Black Panther’s Hype Circle Explained
This banal comic-book blockbuster follows Democratic-party ‘politricks.’
The MCU first infantilizes its audience, then makes it banal, and, in the end, controls it via marketing.
This commercial strategy, geared toward adolescents of all ages, resembles the Democratic party’s political manipulation of black Americans, targeting that audience through its insecurities about heritage, social prestige, and empowerment. Thus the studio’s brand new entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Black Panther appeals to young dreams about birthright and ethnic strength — serving up the routine super-heroics of the new king of Wakanda, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), a black version of Batman who fights crime in the guise of a panther. He’s a new addition to the Marvel Avengers franchise and the new ruler of Wakanda, a fictional African kingdom created by two of Marvel’s pseudo–social scientists, writer Stan Lee and illustrator Jack Kirby.
The Black Panther film and its hype are inseparable.
This week’s Time magazine issued what encourages their ways of racial exploitation: Its cover features Chadwick Boseman, Black Panther’s main man, charmingly replacing Time’s infamously racist, darkened O. J. cover, to prove that the publication has abandoned journalism to turn into a social-justice-warrior pamphlet. Blending youth and black exploitation is an effective propaganda move when viewers don’t recognize how they’re being controled; they’re simply flattered by it.
T’Challa’s abilities, tight-fitting Panther outfit, and Shangri-La-style kingdom (bringing the fabled El Dorado from the Western Hemisphere to Africa) distort real history and anthropology the same way that TV, comic books, video games, and films have supplanted conventional education and learning. Utopian Wakanda, hidden behind clouds and mountains away from European colonizers, resembles the faux-naïve heaven of the 1933 negro musical Green Pastures. Yet, the ancient Christianity in that movie is now replaced by false naive Afrocentricity, which includes clichéd tribal traditions (T’Challa must fight challengers to his crown).
During the radicalized 1960s, Green Pastures’ stereotypes were considered an outrage. Black Panther would seem similarly fake if people weren’t falling for it without question. We, one more time, witness the country’s psychic wounds — and black people’s desperate need for the appreciation of the white ones — exposed by stripping off the Obama bandage.
The film offers no mystical alternative to racism’s menace, or the helplessness engendered by the misery of slavery (the original sin of removing Africans from their actual and imagined roots). Instead, Black Panther provides a panacea, a comic-book fantasy of black empowerment that exchanges the real history of the ’60s Black Panthers for a superficial commercial remedy. Instead of any account of that hopeful, aggrieved, longing, yet violent and always controversial social-activist group, we get the tale of a monarchy.
Even old-time academics and young Afro-futurists who fight about “revolution” have fallen into the hype of Black Panther film, as if it was a protest in some way. They accord a strange sanctity to the media practice that asks the public to cheapen its own best interests. The horror of seeing Black Panther’s makers on the stump, invoking the names of major historians from Dr. John Henrik Clarke to Ivan van Sertima, twisting their rules, arduous studies into promotional fodder, suggests an intellectual setback. Black Panther movie’s frivolous science-fiction technology and gladiatorial showdowns can only assuage this moral betrayal momentarily — via cheeky ripostes about imperialism. Black Panther film turns racial politics into what Malcolm X referred as “politricks.”
The film is a Diaspora story in reverse. Black Panther’s homecoming story — where T’Challa’s reign is put to challenge by Erik Killmonger (played by Michael B. Jordan) — pits one uprooted black against another. Black Panther plays out director/writer Ryan Coogler’s very inner conflict between his politically conscious upbringing in Oakland, California and his desire to join the line of Hollywood mainstream instead of a battle of ideologies, like Booker T. Washington vs. W. E. B. Dubois. Coogler’s mixed feeling is embraced by the noble T’Challa/Black Panther and the evil Killmonger, upgrading the good and bad brother dichotomy of 1970s Blaxploitation movies where community activists battled drug dealers. What’s a bit different in the film is the sentimentalized pain that controls hip-hop culture: fatherless guys reenacting that excruciating paternal absence. I’ve explained how Coogler honed this same concept in his previous work, Creed, a fortuitous hip-hop reboot of the Rocky franchise.
