By Jelani Cobb
The Maison des Esclaves stands on the rocky shore of Gorée Island, off the coast of Senegal, like a great red tomb. During the years of its operation, the building served as a rendezvous point for slavers trafficking in a seemingly inexhaustible resource: Africans, whose very bodies became the wealth of white men.
A portal known as the “Door of No Return,” leading to the slave ships, offered the forlorn captives a last glimpse of home, before they were sown to the wind and sold in the West. For nearly four centuries, this traffic continued, seeding the populations of the Caribbean, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, and Central and North America, and draining societies of their prime populations while fomenting civil conflict among them in order to more effectively cull their people.
On the high seas, the vessels jettisoned bodies in such terrible numbers that the poet Amiri Baraka once wrote, “At the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean there’s a railroad made of human bones.”
I visited Gorée Island in 2003, with a group of black academics, just days after George W. Bush had come to the island and offered platitudes about the cruelties of human history but stopped short of apologizing for the United States’ role in the transatlantic slave trade. Residents of the island greeted us in the markets like long-lost kin. We repeatedly heard some version of “Welcome home, my black brothers and sisters!”
Two feuding ancestries conjoined by a hyphen
But, later, over dinner, a Senegalese guide casually informed us that we were neither their siblings nor even distant kin to Africa, implying that the greetings in the market had been merely a clever sales tactic directed at gullible black Americans who travel to the continent in search of roots, as if they were abused foster kids futilely seeking their birth parents.
“You are Americans. That is all,” she said. This exchange took place fifteen years ago, but I can still recall the way her words hung in the air, like a guilty verdict. The policy of “No Return,” she suggested, applied to distant descendants, too.
There is a fundamental dissonance in the term “African-American,” two feuding ancestries conjoined by a hyphen. That dissonance—a hyphen standing in for the brutal history that intervened between Africa and America—is the subject of “Black Panther,” Ryan Coogler’s brilliant first installment of the story of Marvel Comics’ landmark black character.
“I have a lot of pain inside me,” Coogler told an audience at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, on Wednesday night. “We were taught that we lost the things that made us African.
We lost our culture, and now we have to make do with scraps.” Black America is constituted overwhelmingly by the descendants of people who were not only brought to the country against their will but were later inducted into an ambivalent form of citizenship without their input.
The Fourteenth Amendment, which granted citizenship to all those born here, supposedly resolved the question of the status of ex-slaves, though those four million individuals were not consulted in its ratification. The unspoken yield of this history is the possibility that the words “African” and “American” should not be joined by a hyphen but separated by an ellipsis.
Our sensibilities are accustomed to Marvel films offering clear lines of heroism and villainy, but “Black Panther” dispatches with its putative villain, Ulysses Klaue, a white South Africa-based arms dealer, halfway through the film.
The words “African” and “American” should not be joined by a hyphen but separated by an ellipsis
Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa, the Black Panther and the King of Wakanda, confronts Erik Killmonger, a black American mercenary, played by Michael B. Jordan, as a rival, but the two characters are essentially duelling responses to five centuries of African exploitation at the hands of the West. The villain, to the extent that the term applies, is history itself.
Wakanda is a technologically advanced kingdom in Central Africa that was never colonized by any Western power. T’Challa, the noble leader of an unvanquished people, upholds the isolationism that has always kept the kingdom safe; Killmonger, driven by the horrors that befell those who were stolen from the continent, envisions a world revolution, led by Wakanda, to upend the status quo.
When Killmonger arrives there, after the death of King T’Chaka (the father of T’Challa), he sets in motion a reckoning not only with his rival but with broader questions of legitimacy, lineage, and connection. Black Panther, as Ryan Coogler pointed out in Brooklyn, has been an inherently political character since his inception, during the Black Power era of the nineteen-sixties.
He is a refutation of the image of the lazy and false African, promulgated in the white world and subscribed to even by many in the black one. Coogler told Marvel up front that his version of the story would remain true to those political elements.
It is shot through with the sense of longing and romance common to the way that people of a diaspora envision their distant homeland.
Like the comics on which they are based, the Marvel movies, in general, have not shied away from political concerns. “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” released in 2014, grapples with ideas of preëmptive warfare, drones, and the surveillance state, as elements of the war on terror. The first “Iron Man” film, from 2008, addressed war profiteering and arms contractors at a time when the United States was still heavily involved in Iraq.
“Captain America” is a fantastic riff on the nation’s idealism, filtered through the lens of the Second World War
Yet nothing in Marvel’s collection of films is or could be political in the same way as “Black Panther,” because, in those other stories, we were at least clear about where the lines of fantasy departed from reality.
