Grégory Pierrot

Since cinema has entered the Age of Marvel, we have learned that translating the complexity and maturity gained by sixty-year-old comic characters to the screen is not as easy as it might seem. This is so not simply because the obvious commercial goal is to simultaneously satisfy die-hard fans and newcomers, children and adults, those in it for mindless entertainment, those who feel it’s much deeper than Spandex suits, but also because some in the audience have long known that in graphic art as in all art, one can strike a felicitous balance of utile and dulci. I think Ryan Coogler does just that here. Black Panther has been rightly praised for its work in positive representation, and its luminous portrayal of black female characters defined by their intelligence, strength and infectious humor.

Hollywood has figured out the recipe for film adaptations of Marvel comic books and Black Panther follows it faithfully, recycling and remixing elements of its source material in entertaining and at times elating ways. Like its source, it also manages to hide bland elements in the mix with extra doses of the most wonderful spice of all: blackness. Still, the film’s reflection on the history and meaning of Black Panther remains only skin deep: though it claims unapologetic blackness, for the most part it only pays lip service to the matters of race it centers on. It points to history but never pays its dues. It is, if you will, representation without taxation. Black Panther is a narrative about roots that must constantly obfuscate reflections on the many roots of its own narrative. And those roots run deep.

Peeling the Palimpsest

Black Panther has been touted as a triumph for blackness, the work of an African American director featuring an international black cast. It is also a work of what Srinivas Aravamudan calls tropicalization—a “revision of discourses of colonial domination” and “a contestation of European rule” by those subjected to it.[1] Lest we forget, Black Panther stems from traditions of white representation of blackness: Hollywood and Marvel comics, even at their best, have been commercial ventures whose portrayals of people of African descent have for the most part followed the vagaries of public opinion. Their inclusion is relatively recent, and in the specific case of Black Panther, African American artists could only revise pre-existing representations of blackness. Although Marvel comics has arguably been a pioneer in matters of race and representation—Black Panther is, after all, the first black superhero—the conventions of the superhero genre and commercial incentives to play it relatively safe ensured from the beginning that this character would be worthy of note, but hardly revolutionary.

The backstory of the "sensational Black Panther," introduced in his first appearance in Fantastic Four 52 (July 1966) was in many respects rather formulaic: much like Batman, with whom he shared an entirely black, animal-inspired costume, the Black Panther was a wealthy heir with access to the most advanced technology, who initially became a vigilante in order to avenge the murder of his father. T'Challa is the son of T'Chaka, king of Wakanda, a mysterious and virtually unknown country hidden in the middle of the African continent. Wakanda is the only place in the world with access to vibranium, a mineral extracted from a meteorite, which helped it become the most technologically advanced country on Earth. Wakanda still respects tradition, though:  the country designates its kings through a centuries-old ritual in which incumbent Black Panthers have to prove their worth against challengers in hand-to-hand combat. T’Challa lures the Fantastic Four in order to measure up against them before facing his real foe: the evil Klaw, who killed T’Challa’s father in an attempt to take over Wakanda’s sacred mound, their reserve of vibranium.

Lee and Kirby’s creation is over fifty years old, and in typical comic book fashion it has changed radically. Its history been rewritten; characters appear, die and come back to life. Change in superhero comics is palimpsestic; authors self-consciously write over what was once there but never fully erase anything. In Coogler’s 2018 Wakanda one can still catch glimpses of Lee and Kirby’s 1966 Wakanda. Black Panther was a peculiar and often cringe-worthy juxtaposition of the racist visuals typical of Western popular culture's depictions of the dark continent (spear-shaking warriors wearing animal skins and tooth necklaces) and of the space-bound, technological science-fiction characteristic of the Fantastic Four. “Though the Wakanda tribe lives in the tradition of their forefathers, they possess modern, super-scientific wonders we can only marvel at!” explains Reed Richards, ever one to wisely summarize the stakes of a story for his readers. This contrast was in part a function of Lee and Kirby's naked effort at subverting the racist conventions of the “jungle comics” which until then had dictated portrayals of Africans: in the words of popular culture scholar Gerald Early, “the jungle of the civil rights/Black Power era is not a backward place of savages who need white colonialism, Africans who act like children and have no scientific understanding of the world, but rather a place of technology and advancement disguised as jungle.”[2] T’Challa’s origin story mirrors the comic book’s own origins.

