Superhero comics were created to boost the image of whites as the world’s progenitors and purveyors of justice, peace and security. Likewise, Hollywood has earned its reputation as the quintessential flagbearer of American cultural imperialism for well over a century.
The two cultural agencies have had a long, intimate relationship. Their mission has not changed. It is therefore worthwhile to consider critically how Walt Disney’s blockbuster film, based on Marvel Comics’ superhero, Black Panther, has taken the world of cinemagoers by storm.
As is customary with blockbusters, the euphoria is being masterminded partly by record-breaking promotional hype, intensified after the premiering of the film last week. Having only accessed previews of the film and cable interviews of the leading performers, I am unqualified to critique the film but I reference it, nevertheless, because it is an ideal blurb to the sequel to my last column on Black Power that is totally unrelated to the film.
The main actors and actresses in Black Panther concur that it is a manifestation of African potency historically denied by a large segment of the world’s population. Film critic, Billy Niles, describes the film as the “first-of-its-kind cast for a comic book movie” (“How a Marvel movie became one of 2018’s most revolutionary films,” in E-News).
Most commentators agree with Niles that what makes Black Panther revolutionary is its “predominantly black cast […] set in a prosperous (if fictional) African nation, that didn’t focus squarely on the historical global suffering of black people.” Niles reminds us that hitherto such a proposition for a commercial film “would get you laughed at out of the room.”
Similarly, after naming the lead actors in the film, the inimitable television-and-film superstar Will Smith complimented the cast: “You guys have challenged and, potentially, even shattered a lot of the long-time, long-held false Hollywood beliefs and paradigms” of Africa. This is a great compliment coming from the first African American to be cast as a superhero, John Hancock in 2008.
For radio critic, Dr Hughley, the strength of Black Panther is its “positive reinforcement” of Africans and Africa. It was the first time that he has seen so many black people in a film and no one was a slave. He notes en passant that the entertainment industry has decisively shaped the way we think and act.
Hughley’s point is well illustrated in the T&T Carnival. Prior to the mid-1950s, the prime material for Trinidad Carnival portrayals of Africa came from Hollywood films, which persistently presented the continent and its people as “primitive and uncivilized.” Pamela Franco’s chapter in the book, Trinidad Carnival: The Cultural Politics of a Transnational Festival (edited by G. A. Green & P. W. Scher, 2007), identifies some of those bands as “Ju-Ju Warriors,” “South African Zulus,” “African Congo Warriors” and “Heroes of the Dark Continent.”
“These early depictions,” Franco affirms, “reinforced the Western imagining of a savage and wild continent.”
In 1957, revolutionary bandleader George Bailey started an artistic movement to reclaim Africa from Hollywood, beginning with his portrayal, “Back to Africa,” which won the Band of the Year title. Interestingly, the favourite for the title was “The Glory That was Greece,” the portrayal by another legendary bandleader, Harold Saldenah.
Referencing anonymous “carnival aficionados,” Franco captures the spirit of the late 1950s in interpreting “Bailey’s victory over Saldenah as Africa’s triumph over Europe (colonialism).” This triumph was most emphatically underscored by Kwame Nkrumah’s declaration of the independence of Ghana on Ash Wednesday 1957, the very day after Bailey’s victory.
It is to be noted that Niles found it necessary to parenthetically remind readers that Black Panther is all “fictional.” We are, therefore, not surprised that sceptics are already zeroing in on the film. One of these counterpoints with some legitimacy is that of Christopher Lebron who suggests that the plot of the film subliminally ensures that it is not seen as a threat to white supremacy (“‘Black Panther’ is not the Movie We Deserve,” in Boston Review: A Political and Literary Forum).
So, how far removed from Black Panther is Hollywood’s World War l first colonialist film, Tarzan of the Apes? According to Lebron, it is not far at all. Lebron recalls that, in some of the earlier comic book stereotypes of Africa and Africans, the noblest goals could easily degenerate into chaos. One example of this is the threat to Wakanda’s stability posed by the internecine struggle between T’Challa and his cousin, Killmonger.
The latest film also preserves the colonisers’ celebration of white heroism for “saving Africans from themselves,” as reflected in the role of sole white leading protagonist, CIA agent, Everett Ross (Martin Freeman). Lebron also sees a reflection of the older imperialist theme of the destruction of African American manhood by portraying the character “who has rightly identified white supremacy as the reigning threat to black-well-being” as “the bad guy.”
My prime interest in focusing on the Black Panther film is its value in the discourse on “blackness” and its illumination of “Black” as trope for historicizing the dialectics of black identities. In Part Two of this article, I will attempt to trace some of the major epistemological issues pertaining to “Black” as a problematic ethnographic label.
The Black Panther character was created as a Marvel comic book superhero in July 1966 by two American Jews, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Lee and Kirby underscore the Jewish control of the American communications and entertainment industries.
Why did Lee and Kirby put a “Black” handle to their Panther character? After all, nature’s panther is “any black feline of the big cat family” and may be a leopard or jaguar; In other words, it is superfluous to add black to panther.
