- Carvell Wallacewriter and author of The New York Times Magazine story “Why 'Black Panther' Is a Defining Moment for Black America.”
- Robyn C. Spencerhistory professor at Lehman College of CUNY. She is the author of The Revolution Has Come: Black Power, Gender, and the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California. Spencer’s new piece is titled “Black Feminist Meditations on the Women of Wakanda.”
- Christopher Lebronprofessor at Johns Hopkins University and author of The Making of Black Lives Matter. His recent article in the Boston Review is titled “'Black Panther' Is Not the Movie We Deserve.”
We host an extended web-only 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.”
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report, with Part 2 about our conversation with the blockbuster film Black Panther. As Black History Month wraps up, we’re continuing this conversation. The film has captivated global audiences, raked in more than $750 million since its release just a few weeks ago. Black Panther had the fifth-highest-earning opening weekend of any film in U.S. history, has already become the single highest-grossing film ever by a black director, 31-year-old Ryan Coogler.
Back in 2013, Ryan Coogler gave one of his first television interviews to Democracy Now! I spoke to him at the Sundance Film Festival, where he premiered his first film—at the time, it was called Fruitvale; it became Fruitvale Station—about the killing of Oscar Grant, the 22-year-old African-American man from Oakland, California, who was shot dead New Year’s Day 2009 by white transit police officer Johannes Mehserle.
RYAN COOGLER: I’m from America and from the Bay Area, where black-on-black crime plagues us, you know what I mean, police brutality plagues us. And these issues of violence are basically rooted in the fact that one faction doesn’t view another faction as full human beings, you know? And in the Bay Area, we have, you know, police officers that are paid to protect a certain area. And nine times out of 10, they didn’t grow up in an area that had the type of people that they’re supposed to be protecting. So you have officers that grow up in, let’s say, Napa County, where their whole—from the time that they’re born to the time they’re 21, they’ve maybe interacted with a few black people in person. You know, but what they see of black people, they see flashes of us: you know, a picture, guy wanted for this crime, wanted for that crime, shot dead on the street, shot dead here. That’s not a human being, you know what I mean? That’s a flash in a section of this person’s life, but not the full—not the full story. So these people are then given guns, you know, and told to protect and arrest offenders in this area, and they don’t view these people as complete humans. So I thought that through the guise of fiction filmmaking, we can let people spend time with a guy like Oscar, who never would have had.
AMY GOODMAN: So that was Fruitvale Station director Ryan Coogler back in 2013 at the Sundance Film Festival. He would go on to make the film Creed and now the blockbuster Black Panther.
As we continue Part 2 of our discussion, we’re joined by three guests. Robyn C. Spencer is historian and author of The Revolution Has Come: Black Power, Gender, and the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California. Robyn Spencer’s new piece is headlined “Black Feminist Meditations on the Women of Wakanda.” Carvell Wallace is a writer and author of The New York Times Magazine story, “Why 'Black Panther' Is a Defining Moment for Black America.” And Christopher Lebron is with us, professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, author of The Making of Black Lives Matter. His recent article in the Boston Review is headlined “'Black Panther' Is Not the Film We Deserve.”
So, I wanted to go to Carvell Wallace on premiere night, at least the night you went, in Oakland, with your family. Explain what that was like, because this film is a phenomenon beyond the film.
CARVELL WALLACE: Yeah, yeah, it is a phenomenon beyond the film. And I just want to also say that you said, “As we wrap up Black History Month,” and, for me, we never wrap up Black History Month. And that’s this—no year other than this has reminded me more of that.
And, you know, what we did on that night, February 16th, when we went with myself, my son, who’s 14, my daughter, who’s 12, my son’s best friend, who’s 14, my daughter’s best friend, who’s 12, and three of my best friends from the course of my life—my friend Michaela, who I went to college with, my friend Iris, who is a very close friend, my friend Aminta, who’s a very close friend—so, all of us went in this contingent to see this film. And these are not all people that knew each other historically. They’re all people that I knew, but not everyone knew each other. And so, it was just a tremendous event to see this movie and see my friend Michaela from college, who has traveled the world, who has shot film in Africa, who has done all this stuff, debating the neocolonialism with my son’s best friend, who was born and raised in Oakland and whose name is Achebe, but who’s learning what that name means.