Fantastic Four 52 (1966). The Thing, your friendly neighborhood reader stand-in”.

With the Black Panther Lee and Kirby were very self-consciously out to break certain conventions, and they make sure to tell you over and over again in case you missed it. As the Fantastic Four sit to listen to T’Challa’s obligatory flashback, the Thing interrupts rudely with a yawn: “I can’t help it! I saw this in a million jungle movies!” The kingdom of Wakanda was once a pastoral where noble savages lived without a care until… “I know the rest by heart!” he interrupts again. “Everything wuz hunky dory until the greedy ivory hunters made the scene!” No, something much more sinister and exciting: Ulysses Klaue aka Klaw, the lovechild of Dr. Frankenstein and King Leopold of Belgium, and his infernal sound-to-mass converting machine. In the jungle movies the Thing evokes, just as in the comic in which he evolves, historical events, broad or specific, are narrative markers often emptied of substance: Klaw’s words and actions make him a villain, not a racist or imperialist villain. In his cinematic incarnation, Klaue calls Wakandans “savages,” and this simply confirms what we’ve known since he first appeared—the man is a psychopath, with terrible musical tastes to boot. The comment itself could be mistaken as “mere” cultural condescension. After all, it is African American Erik ‘Killmonger’ Stevens he is talking to in this scene, from Westerner to Westerner. The original Klaw, with his pith helmet and gang of mercenaries burning down villages and trying to take over Wakanda’s ore, at least vaguely gestures towards colonialism, if only visually. In the film, his prejudices are his alone, an expression of his villainy with seemingly no connection whatsoever to global structures of racism, colonialism or imperialism. The only mention of colonialism in the film comes when Shuri quips at CIA agent Everett Ross “Don’t scare me like that, colonizer!” Until that moment, Ross had no idea just how advanced Wakanda is. It should be less funny, considering that he works for exactly the agency that would likely scheme to take over a vibranium mine. But fear not, Shuri: this spy is a nice guy. Black Panther plays with historicity but shuns actual history. Doreen St Félix argues that “the spectacle of black adversaries, connected by continent and by blood, takes the film’s struggle to a deeper register,” but this is only true it if, as the film suggests time and again, we all agree on what constitutes the broader context in which these characters evolve. Yet for lack of such context, what we are left with are not just a majority black cast, but also one where black characters in effect act as proxy for whites, a narrative device that has a long tradition in Western culture.

Fantastic Four 52 (1966). The old Klaw, half-Leopold, half-Frankenstein

Black History Month

Discussing the deep historical and narrative foundations of Black Panther, historian N.D.B. Connolly cites maroon communities of the slaveholding Americas and Haiti, the Caribbean nation born of slave revolution among the black utopias that made the creation of Wakanda possible. The parallel between Haiti and Wakanda has been made by others including Alex Auguste and, more recently, Bettymedia. The comparison is tempting, but also puzzling: we are told that after initial strife between the five tribes that make up its people, Wakanda has lived in splendid isolation from its continent and the world at large, mining vibranium for thousands of years and developing its ultra-advanced technology. The transatlantic slave trade is evoked in a split second in the film’s opening animation sequence alongside military conflicts, one of many world calamities Wakanda opted out of. Wakanda’s utopian status rests principally on the fact that the country and its inhabitants have somehow eluded the two phenomena that have overdetermined black experience in the modern world: transatlantic slavery and colonization. A dream indeed, and a convenient one. Narratively and politically, Wakanda is a blank slate beholden to none of the philosophical and political discussions that have animated the very concept of blackness in the modern era. We see Wakandans as black, but it is unclear how they understand the concept—they have kept their distance from all foreigners alike and are themselves foreign to those historical events that have defined blackness as it is understood today. Wakandans have been hiding, but they’ve kept watch: they may not share an understanding of blackness, but as Brooke Obie points out, “With all their brilliance and advancements, Wakandans should’ve been learned that.” If they seem not to have it is because the film, like the comic books before it, caters simultaneously in tongue-in-cheek references to universal black culture and in the near complete obfuscation of black history. It demonstrates that imagining 21st century Africanness unrelated to notions of blackness is virtually impossible: history can be repressed, but it returns by way of the narrative structures that underlay it and the film.