Interestingly, F Sanquist, writing in National Lifetime Magazine vol. 45, states that the panther’s melanin is a beneficial evolutionary trait, conferring “selective advantage,” meaning that its melanin makes it a greater candidate in Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory of the survival of the fittest.
Not surprisingly, the panther was the perfect totemic animal of the interlocking Civil Rights and Black Power movements in the US, and most likely, influenced the choice of name for the quasi-military and formal political wing of these movements, the Black Panther Party.
Four months after the launch of Marvel’s Black Panther in 1966, Bobby Seale and Huey Newton founded the Black Panther Party (BPP). Although the launch of the BPP is a classic example of entertainment determining popular thought and action, the BPP was not copycatting Marvel’s superhero; rather, the party was born out of its own necessity to respond robustly to racially motivated police brutality and the complete disdain for Black lives throughout the USA, especially the public assassination of Malcolm X in February 1965 and the police killing of teenaged Matthew Johnson in San Francisco in September 1966.
It could be safely said that Johnson’s killing was the final straw in the founding of the BPP.
The Black Panther Party claimed that it embraced violence as a last resort because the panther attacks only “if the aggressor strikes first.” Essentially, the BPP pursued a Garveyite programme of self-empowerment in establishing free health clinics and other social programmes across several states to support and empower the less fortunate.
If anything, the BPP’s connection to Kirby and Lee’s creation is symbiotic. The Marvel comic character most likely lent its name to the BPP, but reciprocally, the agenda of the BPP is infused in Marvel’s Black Panther, as demonstrated in the preoccupation of the character N’Jobu (Sterling Brown) with acquiring vibranium technology to help African Americans overcome racism and other forms of oppression. Film critic Lebron confirms that the parallel reflects the revolutionary potential of the BPP.
Although the BPP was a reflection (at least in name) of Marvel’s Black Panther, the highly positive reviews of the film are all the more surprising in light of the fact that it readily recalls the heady days of the BPP, the nemesis of the FBI and white police establishment.
The rise of a New Black Panther Party in 1989 also attracted the negative reaction of Federal agencies, though the veterans of the original BPP have disavowed any association with it. For example, The US Commission on Civil Rights tags the NBPP “a hate group.”
The Black Panther of 1966 was a departure from earlier comic book representations of black people. In the 1930s, Lee Falk, another American Jew, had created “Mandrake the Magician” (allegedly, America’s first superhero) and “The Phantom,” arguably the two most popular comic book characters prior to the age of Marvel.
In both series, a white superior human is assisted by a black sidekick, Guran and Lothar respectively, whose most iconic trait is unshakable loyalty to and protectiveness of their white bosses.
In 1940, a third major comic book series, “The Spirit,” was launched by another American Jew, Will Eisner. His main characters were faithful to the white supremacy-black subordination motifs: a white detective, Denny Colt (The Spirit) and his black sidekick, Ebony White, a sort of Minstrel character (as the name itself implies), reflecting perfectly the three-fifths electoral value of African Americans: his is short in stature, with huge lips, bulging eyes.
It should not be left unnoted that, prior to Marvel giving the world the Black Panther superhero in 1966, they had appropriated and whitewashed another black hero for themselves, Spider-Man/Spiderman, four years earlier.
In Africa and the African diaspora, Anansi, the spider god-spider man, was always black until his reincarnation as Marvel’s Spider-Man, complete with the spider logo that any visitor to Cape Coast Castle could see painted on a short stela in the front courtyard.
Both the Black Panther and Super-Man characters enshrine fundamental aspects of African spirituality, that is, the assimilation of human and animal nature. Among the most iconic of these manifestations are the great Kemetic/Egyptian deities; three of them are Heru/Horus, the Falcon god; Ma’at, the winged goddess of cosmic harmony, political ethics and societal morality and Tehuti/Thoth, the Ibis-headed god of wisdom and guardian of the scale of truth in the judgement of the soul in the passage to the afterlife.
Anansi is an original Akan (Ghanaian) spiritual concept materialized in Spider-Man. West African and West Central African folklore abounds with these spiritual elements, representing both sides of the moral-ethical universe, many of which have survived in the folklore of the Caribbean.
The Jewish-White capitalist subversion of these African manifestations contributed nothing to black empowerment and pride. Most critics so far agree that Black Panther 2 has changed all that. Only time will tell. I am convinced, however, that it will take much more than one blockbuster film to eradicate universal racism or even its systems of oppression and injustice in the US alone. Hollywood’s subversion of Kemetic Pharaohs continues with little or no challenge.
The same can be said of its subversion of the image of Jesus the Christ and most of the prophets of the Old Testament. Only the liberation of these iconic figures from the current framework of white capitalists’ imagination would mark a true revolution in values by Hollywood.
Included in such revolution must be Hollywood’s recognition of the long list of real-life superheroes within Africa and its global diaspora, from Hannibal to Yaa Asantewa and from Toussaint Louverture to the Tuskegee Airmen.