AMY GOODMAN: And the film begins and ends in Oakland, California.
CARVELL WALLACE: And the film begins and ends in Oakland.
AMY GOODMAN: And where were you in Oakland?
CARVELL WALLACE: We were in Oakland. We were at the Grand Lake Theatre, which is my favorite spot in Oakland. And so, when we—you know, we got there. It was a 9:10 show. The line situation was crazy. People were trying to find each other and all this stuff. So we get in. We get our seats. And the theater is packed, and everyone is there in their clothing. And when that—when the curtain—
AMY GOODMAN: When you say “in their clothing,” like cosplayers?
CARVELL WALLACE: Well, cosplayers, people wearing—
AMY GOODMAN: People in costume?
CARVELL WALLACE: People in costume. You had people wearing African prints. I actually bought a shirt from Côte d’Ivoire from the African woman who runs a shop near my house, to wear specifically for the occasion.
And once that happened, you know, everyone—we got there, and once the curtain opened and the title card said “Oakland, California, 1992,” the theater erupted. And it really wasn’t quiet the entire film. That was probably the reason we had to see it again, because we missed so much, because people were just so excited, and there was so much joy and so much response and so much yelling at the screen and so much “Don’t do that!” You know? And it was just—it was such a tremendous experience.
And afterwards—we couldn’t even sit together, because the seating situation was we were too late to get all the seats together. So, at the end, when I reunited with my son and his friend, who had to sit separately, we reunited under the marquee. And he just—we didn’t say anything. He just hugged me. And he said, “Are you OK, Dad?” And I said, “I think so.” But tears were forming, not just because of the film. The film was good enough to be a container for that, but it was about the moment, and it was about sharing that moment with family, community, my personal community and the larger black community of Oakland. That’s what that moment was like for us.
AMY GOODMAN: And as you talked about in Part 1 of this discussion, Robyn Spencer, you went with your daughter. She’s 12?
ROBYN C. SPENCER: Yes, she’s 12. And I went with her and just like—you know, I took her with her best friend, and I went with a colleague of mine. And we took it all in, and it was amazing, because I could hear her whispering. I mean, there was a moment where Lupita Nyong’o came on the screen, and she just whispered to her friend, “Look at her skin.”
CARVELL WALLACE: Yes.
ROBYN C. SPENCER: You know. And to hear that type of adulation for a dark-skinned black woman with short natural hair, who is not, you know, the body type that is oftentimes heralded as most attractive and desirable as a woman, was astounding for me. And I felt like it was very, very powerful to sort of be there and to take her into that world, where oftentimes blackness and womanhood is presented in such one-dimensional ways. To see all of that was very powerful. And also, because we have a African family, it was amazing to speak to people who were on the continent talking about what the film meant for them, in their context, and how they were amazed to see the outpouring of love for Africa. And African symbolism, the African culture, the fact that Baaba Maal wrote one of the songs of the film was tremendous.
AMY GOODMAN: And the openings in Africa that are taking place now, from Nigeria to South Africa?
ROBYN C. SPENCER: Yes, yes, to Kenya. I mean, it’s amazing to see the kind of cultural connections. To me, that is what this moment is about, that it’s a moment where we can make those connections tangible and real. I think that the film is imperfect. I write about that in my piece. But it’s also clay, I feel like, and we can make of it what we want. This is why organizers are taking to the streets talking about the real Black Panther Parties, like, “You want to hear about superheroes? We’ll tell you about Sekou Odinga. We’ll tell you about Mumia Abu-Jamal. We’ll bring these real Black Panthers to the fore at this moment,” because the door is open, it feels—right?—to assert that. Like I loved Fruitvale Station, but it was not something that was widely viewed and part of a larger discussion. And now, you know, for this moment, we have this film that can open doors, and it can open conversations and intergenerational ones, just not you and your academic friends or you and your adults, but you can speak to the film with the children in your life.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, what about that—and you’ve written about the Black Panther Party in Oakland, where the film begins and ends—and the petition to have Black Panthers who are still in prison to be released, relating it to the actual Black Panthers?
