Black Panther Is Great. But Let’s Not Treat It As an Act of Resistance
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Author: Khanya Khondlo Mtshali
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The Guardian

In the weeks leading up to the Marvel film Black Panther, much has been made about the film’s revolutionary themes in the context of our current political moment. In a cover story for Time, Jamil Smith suggested that for a culture that faces growing threats from white ethnocentric movements, “the very existence of Black Panther feels like resistance”.

On the BBC’s website, the film critic Nicholas Barber argued that the presence of an African king as a main character in the film “would make Black Panther as revolutionary as the organization with which it shares its name”. For i-D, Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff insisted that the movie alone “will change a few young black children’s lives”.

Even the film-maker Ava DuVernay, who directed the award-winning Selma, caved into the hype by tweeting a picture of Chadwick Boseman’s Time cover story and Michael B Jordan’s GQ cover story accompanied by a James Weldon Johnson poem that became a rallying cry for activists and organizers during the civil rights Movement.

With a name that brings to mind associations with the Black Panther party (though it is said that the comic preceded the party), it’s understandable why Black Panther, directed and co-written by Ryan Coogler, has generated an overwhelming response from communities that rarely get to see themselves properly represented on screen.

Set in Wakanda, a fictional African country, Black Panther transports audiences to a world where black people are at the center of their own narrative and aren’t serving as a lesson in service of a white protagonist’s character development.

The film is not only groundbreaking in how it portrays Africa, but it’s pioneering in its casting of mostly dark-skinned female actors. Black Panther also features of actors of African descent like the South African actors John Kani, Athandwa Kani, and Connie Chiume, the Kenyan Mexican actor Lupita Nyong’o, and the Zimbabwean American actor Danai Gurira.

In the build-up to the film, Twitter has been set alight with discussions about what people plan to wear when they hit cinemas this weekend. It’s been joyous to witness black celebrities donning Afrocentric garments at both the Hollywood and London premiere of the film. Without succumbing to hyperbole, this feels like an important moment in pop culture history, and I’m happy I got to witness it.

However, some of the early responses to Black Panther illustrate the lofty and unfair expectations which we often place on black art. For example, that Beyoncé’s seminal 2016 album, Lemonade, was criticized for not outright destroying the patriarchy showed how our culture refuses to allow black art to exist as entertainment. And it’s tempting to imagine that Black Panther will not only improve black representation in media, but radically change the state of our politics too.

But by conflating the film with the the resistive efforts of grassroots activists and organizers, we risk disrespecting our radical traditions, which are increasingly being commodified by corporations whose interests have are never been with the people.

That “self-care” and “community” have been reduced to catchy self-help and festival slogans proves how easily these ideas are rendered meaningless under late capitalism. If we behave as though purchasing a ticket to see a film produced by Disney is a form of resistance, we fail to distinguish between black art that touches on revolutionary themes, and the actual work required for revolution itself.

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.

It provides generations of dark-skinned girls and women with heroes who share the same features which society ridicules them for. But as people descend upon their local cinemas to see what’s been touted as an excellent film, let’s remember watching a film is not a brave act of resistance. There’s plenty more work for us to do.

Khanya Mtshali is a New York-based freelance writer

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