The Black Panther movie has drawn the attention of the entire world. It is the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s highest-grossing movie. Think pieces have proliferated across the internet—and [the Race Law Prof Blog’s] symposium* is no exception. And this boundary-breaking moment in pop culture has revolved around the unabashed humanization of Africans, the African Diaspora, and the subjugation of the African people.
In other words, despite this being a movie based on a comic book, Black Panther humanized blackness in a complicated and real-feeling way. This realization offers us a moment to have the beginnings of a different conversation about race.
To appreciate this, let’s think about how popular blockbuster films has typically portrayed blackness. While there are certainly exceptions, Hollywood has deployed numerous tropes that misrepresent and underrepresent blackness. These include the “Magical Negro” who uses powers in service as a sidekick to a usually white character, the “Black Thug,” who is intended to be a receptacle of dehumanized behavior and pathological violence, and the deracialized Black hero who is virtuous but only happens to be black.
But Black Panther, as Afrofuturistic fiction, forces us to re-imagine, confront, and defy the underlying narratives that drive those Hollywood tropes. And it unapologetically does so by, first and foremost, forcing us to imagine a world wholly owned by Africans, a world where Blackness is unbounded by white supremacy.
Wakanda is separate and apart from the white settler colonist world, yet its technology and sophistication (and its infiltrative practices and policy of noninterference) are more powerful than the nation-states of the colonialist or colonialist-influenced powers. While this utopia is imperfect and the film serves to expose its flaws—and this state-view is open to critique, as Saru Matambanazo has suggested in this symposium—this imaginative offering of Black statehood not subjugated by white settler colonialism defies the tropes that blackness is bounded by in Hollywood blockbusters.
Moreover, Black Panther humanized blackness by making it the moral norm within this cinematic construct. Wakandan blackness and Oakland blackness are the poles of the film. The alien infiltrators into this world are the two white characters, jokingly known as “the Tolkein white boys.” This defies the received-tradition of antiblackness.
Wakandian women and men are royalty, leaders, followers, citizens, and soldiers. Not the British Crown, the American President, or the Russian Federation. Wakandians own the conversations. Wakandians own the family, policy, and visionary disputes of the film. Within this dynasty built entirely apart from white supremacy, it is the Wakandans —all Wakandans—who are the whole moral agents. And T’Challa is their king and lord protector of this legacy.
N’Jadaka—aka “Erik Killmonger”—disrupts T’Challa’s Afro-utopia by making present and persistent the question of how the power of Wakanda ought to be used in relation to Black liberation. As Robin Walker Sterling pointed out during this symposium, the heart of N’Jadaka’s complaint—and his anger—is the Black privilege that Wakanda’s isolation and power allows.
But stop for a moment and appreciate that—Black privilege as a norm and a possibility rather than an oddity; Black anger as legitimate usurping political power.
Black Panther forces attention onto racial subjugation by giving N’Jadaka the most provocative and persuasive voice in the film. He demands redress for the diaspora’s dispossession through deploying the power of Wakanda to destroy white settler colonialism by force. He transforms Wakanda—for a moment—into an imperialist interventionist state powered by what Tabias Olajuawon called during this symposium a “fugitive politic” informed by “Black Combustibility.”
Let’s be clear: the film forces us to imagine Black anger as legitimate and normalized. Black anger is given a place at the table. It grants Black anger political power and vibranium weapons. But this anger is ultimately contained when T’Challa kills N’Jadaka and retakes the throne. Many see this as a failing, as if with N’Jadaka’s death the anger ends. But the film makes this reading more complicated.
The movie ends not with N’Jadaka’s death, but with T’Challa transformation. Pivotal to this is the defiance T’Challa shows in his second ancestor scene, where he confronts the tradition of nonintervention by telling T’Chaka, his father, and the host of ancestral kings that they were wrong to be passive. Thereafter, the re-awakened T’Challa accedes to N’Jadaka’s core thesis, the need for intervention to help the African dispossessed, but he fights N’Jadaka over the throne and the means. T’Challa’s victory leads to his use of soft power intervention instead of hard power. Moreover, this use of soft power shows T’Challa’s transformation from passive caretaker to interventionist leader.
The Black Panther movie thus offers us a thought experiment that imagines an empowered state (and statehood) of blackness and forces all of us—children of the dispossessed African diaspora and children of settler colonialism privilege alike—to imagine its potential scope. Nareissa Smith spoke to imagination and vision in this symposium. She rightfully puts Black Panther in the genre of films that encourage African Americans to imagine themselves anew and then “conceive a brighter, Blacker future.”
I think there is an additional possibility: Black Panther teaches us, the world at large, that Black diasporic anger has a place at the table in our political and legal discourse. Consciousness of the harm of racism can transform our thinking and challenge us to act differently and for the better. We must grow our imaginations by focusing on the evidence in front of our eyes.
Black privileged T’Challa now seeks to build bridges because he had to confront N’Jadaka’s diasporic anger and its moral claim. T’Challa had to make sense of that anger in both his final journey to the ancestors and his final confrontation with N’Jadaka. I believe T’Challa’s preparation in Wakandan constitutionalism intersected with his new awareness of diasporic anger. This synthesis transformed his imagination. T’Challa then rejects isolationism and reaches out in a humane way. Thus, T’Challa now possesses privilege and power but that privilege now incorporates race consciousness rooted in the realities of subjugation.
The real world needs more of T’Challa’s kind of consciousness raising.
For example, consider the limits of the Supreme Court’s judicial imagination around race. In an essay entitled “Normalizing Domination,” I argued that the Supreme Court’s treatment of racialized voting rights concerns represents an unwillingness “to believe what is before them by substituting other explanations for racial discrimination.” My explanation for this is the legacy of colorblind constitutionalism made manifest in a post-Shelby County v. Holder period of post-racialist retrenchment about the politics of race. The Court focuses on narrow measures of antidiscrimination success rather than broader discourses that continue to suppress poor minorities’ votes.
Black Panther would suggest that limited imagination can be turned around through taking in the evidence before our eyes and hearing the claims of the angry and dispossessed. This kind of listening requires going beyond the narrowest of measures and tendencies towards triumphalism. It requires a more expansive vision, the normalizing of the so-called “other,” the goal of actually learning from the other side and putting of privilege at risk.
For the Court, it would require embracing—rather than denying—the benefits of a constructive constitutional race consciousness meant to humanize all citizens. It requires recognizing that our constitution is dynamic and, as Justice Thurgood Marshall recognized, this dynamism is necessary to attain the freedom we have now. By changing the premise about race and the Constitution, the outcome in cases like Shelby County can too change.
I believe that judicial imagination, political imagination, and even our collective societal imagination can be transformed through these ideas. This is the larger moral of Black Panther.
*This post was originally published on the Race Law Prof Blog as part of the blog’s symposium, “Wakandan Jurisprudence: How Black Panther Challenges Us to Examine the Past, Present, and Future of Race.”