Afrofuturism, Liberation & Representation in “Black Panther”: A Roundtable Discussion

StoryFebruary 28, 2018
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While “Black Panther” has broken box office records, it has also generated an intense debate. We host a roundtable with three guests: Christopher Lebron, a professor at Johns Hopkins University who recently wrote “Black Panther Is Not the Film We Deserve”; Robyn C. Spencer, a professor at Lehman College, who wrote “Black Feminist Meditations on the Women of Wakanda”; and Carvell Wallace, author of The New York Times Magazine story “Why Black Panther Is a Defining Moment for Black America.”

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. In addition to our guests Carvell Wallace and Robyn Spencer, we’re joined by Christopher Lebron, professor at Johns Hopkins University, author of The Making of Black Lives Matter. His recent piece, “'Black Panther' Is Not the Film We Deserve.”

Thanks so much for being with us, Christopher Lebron. What did you like and not like about the film?

CHRISTOPHER LEBRON: Good morning, and thanks for having me on. I’m pleased to be able to join Robyn and Carvell, who are brilliant thinkers.

What I liked about the film was the generally positive aspect of being able to portray black folks on a screen as powerful, as advanced, as, in some sense, having a way of trying to think about self-determination and trying to bring that debate to the screen.

What I didn’t like about the film were two things. One, it seems whenever we have a film that is trying to portray people with dark skin as trying to free themselves, to think about liberation, it always seems that we’re in our own way. Here we have the first big blockbuster movie in quite a while featuring a black hero, and the villain, the person he must overcome, despite all talk about imperialism and colonialism, is a black man, especially an American black man, the only American black man in the movie.

I also didn’t like the fact that Killmonger, the supposed villain of the movie, the only American black man in the movie, he’s essentially a broken person. You know, on social media, I’ve been speaking to people about Killmonger, and the language often used is he’s a “product of,” a product of Oakland, a product of the diaspora, a product of abandonment. And I just wondered what it means to portray American blackness in this way, as being, in some sense, broken, defeated, and, in some sense, determined, rather than proactive and seeking liberation on terms that we, ourselves, can recognize as being justified and legitimate.

AMY GOODMAN: Carvell Wallace, I mean, Christopher Lebron’s piece has generated an enormous amount of discussion.

CARVELL WALLACE: Yeah, I mean, I think he raises valid points. I mean, I think one of the things that’s interesting about the film is that it does create—you know, Marvel does this generally, but this is a much more effective execution of creating a, quote-unquote, “villain character who has a point.” That is kind of one of Marvel’s contributions to the genre, is like you’re supposed to walk away going, “Oh, that guy actually had a point. He wasn’t completely—he wasn’t just a bad guy who wanted to destroy the world. He actually came from something, and that made sense.” I think that the character of Killmonger is the most important and interesting character in the film.

I think that Wakanda is a fantastical place, but also a problematic place in the film. That’s written into the film’s script, that the idea is that Wakanda has—enjoys its freedom, but its freedom comes at a cost. And the act—the kind of inciting act in the film is an act of abandonment. So, in order for Wakanda to have this power, it has had to abandon something that it had a responsibility to. And over the course of the film, Wakanda has to come to some understanding about its responsibility to the diaspora outside of Wakanda. And Killmonger is there to force people to think about that.

And I don’t know that the ending, as it stands—first of all, when a character dies in a Marvel film, unless you physically see them die, the assumption is that they’re probably not dead. And so, Wakanda needs Killmonger to keep it honest as much as Killmonger needs Wakanda. I don’t see the character—

AMY GOODMAN: Killmonger is played by Michael B. Jordan.

CARVELL WALLACE: Killmonger is played brilliantly by Michael B. Jordan, because he captures all of these layers. I don’t see Killmonger as a product of Oakland or as a product of this, that or the other thing. I see Killmonger—the thing that people always fail to mention about him is that he’s a CIA agent. So, whatever his legitimate beef is, he’s been utilized by American imperialist forces as a weapon of imperialism and destruction. And so, Killmonger, himself, is wrestling with these two competing impulses. One impulse is for freedom, for love, for connection to the diaspora, for a place of a home. But the other thing he’s wrestling with, countering that, is that he’s trained as an imperialist. And Wakanda forces him to confront that, just as he forces Wakanda to confront their exceptionalism.

