First Published in February 2018
The world may seem cruel! The world it may hate us! In time we will show the world why the world made us!!!”
–What Would Wolves Do by Les Savy Fav
In the past few years the art of “the take” on the visual arts has transformed the ruminations of your favorite writer into social commentary that assuages the political machinations of everyday life and makes our momentary visits to dreamscapes all the more real and long-lasting. Yet such analysis often creates a false dichotomy over the promise of art and popular culture and whether it has any “true” political significance. Singular works are treated as utopian visions that diagnose society’s ills; or they are denigrated as “just” movies, television shows, or art instillations, totally cut off from the literal fights over life and death taking place in political forums. But the political importance of such works can only be revealed when we consider how they are inextricably linked to the limits of our technological and physical worlds and the strategic decisions made in the creative process that will determine its future circulation and economic impact. Black Panther and the world it creates and in which it circulates is undeniably political.
Film-making produces more than just movies, it also produces industries that have a magnitude beyond the artists themselves. Artists can no longer feign ignorance or stand outside of the competitive and exploitative dimension of the creative arts industry, especially when working with a multinational such as Disney. In one month, Black Panther has earned approximately $920 million in box office receipts, almost five times its $200 million budget. Also, given the various box-office records it will continue to break, the movie will have an undeniable impact on the cast and crew’s future earning potential and the market it creates for other objects, including Black Panther action figures and African inspired home décor and fashion. Finally, the film has greatly impacted film locations; the city of Atlanta, Georgia, witnessed $84 million flow into local businesses; and through the promotion of tourism the other location sites will benefit as well. Besides Atlanta, the film was shot at Iguazu Falls on the border of Argentina and Brazil; Busan, South Korea; and aerial footage from Uganda, Zambia, and South Africa. It is these last locations (or what essentially amounts to physical, interchangeable backdrops) that speak volumes to both the content and lasting effect of this movie. A movie that heralds blackness and traffics in the continent’s concealed potential is of Africa but not in Africa.
Last year at an art gallery in Maputo, a Mozambican acquaintance asked about my relationship to Africa, a question I have received numerous times over the fifteen years I have travelled to the continent and studied the politics of western and southern Africa. As the conversation continued, however, it took a surprising turn when my interlocutor said he was working through his relationship with Africa as well. It became clear that Africa is an imaginary space we both grapple with given our lived realities in the geographic spaces that produced us – America and Mozambique – and the invented space of our historical origin. What besides our skin color or as its labeled our blackness linked our disparate souls to this geopolitical dreamscape, which despite its physicality is just as fantastical as that of Wakanda. There are many Africas: North Africa versus Sub-Saharan Africa; the regional Africas, (north, east, central, south, west); and then the Anglophone, Arabophone, Francophone, and Lusophone Africas. There is South Africa that some do not consider Africa and there is Egypt that is often designated as part of the Middle East. There are approximately 1,500 languages, and by inference as many distinct cultural groups in Africa, not to mention historical and emerging cultures based on religion, sexuality, and political ideology. Wakanda appears as an amalgam of all these Africas, as Ainehi Edoro and Bhakti Shringarpure write. The movie makes cultural expressions and artifacts interchangeable; assumes a historical trajectory based on a logic of mythical origins; and conceals the internal dynamics of an epic civilization that is meant to be isolated yet whose existence is contingent up a keen understanding of the outside world. Wakanda turns Africa into a vehicle for blackness while denying the conditions that created blackness.
On Still Processing, a New York Times podcast, Jenna Wortham and Wesley Morris offer the most laudatory commentary of Black Panther; of course more for what it offers as a visual object rather than the processes that created it. One of the more perplexing themes of their discussion is that the movie offers a vision of blackness that is not “concerned” with the white gaze and is truly pan-African, given that the cast is a panoply of the diaspora’s elite. Never mind that this elite diaspora is able to reap the benefits of an aspirational society while simultaneously striving to reject it. While this rejection of the white gaze and whiteness is not problematic when the film is selectively ablated from today’s political context; the rejection is suspect when you consider the film in conjunction with the economic processes that created it, its circulation, and its growing legacy.
