Professor L. Zaher
May 11, 2018.
Blank Panther: A Simulated Reality
This year’s Black Panther (Ryan Coogler, 2018) released by Marvel Studios within the context of their pantheonic “Cinematic Universe,” like its heroic, Nietszchean (regarding his philosophies of the “Uberman”) counterparts, explores an alternative world where people have great powers and the consequences of such powers. The Black Panther, however, pioneers a simulation of a reality where a minority group reigns sovereign in a kind of golden city, untainted by the outside world’s cruelty and imperial powers. Instead of bestowing ungodly powers to cis, white males who already bear maximal power in our current reality, power is placed in the hands of those who have been robbed of it. In addition to this turning of the tables, the inescapable truth that people have been marginalized and abused for their differences is not ignored in order to serve the goal of reversing the power structure on screen. Instead, both versions of history share the screen space and it is this very dissonance that drives the conflict of the story.
One cannot grasp the relationships of the film’s characters without an understanding of how place implicates their societies, most notably the fictional nation of Wakanda. Wakanda is like a variable in an algorithm one would use to program a simulation of reality. Wakanda is the answer to “What if there was somewhere left in the African continent that remained untouched by slavery and imperialism?” This question is addressed as much through the visual, physical culture of the story, as much if not more than through dialogue and monologue. Both how they would survive the colonial moment in history through isolation and how the Wakandan society would appear today because of it, is attributed generally to the power they derive from “Vibranium” a chemical compound especially native to their land that powers their technologies. This technology is crucial but not responsible for the way they preserve not only their lives but their lifestyles: their dress, ritual and social structures. That responsibility falls to the decision to isolate them selves in order to preserve their technology and their lifestyles enabled by that technology.
The implication of this variable is yet another question: “Is it morally sound to allow others to suffer, even if you could do something, so that you can have a chance at protecting yourself and your own people.” The filmmakers cannot nor do they want to tell you, if there is an answer, what that answer may be. Through the character of Killmonger (who, played by Michael B. Jordan, is the film’s main antagonist though not as straightforward as an archetypal villain), they instead inspire further questions such as: “Who are and who are not, your people?” Killmonger’s character, having been deprived of acceptance by a community in his native land of Wakanda and in the United States where he has grown up in a minority social group in a lower class community, is an argument that such isolation is not justified as it is as much an abandonment of their own kin as Killmonger’s father’s actions were a betrayal of Wakanda, which from his perspective, was an obligation to save a world-wide family of disenfranchised Black people. This argument is driven home symbolically by the fact that Killmonger himself is of Wakandan blood.
However, Killmonger himself provides justification for their isolation by acting as an imperial power himself. He acts as an overpowered intruder that abuses the technological and social power he becomes bestowed with and literally overturns and sets aflame the life force of their society—the “heart-shaped flower” that is related to the vibranium compound and that bestows one with the power of the Black Panther. Such a mantle and the gift from the Earth that offers it, is a living symbol wrought with spiritual, ancestral, and ritualistic significance. This scene of absolute destruction and irreverence is exquisitely captured in the “Burn it all/ Taking the Throne” sequence where Killmonger walks down a corridor surrounded by the fires he started, followed by the screen slowly turning upside down as he takes a seat on a stolen throne.
The film presents all the questions regarding what should have been done, and what happens as a result of difficult choices made. It reveals many poor decisions made with good intentions or, possibly good decisions made with many people hurt and left in the wake, quite literally as put by Killmonger at the film’s end. The aftermath of the moral ambivalence on this seeming-polarity is tragically but powerfully captured in Killmonger’s last words: “Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from ships, 'cause they knew death was better than bondage.” The power of this moment is in how it reaches out from the screen and reverberates through the real world by restoring dignity and agency on screen to those who had in our reality, been deprived it.
