TABLE OF CONTENTS

SUPERPOWER

Ryan Coogler, Black Panther, 2018, 4K video, color, sound, 134 minutes. Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan).

THE MOVIE BLACK PANTHER was released in February of this year. The same month, Herman Bell—formerly of the Black Liberation Army, an underground Black Power group composed of members of the Black Panthers—was up for parole after forty-five years in prison. Black Panther grossed $241.9 million in its opening weekend, netting a handsome profit for Walt Disney Studios. Bell’s hearing was delayed and culminated in an unusually long deliberation period, but he was eventually paroled in mid-March. Fifteen other former Black Panthers remain in prison; some have died while doing time, and all have experienced abuse and torture, including solitary confinement and beatings. At the time of writing, New York’s police union, the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, was fiercely contesting the decision on Bell’s case, hoping to have it revoked.

The grotesque spectacle of police and politicians scrambling to deprive a seventy-year-old man of freedom because of their abstract fear of Black violence looks more vivid in the light of the movie’s release. The accidental convergence of the two events shakes up old ghosts, or it would if the air right now weren’t already so thick with them. Black Panther director Ryan Coogler’s first movie, Fruitvale Station (2013), concerned the murder by police of Oscar Grant in Oakland, California, and happened to open the same week George Zimmerman heard the news that he would face no legal consequences for the murder of Trayvon Martin. Five years later, a political turn that we can at least partly credit to the organization and concept Black Lives Matter—inaugurated by a popular hashtag shortly after Zimmerman’s predictable lucky break—has opened so much new discursive ground in US political and cultural life that Black Panther felt not only possible but inevitable. Of course, it was not. The movie, rooted in Black history and reaching confidently and unironically for mass-market appeal, is extraordinary. To lift an aphorism from the first lines of Thomas Pynchon’s 1973 novel Gravity’s Rainbow: “It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now.”

Ryan Coogler, Fruitvale Station, 2013, Super 16, color, sound, 85 minutes. Second from left: Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan).

Frank B. Wilderson III writes in Red, White & Black: Cinema and the Structure of US Antagonism (2010) that he is “interested in Black filmmakers of the 1970s . . . not as auteurs, or brilliant individuals, but as cinematic prisms.” Coogler is a great filmmaker, using in Black Panther the same gifts for the kinetic and emotional that gave Creed (2015), his contribution to the “Rocky” franchise, such unexpected depth and swagger. But we will have to follow Wilderson’s example and take him as a prism, especially because the films Wilderson spoke of also coincided with a profound political turn:

I propose that the specter of the Black Liberation Army—and by specter, I mean the zeitgeist rather than the actual historical record of the BLA— provides us with both a point of condensation for thinking Black people on the move and a structure of articulation between the unflinching movement of Blacks, politically, and the unflinching fantasies of Blacks, cinematically.

Cover of Jack Kirby and Stan Lee’s Fantastic Four, no. 52 (Marvel, July 1966).

This is because these filmmakers lived at a special time in history: “special because it culminated in an embrace of Black violence which had not been seen before.” The novelty of the BLA, or at least of its spectral presence in the zeitgeist, was its use of violence. The incomparable Black Panther, which is based on a fiction first dreamed up by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby for the July 1966 issue of Fantastic Four, is still marked by its origins today, long after a backlash against the Black and communist revolutionary violence of the ’70s left the would-be revolutionaries of today hyper-surveilled, facing highly militarized police forces, and subject to psychological difficulties wrought by the state’s attempts to persecute the revolution by wrecking communities and spirits.

Blackness cleaves—as in joins and splits—the human and the animal. What a magic property!

But chance moves the world, as does the stricter machinery of value and fate. The movie’s marketing exploited the title’s ostensible reference to the Black Panthers, but the connection is mostly accidental: Bobby Seale and Huey Newton founded the political organization in October of the same year the character first appeared in Fantastic Four, borrowing the name from a panther logo used by the Alabama-based Lowndes County Freedom Organization. The ambient availability of the phrase black panther as a symbol for groups of Black people is illustrated by the 761st Tank Battalion, a World War II unit of African American soldiers who fought a “continuous 183 days at the front,” collectively received some three hundred Purple Hearts, and were later described by their general in the following terms: “Individually they were good soldiers, but . . . a colored soldier cannot think fast enough to fight in armor.” They too were nicknamed the Black Panthers. As the writer Derica Shields notes in an upcoming book, black panther is not a species of cat; it is a designation for a black cat of any type. “The melanistic color variant of any big cat species” is how Wikipedia puts it. The word panther also means “black cat,” so black panther is a tautology, a black black thing. Blackness pushes the animal out of its category, perhaps even out of the category of the animal. Blackness cleaves—as in joins and splits—the human and the animal. What a magic property!

Black Panther Party poster featuring cofounder Huey P. Newton, 1968. Photo: Blair Stapp/Library of Congress.