Connolly notes, “What is historical about Black Panther, in perhaps the deepest respect, is how smartly it invokes the history of anti-colonial struggle and age-old visions of black self-determination. It grapples, as well, with an ambivalence, just as old, about the collectivist aspirations of black people, on the one hand, and the symbolic value of black monarchs, on the other.” Yet what he actually alludes to in his references to the Haitian Revolution are not the very complex events that constitute it so much as its narratives—C.L.R. James’s landmark 1938 study The Black Jacobins foremost among them—when he describes the genealogy of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s creation. The ambivalence Connolly describes arguably drives James’s study, a history of the Revolution focused on Toussaint Louverture, a former slave who became the revolution’s foremost military leader and the island’s governor before French troops, sent by Napoleon, captured him. Louverture died in a French jail, mere months before the triumph of his comrades in arms. James’s book is profoundly beholden to Romantic historical conventions; his Louverture is an outsized Great Man of History in the style of Thomas Carlyle. Yet James also hints at a more tragic vision of history, that sees Louverture as the expression of his people, and designates his “neglect of his own people” as the revolutionary general’s “tragic flaw” and the cause of his demise. Yet even in this vision the masses of former slaves show up only as extras. Though they eventually emerge the victorious—“arbiters of their own fate”— they are but the chorus, the end credits to a tragedy whose hero is Louverture.

“Toussaint Louverture” in Marcus Rainsford, Historical Account of the Black Empire of Hayti (London, 1805). T’Chaka if you’re nasty.

Black Villains, Tragic Heroes

James references Greek tragedy in relation to Louverture, but a fuller genealogy might also take into account two related literary traditions: the black villains of early seventeenth-century modern revenge drama and their descendants, the heroic black princes. In these plays—think George Peele’s The Battle of Alcazar (1589?), Thomas Dekker’s Lusts Dominion (1601) or its later remake by Aphra Behn, Abdelazer, or; the Moor’s Revenge (1676)—Moorish princes, sons of Moorish kings deprived of their kingdoms by European conquerors, find themselves living at the court of their fathers’ killers. They are strangers in a foreign land with only one thing on their mind: revenge, a sentiment that so consumes them that nothing can truly satisfy it. In Abdelazer, the eponymous evil Moorish prince wreaks havoc at the court of the king of Spain and vows to “set all Spain on fire,” using his both his wife and his lover—the Queen of Spain—to do so. What eventually dooms Abdelazer’s revenge are his own moral shortcomings: with the Spanish crown at hand, he ruins his chances out of lust. More profoundly though, he is also terminally harmed by the fact that he belongs nowhere and to no one. He has learned deviousness and machiavellism from the European society in which he grew up, yet none of them recognize themselves in his deeds. His blackness allows them all to present his evil ways as intrinsic to his alien self. It’s not that he learned from them, but rather than he was always a snake. No one mourns the Moor when he finally dies: in Dekker’s play, the black prince falls stabbed to death by a Spanish prince in blackface.

It may seem paradoxical that with the development of the Atlantic slave trade it was not African villains, but African princes—as popularized by English playwright Aphra Behn in her 1688 play Oroonoko—that flooded European literature. In the Oroonoko story, an African prince is sold into slavery in the Americas. here he attempts to lead a revolt only to be abandoned by cowardly slaves, and caught by slavers who gruesomely execute him, but not before he kills his pregnant wife so as to spare her and his unborn son a life of abuse. The black prince is not representative of his people; he is an exceptional specimen, a noble savage wronged by lowly Europeans and slavish Africans, in a world whose ruthlessness he does not fully understand. He dies because there is no place for such a pure soul in the New World built by transatlantic slavery. Though a pagan, he displays Christian morals; raised and educated by European tutors, he is sophisticated, knows several foreign languages, fights fairly, and is true to his word. In short, the African prince is the best the West has to offer. “His nose was rising and Roman, instead of African and flat. His mouth the finest shaped that could be seen; far from those great turned lips which are so natural to the rest of the negroes. The whole proportion and air of his face was so nobly and exactly formed that, bating his color, there could be nothing in nature more beautiful, agreeable, and handsome”: as Behn’s infamous description makes clear, the African prince is a white man in blackface. The Oroonoko story and its myriad variations was among the most popular plays in the two principal slave trading countries of the 18th century, England and France, so much so that they were an unavoidable filter in Western representations of General Toussaint Louverture, who was portrayed as a villain when considered a threat, and as a black prince when appropriation was needed, and after he was safely dead.

