Opinionista Andy Kasrils 23 March 2018

Why Black Panther can’t save us

In his analysis of our present political situation, Adam Habib uses the analogy of the current hit film Black Panther to illustrate the way forward for South Africa. He likens the bad guy (Killmonger) in the film to the EFF who he reads as “proto-fascist” and the good guy (Black Panther) as the role model Cyril Ramaphosa’s ANC should be emulating. I claim he misses the point, that while Black Panther presents itself as a progressive film, it fails and is actually the opposite. While Black Panther has touched a chord with black youth who have flocked to see it dressed in traditional attire, raising power salutes (inspired by the viral marketing campaign), the film has stirred feelings of black pride for sure. But what is the real ideological message people buy with their cinema ticket?

Adam Habib recommends that “the NEC of the ANC should see the movie, then internalise its political message, for it holds a strategic lesson that a thousand organisational pamphlets will not impart.” Dangerous advice because in the film, the Black Panther superhero forms an alliance with a CIA agent to help regain his crown as king of Wakanda. And as history has shown us in Africa and Latin-America, alliances with the CIA lead to the worst kind of strategic lessons imaginable, namely, puppet governments and neo-colonialism.

The central question in the movie rests on the opposing views of the lead characters. The Protagonist, Black Panther (named T’Challa) who comes to realise that Wakanda’s integration with the global status quo, and use of its resources, should take place peacefully within the confines of the system while the Antagonist, Killmonger, a former US special ops soldier turned rogue, wants Wakanda and its resources to be used as a springboard for arming black and oppressed peoples around the world in their struggles. As Vijay Prashad has pointed out elsewhere, this would make the fictional utopia of Wakanda a symbol like that of Cuba to liberation movements during their anti-colonial struggles. Or indeed Angola, which overthrew its coloniser and in a heroic act of solidarity, gave the ANC military bases and the right to openly carry arms during the liberation struggle. (Spoiler alert!) No wonder Killmonger dies in the film.

“Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from ships, ‘cause they knew death was better than bondage,” says Killmonger as he chooses to die rather than have Black Panther save him to live life in a liberal globalised Wakanda. Killmonger is at times a crude caricature of a narrow nationalist but what he wants is revolutionary. So where in a post-cold war world would a country like Killmonger’s Wakanda have been assisting in struggles? Arming whom exactly and where? This is left vague but the implicit message in the film, and what Adam Habib contrasts the ANC and EFF positions on, is how countries should approach engagement with global liberal democracy. In the narrative, the hero learns, with the audience, that integration with global capitalism can safely incorporate your local cultural values. Its a neo-liberal morality play.

Adam Habib quotes the Black Panther at the UN: “In times of crises the foolish build barriers, but the wise build bridges.” Shouldn’t the response to that be that in this age of economic apartheid, the walls and barriers exist already, they were put there by the wealthy? Donald Trump may be physically building a wall but there are invisible economic walls too. Rather lets break all social barriers down and do away with borders altogether? Or perhaps Black Panther’s wisdom can be read the other way, as advice for the rich: keep bridges open to the poor nations with loans and charitable aid in order to pacify them and expand your global market.

The form of the film is also a microcosm of this global vs local antagonism. Black Panther has a stellar black cast and director and was marketed trading on its black representation, but who makes the money? At time of writing It has grossed over a billion dollars worldwide (R78-million in SA) and is produced by Marvel Studios. Marvel is owned by the Disney Company, which is where the profits go. Aware that this could be negative publicity for a “woke” movie, the film makers make a self-aware joke about it. Panther is on an undercover mission in a casino. He meets the CIA agent incognito at a gambling table and places a huge pile of chips on a dice throw in order to blend in.

Distracted, Panther departs hastily pursuing the enemy. His dice throw wins but he’s not interested, so in steps Stan Lee, the owner of Marvel Comics, appearing in a cameo as a casino gambler, who cheekily takes the winnings. The message of this inside joke being, “we the film makers are knowingly making some ‘change’ (money) here while we depict the Black Panther character making some social change”. The trouble with this sketch isn’t just the winking at the audience by Stan Lee as Marvel rakes in the box office takings, but also that Panther’s idea of change is that everything stays the same. He triumphs but capitalism and his system of monarchy survive. Meanwhile the audience are duped into believing they’re watching something “revolutionary”.

This moment is consistent with the theme that Adam Habib suggests the ANC government takes pragmatic instruction from. In the global casino of the free-market economy you are free to pursue your own agenda as long as the big players can gamble with you. If you misbehave we’ll downscale your currency and your credit will be no good. So behave yourself and let us do business in your country freely. The Marvel brand takes 90% of your box office away to the US this week while a black South African film called Catching Feelings opens to a modest R300,000. But if you set national quotas to protect your cinema you’ll be accused of blocking free trade or even free speech. There’s a comedic scene in Black Panther where Wakandan tribe members bark loudly at the white CIA agent drowning him out with noise as he tries to join in a discussion of their national affairs. He’s foreign so he has no right to partake in the debate. Following the same logic, should we not be barking loudly at the film and its American ideological message? Or should we be pragmatically playing the game? The harsh reality for most developing nations is that there is no choice, you can’t exist outside the system.

Like the privileged actors in Hollywood that justify their riches by telling us at award ceremonies that they’re changing the system from within, this highlights the limits of the liberal hot topic of representation. Once we all accept the horizon of the system as unchangeable the only hope people have is a representative share of business at the top. People want their turn to eat. But as long as capitalism exists there will always be only a few rich people and billions of poor no matter who runs things. It’s the nature of capital. This is the central dilemma at stake that no progressive government has been able to get past. Its the key strategic problem the ANC must solve. Otherwise we’ll need a superhero, not Marvel’s Black Panther, perhaps something more like the Black Panther Movement of the 1960’s. Adam Habib should have checked Huey Newton’s view: “We have two evils to fight, capitalism and racism.” DM

Andy Kasrils aka “The Admiral” is a DJ and film critic

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