I HAVE NOTICED many times in public and private life that people often hesitate for a beat before enunciating the word black, as if the simple syllable were too hard to pronounce, too much to say. As if they wanted to prove Wilderson—who is often accused of being too emo or dramatic in his Afro-pessimism—right. Black Panther comes trailing this too-muchness as a birthright, crowned by a single now-famous line of dialogue: “Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors that jumped from ships, because they knew death was better than bondage.” It’s spoken to the first Black Panther, King T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), by the second, Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), an American-born challenger to the Wakandan throne, who is the blackest thing in the movie. The line echoes—with a certain amount of noise and distortion imbued by more than forty years of political disappointment—the spectral presence of the BLA in the output of ’70s Black filmmakers. The idea that death is preferable to bondage, and, relatedly,that those held in bondage are in a sense already dead, animates the political violence that Wilderson (following Sylvia Wynter) sees as emerging from the fact that white society positions Black people outside of the Human, in the ontological position of the Slave. Wilderson writes, “The question of political agency began to go something like this: What kind of imaginative labor is required to squash the political capacity of the Human being so that we might catalyze the political capacity of the Black?” Blackness opposes humanity insofar as humanity, as it’s politically constructed today—a partial allocation, easily forgotten at the border or in a wrong neighborhood—opposes life. For Wilderson, Black death-in-life opposes white-capitalist life-as-death, whose poison seeps into the tiniest particles of the world.

On his side, the Black insurrectionist has Nothing—the embodiment of nothing, the nothingness of the world.

The grinding reality of the death cult under which we are living is why people cry at the scene where Wakandan planes bust through the force field separating Wakanda from the rest of the world, revealing the country’s bustling cityscape untouched by the horrors of history. Not me, though; there’s just something in my eye. “This never gets old,” says the new king of Wakanda, as the vista of a world without pain opens up before him.

Ryan Coogler, Black Panther, 2018, 4K video, color, sound, 134 minutes. Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan).

WHAT IS TO be done for the rest of the world, the pained world? The struggle between the two Black Panthers, Killmonger and T’Challa, allegorizes a tension between insurrectionist and reformist politics. The reformer has reason, pragmatism, and a chance of a career—he has the world and worldliness. On his side, the Black insurrectionist has Nothing—the embodiment of nothing, the nothingness of the world. T’Challa seems to halfway recognize the truth in Killmonger, who arrives in the fantastical Black kingdom of Wakanda with the full force of reality. But no sooner has T’Challa regretted murdering his revolutionary shadow side than he is off to the United Nations to announce a Wakandan education and outreach program. In the Marvel Universe, the United Nations works perfectly, exactly as it set out to in 1945, but everything in this world is like that: Killmonger as a Black insurrectionist has at his disposal not only the metaphorical and spiritual material of blackness, but also a weaponizable manifestation of it in the form of the Wakandan metal, vibranium, which he has forcibly repatriated from a British museum. Magic and technology are indivisible. No sooner has a true hero conceived of his quest than its materials spring into his hands. The apoliticality of the superhero movie is in the inevitability of success. The supposed apoliticality of Afro-pessimism, according to its critics, is in the inevitability of failure.

Soldiers from Dog Company of the 761st Tank Battalion check equipment before leaving England for combat in France, 1944.

T’Challa is emphatically not in the position of the dead, but, like those already dead, he is invulnerable to violence. His sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright), presents him with one of her inventions, a new outfit for his superheroic activities that absorbs and channels the energy of blows and bullets. Wearing this suit, he is almost completely immune to physical attack. I didn’t think of ’70s Black cinema when I first saw Black Panther, but I did think about the specter of Black political violence. In C. L. R. James’s visionary 1938 history of the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, he describes early attempts at mass uprising, some of which invoked spiritual assistance. During an attack on Port-au-Prince, the twenty-one-year-old slave leader Hyacinth “ran from rank to rank crying that his talisman would chase death away. He charged at their head, passing unscathed through the bullets and grape-shot.” His followers were predisposed to be brave, and fought “without fear or care” of the bullets fired at them: “If they were killed they would wake again in Africa.”

We give Black Panther this intensity of attention not because anyone necessarily sympathizes with its aims, but because it’s so good.

In another passage, James describes an extraordinary scene from late in the revolutionary war. A division of the Black army, led by an officer named Capois Death—“so-called on account of his bravery”—attacks one of the failing French army’s few remaining strongholds:

Capois led the assault . . . shouting “Forward, forward!” The French . . . drove off the blacks again and again only to see them return to the attack with undiminished ardor. A bullet knocked over Capois’ horse. Boiling with rage he scrambled up and, making a gesture of contempt with his sword, he continued to advance. “Forward, forward!”
The French, who had fought on so many fields, had never seen fighting like this. From all sides came a storm of shouts. “Bravo! Bravo!” There was a roll of drums. The French ceased fire. A French horseman rode out and advanced to the bridge. He brought a message. . . . “The Captain-General sends his admiring compliments to the officer who has just covered himself with so much glory.” Without a shot fired from the blacks, the horseman turned and rode back to the blockhouse and the battle began again. The struggle had been such a nightmare that by now all in San Domingo were a little mad, both white and black.