If the notion that enslaved people of African descent was, as famously argued by Haitian intellectual Michel-Rolph Trouillot in Silencing the Past, unthinkable to Western contemporaries of Louverture, this literary figure was something they were familiar with. Indeed, force-fitting the political figure into this dramatic frame made it much easier to deal with and to dismiss his politics. The complexities of the conflict, the circumstances specific to Caribbean slaveholding society, the positions and demands of the main actors of the revolution could—and did—all melt in the sun of literary simplification. It allowed to strip the events of their political significance and reduce them to matters of emotion and nature—in short, argue that the politics issuing from this racialized system were not politics at all, but the anomalous expressions of an extraordinary specimen of the race, an honorary European. Louverture faced his share of hatred in his day, of course: but his death redeemed him even in the eyes of many of his enemies. Not so with those Haitians who did defeat the colonizers.

The independence of Haiti brought the black villain back in fashion, in the person of Jean-Jacques Dessalines, general of the Indigenous Army that defeated Napoleon’s troops and first head of independent Haiti. Dessalines’s reputation to this day is sulfurous, owing most specifically to the so-called Massacre of the Whites when a few months into independence, he ordered his troops to put to the sword the French population that remained on the island. It is not condoning Dessalines’s orders to point out that they were hardly unique in their kind: without mentioning the atrocities intrinsic to slave society, occupying French forces had routinely massacred civilians during the two years during which they had attempted to reestablish slavery on the island. Yet only Dessalines remains defined by massacre, a rhetorical move that has long served to ignore his politics and global political impact.

From [Dubroca], La vida de J.J. Dessalines, gefe de los negros de Santo Domingo (Mexico, 1806). Jean-Jacques Dessalines, future Emperor of Haiti, portrayed by people who dislike him in the act of killing some whites.

American Monster

Does this all ring a bell? Or several? The tragic N’Jobu is in many ways an Oroonoko figure: crossing the Atlantic, he passes for African American, and what he finds there horrifies him. The time and place tell us something that N’Jobu himself does not: this is California in the year of Rodney King and the L.A. riots, and the conditions of black American life have convinced N’Jobu that he needs to start a revolution. What happens next may be the most surprising of all. He is not failed by hapless followers or felled by white power, but stopped and killed by his very brother. N’Jobu’s heart may be in the right place, but he went about it the wrong way. N’Jobu figured that the best way to launch his war of liberation was to lie to his brother, break Wakandan precepts, and sell vibranium to Klaw. We never really find out how or why N’Jobu agrees to a deal with such a glaringly unhinged, and ultimately easily dispatched character as Klaw. But then, it is unnecessary: all we need to know about N’Jobu’s plan is that it is inherently flawed. The dream of untouched Africa represented by the Wakandans, though it comes to us walking the walk and talking the talk of African American pop panafricanism, follows conventions and formulas of black representation that belong to systems of thought predicated on an understanding of racial difference and inequality. These conventions were formed in the crucible of the transatlantic slave trade with black collective agency looming as the most dangerous threat. In Black Panther, N’Jobu is contaminated the minute he sets foot on the American continent. This is what becomes of African purity when it touches America, and mixes with it: it is perverted, and gives birth to what Marlene Daut dubs ‘monstrous hybrids,’ neither fully African nor fully American or Western.[3] Oroonoko had the wisdom to kill his son in the womb: witness what happens when you do not.