If the movie is about promoting Africa and the African diaspora by building up the myth of an isolated country that realizes the need to extend its wealth and knowledge beyond its borders; then not filming on the ground in Africa signals an acute fissure within the theory and practice of blackness. Unsettling because the magnitude of the financial rewards of a Hollywood film in Accra, Dakar, Lomé, Maputo, Timbuktu, or Tunis would have been much greater for Africa and the diaspora than filming in Atlanta, Argentina, or South Korea. More importantly, it could have showcased these cities’ imaginative architecture, public art, and urban (re)design. This could have offered a better template for Wakanda’s capital city, which as a virtual space simultaneously exists everywhere and no where on the continent. It is probably easy to anticipate the reasons why it would not be “feasible” to film in such locations: too dangerous, limited infrastructure, corrupt officials exploiting American companies and artists. The weight of this irony is more palpable when we consider that this “material” lack also signals an unwillingness to directly confront Africa’s “figurative” lack.
Utopian fantasies ostensibly offer the chance to escape the doldrums of the current moment, yet they also offer a much needed critique of said moment and the chance to think otherwise about a society’s trajectory. Wakanda’s utopian society offers many a visual elixir to centuries of European thought that deemed Africa as lacking history and civilization. This figurative lack haunts most academic and popular thought about Africa and the diaspora, as there is an assumption that this lack is what motivated the brutal subjugation and epistemic violence launched against black bodies. Given Africa’s size and the abundance of natural resources, it is often designated as “lacking” because it does not have comparable ancient ruins or academic texts that demonstrated its civilizational prowess. Also its environment at the time of the colonial intervention deviated greatly from the Europeans built environment. Yet such lacks and deviations could also signal a lack of intricate hierarchical systems that harnessed and then exploited the labor power of those deemed different. Given the current quest to create a more just world, we need to develop a greater analysis that examines technological advancement, the production and consumption of objects, and the built environment in conjunction with the (in)ability to engender equitable societies. A utopian fantasy that interrogates blackness yet not tied to a single geographic space could offer a re-imagination of what it means to not look like European civilizations and the environmental havoc they produced; and to offer counterfactuals on a society’s historical trajectory in which technological advancement was tempered by the needs of all rather than the desires of a few. While watching Black Panther, I kept hoping for a vignette about the “average” Wakandan: of the miners, the construction workers, teachers, artisans, and caretakers, i.e. the ones who built Wakanda. It is these stories that resonate more with blackness, because for better or worse blackness stems from a common history of subjugation. While this commonality commingles with the history of different ancient African empires as well as the peoples and empires from around the globe, blackness was not crafted in ancient civilizations; rather it was made as an immaterial consequence of the circulation of objects, a by-product of the social relations of production and consumption. The origin of blackness is the bottom of an ocean, and that could be just as magical and creative if we, and here I mean all of humanity, will let it.
In 1903, W.E.B DuBois offered the concise concept of ‘double consciousness’ to capture the existential complexity of the Negro problem — of being a freed man whose history was denied and who must navigate the brutal distortions of a civilized oppressor and their lived experiences to better understand themselves and life. Likely to the dismay of DuBois, over the 20th century as the Negro begat the Colored who begat the Black who begat the African-American, this double consciousness did not wither away, rather it intensified. But rather than see this persistence as an aberration, there is the chance to include it is as a definitive feature of the human condition. All regions of the globe have been shaped by subjugation, violent displacements, and epistemic violence; and such events have all contributed to the making of this world. Perhaps the specificity of the Black experience and blackness is that it emerged alongside an acceleration of capital and the proliferation of discursive, visual, medical, and infrastructure technologies that suspended the original sin of subjugation based on phenotypical and geographical difference. Over time this marginalization has been challenged, overturned and morphed to include other races given what is ultimately at stake – the creation of a just civilization that is not predicated on the exploitation of one’s labor. Thus what blackness has to offer and what future Black Panther movies could offer is the chance to imagine a future that is not obsessed with reworking the past, rather a future that is willing to transcend its past.