Is Black Panther co-opting African struggles against oppression?

Movie critics have praised the film, but cultural critics argue Marvel Studios, and its parent company Disney, may be exploiting black political and cultural movements for their own financial gain.

It’s not often that film critics heap praise on a superhero movie for its perceived cultural significance.

But Black Panther is different. It’s just been released, and initial box office takings suggest it will be a huge international hit.

The film adaptation is being widely praised for its inclusivity; and racial empowerment, Al Jazeera’s Shihab Rattansi reports from Washington.

Black Panther, the superhero king of Wakanda – a technologically advanced, un-colonized African country – was created in 1966 for Marvel Comics.

“The fact that it is an African superhero; people get a chance to look at themselves in positions of power and feel that it’s important,” actor Forest Whitaker told Al Jazeera.

Earlier superhero films have featured a black lead character, but none has received such lavish production and marketing.

Disney has marketed the film to black schools and communities before the film’s release. There is joy at a mainstream black superhero, even as there is realism.

The film is seen by some as a “teachable moment” in black empowerment in a country where the fight for racial equality has been dominating and shaping much of its history.

“At best, it (the movie) can be a teachable moment to talk about empowerment,” said Sean Blackmon, an African American interviewed by Al Jazeera.

When asked by the Al Jazeera reporter if he meant introducing a new generation to the concept of overthrowing multinational corporations like Disney and Marvel, Blackmon said, “Well, the political and economic structures that enable them, you know what I mean?”

It hasn’t gone unnoticed that the film’s promotional material uses a song called “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”, a song by the late left-wing black singer Gil Scott-Heron that explicitly warns that empowerment will never come from multinational corporations who run the media.

Boycott petition

An online petition has been set up to encourage audiences to conditionally boycott the film. It argues that since Disney is specifically targeting black dollars, black audiences should boycott the film until the studio agrees to donate 25 percent of worldwide profits from the film to black education.

“You have the ability to … not only go see a film about a fictitious country in Africa with advanced technology, but the opportunity to invest in programs which focus on the fields – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – that make such advancements possible, in real life,” reads the petition.

The marketing of Black Panther is playing unashamedly with its coincidental namesake “The Black Panthers”, the racial and economic justice group cofounded in the late 1960s by Huey Newton.

Martin Luther King’s message of dramatic anticapitalist change has been sanitised for a mainstream white audience recently by a truck manufacturer. Black Panther may yet follow a similar model: White America easily adopting black cultural figures, but having more difficulty with the black political struggle they represent.