Moorish princes turned into monsters at the court of Spain, and former slaves into bloodthirsty rulers at the court of Haiti:  a similar fate befalls Erik Stevens, N’Jobu’s son with an unnamed and absent African American mother (more about her later). The orphaned boy was a genius, but he chose a career as a war dog, killing so many in America’s wars he gained the nickname Killmonger. Later he worked as a CIA goon overthrowing governments. What of the CIA’s nefarious deeds are recognized in the film are thus indirectly assigned to Killmonger; who could see agent Everett Ross, that sympathetic bumbling fool, overthrowing anything? He may claim Killmonger as a former colleague, but we never for one second imagine that they do the same work: Ross, after all, has kept T’Challa’s secret. Echoing motifs of 1960s black revolutionary fiction—The Spook Who Sat by the Door comes to mind—Killmonger reveals his stint in the service of the American Empire was only to one purpose: so that one day he could rejoin the fairytale country his father once told him about and convert to his, and his father’s, mission.

By the end of the film, we know that the villain Killmonger once was just Erik, a sweet Oakland kid. As Brittany Willis points out, he “experience unfathomable trauma at an early age” and that information certainly tempers our vision of the ruthless, self-scarified killer. Still, the narrative structure of the film ensures that Killmonger is unredeemable: by the time we get the details of his backstory, he has watched Klaw kill unarmed museum security without blinking, shot his own girlfriend Nightshade—who utters her second and last line of the film, an apology, instants before Killmonger dispatches her—in order to get to Klaw, and thrown a wounded T’Challa off a waterfall. We witness a genuinely touching scene where an emotional N’Jobu summons memories of Wakanda for a pre-teen Erik, but the effect is immediately undermined as we return to the present to see an adult Killmonger choke an elder Wakandan woman for not obeying his orders quickly enough. The order is to set on fire Wakanda’s reserve of the miraculous heart-shaped herb. This is a visual hint across superhero worlds. It evokes Alfred Pennyworth’s famous line to that other Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne, in Christopher Nolan’s eponymous 2008 film: “some men just want to watch the world burn.” This does not quite strip Killmonger of his bad boy appeal, but it makes it ugly enough to warrant pause. And pause there should be, even when his alleged politics are concerned. No matter how seriously he has been taken in recent analyses and assessments, his subscription to liberation politics is the stuff of pre-adolescent rants, a simplistic, lazy abstraction: 2 billion people like us are out there suffering, he spits at the Wakandans when he first arrives in the hidden African nation, the fairytale touted by his father. What has Wakanda ever done to help them? Does he mean all Afro-descendants around the world? The number seems a bit inflated. Could he mean the wretched of the earth at large? His plan is to send vibranium-based weapons for Wakandan agents, and the first to receive them are those based in London, New York City and Hong Kong, so it is a distinct, though puzzling possibility. Not that it matters: the next step in Killmonger’s plan, apparently, would be to create a Wakandan Empire, and this one would be no more democratic than T’Challa’s, mind you. But contrary to the kingdom of Wakanda, the Empire would likely be the long-standing race nightmare of the West, the world turned upside down and whiteside black, Dessalines’s defiant self-made black autocracy. There is chilling potential for reflection in this looming threat, but it is short-lived. Killmonger’s paper-thin politics are only meant to be understood as his attempt to cover the black hole that has been eating up his soul. And anyway, by that point in the film, Killmonger’s big plan for global revolution has become a side attraction in the big battle royale opposing the Dora Milaje—Wakanda’s all-female praetorian guard—and the Border Tribe who support Killmonger. The smokescreen of black revolution here again dissipates to reveal the one and only thing that matters: blood and race. Killmonger, the little lost boy, the multicultural, transatlantic bastard prince must die not because of his half-baked radicalism, but because his mere existence belies fairytales of racial and cultural purity.

Michael B. Jordan as Erik ‘Killmonger’ Stevens, melting hearts and minds.

