That last statement probably requires some explanation, so let me begin by telling you a story.
There was once a magical land, hidden in a mountain fastness in Africa, to which it was death for any outsider to go. The kings of this land were wise and powerful, and took steps to protect their kingdom from being known to outsiders, for they knew that the treasure which they held would lay them open to the rapine of the white colonisers. There was, however, warfare within this kingdom, and one king raised his hand against his brother, killing him, leaving his brother's son alone and unprotected in the outside world. This is the story of that brother's return to reclaim his rightful place on the throne. This is the story of King Solomon's Mines – the very imagined world from which Allan Quatermain comes.
Sound familiar? If you've seen Black Panther, it certainly should.
I went into this film having heard and read quite a lot of discussion about its racial politics, its symbolic loading and meaning, analysis of its major themes, and so on, and my first inclination was to dismiss most of this as both giving Marvel far too much credit while simultaneously placing unreasonably heavy burdens on what was bound to be a childishly simplistic framework. In short, while the opening credits were rolling, I resolved to ignore the deep language of symbols and take Black Panther at face value. This, however, proved impossible, as the film insisted from the very start on speaking to its audience primarily in a language of symbols and tropes and, rather unfortunately, turning this language to a discussion of much weightier matters than it had the capacity to parse.
But over and above its infantile clumsiness when dealing with the politics and philosophy of race, is the insidious, endemic conceptual whitewashing inherent in so much of US cinema, and of which Disney is especially guilty. Mulan somehow becomes a story about western individualism and girl power, 47 Ronin a masturbatorial European fantasy of Shogunate Japan, and Black Panther, apparently, a resurrection of the tired, parochial tropes of mysterious, magical, dark, 'mumbo jumbo' Africa. Any culture that isn't western must be viewed and ultimately distorted through a western lens such that any core ideas and values inherent within it are modified to suit pre-conceived parochial notions of 'the other'. Rather like the first dinosaur exhibits, where spines were broken and bones left out in order to make them lie flat, as their discoverers had expected them to. And what's probably most disturbing about this is that it's happened in a film predominantly made by black people.
From interviews with the cast and crew it's obvious that they sincerely believe they've created a shining example of representation and the promotion of African culture and general African-ness. But it surely must take either an entirely colonised, or at the very least somnolent mind to so happily and eagerly do so within a framework of tropes I honestly thought we'd left behind in disgust at the turn of the twentieth century. To be sure, at the heart of this film it's much more about being African American than being African, and it was therefore to be expected that we'd be dealing with a more or less imagined version of Africa, but why this one? And why in a form that seems to be almost deliberately parodying itself?
Where the film is solid is when it explores the anger of African American marginalisation, even if it does use unbelievably stilted didactism in order to do so. Michael B Jordan's abrasive appeal more than anything helped to beam this through the clunky script, posing questions you'd ordinarily expect to hear in the mouths of nine year olds with a sort of intense and furious sincerity. The feeling of the urban reality of Oakland left an enduring sense of truth in my mind. But the African sections, which comprise the bulk of the film, are a crazy and senseless jumble of colonial visions. From the sound stage environments which seem to have been deliberately modelled on the flimsily disguised analogue for Africa made by the appallingly racist Burroughs (read: John Carter), to the insane, mutually incompatible grab bag of cultural elements thrown willy nilly into a poorly meshed reversal of the noble savage trope, the entire mental landscape of the film looked and felt like the patronising products of the white west from which it draws so heavily, and so inexplicably.
A prominent example of what I'm talking about is the much lauded use of 'Amazon' bodyguards for the king. Where historical awareness of this practice originates is primarily from western contact with one King Dahomey, and the wave of feverish Victorian soft porn this generated. Dahomey was really famous for two things, one being his all female elite bodyguard, and the other for being the most prolific seller of African slaves to the English and Portugese on the entire continent. Even making all possible allowances for the general historic amnesia and mindlessness of the Marvel ouevre, is the resurrection of this trope really being presented as an actual advance in representation? And what am I supposed to make of it as a symbol? This representational choice is either deliberately offensive, or just downright silly.
Equally irritating is the mad insistence on magic, ancestor worship, and ritual. Intentionally or no, what this reinforces – relentlessly hammers home, in fact – is the idea of 'mysterious Africa', a continent apparently exclusively inhabited by witch doctors, shaman, painted warriors, and other variations of 'noble savage'. Can the film makers and, even more surprisingly, the audience, really be unaware of this glaring subtext? That's difficult for me to understand, as it's right on the edge of being so blatant it no longer qualifies as one. Is it really possible that nobody has parsed the underlying Eurocentrism of this imagining? Or that they have, and don't care, because here's a movie full of black people and we'll take it on any terms we can get? Is that really the level to which the discourse has sunk?
And then there's the central thesis of the film, insofar as it has one, that all of the African diaspora can and should be united by a kind of imagined ideal of Africa, and that this can also be extended to all people. The 'all people' bit feels a bit tacked on, but I'm totally at peace with that. What I'm not at peace with is where this imagined Africa originates. Basically, in the fevered, racist imaginations of non-Africans. Marvel, being myth-makers, have obvious limits on how progressive any story they tell can be, myth being by its very nature parochial and conservative. But in the case of Black Panther, I feel this parochialism to be toxic.
I left the cinema with the nagging sense that the makers had somehow been tricked into conniving at their own stereotyping and marginalisation, and, along with much of the audience, conned into celebrating the act of so doing.