The film does not try to dictate morally but instead to provoke and inspire. In a video essay by Erik Voss on the Youtube Channel “New Rockstars” he paraphrases the director, Ryan Coogler’s struggle in deciding how to conclude the film. After many deliberations Coogler chose to end how it opened, coming full circle in Oakland where the film’s conflict began. This setting, this space, is cleansed with the same revelation that is necessarily followed by Wakanda’s official entrance onto the world stage at the UN conference that takes place during the mid-credit scene. This editing choice suggests that the Black Panther’s role is not only to defend Wakanda from outside intrusion but to raise it up to its full potential as a harbinger of good for a world-wide kinship and to atone as best one can for lost time and mistakes made. It also suggests that revelation directed towards those whom it will impact most significantly is of equal, if not more importance than to an institution or bureaucracy (later on in this paper, the relationship between the institution and the general “people” will be explored further). The Black Panther film is an exemplary model for how to wield the power of artistic expression to explore critically but also open-mindedly how the world did operate, how it does and how it can.
This story reflects the experience of personhood at several levels: psychological in the personal torment of characters like the Black Panther and Killmonger as they explore their thoughts and feelings in scenes like those in the ancestral plane, which brings the viewer to the interpersonal and the importance of family and social structures—especially how they can function in atypical and non-oppressive ways: as matriarchs, rulers, daughters as scientists and engineers, and female citizens as warriors, and the macro-social in the national Wakandan monarchist tradition and the introduction of an international presence. One of the strongest qualities regarding these various ontological explorations is the seamlessness between them. There is a conscious regard of the categorizing tendency of the “post-modernist” condition regarding identity. It is rare and refreshing to see such a socially conscious and equally cohesive approach in popular media. In what has been considered the “high art” world and at the forefront of critical thought, this has still been difficult to achieve. Criticisms of galleries regarding the exposition of the vast array of identities as well as the particularities that compose it, are expressed in the article Feminist Time—A Conversation: “Maura Reilly says in her introduction to the catalog that her intention was to emphasize differences in the worldwide feminist project, but the works seemed little connected to local particularities” (13). In this article the interviewees address concerns about approaching feminism as an “us-them” mentality and as a way to simplify the group in an honest desire for solidarity while carelessly looking over the distinct qualities of the subgroups within or simply in conjunction with feminists. Much like these criticisms regarding the institutional approach to feminism there are similar criticisms regarding the institutional approach to globalism expressed in Pamela Lee’s Boundary Issues: The Art World Under The Sign of Globalism:
Typically, the ways in which the art world has addressed the global question rest with the logic of representation. Representation assumes several meanings in this context: It pertains, first, to the institutional visibility of the discourse around globalism, the degree to which museums, galleries, critics, artists, and cultural consumers feel the need to pay attention to the topic, and second, to the diversity of artists, locations, and cultural perspectives increasingly included in the art world’s discourse (166).
Where these institutional settings have struggled to approach the particularities under the large themes they wish to simplify, the Black Panther film simply lets the complexity be. The filmmaker’s awareness of this struggle of the institution is expressed directly in an early scene in the film where Killmonger corrects the gallery attendant about the origins of certain exhibited pieces. There is a clear concern about how cultural content and information is shared without consultation of those who it belongs to.