“Captain America” is a fantastic riff on the nation’s idealism, filtered through the lens of the Second World War, a historic event whose particulars, however horrific and grandly inhumane, are not in dispute.
“Black Panther,” however, exists in an invented nation in Africa, a continent that has been grappling with invented versions of itself ever since white men first declared it the “dark continent,” and set about plundering its people and its resources.
This fantasy of Africa as a place bereft of history was politically useful, justifying imperialism. It found expression in the highest echelons of Western thought, and took on the contours of truth.
In 1748, the Scottish philosopher David Hume wrote, “I am apt to suspect the Negroes, and all other species of men . . . to be naturally inferior to the whites. There never was any civilized nation of any complexion other than white.”
“Perhaps, in the future, there will be some African history to teach. But at present there is none…”
Two centuries later, the British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper wrote, “Perhaps, in the future, there will be some African history to teach. But at present there is none, or very little: there is only the history of the Europeans in Africa.”
Africa—or, rather, “Africa”—is a creation of a white world and the literary, academic, cinematic, and political mechanisms that it used to give mythology the credibility of truth. No such nation as Wakanda exists on the map of the continent, but that is entirely beside the point. Wakanda is no more or less imaginary than the Africa conjured by Hume or Trevor-Roper, or the one canonized in such Hollywood offerings as “Tarzan.”
It is a redemptive counter-mythology. Most filmmakers start by asking their audiences to suspend their disbelief. But, with Africa, Coogler begins with a subject about which the world had suspended its disbelief four centuries before he was born.
The film is a nearly seamless dramatic chronicle of the threat created when Killmonger travels to the African nation he descends from.
Yet some of the most compelling points in the story are those where the stitching is most apparent. Killmonger is a native of Oakland, California, where the Black Panther Party was born. (In an early scene, a poster of Huey P. Newton, the co-founder of the Party, hangs on a wall, next to a Public Enemy poster.)
A connection, however vexed, tenuous, and complicated, among the continent’s scattered descendants
In an impeccably choreographed fight sequence, T’Challa with General Okoye, the leader of Wakanda’s all-female militia, brilliantly played by Danai Gurira, and Nakia, a wily Wakandan spy played by Lupita Nyong’o, confront a Boko Haram-like team of kidnappers.
At the same time, it is all but impossible not to notice that Coogler has cast a black American, a Zimbabwean-American, and a Kenyan as a commando team in a film about African redemption. The cast also includes Winston Duke, who is West Indian, Daniel Kaluuya, a black Brit, and Florence Kasumba, a black woman from Germany.
The implicit statement in both the film’s themes and its casting is that there is a connection, however vexed, tenuous, and complicated, among the continent’s scattered descendants. Coogler said as much in Brooklyn, when he talked about a trip that he took to South Africa, as research for the film, and, after discovering cultural elements that reminded him of black communities in the United States, concluded, “There’s no way they could wipe out what we were for thousands of years. We’re African.”
There is a great deal more that differentiates “Black Panther” from other efforts in the superhero genre. The film is not about world domination by an alien invasion or a mad cabal of villains but about the implications of a version of Western domination that has been with us so long that it has become as ambient as the air.
When Shuri, Wakanda’s chief of technology and the irreverent younger sister of T’Challa, is startled by a white C.I.A. agent, she says, “Don’t scare me like that, colonizer!” When I saw the movie, the audience howled at the inversion, “colonizer” deployed as an epithet rather than a badge of cultural superiority.
In addition, Marvel has been criticized for failing to center a film on any of its female characters, but it is the female characters in “Black Panther” whose ideas and determinations dictate the terms on which the rivalry between the male protagonists plays out.
Whether history had left anyone on the continent still in a position to pass judgment…that is the question
I understand this story intuitively and personally. In my twenties, I consumed volumes of African history and histories of the slave trade, seeking out answers to the same questions that Coogler asked in South Africa, a fugitive from the idea that I descend from a place with no discernible past. I dropped my given middle name and replaced it with an African one, in an effort to make transparent that sense of connection.
On Gorée Island, I patiently listened to the guide’s argument, before pointing out to her that we were conducting our conversation in English, in a building constructed by the French, in a country that had been a colony of France, and that the issue was not whether black Americans retained any connection to Africa, but whether history had left anyone on the continent still in a position to pass judgment on that question.
Superheroes are seldom tasked with this kind of existential lifting, but that work is inescapable in the questions surrounding Wakanda and the politics of even imagining such a place. Marvel has made a great many entertaining movies in the past decade, but Ryan Coogler has made a profound one.
Jelani Cobb is a staff writer at The New Yorker and the author of “The Substance of Hope: Barack Obama and the Paradox of Progress. This film review appeared in The New Yorker.
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