The Falseness of "Black Panther"

Cartoons and science fiction share in common that they don’t have to explain how scientific things work; all they have to do is show an arrangement of things that seems to be pleasant. So we did not know the mechanism by which Dick Tracy’s radio-wristwatch, and then his tv-wristwatch worked; we only had to contemplate how nice it would be if there were such things, which indeed came to fruition with the smartphone. But cartoons and science fiction are very detailed in the ways they spell out the social world in which that new science is set. Asimov spelled out very clearly in his Foundation series how Trantor took over the galaxy, moving from being the only planet that could guarantee the safety of its embassies to being a planet that ruled a galaxy wide empire and that imported goods from everywhere. The same is true of Robert Heinlein who imagines a system of world wide representative democracy in "Double Star"S, complete with a titular head from a royal house that originated in the Low Countries. Heinlein also spells out in "Starship Trooper" a world nation where citizenship is conferred only on people who have served in the military, a fascistic note that is the case in much of Heinlein and other science fiction writers who also emphasize the role of the strong man as leader and the military as the backbone of society. So it is not surprising that "Black Panther", which is a movie based on a comic book and is about a superhero who emerges from a futuristic black city in Africa that is unknown to the outside world, offers this same combination of unexplained gadgetry and fascistic government. The main reason to find fault with this entertainment, whose pretensions at explaining the way the social world works are not to be taken seriously except by social commentators like me because the preteen audience for which it is designed (there is not even a hint of sex) will not care about those meanings, is that they are contrary to my sense of the burden of African American history.

What is both front and center and pleasing about Black Panther is the contemplation of an advanced African civilization that owed nothing to the white man, and so might serve as a fitting heritage for young African American boys and girls. It is technologically advanced and economically prosperous. It has a bustling metropolis filled with tall buildings while its inhabitants wear African themed clothing and have traditional markets, even down to contemporary style jitney transport. Yet the society is fascistic. The new king is chosen by a ritual combat, no girls allowed. There are a lot of soldiers going through exaggerated military prancing. The issues that divide the kingdom would seem to be about legitimate family descent, but as in the Star Wars series, where the real issue is not who is whose father but whether you are on the side of the Empire or the Rebels, while here the real divide is between those who have the ghetto ethics of an African American or the preferred ethics of the nobleman from Africa. The African nation will rehabilitate the condition of African Americans.

And so it is not beside the point to note, even though this is a cartoon, that there was never anything like such a kingdom, because the hope of the movie to to place African American salvation in the hands of that dream. Other American ethnic groups, such as Jews, Greeks, Italians, Germans, Chinese, and Scots, could point to legacies of which they are proud, but that is not the case with African Americans. The best sub-Saharan kingdoms could boast of, in fact, were mud hut cities of twenty thousand people who trafficked in slavery. Sub-Saharan kingdoms did not invent Arabic numerals much less the calculus which would be needed to build the space ships found in "Black Panther". Nor did they produce literature, only masks and other artistic creations that Picasso, among others, identified as real art. The movie is therefore meant to make up for a lapse in the story of an immigrant people, in that we are to think of African Americans as a people that was like other immigrant groups in that it had a homeland, when in fact what is distinctive about African Americans is that, as the cliche goes, they arrived here in chains rather than in steerage and made a life for themselves here, beginning under the most adverse of conditions. That is what they have to be proud about.

African American history begins on those slave ships, whatever was the cultural baggage carried over with them to the New World. A character in "Black Panther" says that it was better to jump off the slave ships into the Atlantic than to live in bondage, but everything about the history of African Americans says otherwise. The slaves survived the trip and also the terrible conditions under which they labored, while Indian tribes were depleted from disease and overwork. The freed slaves also endured Jim Crow and followed the path the early parts of which were described by Booker T. Washington in "Up From Slavery" that led them from being a despised caste to being a politically aware ethnic group with a large middle class that had by the seventh generation after the end of slavery produced a President of the United States. That is the vitality of African American history chronicled in films like Glory, about brave African American Civil War soldiers, and even unto recent feel good films like Marshall and Hidden Figures where good African Americans triumph over bigots and near-bigots because of their pluck, cleverness and bravery. Yes, there have always been allusions about Africa, whether in the Colonization Movement, or in Garveyism, or in Stokely Carmichael and, in his last days, W. E. B. De Bois, but the main chain of advancement has been through the line that stretches back to Frederick Douglas and reaches through the Harlem Renaissance and the main part of the life of W. E. B. De Bois as well as the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. Those are the heroes, American home grown, of which young people of all races should be proud, not imaginary ancestors from places that never existed. I would like to see more of those stories told, perhaps a movie about W. E. B. De Bois travelling through the South in the late Nineteenth Century teaching sharecroppers to read.

There is another recent instance of a cartoonish logic used to ferbish a different case of identity politics. That is the case of "Wonder Woman". The film liberates women into a new history and it also depends on a superhero living in a place isolated from the rest of humanity for ever so long. The premise of the movie is that women have no need of men unless they care to, that they can manage a society without men, thank you. But the real liberation of the movie is provided by the fact that women can physically overpower and kill men while barely mussing their hair. It must be exhilarating to think that women need not be subservient to men because men would not have the advantage of upper body strength so that they can mess with women as they please. But this is a serious disservice, a false fantasy, to replace the truth of the matter, which is that women have their own distinctive resources to counteract the forces at the disposal of men. Men may have stubborn willfulness and an attachment to “principle” as well as upper body strength. But women can sweet talk or nag men into doing pretty much whatever they want them to do and it has been that way ever since Adam and Eve and David and Bathsheba. That makes the story of men and women more complicated and fraught than is ever known to the cartoonists at DC Comics or in Hollywood. Women shouldn’t give up their inheritance for the porridge of beating up on men, just as African Americans ought not give up on their real history for a fantastical one set in Africa. And, of course, I don’t think either group will.