“We’ve gotten a foretaste of the new breed of foundation-hatched black communitarian voices […] the point where identity politics converges with old-fashioned middle-class reform in favoring form over substance.”
-Adolf Reed Jr., speaking of Barack Obama in 1996
When Obama was running for president in 2008, I often felt like an outsider walking around the Jonestown colony. Everyone was high on the CHANGE, and anytime I attempted to offer critical political insight, the zombies started looking at me like they might have to eat my brains. Even the so-called “radical” folks I knew were completely seduced; veteran activists, working-class anarchists, and everyday liberoids were united in their insistence that I “wait and see.” It was like being in the goddamn Twilight Zone.
Having read ol’ Bombama’s dossier when he first showed up on the national scene, I knew the motherfucker was nothing but a handsome, well-spoken shill for wealtharian evildoers. It’s clear to me that he was chosen to channel the collective white guilt and racial strife of this country into a manufactured black messiah figure. It was a tactic—frankly, a brilliant one—to further the agenda of American imperialism, corporate villainy, and environmental destruction. I immediately started referring to him as The Clone; people rolled their eyes and treated me like a pariah. Fast-forward eight years, and he turned out to be a bankster-humping, child-deporting, warmongering asshole. Imagine that.
I knew the whole deal was a hustle and I called it, but the Magical Negro spell was so powerful that, in doing so, I lost status, respect, and credibility. Telling the truth about B.O. made me the enemy of people desperately in need of hope—a need I’ve never been capable of assuaging with bullshit. Battered by rejection and ostracism, I spent almost his entire two terms keeping my mouth shut because nobody was trying to hear it.
I felt the same way about the Black Panther film.
Comics are my first true love. I was a Marvel-head for many years, starting in my childhood during the ‘80s. By the early ‘90s I could’ve given you the basic biography of every major character in the Marvel comics universe. When Hollywood finally caught the whiff of fresh meat and launched the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), I was stoked… until I saw Iron Man and realized the movies were going to be propaganda for militarism and the tech mafia. (I try not to whip my own back too much over my naiveté—as if they would’ve been anything else!)
I kept up with the MCU, partly because of sheer fanboyism, but also because superheroes are archetypal; like the gods of old, they embody fundamental themes, ideas, and aspirations. As such, movies about them offer a definitive window into the values of TechnoBabylon if you know what to look for. Long after I gave up on mainstream fiction, including movies, I continued to watch the MCU flicks to keep my finger on the pulse, so to speak. It’s good to know what’s in the heads of your enemies and their thralls.
By the time Black Panther dropped in 2018, I’d pretty much had my fill of the MCU. I can only take so much racism disguised as “representation,” only so much propaganda for the police state masquerading as heroism, only so much lurid technophilia. Shortly before the film’s release I was working at an anti-racist non-profit in Oakland, California—origin city of the actual Black Panthers, several of whom I met and interviewed. I was knee-deep in exploring the political implications of everything from gentrification to the ascendance of tech, and I was teaching social justice workshops to youth who were directly impacted by these things. I’d been studying the atrocities of European invaders for over twenty years. I purposely avoided Black Panther because I knew it would piss me off.
The movie came out and everyone I knew went ape-shit; they rocked the t-shirts, they mimicked the crossed-arm Wakandan salute, they drank every drop of vibranium koolaid. Here in the Bay Area, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who wasn’t wearing a cape for this flick… just like with Obama. My spider-sense was on overload.
Once I finally watched the movie (in bootleg form) several months after it came out, my suspicions were confirmed. That’s a helluva lot of money to spend to subconsciously condition people to accept the thieving of mineral “resources” from Africa, but they did it—with the State Department’s approval, I’m sure. And, of course, the obnoxious, swaggering villain of the story grew up on the streets of Oakland, abandoned as a child by his tribe (as if!). His caricature version of revolutionary politics (arm the People™!) mirrors the unspoken fear held by American white folks that, if given the chance, we would do unto them what they’ve done unto us.
Black Panther was a tremendous insult to Oakland, radical politics, and indigenous cultures—as I’ve written about elsewhere—yet it was insanely popular. I’m disappointed, but not surprised; most Americans are illiterate to symbol and subtext, which means they cannot perceive and analyze the deeper implications of a story, its structure, and the way it’s told. I’m confident that if people were educated enough to know what they were really seeing in this film, there would have been massive boycotts, and possibly riots.
Instead, watching a bunch of black people on screen chanting, fighting, and looking sexy in their fetish suits was enough to “empower” folks, and almost every black and brown person I know got sucked right in… just like they were supposed to. Jonestown revisited.
Much has been said in the last few years about generational trauma. Imagine being so traumatized as a people—so desperate for validation of your existence—that you eagerly celebrate such a troublesome tale on the strength of imagery alone.
I don’t have to imagine it. I live with it.
After lead actor Chadwick Boseman bit the dust and the Marvels That Be decided they were going to make a sequel anyway, I just knew it was going to be a cinematic hate crime. I swore I wouldn’t watch it, but dammit, it’s hard to have meaningful political conversations with regular people if you don’t have some kind of pop-culture touchstone.