Word to your mother

It is a measure of Michael B. Jordan’s talent that he manages to hint at unfathomable depths of despair in Killmonger. His acting has inarguably been crucial in the wave of support on which his character has been surfing since the film’s release. Yet Killmonger is ultimately little more than a black nationalist honeytrap, speaking the right words but meaning none of them, channeling not black revolutionary politics but the grossly simplistic narratives that have always framed representations of black revolutionary politics. The curtailed pathos of his death is tempered by the understanding that there is no other option for a ‘monstrous hybrid’ like Killmonger. Not by chance is it the moment when he delivers his, and possibly the film’s, best line: a spear stuck in his side, watching the only Wakandan sunset he will ever see, he could be expected to howl a lama sabachthani, to ask, Christ-like, why his father has forsaken him before giving up the ghost. But instead Killmonger chooses to die rather than be judged and likely imprisoned by the Wakandans. Before seemingly ending his own life—rebirths are a routine matter in the Marvel universe, and we do not actually see him die—he tells T’Challa: “Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from the ships, ‘cause they knew death was better than bondage.” The line hits hard as a rejection of T’Challa’s offer, but it evokes deeper wounds and problems. The reference to the middle passage indirectly evokes that side of his family nobody talks about: his mother’s. She is neither shown nor named; for all accounts and purposes, she serves as a mere womb, a way for N’Jobu to clone himself into a leaner, meaner version. There is a special kind of violence in the complete erasure of the mother in a black American context, especially by contrast with the prevalence of strong, admirable female characters in the film. Hortense Spillers demonstrated the importance of partus sequitur ventrem—the central principle of American slavery by which the condition of the enslaved mother is bestowed to her children and a gross anathema in patriarchal societies—to the black condition in the new world. In this context, “the African-American woman, the mother, the daughter, becomes historically the powerful and shadowy evocation of a cultural synthesis long evaporated—the law of the Mother—only and precisely because legal enslavement removed the African-American male not so much from sight as from mimetic view as a partner in the prevailing social fiction of the Father's name, the Father's law.” In the system of slavery, black fathers were forcibly removed, but black women were ungendered, turned into slave-makers, their motherhood denied “at the very same time that it becomes the founding term of a human and social enactment.”[4]  It is Spillers’ argument that rather than seek to achieve patriarchal and gendered relations traditionally foreclosed to them, “it is the heritage of the mother that the African-American male must regain as an aspect of his own personhood--the power of "yes" to the "female" within.” Measure that exhortation against Killmonger’s final moment: even in the moment where he appears to renounce his father’s fairytale, he still chooses the alleged purity of a defiant death over the defiance of black American life, honoring ancestors and ignoring his mother. Full personhood will have to wait.

Huey P. Newton, ghost of Black Panthers past.

As an aside in her reflection on Killmonger, Doreen St. Félix, noting how “the film hardly ever leaves its monarchical perch,” goes on to ask: “who knows how ordinary Wakandans live?” There is no answer to that question, of course: a city scene reveals colorful streets, attractive young denizens sporting fashions you should expect to see at the next Afropunk festival—skip Coachella, Shuri—and little else. On T’Challa’s first flight back into Wakanda, we see his aircraft zooming through the skies of the outer, “third World” version of his land; shepherds trotting behind their sheep look up to the skies and wave, then two horseriders of the Border tribe appear, accompanying the king’s ship at a gallop until it bursts through the hologram that hides the true Wakanda. I noticed the shepherds on first viewing, but on the second I pondered, in the good old fashion of Clerks: what’s that like, living in outer Wakanda? Do they work shifts pretending to be shepherds, going home to robotic houses when time is up? Do they sign a contract for so many years of third world life with an agency, get benefits, special pay? Their garb was significantly different from the Border Tribe’s, Wakanda gatekeepers. Could it be that they do not really know about the other Wakanda, because the best way to keep that secret is to draw the border as close as possible? No matter: Wakanda’s ruler is benevolent, and we know because he waves back. A parallel can be drawn between this moment and the final scene of the film, when T’Challa and Shuri land their aircraft onto the same basketball court at the foot of the projects where a young Killmonger was playing when his father was killed. King T’Challa announces to his sister that he bought the entire block which he will turn into an outreach center and a tech lab. The center is supposed to be the demonstration that this king will not be like the old kings: he will engage with the world around him, work for good. His dialogue with a teenager on the basketball court is supposed to represent the reconciliation between the fortunate Wakandans and their distant, not-so-well-off black American cousins. He’s reaching out. It’s a start. By comparison, in his speech to the UN, he offers to share Wakandan knowledge with the entire world. No favorites: when in Rome, do as the Romans do. When in the US, build a center in the ghetto. That should do it. Let’s just hope no one got evicted in the process.

