By A. Peter Bailey
In the late 1960s, several young brothers, including myself, had the mind-expanding experience of studying propaganda analysis under the tutelage of the brilliant Professor Mahmoud Boutiba. During those sessions we met once a week for nearly a year. His main point was for us to remember that there is no such thing as a movie, television or radio program, newspaper or magazine article, school textbook, or play without a message. It was up to us, he noted, to discover what that message was.
I had those lessons in mind when I went to see “Black Panther.” By the time I saw it, it had already been in movie theaters for nearly a month and was receiving overwhelmingly positive reactions, including from people whom I knew and whose opinions about such things, I respected. They raved about its unprecedented showing of the beauty and strength of Black people, especially dark-skinned ones. They were much impressed with its use of ancient African cultural and spiritual symbols. They marveled at the talent of the Black folks who put the film together.
I also read articles with headlines such as “The Black Panther Revolution,” “The Afrofuturism of Black Panther,” “A Hero of Diversity,” “The Panther: A Superhero for Black Youth,” “#BlackPantherChallenge Seeks to Send Thousands to Theaters Nationwide,” “Black Churches Across the Nation Host Screenings of ‘Black Panther,’” “Upcoming ‘Black Panther’ Comic Garners New Fans,” “Black Panther Paves Way for Investment in South Africa,” “The ‘Black Panther’ Happening,” “Finally, A Chance Just to Enjoy a Black Film,” and “Searching for Wakanda.”
What I didn’t read in all of those articles and didn’t see or hear in television or radio commentaries about the film were three things that, in my opinion, reinforced ongoing negative stereotypes about people of African descent. The first and most disturbing of those was that in a film about an African superhero, it is a White man in the CIA who shoots down the machine that is a threat to the entire world. In other words, when it comes to crunch time, one has to rely on the White man to take care of business. And when the White man is saving the world, the African people are busy fighting each other.
Which brings me to the second point. The film basically has a message that African people on the continent and people of African descent from the continent of North America (aka USA) can’t get along with each other. After the climactic battle led by King T’Challa of Wakanda and Erik Killmonger, who represents the African-American position, the king makes a conciliatory proposal that they should seek ways to work together. Killmonger rejects his proposal and instead kills himself. This must have been very pleasing to those White forces and even some Black ones who don’t want any kind of mutually beneficial spiritual, cultural, economic and political connection between people of African descent throughout the world. Killmonger’s rejection of overtures from King T’Challa reinforces that position.
My third problem with “The Black Panther” is the name “Killmonger,” given to the character played by Michael B. Jordan. After seeing the film I looked up the word “warmonger” in a dictionary. A warmonger was described as “a person who is strongly in favor of war or as one who wants to bring about war.” One can only conclude that someone named Killmonger is strongly in favor of killing. It is not surprising, all things considered, that the name is given to the film character who represents African-Americans.
I saw the MSNBC television special on “The Black Panther,” during which key contributors to it were interviewed. Every single one of them came off as being talented, intelligent, committed and thoughtful. That’s why it’s so puzzling to me that neither of them comprehended that it is not positive or productive to have a White man destroy the threat to the world instead of the African superhero, to have a main character with the name Killmonger and to deliver a message that Africans and African-Americans can’t connect together against the forces who regard all Black people as inferior beings.
One article I read, “The Panther: A Superhero for Black Youth,” quotes a youngster as saying “I love Black people and this is about Black power.” Another said “Black Panther never stopped fighting for his culture, his people and his country.”
A “Rolling Stone” cover story notes that “Black Panther is about many things: family, responsibilities, fathers and sons, the power of badass women, borders, refugees, what it means to be Black, what it means to be African. What it means to be a citizen of the world.”
The above are all positive messages which are unfortunately undermined by the three damaging messages of the type of which Professor Boutiba taught us to be aware.