ROBYN C. SPENCER: Definitely. People have taken the film and protests and activism in different directions. So, on the one hand, you have folks who are registering people to vote. On the other hand, you have people who are, you know, calling attention to the persistence of American empire, the role of the FBI and the CIA in its continual oppression and—you know, around the world. You have people who are focusing on the fact that there are Panther political prisoners who have been arrested, who have been in solitary confinement, facing all sorts of human rights violations, struggling for their freedom in the courts, and instead of being household names, they are largely forgotten outside of the communities that are organizing on their behalf.
So, how can we bring those folks into the mainstream? How can we use the name Black Panther to tie the history Black Panther? And the fact that it unfolds in Oakland and the fact that some of the iconography of the film, like the poster with the chair, can be tied back to Huey Newton in the chair, there are paths that we can sort of take away from the film.
AMY GOODMAN: But explain that. Explain what you mean by that.
ROBYN C. SPENCER: Well, there was a very well-known poster. One of the first posters that came out for the film had the main character, T’Challa, in a pose in a chair. And it hearkened back to Huey P. Newton, a Black Panther Party co-founder, sitting in a wicker chair holding a spear and a shield. And that was really one of the most iconic images of the Black Panther Party. And many people recreated that image, from Funkadelic to Nas to —you know, to many others over the years. And to put that image into the film really provided a pathway, sort of like breadcrumbs, between what’s happening in the film and this history, right? It’s not obvious, right? But it provided an opening for people who are historians, people who are rooted in Oakland, to make that connection.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Christopher Lebron, what about that and your experience of coming out to see the film and then the subtle and not-so-subtle links to, for example, as Robyn Spencer is describing, the Black Panther Party?
CHRISTOPHER LEBRON: I mean, Carvell and Robyn’s points are really poignant, and I affirm the power of the movie to bring people together and be a location for people to—I think Robyn’s language of the movie being clay for many people in brown skin, I think, is a really beautiful way to put it.
I should make clear that, you know, given the work that I do as a moral theorist, part of my work is to not only kind of be able to see this from the point of view of a person in my skin, but what it means for something like this to be presented to the white imagination. And I think one of the things about the movie that is disappointing to me is that it seems to place a lot of trust in white imagination, when we need that imagination to be jostled a little bit more strongly.
And so, there are like—there are a lot of crumbs. The poster image is a beautiful example. But a lot of people just aren’t going to get that. And so—and maybe it’s not reasonable to demand something like this from a Disney film. By the same token, if it’s art, art is meant to unsettle. And I think one of the things the movie doesn’t do is that it pays homage to people who know what time it is, so to speak, right? We know what’s going on in the movie, and so we’re able to kind of maneuver through all the subtleties and what the image iconography is meant to elicit, but there is a whole other viewership out there that they’re not tuned in to these things. You know, they know what racism is, but they’re not really being shown it in the movie. And I think there’s a way in which where the movie does fall short is that it seems to play to the base, so to speak, but then, the other half of the viewership, or whatever that number looks like, maybe more, they’re allowed to see just a superhero movie in which black folks fight each other in the quest for freedom.
And I think that part of the movie really has to be held alongside the other beautiful aspect of the movie being clay for brown people. What impact is the movie having on the white imagination? It’s one thing to put a cast of black actors on a screen. That’s a really powerful thing. But there’s a narrative in the action, and there’s violence perpetrated. And how is that playing with a group of people that we need to start thinking differently about us, right?
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to a clip from Black Panther. This is Ulysses Klaue, one of the villains in the movie, speaking with the CIA agent, the Wakandan ally, Everett Ross.
ULYSSES KLAUE: [played by Andy Serkis] Tell me something. What do you know about Wakanda?
EVERETT K. ROSS: [played by Martin Freeman] It’s a Third World country—textiles, shepherds, cool outfits.
ULYSSES KLAUE: All a front. Explorers have searched for it, called it El Dorado. They looked for it in South America. But it was in Africa the whole time. I’m the only one who’s seen it and made it out alive.
AMY GOODMAN: So there you have Ulysses Klaue, one of the villains in the movie, speaking with CIA agent and Wakandan ally Everett Ross. Christopher Lebron, the role of the CIA? You also have the CIA figure, Everett Ross, who’s played by Martin Freeman, at the end, when T’Challa, Chadwick Boseman, goes to United Nations, you know, there with a kind of knowing smile and sitting in the audience.