T’Challa is a monarch. He is the state and the nation, his word is law and decides the fate of thousands, but he is wise, and his wisdom means to spare us from thinking too much about the inherent inequality of such a form of government. It spares us from thinking about what different a high-tech monarch can possibly make when you herd sheep for a living. Such distractions, you might say, come with the territory: heroes will be heroes, and they will be individuals, and for two hours there we can certainly all agree to see in T’Challa, Nakia, Shuri, Okoye, W’Kabi and the others a mirror to the variety of black life, African and diasporic. It makes the relative absence of this final element possibly the most painful. Fleeting glimpses of Emory Douglas and Huey Newton posters in N’Jobu’s Oakland apartment do not cut it: if the Black Panther Party is in the film it is only to haunt it as a specter, its internationalist revolutionary thought emptied out and demonized in Killmonger, and its astonishing and pioneering community effort through breakfast and health programs watered down in T’Challa’s juggernaut charity. N’Jobu was not in Oakland by chance: as noted by Jelani Cobb, this is where the Black Panther Party was born mere months after the comic book character’s first appearance in print. When Bobby Seale and Huey Newton’s movement started receiving media attention, the Marvel hero was temporarily renamed Black Leopard in order to avoid potential trouble. You wouldn’t want to mistake his brand of vigilantism for their radical bid for social justice.

And alright. It is probably a bit much to imagine that a Disney movie would allow anything more than a quick nod to a real-life African American movement whose ingenuity, heart, spirit, put Wakanda’s to shame, where women spoke, organized and led, and that managed to foster interracial solidarity until goons in the employ of the U.S. government took to applying to it destabilizing techniques perfected in coups abroad. In a recent essay for the New Yorker, Anthony Lane wondered “what weight of political responsibility can, or should, be laid upon anything that is accompanied by buttered popcorn.” But there’s an argument to be made, perhaps, about the politics—or lack thereof—that narrative structures shape into appealing prospects. Black Panther may not be responsible for world change, but it could consider it better.

General Kathleen Cleaver wants you to guess what she thinks about your outreach center.

And I will give the film some credit, in the end—where credits belong—if only because the gaping cracks in its structures can bring us back to grounded, earthly daydreams. Stepping out of the fairytale and back into this other world, I caught myself dreaming of a different, unsung Panafrica, that connects African shepherds and black American city teens, not as extras, not as chorus to the protagonist, but as an international collective scorning states, parties and nations, the hushed network of those who walk so they don’t have to bow. Call them a Black Panther Party; call them Kisama, like the early modern fugitives who, fleeing the oppression of African monarchs and European slave traders alike, decided that the collectives they would build would eschew the repeating patterns of power. In her forthcoming book Fugitive Modernities, Jess A. Krug proposes: “Instead of searching for narratives to explain the accretion of power, we can begin to listen to the fragmented ideologies that underwrote what we all too often dismiss as mere survival.”[5] They tell tales that need neither heroes nor kings.

[1] Srinivas Aravamudan, Tropicopolitans: Colonialism and Agency, 1688-1804 (Duke UP, 1999), 6.

[2] Gerald Early, “The 1960s, African Americans, and the American Comic Book,” in Strips, Toons and Bluesies: Essays in Comics and Culture, D.B. Dowd and Todd Hignite, Eds. (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2004): 68-69.

[3] Marlene L. Daut, Tropics of Haiti: Race and the Literary History of the Haitian Revolutionin the Atlantic World, 1789-1865 (Liverpool UP, 2015).

[4] Hortense J. Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” Diacritics 17.2 (1987), 80.

[5] Jessica A. Krug, Fugitive Modernities: Kisama and the Politics of Freedom (Duke UP, 2018).


Grégory Pierrot is a professor of English at the University of Connecticut at Stamford. He is the translator of Free Jazz/Black Power by Philippe Carles and Jean-Louis Comolli (2015), and the editor, with Paul Youngquist, of Marcus Rainsford's An Historical Account of the Black Empire of Hayti (Duke, 2013). His book The Black Avenger in Atlantic Culture is forthcoming at the University of Georgia Press.