AMY GOODMAN: Christopher Lebron?

CHRISTOPHER LEBRON: So, I think, you know, these are somewhat fair points. I would say two things. One, it’s not as if he’s snatched up by the CIA. He actually chooses, in the movie, and embraces his role as a mercenary. And he seems to have some regret having killed other black folks, but it’s not as if he didn’t use the CIA for his own ends, which—and again, even Carvell’s language here seems to portray Killmonger as yet a product of one more thing—right?—rather than a person with a plan.

But now, if you think about that, as a person with a plan, one of the things the movie doesn’t do is really contextualize Killmonger properly. Yeah, the movie has lip service to colonialism and police brutality, but when you really watch that movie, those things aren’t in the movie. So, we can mention those things, but those features don’t properly surround the Killmonger character. So what you effectively get—and I tried to watch this from the perspective of somebody who doesn’t do this for a living. I’m seeing a black man who’s just really, really angry. And yet he could talk about racism, but the imagination is not activated in the proper way to see Killmonger in some sense responding to police brutality, to the abandonment of the American nation, abandonment by Wakanda. And so, you speak about racism and imperialism and colonialism, but those are not in any of the structures in the movie. The only time they mention this is really kind of the tousling of the CIA agent’s hair and calling him colonizer. But you’re really meant to have affection for the guy. He winds up being the hero of the movie.

So, on this regard, the movie seems very confused about how it wants to set up the racial politics that give us Killmonger. What you get in the end is something like Richard Wright’s Bigger Thomas, just an enraged black man, that really people just accept as, “Well, see, that’s what happens when people are abandoned. That’s what happens when people face racism.” But there are more hopeful potentials for the black imagination than a person who is so enraged, he also kills the only American black woman, who has less than eight words to say in the movie. The portrayal of American blackness in the movie, in some sense, plays right into all the worst expectations we have about black pathology that are given to us by conservatives and often kind of passively derided by liberals, but really in no sense really challenged. And the movie does nothing to upset what it means for the black imagination to think outside of the structures of oppression and marginalization.

AMY GOODMAN: Robyn Spencer?

ROBYN C. SPENCER: You know, the great thing about being a black feminist is that you see so many things that are, you know, oftentimes hidden in plain sight. So, when we talk about exciting characters and we talk about visions and intellectual legacies and lineages about black liberation and how it fits into the larger project, I mean, I want to go back to the women of the film and think about the ways in which, if we center the women in the film, we can unspool and unpack some of these contradictions.

So, yes, it’s very clear that the Killmonger character is a CIA agent, but yet you have these depictions of an alternative to both the plan of isolating Wakanda and expanding it in a way that seems to hearken to empire, right? So, instead of that, you have the visions of the women who are there. So you have Nakia, who is trying to use the wealth of Wakanda in a positive way. It’s an undeveloped storyline in some ways, right? We don’t see too much. We see her helping. We see her trying to make a difference militarily. But we don’t have a sense of what that could look like. And we also see Shuri, who is trying to create a different kind of technological vision for black futurity.

And I think that when we see those women and we truly center them as thinkers and as intellects, we can break apart some of these debates over all of this male lineage, from Bigger Thomas to Malcolm X to Fanon. All of these are the different kind of sort of tropes that I’ve seen used to analyze the film, but then those are also a lineage of men, right? So how can we try to understand the film and what it may offer to black liberation in a different way?


CARVELL WALLACE: Yeah, no, I agree with that. And, I mean, again, I think the critiques of the film are valid. And I also think that the sense that—you know, that a Disney movie is going to be the vanguard of an accurate portrayal of spiritual, emotional revolution is—I don’t think that that’s going to happen. And what I wrote about when I wrote about the film in The New York Times wasn’t about the movie itself. I actually wrote about it before I saw the movie. I wrote about the moment. And this movie happens to be the vanguard of the moment currently, but it’s not at all the only thing in the moment. There’s A Wrinkle in Time coming, which is a center—which is a film that centers women. There is—

AMY GOODMAN: Ava DuVernay?

