What ‘Black Panther’ Says (Or Doesn’t Say) About African Identity | WBEZ
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Worldview

'Black Panther': What Wakanda Reveals About Identity, ‘Deep State,’ Regime Change, And The ‘Resource Curse’

Black Panther isn’t just shattering box office records — it’s sparking a worldwide conversation on Africa and black identity. The movie, subtly and overtly, also interrogates regime change, imperialism, and the resource curse, the concept that damns resource-rich countries, like Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo to radical inequality and autocracy.

Some of the world’s greatest thinkers also debate what Black Panther’s hero, King T’Challa, and the mythical central African nation of Wakanda say about patriarchy, colonialism, and geopolitics. A teacher on Chicago’s South Side has even developed curriculum on the Black Panther universe.

To discuss Black Panther, Worldview host Jerome McDonnell  talks to: 

  • Ainehi Edoro, assistant professor of global Anglophone literatures at Marquette University and founder of brittlepaper.com. She recently co-authored the article “Africa is a Country in Wakanda” in Africa is a Country.

  • Christopher Lebron, associate professor of philosophy at Johns Hopkins University, whose recent article in the Boston Review is “'Black Panther' Is Not the Movie We Deserve

  • Nicola Woodroffe, legal analyst for the Natural Resource Governance Institute, whose recent article is “Beyond Wakanda’s Way: 'Africanizing' Mining Sector Benefits

Below are some interview highlights. (And yes, spoilers.)

Kilmonger’s problematic representation

Christopher Lebron: Killmonger is filtered through the CIA. My big problem of the movie is the portrayal of American blackness. You have this guy who's gone to MIT, joins the CIA, and has become the world's most elite killer. So in this black body, you have a person who's highly intelligent, but will really be known for how dangerous and murderous he is. But his motivations are benevolent, and he’s going to help save an African country from itself. So there’s an off reversal of sympathies. Meanwhile, we’re meant to have a lot of affection for this the good-guy CIA agent Everett Ross and tossle his hair as a cute little colonizer. But here's this American black man, who has legitimate anger, and we must put him down.

His desire for domination through force becomes completely decoupled from the fight for liberation when he becomes the Black Panther with a vision of his Oakland apartment. [Killmonger is] clearly a man who's been broken by grief and rage. When he comes out of that vision, he suddenly desires to burn it all. He starts shipping weapons globally. His desire for power comes from being completely abandoned by American egalitarianism and by Wakandan exceptionalism. That’s when he shifts into demagoguery, and demagoguery in that embodiment is thuggishness, no matter what the color of your skin is.

Would a democracy work in Wakanda?

Nicola Woodroffe: Wakanda gives us this idyllic picture of this very technologically advanced society that seems to be doing very well. It's managed its mineral wealth--Vibranium--very effectively. Several real African countries are in the top 10 producers of minerals like copper, gold, cobalt, and uranium.But the picture of Wakanda is obviously very different than much of the African continent. Often, extraction is dominated by foreign companies with very little participation by locals.

The question we can imagine is whether the wealth in Wakanda is being evenly distributed across the country, between different groups, and the top. There is a civil war in the film, at the beginning and end of the movie, after all. Rule of Law, property rights, and good resource management aren’t always dependent on a fully Western-style democratic regime, but we can imagine that Wakanda is at risk. Later kings can take the country in a negative direction because of a lack of strong institutions. But you wonder if a movement towards democracy would foment further ethnic tensions and inequality as you often see in diverse countries. They don’t always have a sense of national interest.

African Utopia?

Ainehi Edoro: The utopian aesthetics of Black Panther, the costumes and the landscapes, are stunningly beautiful. The issue I had was how familiar it appeared. For a movie that is trying to imagine an Africa as it’s never been, an Africa that’s never been colonized, and an Africa that is so well-managed, to imagine something too anthropologically true to Africa is problematic. The way they deployed existing iconographies of Africa didn’t push the utopian impulse as far as they could have. You see the Mursi lip plates, the Zulu hats, Kente fabric. This is an Africa you already know, so it makes the Wakandan community really less diverse because you can lump them all together as a sort of “Africa as a country.”

I think this is in part because the filmmakers are Americans. So even if they were African-Americans, they still see Africa through a very Western view. There’s a sense that Africa, as it is, is already novel to them. To an American, Mursi lip plates already look futuristic. So instead of making them look futuristic, the filmmakers thought it was simple enough to imagine an African futuristic world with what already exists. 

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the “play” button to listen to the entire conversation. 

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