As if it was not difficult enough to represent the female and global experiences as large, complex entities in their own right, on top of that the Black Panther film succeeds in reflecting the conjunctive nature of the two and how the two are also implicated by and implicate the Black experience. Globalism is reflected in the exploration of isolationism and internationalism and is nuanced by the distinct experiences of Black people in the African continent and of Black people whose identities are meshed with identification with many distant nations, such is the case for African Americans like Killmonger. Feminism is reflected in the restoration of power to women in the same manner it is restored to Black people in this simulation of an alternate reality. In this reality the mother is a leader, the daughter is an inventor, the wife is a warrior and a woman can live outside of any such role and simply be described by her level-headedness, sound advise and skilled espionage. As in earlier examples, social dynamics are reflected in visual language. One powerful example is found when Okoye, the leader of the band of female warriors: the “Dora Milaje” is confronted by her husband charging towards her on the back of a rhinoceros in the film’s climactic battle. There is a humorous and touching, but also powerful moment when the rhinoceros arrests before her, presumably recognizing her scent or image. This moment implies a re-imagination or interrogation of what true power is. It suggests that there is power in compassion and empathy, not simply in battle strength. This moment is followed by a spectacular use of character blocking, the wide-angle shot and especially role-reversal. In this moment the men that are charging against the Dora Milaje on behalf of Killmonger all halt and bow before the women. Both in dress, how they bear their weapons and their stance, the women exude a kind of just, balanced, dignified power and the men express a kind of solemn apology and oblige. Just as the film reflects the various ways of experiencing blackness it reflects the nuanced ways of experiencing femininity. One example of that nuance can be found in yet again another fight scene with Okoye, where she carries herself differently, in a confined, frustrated way when she is wearing a wig styled in accordance with white-typified standards of beauty. When she removes the wig she carries herself in that dignified, powerful way that is seen in that climactic scene mentioned above. In this moment, which takes place in Korea in an off-the-grid cocktail lounge full of the elite from around the world, feminism, globalism and Black identity all fold atop one another and the attempt to simplify them into a singular image is clearly suffocating and is discarded altogether, illustrated by the disposal of the wig. In these types of details the filmmakers weave a picture that allows for complexities in identity. Artists have the privilege of exploring ideas and schemas outside of our given reality and with that privilege comes a power to inspire people to shape the reality we have been given in bold and ingenious ways. This argument interrogates a long-time division in the art world between “high” and “low” art, between the “Avant-Garde” and the “Kitsch,” and in more approachable terms: the “underground” and the “mass media.” Lawrence Alloway surmises in his essay The Arts and the Mass Media: “It is no good giving a literary critic modern science fiction to review, no good sending the theatre critic to the movies, and no good asking the music critic for an opinion on Elvis Presley” (1). The Black Panther film is a rebuttal to this claim enacted in process. It animates the dissidence against this presumption that Alloway himself expresses at the end of this same essay: “Our definition of culture is being stretched beyond the fine art limits imposed on it by Renaissance theory, and refers now, increasingly, to the whole complex of human activities. Within this definition, rejection of the mass produced arts is not, as critics think, a defence of culture but an attack on it” (4). Unfortunately, it is easy to try and reject the elitist claim, fall short and encourage confidence in the divisive stance. Ever worse, one such as Coogler, Marvel and all others involved can succeed at making something artistically and socially remarkable and some will still maintain that the two can never coincide. It is futile and unnecessary to persuade everyone that a work for the masses can be artistically beautiful or compelling. It matters that artists try. It matters that artists explore the foundations of the paradigms built by those who have come before. It matters that artists are socially conscious while creating and try to share their art with the very people who are implicated by it. In an age of heightened connectivity and accessibility it is wonderful to seize the opportunity to seminate thoughtful work to as many people as could benefit from it. It is ridiculous to expect that the majority of humanity is less capable than a select few of critically appreciating art. This position services the sorts of division that works like Black Panther are interrogating. As is famously known from an earlier Marvel Franchise, and fixed to pulp by Stan Lee himself: “With great power comes great responsibility.” As artists we ought to use the tools and inspiration we have been given to explore worlds outside our own, ones that inform the one we currently have.
Alloway, Lawrence. "The Arts and the Mass Media." Architectural Design & Construction, Feb. 1958.
"Black Panther DELETED SCENES Revealed!" Youtube, uploaded by New Rockstars, 28 Feb. 2018, www.youtube.com/watch?v=2t4K73OOp1A. Accessed 10 May 2018.
Deutsche, Rosalyn, et al. "Feminist Time: A Conversation." Grey Room, no. 31, Spring 2008, pp. 32-67.
Lee, Pamela. "Boundary Issues: The Art World Under The Sign of Globalism." Art Forum, vol. 42, Nov. 2003, pp. 165-67.