However, Oedipal conflict is a bit serious for the MCU, so careerist Coogler gets distracted from his actual subject and creates a sort of ideological retreat in which Afrocentricity becomes an opportunistic folly. Distinguished itself from biracial Vin Diesel’s The Chronicles of Riddick, the film that conveyed awareness upon races and politics into a quasi-classical drama, Black Panther marginalizes its white characters: “Another broken white man for us to fix,” a Wakandan scientist rhetorically spears a CIA agent. Its focus is on what masculinity means for heartbroken black boys.
Jordan’s Killmonger, an ex-Afghanistan War soldier whose scars on the body show the number of lives he’s killed, represents the angry black male driven by vengeance. He steals the entire show from virtuous, civilized, noble T’Challa (whose two-fisted, Avengers-style derring-do doesn’t provide enough the electricity of Boseman’s great James Brown, Jackie Robinson characterizations). Will Smith’s unjustly funny After Earth already tackles these issues, but Killmonger particularly personifies the street-fighter wrath loved by movingly damaged ghetto youths — the movie’s main market.
Coogler’s take at genre revision is part of Marvel indoctrination, thus it’s less inviting than Zack Snyder’s fight with Warner Bros. over artistic expression in the D.C. Comics Universe. Snyder turns moral conflicts into sensual kinetics. You can relate to the great urgency of Man of Steel regardless of race, but Black Panther never achieves an interesting vision. The F/X, sets, and costuming are stock.
They don’t have even the young idealization that made the “Africa” sequences of Eddie Murphy’s Coming to America and Michael Jackson’s Remember the Time MVs such straight-up, feel-good versions of black anthropology. Afro-futurists will justify any whim, but how can they square the updated James Bond, Star Wars technology of the Wakandan people with the fact that they still live like the natives in Tarzan movies? This suggests how little Americans know about countless heritages on the African continent. Black Panther’s Marvelization of black history and anthropology is pathetic, and the Marvelizing of black imagination is appalling.
Black Panther’s insane hype goes harmonize with the song “The Circle of Life” from The Lion King, the timeless ’90s animated movie that is evoked here by native singing and by Forest Whitaker and Angela Bassett as elders trilling their R’s. Black Panther movie continues this ersatz Afrocentricity (patterned after Julie Taymor’s Broadway spectacle) without answering our deepest emotional needs. Director Coogler offers us only the superficial satisfactions of the ersatz, a kitschy substitute for meaningful expression of black lives and spiritual advancement.
It’s a long, ancient tale of cultural self-denial when that circle of hype — which keeps black Yankies as bound to Hollywood as they are to the Democratic party — turns the other cheek to other, more real entertainments about black American life. Maya Angelou’s film Down in the Delta, Benny Boom’s Next Day Air, and Doug Atchison’s Akeelah and the Bee, for instance, were naturalistic films devoted to black perseverance.
They were box-office disasters, made prior to the Obama time, before mainstream media learned to unapologetically calculate the political benefits of exploiting race (and gender) identity. But T’Challa’s boasts about the kingdom of Wakanda’s fanciful independence from other countries and its wealthy deposits of vibranium (a magical metal used to make weapons as well as Panther’s indestructible suit) simply seduce Marvel fans into accepting a new kind of unique inanity.
Pity those who missed out on that edifying scene at the national spelling bee where Akeelah (Keke Palmer) spells out the word “filiopietistic.” It confronted the cultural processes that affect ethnic identification. Pointing to the word’s dictionary definition (“often excessive veneration of ancestors and tradition”), the film warned against the shoddy exploitation of black cultural desire that eventually denies personal awareness and self-examination.
For the time being, at a point that the MCU has taken over Hollywood’s agenda and promotes audiences’ immaturity, it sets such a low, formulaic bar that Coogler’s effort to customize it to his hometown, race-conscious ethos never goes beyond the escapism of other Marvel junk.
The media’s enthusiasm for this bland action flick is maddening. The problem isn’t one particular movie, but the celebration of the illusion of “progress.” When Hollywood pegs everything in terms of race or gender, it dictates to the masses and keeps them all in a plantation mentality, mindlessly applauding Black Panther as part of the new .