CARVELL WALLACE: Ava DuVernay has directed, who I spoke to for this piece. And so, what I see happening—I mean, when I wrote what I wrote about the film, I wasn’t writing, as I said, about the film. I was writing about the fact that this moment is happening in Afrofuturism and the ability to recenter narratives, and what that means for us as a people at this point in our experience with America.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let me read. Let me quote from your piece, as you write about Afrofuturism. You write, “The artisitc movement called Afrofuturism, a decidedly black creation, is meant to go far beyond the limitations of the white imagination. It isn’t just the idea that black people will exist in the future, will use technology and science, will travel deep into space. It is the idea that we will have won the future.”

CARVELL WALLACE: That is correct, yeah. And so, this is—this is an offering into that, this film, with all of its—with all of its good things, all of its troubling things, all of its complex things. It’s an offering into that. But my understanding and hope is that this isn’t the only offering into it. This is one, and there will be many more to follow. And, you know, the way that I understand at least intellectual movement to happen is that one idea builds on another. An idea is created, and some people say, “This is the greatest thing ever!” And then someone like Mr. Lebron comes along and says, “Well, wait a minute. Can’t we do this better?” And so, someone comes along and does it better. And this is how we move forward.

And so, I think this film—you know, I think the film ends as something of an offering to neoliberalism, which I found personally troubling, but I also think that in the context of the film—you know, the crowd I saw it with all felt that way at the end. Everyone was like, “Oh, come on.” But I understand that within the context of the Marvel universe, the plot reveal that happens at the end is necessary for the rest of the film, because there are going to be more films that are going to use this plot. But I think that it’s—we can’t look to this film as the meaning. It’s the fact of this film and the moment of it and what it inspires for the rest of us. That’s the meaning.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Lebron, we first met Ryan Coogler at the Sundance Film Festival back in 2013 with Fruitvale, which became Fruitvale Station—he worked with Michael B. Jordan, star of this, as well—about—you know, talking about police brutality, police killing of black men.

CHRISTOPHER LEBRON: Right. No, I mean, and I—and the point is well taken. I think Robyn’s point about what it would mean to read the movie more strongly through its black women characters, I think, is an excellent point. And Carvell’s point is also good, about what we can expect out of a movie like this. But, I mean, one thing that’s troubling about all of this is, even taking Mr. Coogler’s past movie productions into account—has to do with what it means for a movie like this to come out and—well, let me take a step back.

I think Carvell’s definition of Afrofuturism is correct, but incomplete, in the following way—and I don’t mean this critically to Carvell in any way. But Afrofuturism, which is an area that I studied some, have written on, is not only about how—blacks from the future, but it’s also a way of allegorizing how we think about current modes of oppression and marginalization. So, you take a graphic novel like Concrete Park or Nalo Hopkinson’s Brown Girl in the Ring, and it’s trying to retell stories of incarceration. And so, part of what I thought Black Panther could be up to, and I think a lot of people thought it was up to, was recontextualizing the story of oppression.

But let me give you one very basic example about how this all breaks down. We have children being taken to go see this movie, most American black children. The only American black characters in the movie are—you know, are the subjects of violence and rejection. And at the very end, in this neoliberal moment, a spaceship comes out of the sky, or flying machine comes out of the sky, that was invisible. Kids go up to it. And one of the final lines in the movie has a kid saying, “Can we break it apart and sell it?” And I want to ask Ryan Coogler a question. If a kid, in those kind of circumstances, sees a flying machine, they don’t want to break it apart. They want to get in it and fly. They want to go someplace. So, it’s this reproduction that American brown-skinned people, brown-skinned kids, cannot seem to get out of the structures that obviously oppress them—

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave—

CHRISTOPHER LEBRON: —and just seem to reproduce—right.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there, because the show ends now, but we’re going to do Part 2 and post it online, so do stay with us. We’ve been talking to Carvell Wallace, who wrote The New York Times piece, as well as Robyn Spencer and Christopher Lebron. I’m Amy Goodman. Thank you for joining us.

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