Ryan Coogler, Black Panther, 2018, 4K video, color, sound, 134 minutes.

The Haitian Revolution, which took place between 1791 and 1804, was the complicated heart of an era of intense political and social upheaval that inaugurated what we understand as modernity. If the French and American revolutions are more celebrated for what they supposedly tell us about freedom, that’s partly because what they tell us about freedom is more palatable, and partly for the usual reasons: Eurocentrism and plain racism. The image of French troops applauding the bravery of the Black army while prosecuting a war founded on their subhumanity felt consonant with Black Panther, not the movie exactly, but the event. Black panther has, through “the unflinching movement of Blacks, politically,” become a thrilling phrase, while those who moved unflinchingly remain in prison, and the object of their movement—liberation, not of the bourgeois bearers of race like me, but of the ghetto and the slum—feels distant. But all revolutions were nearly inconceivable before they happened.

Kant thought that enthusiasm for the French Revolution among people whom it affected only indirectly was proof of a “moral disposition within the human race.” Does enthusiasm for a fictional Black Panther in a country that jails real ones prove anything? A long time after the beginning of the revolution in 1791, we are all still “a little mad.” In an era of white-supremacist panic, as the police and their allies work to deny Herman Bell his freedom, visions of Black power are capable of moving audiences to wonder.

Page from Le Petit Parisien, December 20, 1908, depicting the Haitian revolution. Illustration: Paul Dufresne.

IN A FAINT ECHO—farce this time, not tragedy—of the war anecdote above, we give Black Panther this intensity of attention not because anyone necessarily sympathizes with its aims, but because it’s so good. The movie is a faultless example of the fantasy blockbuster, from script to shots to costumes and set design. Reeling from my first viewing, I wondered if this was how people felt in 1977 after they first saw Star Wars.

Reduced to its bare bones, the superhero genre usually features an extraordinary individual or small group of extraordinary individuals who are faced with some kind of dilemma. (The dilemma, in which character faces off with fate, is the screenwriter’s primary means of evoking the ambivalences and contradictions of real life; of course, in the movies, as sometimes in life, character often becomes fate.) Circumstances call the extraordinary individual out of retirement or seek him out in obscurity; perhaps, in a weird militaristic fantasy that even the recent mechanization and long-standing misery of war has not ended, he is just so good at fighting that the struggle can’t be won without him. Through guile and force, he triumphs against his enemies and receives love and admiration, though he remains essentially alone.

Anthony Russo and Joe Russo, Captain America: Civil War, 2016, 2K video, color, sound, 147 minutes. From left: Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), Vision (Paul Bettany), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and War Machine (Don Cheadle).

In the kickoff to this latest phase of Marvel movies, Captain America: Civil War (2016), infighting breaks out between the superheroes when the United Nations demands oversight and control of their activities. In one of many plot twists, a bomb goes off at the UN and kills T’Challa’s father, making T’Challa the new Black Panther. Amid the background of the heroes’ paranoia and aggression, the simplicity of T’Challa’s quest—to apprehend the person responsible for his father’s death—cuts through. The script is self-conscious and thoughtful about its genre: We see superheroes confronted by the mothers of people they killed as they went about killing the bad guys; we hear about cities left in ruins by their heroic actions. The movie’s critique of the nationalism and machismo of the classic superhero tradition is so evident, it’s like watching something collapse into itself.

Following the tradition of undoing tradition, Killmonger’s presence in Black Panther ruptures the superhero conceit and multiplies the meaning of the movie’s title; his intervention produces two Black Panthers in the same movie, making sense of the title’s lack of definite article: Black Panther, not The Black Panther. The camera articulates the disruption to the natural order of things, so that as Killmonger approaches the Panther’s throne, we see him upside-down and rotating upright. Even the movie’s premise is askance from the superhero model of individuated power: The Black Panther is an ancestral title, not a happy accident. Killmonger doesn’t care; he is here, full of revolutionary fervor, to burn the bad world to the ground.

Contemporary reproduction of the United States Army 761st Tank Battalion’s military patch.

If the presence of the Black Panther T’Challa in Civil War renders bankrupt or irrelevant the political strivings of the white superheroes, then the presence of the Black Panther Killmonger in Black Panther is what renders bankrupt or irrelevant the strivings of the Black Panther. Although the Black revolution has been deprived of means, it is kept alive as an image. For what purpose, the future will find out, and in the meantime the present lives by its light.

Hannah Black is an artist and writer based in New York.