Black Panther Blues
The sadly necessary disclaimer: No, I’m not racist for not enthusing about “Black Panther”; I hate all superhero movies equally.
“Black Panther” briefly enjoyed a rare perfect 100% professional reviewer score on Rotten Tomatoes, even as the website was warning it would carefully monitor negative user reviews for “hate speech” (“Rotten Tomatoes has become a battleground in the culture wars, and the only thing more likely to inflame the so-called alt-right than a female superhero (hello Wonder Woman) is a black one.” Hello “Sydney Morning Herald”; the only people who had a problem with “Wonder Woman” were some on the ctrl-left – and pretty much everyone in the Middle East – after having discovered that Gal Gadot is an unashamedly proud Israeli).
Regardless of any minor controversies, “Black Panther” looks set to be a genuine international pop cultural phenomenon, and it has not even been released yet – so kudos to the whole team who created it. I don’t begrudge anyone their commercial success, even that woman who typed “50 Shades of Grey”, much less talented film-makers who are clearly giving the audiences what they want; a rare enough feat in Hollywood these days.
But some of the hyperbole surrounding this Marvel comic movie franchise is getting out of control. Take, as an example, this piece in “The Hollywood Reporter” by the former basketball great Karreem Abdul-Jabbar, who thus enthuses about “Black Pantner”‘s global reach:
It’s a little like witnessing the unveiling of an enormous statue on the public square — with the public square being the world — of Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Nelson Mandela dressed in bright dashikis. It’s an homage to who we were, a celebration of who we are and an inspiration for what we hope to become.
Well, no, it’s just a freaking superhero movie. To compare it to the life, work, courage and sacrifice of major figures of the civil rights movement is a truly terrible way to trivialise the struggle against racism and for human dignity by the heroes who risked grave consequences and sometimes paid the ultimate price for their beliefs. But it’s also emblematic of today’s Millennial-style culture, which completely lacks perspective and context-awareness as it trumpets its own self-importance.
Then there is this:
Black Panther is not just another comic-book film but a cultural spearhead disguised as a thrilling action adventure. You may go for the hard-core action and hard-muscled bodies, but, if you’re white, you’ll leave with an anti-“shithole” appreciation for Africa and African-American cultural origins. If you’re black, you’ll leave with a straighter walk, a gratitude for your African heritage and a superhero whom black children can relate to.
You might have all sorts of pro and anti takes and opinions about the “shithole” controversy, but it bears repeating: Wakanda, the African country where most of the action takes place, does not exist. If you are counting on a fictional, comic book country to counter negative geo-political-social-economic stereotypes you have pretty much forfeited the debate.
In the “Black Panther” universe, Wakanda sits on the deposits of a miracle element vibranium, which allowed it to develop advanced high-tech civilisation of its own, the fact Wakanda keeps secret from the rest of the world by hiding their futuristic cities behind force fields and disguising their country as a typical poor rural corner of Africa so as not to attract any unwanted attention.
The tragedy of the real, as opposed to Marvel, Africa is that while many of the countries are indeed blessed with an abundance of national resources, their present condition is not a sophisticated camouflage but a sad fact of life. For almost sixty years now, since the “winds of change” blew across the continent and blew away the European colonisers, Africa has been auto-colonised and auto-cannibalised by tiny indigenous elites, which have drowned their countries in blood and misery, exploiting their own people and their own land like the worst of the white imperialists (Belgians in Congo and Germans in Namibia particularly come to mind).
So by all means, go to the movies and enjoy “Black Panther”. But also ponder for a moment the melancholy reality where you need a Marvel superhero from a non-existent country to straighten your walk when the African and the African-American communities have enough real and often unsung heroes whose example should shine bright and guide all of us, but the people of Africa in particular, to help their long-suffering continent.
(If you’re interested in recent African history, I couldn’t recommend too highly two of the best books I’ve read in the last two years: “Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa” by Jason K Stearns and “The State of Africa: A History of Fifty Years of Independence” by Martin Meredith.)