All One Tribe: Black Panther’s Message of Openness

I recommend Black Panther and I found it enormously interesting. Readers may want to delay continuing with my notes on the film until they’ve seen it, as there is some value to viewing it with no preconceptions or knowledge of the story. If you do go, stay until the very end, by the way, past all the credits.

The Black Panther Party “was based on ideas such as black nationalism and a staunch belief in the necessity of violence and armed self-defence in order to obtain freedom from white oppression,” Jason Mitchell summarizes.

Black Panther the film is based on roughly the opposite premise, that the advanced African nation of Wakanda of the film’s mythology should engage the world not through arms but through peaceful intellectual and cultural exchange. Black Panther is closer to Martin Luther King, Jr., in spirit than it is to (early) Malcolm X. “We are all one tribe,” Wakanda’s King T’Challa says. In what I hope was an intentional rebuke of Trump, T’Challa exhorts the peoples of the earth to “build bridges, not barriers.”

To me the greatest aspect of the film is its vision of a technological, industrial, and wealthy Africa. So many human lives and so much human potential have been destroyed in that continent due to tribal warfare—sometimes genocidal in scope—wide-scale political oppression and corruption, and, yes, past oppression by the “colonizers” (as the film mentions).

Various regions of Africa have made a great deal of progress, but most of the continent has barely begun to reach its potential. The three economic powerhouses of Africa, Nigeria, Egypt, and South Africa, have nominal per capita gross domestic products of around $2,400, $4,500, and $6,300, respectively (says Wikipedia).

A fully liberated Africa, where the rule of just law consistently protected individuals and their rights, would make Wakanda look like a quaint backwater.

The film is amazingly produced, with outstanding performances and gorgeous cinematography.

The film does have some serious problems. Most importantly, its political-economy is ridiculous.

We’re supposed to believe that a small insular nation with zero trade can become a technological and economic powerhouse, but no actual nation has ever achieved that. Wealth comes from specialization, trade, stable legal institutions that protect property rights, and a cultural environment that promotes technological progress and entrepreneurship.

Where is the Wakanda Institue of Technology and the Wakanda School of Engineering? Wakanda has amazing skyscrapers, hovering trains, mighty flying ships, and marvels of all kinds—and only one scientist visible in the entire film, T’Challa’s sister Shuri, who reveals nothing about how she developed her knowledge and skills. What we do see in Wakanda are many people who are excellent at fighting. Well, that’s great and all, but the capacity to stylishly kick ass does not an economic powerhouse create.

In Wakanda, wealth literally falls from the sky, like manna from heaven, in the form of a giant asteroid made of magic metal, vibranium. The idea that natural resources by themselves lead to technological advancement obviously is silly. What is the pathway by which Wakandans developed the capacity to mine vibranium and convert it into technological marvels? The film is silent on such matters.

Another oddity: One Wakandan tribe lives in the desolate, rocky mountains, and its members are vegetarian. But where does their food come from? The tribe apparently does not trade with anyone and does not seem to have a thriving greenhouse industry. Does vibranium turn stones into asparagus, too?

Even worse, the Wakandans, who have figured out how to develop miraculous technology, with weapons literally powerful enough to destabilize the entire planet, have nevertheless not figured out how to move beyond hereditary monarchy challengeable by hand-to-hand combat. That would be comparable to handing off the U.S. nuclear missile codes to whoever happens to be the most brutal killer. Of course T’Challa does not kill his opponents but lets them yield, but the point is that whoever is sufficiently good or lucky in battle can kill the aspiring king and take over. Black Panther thus features an odd and unstable blend of ancient tribal barbarism and modern Enlightenment-oriented technology.

Regarding Wakanda’s closed nature, Ellie Bufkin plausibly writes that Wakanda seems “an awful lot like a Trumpian fantasy land . . . where a walled-in nation is thriving, self-reliant, and completely unaccommodating of outsiders.” The nation is more than ethnically homogeneous; Wakandans literally are branded as such, and with one exception [update: two exceptions] (that we know of) no one without the brand is allowed in. Just imagine if such a scheme were proposed in the context of white nationalism. Wakandans explicitly discuss their refusal to let in any refugees, lest the newcomers change Wakandan culture. This indeed is straight from Trump’s playbook.

But Bufkin misses the vital fact that that the theme of the film is that Wakanda needs to open up and engage with the world. No, Wakanda still won’t let in refugees (or at least we’re not told that it will), but it will seek to aid oppressed people elsewhere in the world. Even at the outset of the film, Wakanda sends some agents into the world beyond to help the oppressed.

Obviously the film touches on race. Wakandans twice threaten, jokingly, to kill the supportive American CIA agent, who happens to be white, once for daring to touch the king and again for speaking out of turn. Imagine the reverse, a film in which white characters took affront to a black man touching a white leader or speaking out of turn, and perhaps you’ll see the tension. But I don’t want to make too much of this, because overall the film shows T’Challa and his associates and the CIA agent working together, and the Wakandans do save the agent’s life, after all. So maybe the film is self-consciously acknowledging anger over race and then trying to move past it.

Black Panther does something very interesting with the villains. At first we get the idea that the villain is a South African arms dealer named Klaue (brilliantly played by Andy Serkis). But, it turns out, Klaue himself is being used by the real villain, Wakandan wayward son Killmonger.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to think this is symbolic. The main problem for the film’s heroes is not the white oppressor but the hardened black idealist who wants to turn to force of arms. Indeed, Killmonger, a horribly tragic figure, is seen as having been corrupted partly as a soldier participating in the violence of U.S. military interventionism. The heroes are those who strive to move beyond oppression and violence. So the film is about perfecting the self and then extending the hand of friendship to others.

Again, I see this as fully within the tradition of MLK, who dreamed that “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.” Bridges, not barriers. (Of course this is consistent with rooting out remaining forms of racial oppression.)

I close by pointing out that Black Panther is an enormously complex film, and people will disagree about aspects of it. I hope the film becomes a way to start meaningful conversations. If you think I’m totally wrong about some aspect of the film, perhaps we can discuss why.

It is astonishing that the most culturally meaningful film of the day is based on a comic book. Kudos to Marvel for taking the superhero genre beyond what I ever would have imagined possible.

Image of Chadwick Boseman by Gage Skidmore