CHRISTOPHER LEBRON: Mm-hmm. No, so, you know, you have the—one of the only two white characters in the movie. Klaue is meant to be the embodiment of, you know, in some sense, white supremacy. He’s also really hard to take seriously, which is problematic. And then you have the Agent Ross, who is a lovable CIA agent, an agency we know has been responsible historically for a lot of disturbance, assassinations and disruptions on the continent and in the—you know, on the “brown,” quote-unquote, developing world globally. And here he is, a person who, while Killmonger has to be eliminated, winds up being one of the heroes of the movie, in a very benevolent sense. And it’s deeply ironic.
AMY GOODMAN: Carvell Wallace?
CARVELL WALLACE: Yeah, I mean, I think that—I think there’s validity to that. I mean, again, I just sort of would return to my earlier point, which is that I don’t—you know, I think that the film, as a work of cinema, executes its mission well; as a work of revolution, executes its mission as well as can be expected for a Disney film. But I think the moment itself provides an opportunity for us to seize on something larger and to make progress where we had struggled to make progress before, not only in media, but in imagination, but also in the unity of media and imagination.
I mean, it’s not—I think it’s important not to undersell the value of representation. I know that there’s a tendency to do that sometimes. But my experience has been and my belief has been that, you know, to imagine oneself in—as powerful, as existing, as persisting, as living, as winning, is something that some portion of our population has on tap all the time, and I think that has a lot to do with the way people sort of view themselves and their possibilities in the world. And I think that a lot of African Americans, growing up, don’t have that. And I think this film provides an opportunity to move that. I think a lot of women don’t have that, and I think, to Robyn’s point, a lot of black women really don’t have that. And this film provides an opportunity to move that forward. And I hope that we take this and move with it. I hope that we don’t just give up here.
AMY GOODMAN: You know, in the first part of the discussion, Robyn Spencer, I asked Carvell Wallace to describe the film. But for those who just see this part, tell us the story of Black Panther, as you saw it with your 12-year-old daughter.
ROBYN C. SPENCER: Well, to me, the story of Black Panther was really about the story of returning home and the hunger for home. And I think you see that reflected in how audiences responded to the film.
So you have the character of Erik Killmonger, who is presented initially in ways that are deeply flawed and problematic, but then also you get a sense of the larger context that could have shaped him. One of the moments in the film that really touched my daughter is to see Erik Killmonger as a boy be at the feet of his dying father and say, “People die around here a lot, often.” I don’t know the exact quote, but he was basically responding to the death of his father in the context of being in a place with a lot of violence and devastation. And to sort of see him go from that to, you know, retaking the artifacts of black culture that have been trapped, and still remain trapped, in too many European museums around this world, I mean, has been, I think, one of the entrée points to the character. So, one is hopeful for Erik Killmonger, then one finds out that he’s a CIA agent and has been on these missions around the world and is determined to go back to Wakanda, this kingdom that he’s heard about, in order to take over the throne.
So when we see Wakanda come to us, that’s the sensibility that we get of it. I personally wanted more of Wakanda, the daily life in Wakanda. What do we see? We mainly see the upper echelons of Wakanda, if you will. And I wanted to know more what was life like really, you know, in other parts of the society there. And one of the things I thought about was the limitations of monarchy. But anyway, we get this character of T’Challa. You get this world of Wakanda, which is a fantastical, technologically advanced nation-state, which is really, I think, at the forefront of all sorts of technology; however, they’re not sharing that in some ways, right? They are hoarding that, as a matter of fact, for the benefits of their people. In fact, it’s one of their mantras to keep those resources to themselves. So what you see unfolding in the film—
AMY GOODMAN: And they don’t want war to be waged over vibranium, this element, this metal that they have.
ROBYN C. SPENCER: Right. And I thought—I mean, when I thought about like what is the power in the film, there’s vibranium, but, to me, there was also Shuri, who had the skill to take that vibranium and make it into all of these amazing elements of the society that pushed them into—
AMY GOODMAN: The brains of vibranium.
ROBYN C. SPENCER: Right—to put it into modern—she put vibranium into action, right? So, her character is very interesting. Then you have Nakia, who’s played by Lupita Nyong’o, who is the spy, who is the—really, the woman who is uncontainable, right? Even the character of Okoye, she is very much—she is in a position of being tied to the throne.
