I went into this movie suspicious of a Disney movie selling "wokeness."
I came into Black Panther skeptical, as I am about most things. I think it's a part of my personal defense to view grand projects that entice people to spend money with disdain and suspicion. This is especially true when it's appealing to an audience of Black people increasingly politicized toward understanding the natural world order as one that disadvantages people of African descent and people in the "Global South." This film capitalizes on this market and on the trending "wokeness." The Black masses, the people to whom this film is marketed, will not participate in this financial gain. This is the bitter reality of a consumer driven society.
What is also true, at least as far as subjectivity can go, is that this movie is profound. Profound in its storytelling, profound in its representation of a living breathing pan-Africanism, profound in its blending of traditions and modernity into a complex (and at times catastrophic) whole, profound in the way it illustrates the dichotomy between Black rage and Black benevolence, profound in the way it tries to achieve harmony through the device of opposition (even when that opposition simplifies the nuances of reality), and profound in the way it casts people who look like me as figurative and literal nobility. Wakandans are loyal people with compassion for each other and the world at large.
Why did an agent of the CIA, the same force that destabilized countries in the Global South, get depicted as a hero?
I still think films like this serve to reinforce a type of Black capitalism while downplaying or simplifying alternatives to the status quo. This has the potential to subvert or undercut calls to build alternative grassroots movements. Seeing a film is not a revolutionary or subversive act, but if I was to be subverted by anything, if I was to be taken by a dream and suspended from reality, Black Panther is the dream I would take.
When I look at T'challa and Erik, I see rudimentary versions of two powerful essences within myself. I come from a particular background that I won't go into here, but safe to say I was fortunate to be raised in household that valued compassion, morals, the civil rights movement, religion, and the black liberation struggle with no sense of contradiction between any of one of these themes. I see myself as belonging to a noble legacy. I also am greatly motivated in part by all the "negative" emotions that drove Erik to become a vehicle of determination and destruction. I've learned how not to let these feelings show, but they're always there, ever-present. I cope with these strong emotions in different ways, but truthfully, I don't see any contradiction between love for the people and hatred for the enemy. If we are all up against large systemic institutional forces that render most of us powerless and unwillfully subject to a world order that increasingly isolates us from each other and the natural world, then it is necessary to hate these forces.
However, if hatred is directionless, self-serving and not tied to a wider project of improving conditions within people and within society, then it simply serves to reinvigorate the status-quo, the original object of hate. We effectively become subject to our own feelings with no agency, even when those feelings are justified. I think Black Panther tries to harmonize love and hate by embodying caricatures of the two which ultimately create something new through collision and opposition. I appreciate this, particularly the way Erik does not compromise his indignation, despite the harm his actions do to countless people. Someone narrating his final lines to me is what convinced me to watch the movie. T'challa rethinks his philosophy, and makes a different decision. This is the closest Black Panther gets to reconciling these two positions, which I believe, Black people in the U.S. are forced to do every day.
Seeing a film is not a revolutionary or subversive act, but if I was to be subverted by anything, if I was to be taken by a dream and suspended from reality, Black Panther is the dream I would take.
Ultimately what Black Panther perfectly sketches is the Western world as a chaotic and radicalizing force. Erik, who incidentally reminds me a lot of Tupac, brings all the instability of his American experience to the doorstep of Wakanda. He is a disordered and broken figure. He is a product of the ghetto: the naked expression of capitalism stripped away from its moralizing rhetoric and ideological vigor. "The ghetto," in this movie is the rawest form of consumerism where life and death are traded like brand names and stock. This reality is not afforded the niceties of middle class respectability, in this movie the ghetto is pure despair. Again the depiction of urban poverty serves to show a stark and stylized reality that can't help but make monsters. Even the nobility of Wakanda cannot escape its grasp. It is what makes people angry and tired. It's what lays the groundwork for a riot…or even a revolution.
Black Panther is a product made for digestion. It engages themes in a way that can captivate an audience of superhero and comic book fans. It depicts extremes. Sometimes it can go too far, pushing nuance into the background for the sake of story or even a particular statement about political, economic and social realities. I came into the movie thinking this is problematic. Now I'm not so sure. Whatever little bit of artistic awareness I have nudges me against being so critical, yet my political bones compel me to ask the questions: Why was Erik depicted as a revolutionary, but not as a moral human being? Why did an agent of the CIA, the same force that destabilized countries in the Global South, get depicted as a hero? Why does the movie suggest that we choose between two paths that are reconcilable? Why does the African-American seem to initially have no place in the Pan-African utopia, especially when African-Americans were critical to the articulation of Pan-Africanism?
My biggest fear about this movie is that it is a force that captivates people like me. I am afraid that we will allow ourselves to be taken into a world of pure joy and ecstasy, one where we experience emotional highs at the sight of Black Queens and Kings on screen. We dream as hard and loud as we'd like, in a way that many of us have never felt we could dream at a movie theater. But ultimately we settle for dreams that make us feel like a part of society. I'm a guy who goes to school and occasionally tries to be political. I'm not a machine. Dreaming is therapeutic. People dreamt when Obama was elected. Dreaming can temporarily take us to a place where our wounds from White supremacy fade away. It's nice. Being cynical and outraged all the time takes its toll. But dreaming, for me anyway, isn't a substitute for the demand that these things which elevate us, be they movies or politicians, actually improve our conditions and society at large. I think if I have more of that I'll let myself dream a little bit longer.
Follow Ismaail on Twitter: @ismaailqaiyim