And, well, Namor.
Wakanda Forever hit the stream; I held my nose and watched it.
If I’d known ahead of time that they were going to replace Namor’s place of origin in Atlantis with the Yucatan, I’d like to believe I would’ve had the sense to avoid the film, but probably not. There are few things about 21st century media that I despise as much as the tendency, the necessity, to constantly vampirize obscure cultures for interesting screen fodder. Look mom, they’re speaking Mayan! This kind of appropriation is always degrading. Being both black and Native, I felt like all of my ancestors had been violated.
I’m a member of a zuckerbook group that caters to “comic nerds of color.” I originally thought the group was going to be a platform to discuss comics; I didn’t know when I joined that it was primarily an MCU fanboy club. After watching Wakanda Forever I made a post on the group page—admittedly with a trollish slant—stating how ridiculous it was that the movie depicted Namor as Mexican. Many people furiously commented on the post, their precious feelings bruised and injured, but I never got the chance to respond with a more detailed analysis; less than 24 hours after I made the post, the admins shut down all comments and spanked me with a two-week posting ban. So much for online “discourse.” I can only guess that people in the group thought I was dissing Mexicans; sorry guys, that’s in your heads, not mine.
I won’t go on a whole rant about how much it bugged me that the actor playing Namor speaks with a Mexican-Spanish accent even though, in this story, his people were never conquered by the Spanish. I’m willing to write that one off. But I will say, as someone who spends a great deal of time with “Latinos” (some of whom grew up speaking indigenous languages, rather than Spanish), that making southern Native people into the villains of the story is extremely sinister. It plays on Americans’ latent fear of both immigrants and leftist movements from Latin America; put a beret on Namor and he’d be a dead ringer for Che Guevara.
Furthermore, Wakanda Forever at its core is a tale of violence between two indigenous groups—one from Africa, and one from Turtle Island—without ever giving more than a nod to the fact that the real enemy of both groups is the European Colonizer.
The tragic and hilarious thing about one group of humans having conquered the world is, now that their version of reality is the established status quo, most of their stories take for granted that their culture must continue—it’s only natural, any serious threat to it is an act of villainy, and so on. Nevermind that western industrial civilization has brought life on earth to the brink of extinction; what we really need here at the end of the world is to watch a bunch of negroes in spaceships fighting blue Mexicans. Yay diversity.
Many of the comic book stories about Namor and the Atlanteans have revolved around environmental themes. If you live in the ocean—which constitutes three-quarters of the livable planet—and the surface-dwellers are constantly eradicating your neighbors and bombarding your home with toxic chemicals, nuclear weapons, radioactive waste, sonic drilling, and garbage, it strikes me as perfectly reasonable that you would go to war to stop them.
And really, what tribal African would intervene? Yet here come the Wakandans to save the day. This looks a lot to me like Hollywood using black bodies as stand-ins for colonizers. Unless, of course, Wakanda has been busy dumping all the toxic waste from their high-tech manufacturing into the ocean this whole time.
In the film, Namor and the mer-Mayans are peaceably invisible until surface-dwellers show up to steal their secret minerals. I find it hard to believe that any society living in the ocean would’ve waited that long. This is a story you could only write if you were embarrassingly ignorant about the devastation to ocean life wrought by industrial civilization; just the use of fishing trawlers would be an act of war.
Wakanda Forever sells all of this with shamelessly manipulative sentimentality. It exploits both the real-life death of Boseman and the on-screen death of his character’s mother to pit two ancient cultures against each other—grief put to service in symbolically subverting black & brown solidarity.
I did get one good experience out of watching the film, one that testifies to the importance of pop-culture touchstones for political conversations. The week after I saw it, I was discussing it with two young women who work as receptionists at a medical clinic I regularly visit. One of the women is white, and the other can pass as white, though one of her parents is Mexican. I told them I hated the Black Panther films. They then spent the next fifteen minutes playfully chastising me for my lack of taste.
However, once they were done teasing me, I was able to direct the conversation toward the criticisms I’ve touched on in this piece. It didn’t take long before both women admitted that the films had left them with vague feelings of discomfort and uneasiness—feelings they were unable to explain and had never had the opportunity to discuss.
Like so many other folks, they’d been seduced by the sorcery of representation; I got the sense that on some level both women felt it was their responsibility to champion these movies, despite any intuitive misgivings, simply because the films feature predominately non-white casts. Problematic and degrading storytelling is occluded by political correctness, exoticism, and CGI. I was able to help them see the undercarriages of these films, and I validated their true feelings. We need more of this.
For all its thrills, chills, action, and fempowerment, Wakanda Forever is exactly what I suspected it would be: a pretty little hate crime. Like Obama and Black Lives Matter, it channels the anger and desperation of colonized people into a safe, socially acceptable charade of representation, while equating resistance to oppression with villainous violence.
And so I say: Wakanda ForNEVER!