Will Wakanda Actually Liberate the Black Diaspora?

February 25, 2018

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Image: Marvel Studios

… that’s certainly the hopeful message we’re left with at the end of the epochal film Black Panther. But I think it’s worth some deeper thought.

I finally watched, and thankfully loved, Black Panther this week. I was willfully swept up in all the magic and hype of the film. Was it perfect? No. Did it need to be perfect for me to enjoy it? No. As Trevor Noah put it, it was a great film — period — it was just extra special for much of the Black audience.

There is much to unpack in the film, and frankly, many people far more eloquent and informed than I are doing just that. But what I couldn’t resist, was the opportunity to think out loud about the possibilities for Black liberation both imagined and missed through the film.

As a person of Ethiopian descent, born and raised in North America, I was touched and inspired by the way that the film connected the histories and struggles of Black people both on the Continent and throughout the world. Equally important is the way that we can see the complexities and cleavages within these communities, which is most poignantly explored through the storyline of Erik Kilmonger (everyone’s favourite anti-villain).

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Image: Marvel Studios

Through Erik, the film explores how colonization, slavery, migration, and geopolitical forces differentiate, and often alienate, global Black populations from each other. This was an important balance to the pan-Africanist themes, because a Pollyanna-esque ‘we’re all the same people’ would have been far less interesting and intellectually useful in my opinion.

By the end of the film, T’Challa (king of Wakanda and the Black Panther) has a moral reckoning about the wealth of his country’s resources in relation to the economic deprivation of Black populations around the world. One of the end-credit scenes includes the king standing in front of the United Nations wetting the appetites of the world’s leaders.

An Anglo-European delegate retorts, “With all due respect, what would a developing, farming country have to offer the rest of us?” T’Challa smirks and without a word, communicates to the audience that Wakanda is here to save the day. With all the action scenes and heroics throughout, in many ways this is framed as the ultimate superhero moment of the film.

But it left me wondering, if the film kept rolling, what would we actually see? Is there anything in the film that would lead us to believe that a social and economic development project led by Wakanda would actually lead to Black liberation and empowerment around the world? I want to believe so, but I can’t say that I’m convinced.

As far as I can tell, it looks like Wakanda will embed itself within the global economic power structure rather than dismantle it. As much as I enjoyed the side-splitting one-liners made possible by having the White CIA operative character in the film, it was boring (if not, disappointing) to see America represented as a benign and bumbling force in the world, rather than an imperialist one. You’re left with the sense that the U.S. would be an ally to Wakanda in a new world order, which doesn’t sound very much like a new world order to me.

In one of the final scenes, we see T’Challa and his sister Shuri standing in front of a housing project in Oakland, the one where their father killed their uncle. He reveals that he bought the buildings in the area, and plans to build Wakanda’s first outreach centre in the neighbourhood. Then the Wakandan spaceship lands in the middle of the outdoor court, little kids run to it in amazement, and Shuri scurries over and excitedly begins to tell them about all the cool technology.

Will this outreach centre, and all the prospective social programs T’Challa alludes to, be any different from the scores of international development initiatives in Africa today? It certainly doesn’t sound any different, so perhaps the only difference is that it is led by Black people. Is that really enough?

I pose these questions, not necessarily as a critique of the film, though it could very well be. I am more interested in the opportunity to open up some critical discussion within global Black communities about the ways that we can work to uplift each other, and the traps we should be careful not to fall into.

As populations and incomes rise in the African diaspora, there are more opportunities and calls to action for diaspora-led development on the Continent. We have more Black people in positions of economic and political power in the West (hey Obama!), and more opportunities to speak on behalf of ourselves and others who look like us. Yes, all of this is in itself revolutionary, but the novelty will wear off eventually.

True freedom, true liberation, and true empowerment for Black people will need new approaches, new systems, and new ways of thinking.

There is no guarantee that development initiatives in Africa will be any more effective because they are led by Africans in the diaspora. The entire development enterprise is built upon a history of exploitation and power imbalance that needs to be reckoned with first. Obama is my homeboy, but let’s be real, he was still implicit in all kinds of problematic domestic and international policies that maintained rather than challenged the status quo.

So, I too will chant ‘Wakanda Forever!’, but here’s to hoping T’Challa’s smirk meant he has something truly badass and revolutionary up his sleeve.

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