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Black Panther as neo-Tarzanism

February 25, 2018

by Biko Agozino

Hollywood expects everyone to cheer whenever African characters are starred as superheroes, even if the roles assigned to them include the mass murder of fellow Africans while subtly promoting the interests of colonizers.

In “Black Panther,” cousins Killmonger and T’Challa, played by Michael B. Jordan and Chadwick Boseman, opposed on the issue of whether Wakanda should help the rest of the African diaspora, fight to the death.

Hollywood films should always come with a consumer health warning to people of African descent: “Beware of ‘The Ideology of the Aesthetic,’ as Terry Eagleton would put it.” With all the hype, “Black Panther: Long Live the King” falls under this manipulative ideological warfare genre and should have been subtitled, “Down With the King,” for subscribing to what Wole Soyinka would dismiss as the pseudo tradition of neo-Tarzanism.

Director and co-writer Ryan Coogler, a fan of Black comics, set out to make “Black Panther” exciting enough to most – especially to fans in the Black community – to push pre-sale tickets to unprecedented levels for Marvel Films. The film offers Black children heroes that look, talk and costume like them and it tries to challenge the stereotypes of Africa as a poor continent.

Aesthetically, the film may have succeeded with the impressive production design of Hannah Beachler, who also designed Beyoncé’s “Lemonade,” and the story line of Africans fighting genocidal wars over who should sit on the throne shattered box office records to prove that African stories sell. But it still sucks.

The casting of an all-female Qaddafi-style praetorian guard led by General Okoye (Danai Gurira) has been hailed for revolutionizing female roles beyond wives, wenches, witches and whores. Innovative are the use of indigenous African knowledge of herbs to heal the wounded, the speaking of African languages with subtitles, the deployment of Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) to free the Chibok girls in Sambisa forest, and the war and transportation technological gadgets built by Princess Shuri (Letitia Wright), who gives an unprovoked middle finger to her brother, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), prompting instant rebuke from Queen Angela Bassett.

However, these innovations appear to have been subordinated to the enduring narratives of white privilege in Africa. Nakia should have won the #MeToo pin to protest the pestering of T’Challa that she should quit her job as a top spy and marry him.

The demeaning of African leadership starts with T’Chaka (John Kani) going all the way to Oakland to kill his brother and potential rival as the suspect who reveals the secret of their vibranium weapons technology to a Boer booty hunter. No European or American heads of state appear because hunting spies is a low level national assignment that is never carried out by heads of state.

If T’Chaka was the only one smart enough or protected enough to go after spies, why go and kill his own brother instead of going after the spies who stole the vibranium secret?

Eric Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), the son of the murdered brother, now a deadly U.S. veteran with notorious records in Afghanistan, returns with the body bag of the white bounty robber, Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), that he had earlier served in organized crime. He kills Zuri, the kingmaker (Forest Whitaker), when he confesses that he is the snitch who ratted on his murdered father.

He successfully challenges T’Challa for the throne in the Nollywood-like narrative (see Charles Okocha as Igwe 2Pac, with almost identical characterization). Killmonger asks to be buried under the sea like his (Igbo) ancestors who chose to drown rather than be enslaved, an apt allusion to the fact that the Igbo also suffered the foundational genocide in postcolonial Africa during the Nigeria-Biafra conflict.

The two non-Wakandan, non-Black members of the cast – both veterans of other Marvel Comics stories – are Ulysses Klaue (aka Klaw), played by Andy Serkis, who supports Killmonger, and CIA agent Everett K. Ross, played by Martin Freeman, a T’Challa ally.

The returning African American prince is regarded as an outsider or foreign spy – perhaps for pronouncing the silent T in T’Challa and T’Chaka – whereas a known foreign spy, Martin Freeman as Everett K. Ross, is recruited in a fratricidal divide-and-conquer war for political power. It would have been better to organize a free and fair election and let Africans choose their leaders.

The proposal by Killmonger to arm the African diaspora with vibranium weapons so that they could fight for freedom is rightly rejected by T’Challa, who should have observed that the African diaspora are already armed and are killing one another instead of advancing the African love philosophy of Ubuntu.

After T’Chaka died, T’Challa had inherited the walkabout assignment to hunt the spies unsuccessfully to South Korea. The rest of the film is about how he loses the throne to cousin Killmonger before being revived for a battle royal that he wins with the help of Ross, a Central Intelligence Agency spy, who was placed in the driver’s seat of a drone program that helped to massacre Africans.

Okoye and the African women who serve as guards fight bravely for whoever is the king on the throne, but they could have fought such battles with the men to end monarchies and militarism across Africa and institutionalize decolonized democracies of scale.

The vast majority of Africans yearn for democratic systems of government and not for family dynasties that use the common mineral wealth to buy personal real estate in U.S. “ghettoes” even if for the worthy goal of establishing a science exchange program on a basketball court under the direction of a royal family member. The film starts and ends with African American children playing basketball in Oakland, California, and then flashes to Africa to show African children herding sheep as a deceptive cover to conceal the wealth and power of Wakanda.

There should have been schools and universities in a democratic Africa rather than a fiefdom of an absolute monarchy and African diaspora children should have been represented in school settings where they spend more time than on basketball courts. Instead of showing African children herding sheep that may not survive in the extreme sunshine of the continent, the film could have reflected the ongoing violence between cattle herders and farmers across Africa and tried to resolved such contradictions by promoting the establishment of ranches.

Instead of going to America to establish a science exchange program in the country that leads the world in scientific innovation, the film should have concentrated on spreading the marvels of Wakanda technology and science to the rest of Africa.

Dr. Biko Agozino

Disney and Marvel should have given credits to Nnedi Okoroafor, the Nigerian-American multi award-winning author of African futurism novels whose work appears reflected throughout the film. Marvel must have been warned of possible intellectual property challenges by the author; hence, they commissioned her to write the digital comics version of the film narrative in six parts from Dec. 13, 2017, to Feb. 14, 2018.

On her Facebook page, she reported that she was the first writer to use the phrase, “Long Live the King,” in a Marvel comic. But the question is, who will be the first to write “Freak the King” in a pro-democracy movie plot promoting the People’s Republic of Africa?

Dr. Biko Agozino is Professor of Sociology and Africana Studies at Virginia Tech, Blacksburg. He produced and directed “Shouters and the Control Freak Empire,” winner of the Best International Short Documentary, Columbia Gorge Film Festival, USA, in 2011. This article first appeared on his personal blog, Mass Literacy, and on Pambazuka. He can be reached at agozino@vt.edu.

 

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