For a multimillion-dollar distraction, Black Panther is quite radical


I went to see Black Panther for my birthday, and thought it was very good. I don’t usually like films, or the cinema, or birthdays, but a mate convinced me to give all three a try, and for once I was only vaguely disappointed.

I can’t fully endorse it – they spent $200m making a comic book movie while thousands of people (a lot them African), starved to death. But for a stonkingly profligate corporate blockbuster, Black Panther is fairly radical.

It’s the first mainstream film I’ve seen in years, possibly ever, that has meaningful politics – not so much black nationalism as black internationalism. Incredibly, Marvel, wholly-owned subsidiary of the multi-billion-dollar Walt Disney Company, has put out a pan-Africanist superhero movie.

But before I get too carried away, let’s address the obvious – white capitalists don’t believe in black liberation. They believe in making money.

This film is a product – cynically timed and marketed to take advantage of a particular political mood, and thereby make the biggest profit possible.

A roomful of millionaire executives inevitably sat round and decided that, in the era of Trump and Black Lives Matter, a lot of people would pay to see a ballsy Black Panther film adaptation.

But I’m not sure that dulls the impact of the finished product. It’s so strange, and so exhilarating, to see this sort of film fronted by Africans and African-Americans. Superhero movies usually lionise the white American male. In Black Panther, all but one of the main characters, and all the best ones, are powerful black women.

But its radicalism runs deeper than that. Just as rare, and valuable, and exciting is its presentation of Africa – or more specifically, of an African society that’s an unambiguous success.

In the West, we see Africa as a failure – backwards, impoverished, corrupt and inhospitable. Wakanda, the film’s fictional setting, is the very opposite. It’s the most technologically advanced nation on earth.

Granted, that might be for daft, science-fictional reasons (it sits on huge quantities of Vibranium, the Marvel universe’s wonder-metal). But it hints at a truth that rarely if ever gets an airing in mainstream Western culture.

Africa wasn’t destined to be a war-ruined bread-basket. It’s only like that now in places because we made it that way. We impoverished it, exploited it, and murdered and enslaved millions of its people. If we hadn’t, twenty-first century African societies might be just as ‘advanced’ as ours are, possibly even more so.

Black Panther is still problematic in places – although to be fair, that’s almost always the fault of its 1960s source material (the work of not very woke white American men).

It plays up the idea that Africa is somehow inherently ‘tribal’ and exotic. Even in otherwise super-enlightened Wakanda, the nearest thing they have to elections is when ‘chiefs’ from the country’s different ‘tribes’ have a big fight with spears. The winner becomes the titular Black Panther, Wakanda’s absolutist monarch.

Watching it, I was zapped back to my African history papers at university. What’s thought of as ‘traditional’ African culture usually isn’t traditional at all. When European colonialists arrived on the continent, they often altered the structure of the societies they encountered to make them easier to control.

Many African cultures didn’t have ‘chiefs’ or ‘tribes’. White imperialists introduced these concepts – choosing compliant locals to become ‘chieftains’, who got to enjoy a degree of power and prestige in exchange for doing whatever the Europeans told them too.

But it’s possible I’m overthinking a knockabout action flick. Here’s the bottom line. Black Panther is only a comic book movie. I repeat – like all other multimillion-dollar distractions, it shouldn’t exist.

But it does – and unlike the vast majority of others, it has the potential to change the way the people think about race, about imperialism, and about Africa’s past, present and future. And you can’t say that about Iron Man 3.