortable having a Black president serve two terms but there is still no Black American that can greenlight a Hollywood film. The great writer Haki Madhubuti has called the first film “dangerous.” And if you are committed to African liberation, how can you not call it that?… Black Panther only shows that the billion-dollar Disney/Marvel Cinematic Universe can make popular any kind of story starring anyone, that it can make anybody in the world into a popular superhero, but it is not an advance for Black, African and African Diasporic filmmaking. I’m excited as any fantasy-loving Marvel Zombie about this sequel–I got my ticket for the November 10 Thursday afternoon sneak preview weeks ago–but the African reality always is in the back of my mind. At the same time, I quietly agonize, I do acknowledge what this franchise means: African children–and some adults–around the world get to see themselves as the most powerful people on Earth. I think that’s where any importance really lies. So it’s complicated for me, internally and externally, intellectually and emotionally.

The choice of Namor the Sub-Mariner as villain merits some discussion. The character is technically the oldest in the Marvel stable, having premiered in 1939, seventeen months before the first appearance of Captain America. Originally he was the King of Atlantis, seeking revenge on the surface dwellers for the impact on his realm wrought by ecological degradation. Owing in no small part to the success DC’s Aquaman films, a character who is likewise the half-human monarch of the legendary undersea kingdom grinding an ax over pollution, Marvel instead opted to rebrand the character as an Aztec whose people were forced to become aquatic after consumption of a flowering plant blooming from vibranium. It is a fascinating redeployment of the character.

But it also seems reliant upon some of the more noxious stereotypes about the Aztec nation. The entire population is a blood-thirsty warrior race lacking any internal debate or political discourse opposing its militarism. True, their king is motivated by anticolonialism (or at least a comic book version of it). But while Wakanda has a relatively complex political discourse, including space for hearty dissent, the people of Talokan are utterly subservient and unquestioning with regards to a series of political decisions that the (admittedly pro-imperial) Wakandans vocally describe as insane. This is a return to some of the most toxic characterizations of Indigeneity known to Hollywood and I feel compelled to articulate this point. Namor’s quest in this film is a flat, simplistic caricature of what true liberation from colonialism and imperialism actually should be, a deeply disturbing rendition that is being communicated to impressionable youth. (My God, Marvel is so devious it makes me sound like Tipper Gore!) Lest the reader be ascertain a mistaken impression, my point is not that these Indigenous characters are not entitled to violent means by which to emancipate themselves. Instead, as Frantz Fanon and many others said previously, national liberation is not mere violence. Rather, it is a politics that includes many nuances, including not just violence but debate, dissent, and discussion of allegiances, alliances, and solidarity.

Consider for contrast Captain America: Civil War (2016, dirs. The Russo Brothers). That picture’s entire plot was predicated upon a debate between Tony Stark/Iron Man and Steve Rogers/Captain America over whether or not to submit to a government superhero registration program that combined elements of McCarthyism with the Patriot Act, a debate that ended in violent blows and no certitude about who had been truly “right” at the conclusion of the argument. Why is it that Robert Downey, Jr. and Chris Evans are entitled to such nuances in their characterizations and screenplays? I suspect that the answer is really just skin deep…

John Ford, arguably the dean of Golden Age Hollywood Westerns (aren’t these superhero movies our new Westerns?), sought to imbue his Indigenous antagonists with psychological complexity and anticolonial politics, indebted to the Hollywood Communist Party’s Popular Front. Cochise (Miguel Inclán) in Fort Apache ends up being the sane, decent human being while the leader of the white man, Col. Owen Thursday (Henry Fonda), is a genocidal maniac with Custer-like delusions of grandeur. Ford’s masterpiece, The Searchers, goes even further, making Chief Scar (Henry Brandon) utterly justified in murdering the settlers whilst Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) is little more than a militant fascist renegade on the loose. Ford was neither an outlier nor for that matter an enemy of the state. During his most progressive moment, climaxing in World War II, he directed a combat documentary called Midway, shouldering a camera during the famous battle and including a reverential scene of the Stars and Stripes ascending the flagpole. Flaws and all (none of which I ignore; for every progressive rendering of Indigenity there are three “Drunken Mexicans,” “Noble Savages,” and “Exotic Temptresses” that literally defined so many negative Western genre stereotypes), he sought to create a cinematic synthesis of American patriotism and Popular Front progressivism. What’s more, in the two aforementioned pictures and quite a few others, the vehicle of delivery was no less than John Wayne, who was never even remotely close to liberal! What can be said of a franchise that is more conservative than Ford?!

This movie is frankly a booby-trap of the most grotesque sort. On the one hand, staying silent about its regressive politics and narrative habits neglects the duties of a radical film critic. Simultaneously, articulating such critiques invites every accusation imaginable, from “racist” to “sexist” to “hypocrite.” Is it at all possible to raise a concern about this film while avoiding such accusations? Maybe not. Does Marvel have the capacity to do better? I think so. The studio has been far more regressive and insidious than its print and television antecedents were during the 1980s and 1990s. The old X-Men cartoon broadcast on Fox Kids included episodes about AIDS, concentration camps, and Other-ing of minorities. What’s more, in perhaps one of the more frightening instances of life imitating comic books, the mutant-hunting Sentinels, a longtime staple of the title going back to 1965, ended up being almost perfect renditions of our macabre drone kill list program. Their refusal to do better is indicative of an agenda that we need to be wary of children uncritically internalizing.

Andrew Stewart is a documentary film maker and reporter who lives outside Providence.  His film, AARON BRIGGS AND THE HMS GASPEE, about the historical role of Brown University in the slave trade, is available for purchase on Amazon Instant Video or on DVD.