This essay, on the new Marvel film Black Panther and the response to it, was the main part of my Observer column this week. (The column included also a shorter piece on the significance of questions.) It was published in the Observer, 18 February 2018, under the headline ‘Black Panther has a burden that no superhero is strong enough to carry’.
I like my fictional heroes laced with moral ambiguity. When I was young, my favourite sci-fi series was not Doctor Who or Thunderbirds but the clunky, barely believable Blake’s 7. It told the story of the spaceship Liberator and of its crew’s lonely battle against the evil Federation. What the series lacked in production values, it more than made up in the character of Avon. He was one of Blake’s 7, but he was never ‘good’. There was a menace in his soul that one could almost touch.
It was inevitable, then, that when I saw Black Panther, the superhero blockbuster widely acclaimed as a cultural turning point in its portrayal of black identity, I was drawn not to T’Challa, the handsome hero king, or to Shuri, his techno-genius sister, but to Erik Killmonger, the would-be usurper of the throne.
As a Marvel comic character, the Black Panther first emerged in 1966, a totem of black strength and identity. It later became a series in its own right. But it is the new Hollywood film, directed by Ryan Coogler, with a largely black cast, which has created global ripples.
The story is set in the fictional African state of Wakanda, a nation wealthy and advanced beyond imagination, thanks to vibranium, a mineral with almost magical qualities brought to Africa by aliens. Wakanda has never been colonised, but its wealth and technology have also been hidden from the world, protected by a force field.
And therein lies the conflict between T’Challa and Killmonger. (If you don’t want spoilers, skip the next few paragraphs.) Killmonger is of Wakandan royal blood, but has been brought up in America. He is brimming with rage at the treatment of African Americans and of black people globally. He demands that Wakandan power be used to protect black people by waging war on the ‘colonisers’. T’Challa will not countenance the spilling of blood.
This conflict is the moral core of the film. It’s not that Killmonger’s desire to wage war, or his view of all whites as colonisers, is commendable. It is, rather, that the pain and fury he expresses, and the moral tensions he embodies, mirror that of so many black communities, from Ferguson to Johannesburg. The meaning of identity, of blackness, of resistance, even of humanitarian intervention – all tumble out of his conflict with T’Challa. Yet the film barely explores any of this. Killmonger becomes little more than a straightforward baddie whom T’Challa has to overcome.
The film has a glorious cast and an even better soundtrack. It is watchable in the way that most Marvel films are and better than most in the series. And yet there is no escaping that the plot is lame, the battle scenes routine, the drama as dark as summer in Lapland and as taut as cotton wool.
The real problem, though, is not the film but the weight of social and moral expectation that has been heaped upon it. ‘The very existence of Black Panther feels like resistance’, suggested the writer Jamil Smith in a Time magazine cover story. In the Guardian, Ben Child called it ‘the most radical’ comic-book movie, because it ‘dared to imagine a future where the achievements of African scientists dwarf those of their western counterparts’.
‘Resistance’ is a Hollywood film and ‘radicalism’ a cinematic fantasy? The response tells us less about the film than it does about the contemporary state of ‘resistance’ and of ‘radicalism’.
It is no coincidence, suggests Jonathan Gray, associate professor of English at New York’s City University, ‘that this movie appears precisely in a moment in which our politics seems inescapable’. It’s ‘a political context in which both the legal gains of the civil rights movement and the interracial optimism of the Obama era have been undermined’.
Wakanda, then, as a utopia from which to escape Donald Trump. Hollywood has always pandered to escapism. But the response to Black Panther is not about momentarily being able to forget the harsh realities of life, but of embracing fantasy as resistance to the harshness of reality.
‘My father said that one day he’d take me to Wakanda, the most beautiful place in the world’, Killmonger recalls as he is dying. ‘Can you believe that? A kid from Oakland running around believing in fairytales!’
Fairytales can be good, even necessary (though they can also be dark and deep and complex). Even I was swept along by the story of black redemption. But let’s not turn radicalism or resistance into a fairytale.