CARVELL WALLACE: Throne, yeah.
ROBYN C. SPENCER: Literally. Whoever sits there, she will protect—
CARVELL WALLACE: Yeah.
ROBYN C. SPENCER: —in amazing and vibrant and pathbreaking ways. But in some ways, she is a general who is tied into a particular role. So I think that the film offers us pathways to critique. It offers us different types of imaginations that we can think about, about what does the future look like, right? At the end of the film, Erik Killmonger is dying, and he looks out and he sees the beauty of Wakanda. And yet he cannot imagine that an advanced society like Wakanda has more for him than prison, right?
AMY GOODMAN: Are they fighting on an underground railroad?
ROBYN C. SPENCER: They are fighting on an underground railroad.
CARVELL WALLACE: They are fighting on an underground railroad, yeah.
You know, I would add, like, when I interviewed Ava DuVernay for this piece, she said something that really stopped me in my tracks, which is—I don’t remember the exact quote, but it was something along the lines of “Wakanda is a dream state, an imagined answer to the question, 'What if they didn't come?’” referring to white people. And that struck me as a pretty powerful quote, and I thought a lot about it, and it helped me shape the way I thought of this piece a lot, because it has to do with like the imagination and what is the spiritual meaning of this imagination for us.
And so, what I thought was interesting when I saw the film is that, yes, it did answer that, and then it posed, immediately, the very next question, which is, “OK, great, what if you have this dream state, and everything is powerful? Then, are you free?” Like Wakanda is not free, because Wakanda is bound to the diaspora. And that is there—that question is posed at the beginning, where—our job is to discover that. The film’s job is to unpack that. And Killmonger’s job is to present that. And also, Nakia also represents that.
And I also thought the film did a great job of questioning privilege in all these different ways, because at some point there is a line to Nakia that says, you know, “You have the privilege of being a woman without a country. I am bound to this country. You are not.” And so, on the one hand, that is a kind of privilege. On the other hand, to be deeply embedded into the structure of a country is a privilege. So it explores all these different definitions of privilege within blackness and within black revolution.
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Christopher Lebron, what does Wakanda mean to you, this mythical place in Africa?
CHRISTOPHER LEBRON: So, you know, one of the things that—you know, my job in the roundtable is to kind of provide the critical voice. I did write this piece. And I don’t want people getting the impression that my aim is to only find what’s wrong. But I do just want to raise some challenges, because I think it’s just good to keep the conversation balanced in all these ways. And Carvell and Robyn are really raising beautiful and valid points.
But the one thing we have to remember is that, you know, we have a lot of people going out, and, you know, I remember in Carvell, your piece, you know, “Wakanda is ours now,” which I think that’s—I think that’s right. But the other thing to remember is that, you know, Wakanda, as a place, is not—does not spring from the black imagination. Wakanda, as a place, springs from the white imagination of Kirby and Stan Lee. And, you know, there is an aspect to all this that I can’t help but think of Spike Lee’s term, “magical Negroes.” And that is, you know, black people who are just—I mean, just they excel, and they have these properties that are almost unbelievable. And those properties serve to relieve white guilt. And there’s something about the portrayal of Wakanda as this nation that, on the one hand, is uplifting, because they are so advanced, but I think we should take—be just a little bit suspicious about how easily the idea of Wakanda and its magnificent brilliance, at such a remarkable, unreal level, what it does, in some sense—displace the ways we should be unsettled about colonialism and imperialism.
And so, when I think about Wakanda, on the one hand, I think, you know, this is a beautiful image to see brown bodies inhabiting this super-futuristic world. On the other hand, precisely because it’s isolationist, it also gives you the idea that these are people who can only have this if no one else can get next to them, which, you know, I think it troubles the narrative of what it means to be strong and black. Do we really—you know, Nakia has the point: You know, we can help and remain strong. And that insecurity that seems to bound up in the story of Wakanda may be the point that Carvell brought up. You know, this is the beginning of a cinematic narrative, and let’s see where that goes. So I’m not willing to draw a conclusion about it. But I do think we should just kind of be a little bit wary of what it means that we have all these black bodies in this truly fantastic place and what that allows us to not think about.
