Watching Black Panther in Harlem
Black Panther is a deeply satisfying, and a deeply troubling film, for what it delivers and what it does not.
Magic Johnson Theaters in Harlem, or AMC Magic Johnson Harlem 9 on Frederick Douglas Blvd to be precise, is where my children and I spend many of our weekend outings. It is the closest theatre to where we live on Columbia University campus, and closest to my heart as an urban setting that resonates deeply with a history that defines me in every major city I have lived in and loved from Tehran to Mexico City.
It’s not just the theatre itself, but also the neighbourhood – near the historic Apollo Theater – that I both love and mourn at one and the same time. I love it because it is the closest destination that feels like home to me and it is the theatre frequented the most by my children’s classmates from a local public school. I mourn it because the harder I look the more I see Malcolm X and James Baldwin’s Harlem disappearing under the thin veneer of the gaudy Clintonite-Obamaesque gentrification of MLK Boulevard.
It makes no difference if you are there to watch Peter Rabbit (2018) or Black Panther (2018), there is a buzz about the place, before and after the show, that brings the entire history of Harlem as the epicenter of African American cultural history to bear on the mundane matter-of-fact routine of a family outing.
Can cliches deliver?
One must see Black Panther in Harlem, or any other inner-city epicenter of African American life in the United States, for Black Panther is an American film about black liberation – produced by Marvel and distributed by Disney – with all the perils and promises of that paradox oozing into the air when you sit down with your drink and popcorn to watch the movie.
People around the world unfamiliar with the sustained course of institutional racism in the US may justly wonder what the big deal about this film is. The conflicting thoughts and emotions the film has generated among its American audiences – particularly the African American community – is rooted in these two conflicting facts: it is a corporate production that promises to act as a cathartic moment for black liberation. It does both. It is a deeply satisfying, and it is a deeply troubling film, for both what it delivers and what it does not.
Black Panther is not just an American film – it is, in fact, replete with Hollywood cliches. Its very premise is a Hollywood cliche – that somewhere deep in Africa there is an advanced civilisation called the kingdom of Wakanda sitting on vast swaths of enriching energy is as old as Tarzan films where European hunters were ravaging the jungles in search of ivory.
Black Panther has actually two Tarzans instead of one: One is the CIA agent, Everett K Ross (Martin Freeman), there to save Africans from themselves, and the other, if you had the patience and prudence to sit to the end of the credit rolls, is Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), Captain America’s best friend, who we see wandering out of a tent in a Wakandan village to meet Shuri, T’Challa/ Black Panther’s (Chadwick Boseman) young genius sister who will now presumably start acting as Q to this James Bond!
There is also an intertextual reference to El Dorado in Black Panther that invokes yet another Hollywood cliche – El Dorado as a man, a city, a kingdom, or perhaps even an empire at the centre of so many “Indiana Jones” characters in search of sudden riches.
The scenes of T’Challa/Black Panther in New York are inevitable allusions to Prince Akeem Joffer, the prince of Zamunda (Eddie Murphy) in the John Landis’ romantic comedy Coming to America (1988). Hollywood has a very limited cinematic vocabulary, and it uses and recycles them regularly. They work. They sell. Why bother?
The joy is real
Like the entire audience around me, I basked in Black Panther like a wide-eyed-child, nervously munching on my popcorn to the very last. I had not been so engrossed in a film since I cannot recall when. I was T’Challa. I was Black Panther – until N’Jadaka, Erik “Killmonger” appeared. Then I was Killmonger. The movie wanted me to take a side: you are either Black Panther or Killmonger. It would not allow you be both. I took a side. I stayed with my defiant brother N’Jadaka to the bitter end. The movie failed to change my heart and politics. From then on, Black Panther went its Obama way; I went with Killmonger.
This is an American film, and you have to be an African American, or someone deeply identifying with them, seeing their suffering and hopes in the mirror of other colonially ravaged nations, honouring their history and standing in solidarity with their struggles, to understand their joyous celebration of seeing themselves in triumphant agency in this film. You have to have seen the horrors of pernicious black representations, from Blackface trope to common criminals, to see the beauty and power of this film.
In a brilliant Facebook post, my distinguished Columbia colleague, the eminent critical race theorist Kimberle Williams Crenshaw began by sharing this ecstasy, “The sheer joy of drinking it all in made me realize just how thirsty I was for such visual treats. I savored every last drop, the fierce warrior sistas, the humor, the geniuses, Black love, all the things we just don’t get to see. Joy.”
Other critical reviewers shared that sentiment: Khanya Khondlo Mtshali said in a review for the Guardian, “There’s no denying how necessary Black Panther is for representation. In a world where diversity is so often treated as an act of charity instead of a reality, this film challenges the pervasive idea that our heroes can only be white and male.”
Crenshaw and Mtshali were right. I felt like the teenaged me, waking up in the early morning hours to watch Mohammad Ali’s boxing matches on television in my hometown in southern Iran. We were kings.
Until you sober up
It is not until Killmonger appears and the script begins to demonise him that you realise you have been duped, taken for a ride, bamboozled, as Malcolm would say. It is then that you realise T’Challa is made up to look like the screen version of Obama doing “community work!” A bucket of cold water joy-killer! The CIA White Savior Fantasy now begins to bite like a venomous snake.
Kimberle Crenshaw puts it succinctly:
Like remembering a drunken night thru a hangover haze, I kept wondering how I’d come to dance on the table for the CIA? The ones that helped destroy the dream of African liberation, that had a hand in the assassination of Lumumba, staged a coup against Nkrumah, tipped off the arrest that imprisoned Mandela, installed the vicious, nation-destroying Mobutu?
This is when a sober mind catches itself off-guard. We were all taken off-guard by Black Panther – by its beguiling power and timely seduction, taking us back to when we cheered for John Wayne killing Native Americans, not knowing we were the Native Americans.
Crenshaw concludes with the precision of her habitual critical thinking: “Black power has always been framed by its critics as dangerous, irrational, bloodthirsty revenge. Today’s identity extremists were yesterday’s Panthers and Pan Africanists. How did that libelous trope come to be the central tension in this celebration of Black superheroes?”
This is the moment that, half-way through the film, as soon as the directorial and the visuals wanted me to side with Black Panther, with T’Challa against Killmonger, I said no thank you and opted out.
I was of course not the only one. Christopher Lebron echoes Crenshaw and carries the insight forwards in an equally brilliant review in the Boston Globe:
Killmonger is the revolutionary willing to take what he wants by any means necessary, but he lacks any coherent political philosophy. Rather than the enlightened radical, he comes across as the black thug from Oakland hell bent on killing for killing’s sake – indeed, his body is marked with a scar for every kill he has made. The abundant evidence of his efficacy does not establish Killmonger as a hero or villain so much as a receptacle for tropes of inner-city gangsterism.
The final diagnosis is now easy to see. This Black Panther is not just Obamaesque. It is Obama. As James Wilt puts it: “… at its core, Black Panther contains a fundamentally reactionary understanding of black liberation that blatantly advocates bourgeois respectability over revolution, sterilizes the history of real-life anti-colonial struggles in Africa and elsewhere, and allows white folks such as myself to feel extremely comfortable watching it – which, given Marvel’s sole purpose, is almost certainly the bottom line.”
In the end, you get up the following day, reassured that Hollywood gave it all it had to suck you into a delusional fantasy of Africa and African-Americans. But the beauty, the power, the truth of critical thinkers I take with me to see a movie in Harlem – from Malcolm X and James Baldwin to Angela Davis and Kimberle Crenshaw – are far more ennobling companies to keep.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.