AMY GOODMAN: Robyn Spencer, you’re nodding your head.
ROBYN C. SPENCER: Yes. I mean, I think that I spoke to the absences in my piece, really thinking about what was the unspoken, like I said, the daily life in Wakanda. What was life like? What was—it was perfect and empowering for people who are at the upper echelon, but what about the people at the bottom? How did society run? These were the kind of questions that I asked my daughter afterwards as we talked about like imagining just a different future, going beyond what Wakanda represented, and also thinking about—of course, directors and producers and writers make their own choices, but why the CIA, for example, of all—you know, you couldn’t pick a more problematic hero, or even to present them neutrally is deeply problematic in the film. Why make that choice? How can we understand the role of the CIA? What about that history behind the phrase that the sun will never set on the Wakandan empire? How does that tie back to the notion of the sun never setting on the British Empire? What kind of histories are being referenced there and being tied in?
So, really, I think, going beyond what was there, I mean, to me, Wakanda was very limiting. On the one hand, it was beautiful, it was rich. But as someone who’s traveled within the African continent, I understand that there are upper-middle-class Africans living in tremendous wealth. I understand that we, as people of the diaspora, oftentimes have the resources to travel and experience that wealth. But that is not liberation. That is a small slice of a very elite level of what life looks like in, you know, particular countries. What about what’s going on for people at the bottom? And how can the film be used to kind of project a different kind of future, to raise questions about collectivity, about egalitarianism, about how resources can be shared, you know, about the role of technology, beyond STEM? I feel like, in a lot of ways, I wrote in my piece, that STEM education is oftentimes presented as a cure-all for the ravages of capitalism. And how do we think about that?
AMY GOODMAN: Explain STEM, science, technology, engineering, math.
ROBYN C. SPENCER: Right. Right, science, technology, engineering, mathematics.
AMY GOODMAN: What it is?
ROBYN C. SPENCER: It’s the idea that these are sort of the jobs and the positions that are sort of the economy of the future and the fact that students and children of color are oftentimes kept out of the educational streams that would allow them to amass those skills. So, in order to diminish some of the hierarchies, the idea of STEM education is to bring those opportunities for that kind of knowledge to children of color. And so you see wonderful programs like around coding and teaching children how to do that. Of course, STEM has been criticized, and now we have STEAM, which is the addition of arts into that STEM equation. So STEM is not an uncritical or unchallenged concept.
And to see it placed there at the end as some kind of cure-all was really disappointing in some ways, even though I understand that people have material needs, and STEM education will solve some issues for some people. But what about the rest, right? Is it about—what can we do to sort of attack inequalities at their core? I think those are the questions to ask, even as we may celebrate the increased access of children who don’t have it to better educational opportunities. But what do we do to sort of spread that concept to the masses? And that would involve really rethinking how we think education works in this country.
AMY GOODMAN: Carvell Wallace, this film being released a month or two after President Trump refers to Africa as an “s—hole” country, I mean, being released in the era of Trump?
CARVELL WALLACE: I guess probably the way that I can most think of it is that everyone’s standards have been raised to a certain extent. I don’t know if that’s the right way to say it. I mean, it’s—I don’t even have a way to put this into words. But the stakes are high. And they feel high in a larger sense, I think, for more people. I think, for some people, they’ve always felt high. I think they feel high for a lot of people on all sides of all arguments. And so, that means that everyone is pushing harder for what they believe in. And that means conflict. I mean, it does. That’s what happens when multiple parties push hard for what they believe in.
And so, whereas at some point a film like Black Panther would have been enough, Mr. Lebron is right to point out it’s not enough. It’s not—there’s more—there’s more we need to—that needs to be done. And as we move forward, that’s where I hope this goes. And it’s also true that as we push, reaction—there’s reaction push. And that is the time that we’re living in. And, you know, that’s pretty much all I can say about that. I know what my work is. I know what my mission statement is. I know what my guidance is to do in what I’m creating. And I play one small part. I mean, I’m a single individual. I figure that I play one small part. I figure that Robyn plays one part. I figure that Chris plays one part. I figure that we do our work together.
CHRISTOPHER LEBRON: Yeah.
CARVELL WALLACE: And we make progress as a front.
CHRISTOPHER LEBRON: That’s right. That’s right. That’s right.
AMY GOODMAN: Christopher Lebron, this period of time that this movie is being released in and what also the lesson it is for Hollywood, for African-American audiences, and not only African-American audiences, global audiences, non-black audiences, that there is an audience out there?
CHRISTOPHER LEBRON: Yeah, I think that’s right. I want to say two things about this. One, I want to own up to something. And, you know, I’m perfectly willing to admit that part of my criticism might come from an especially sharp anxiety, given that we have a president who sympathizes with white supremacists and calls them “fine people.” And so, you know, there’s a way in which that gets read back into the movie, possibly. I still think the criticisms are valid, but I’m willing to own up to it personally that it may motivate me a little bit more strongly.
By the same token, I think one of the things you might think about, about this movie as a stepping stone, is what it means to be making black art in times of racism and racial struggle. And, you know, this is a Marvel movie, and that’s the one thing I’ve heard pretty consistently in social media: “You know, it’s a Marvel movie. What do you expect?” But one thing we should expect from all art is how it expands the imagination rather than constrain it. And so, I think, you know, Carvell is right that what we’re doing right here in this roundtable and what people are doing out in the public sphere is the work of trying to have a conversation to elevate a certain kind of consciousness about the movie. And I hope one of the things that’s happening as we do this work is prompting big companies like Marvel and agents like Mr. Coogler to think maybe a little bit more critically, that they’re not just making a product that’s going to generate profits and maybe a million dollars of donations from Disney, but what it’s going to mean to expand the public imagination into genuinely new ways of thinking by us. When Robyn is concerned about not seeing the low levels of life—low levels of social existence in Wakanda or the neoliberal turn at the end, that Carvell has also expressed concern with, that’s a constraining of the imagination rather than an expansion of it. And I think it’s perfectly fair to ask our artists to be a little more aggressive in helping us out by expanding our imaginations.
AMY GOODMAN: Robyn, we’ll give you the last word, as you come out of just this two weeks. We’re talking about—and I also want to ask you what you think of a movie being determined—talked about just in terms of the amount of money that it’s making, but the money this is making for Disney, for Marvel, where it looks like we’re going to be talking about the billions range. And what that means, but also what it means for African Americans, for black artists, to control their own art, as well?
ROBYN C. SPENCER: A few points to take us away with. I think that one I’ll point out is that the film worldwide is being used as a wedge. I read a fantastic article which talked about black Brazilians, who are oftentimes made invisible and unwelcome in public spaces, going en masse to places where they’ve been marginalized to bring their presence to the movie. I think that the movie’s international framing is part of the phenomenon that we should be talking about. And it seems to me that there are lots of examples of people using the film to literally be a battering ram against the violences and exclusions that they face.
Now, about the money, I mean, I think we have to be realistic. One of the things that’s disappointing about the film is just the dearth of African-American characters. And thinking about what ’60s activists used to call us being in the belly of the beast—right?—what role do African Americans play here, in the belly of the beast, in terms of our diasporic not just imaginings, not just our African futures or our African pasts? What about our African present? How can we connect ourselves to the day-to-day, on-the-ground struggles, opportunities, life chances that are going on in the African continent today? How do we go from dressing in African garb to rooting ourselves in African politics?
And then, the third takeaway is talk about this film to your children. Talk about it to younger people. I mean, they are excited about the film in ways that oftentimes we feel there may be a generational divide between the conversations we can have. You can have real political conversations with your children about the film, about your criticisms, about your responses and your reactions. And that, in and of itself, is a gift.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we will leave it there for now. I want to thank you all for being a part of this fascinating discussion. Robyn C. Spencer, historian and author of The Revolution Has Come: Black Power, Gender, and the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California. The book came out in 2016. Her new piece is headlined—and we’ll link to that—”Black Feminist Meditations on the Women of Wakanda.” We’ve also been joined by Carvell Wallace, writer and author of The New York Times Magazine story, “Why 'Black Panther' Is a Defining Moment for Black America.” And finally, Christopher Lebron, professor at Johns Hopkins University, author of The Making of Black Lives Matter, his recent article in the Boston Review headlined “'Black Panther' Is Not the Film We Deserve.”
This is Democracy Now! To see Part 1 of our discussion, go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.