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Postcolonial Critique in Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 April 2020


The article addresses two aspects of postcolonial critique in Black Panther: first, its portrayal of the allure of grand statements in the cultivation of conspicuous and persistent self-regard in societies that wish to be recognizably independent, and second the centrality of repeatedly embodied material gestures and motions for the sustenance of enduring communal self-regard. These two prominent features of storytelling in the film, it will be argued, offer a powerful criticism of indifferent, ideology free, and barely disguised fatalism that has driven notions of freedom across the world since the collapse of the old Soviet Union. Storytelling in Black Panther enjoys global acclaim because it revivifies the life-affirming value of high stakes, unabashedly teleological grand narratives, even as it upholds the political valency of strident, non-oppositional difference.

© The Author(s) 2020. Published by Cambridge University Press

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1 In the six months between the original drafting of this article and the uploading of the final, peer reviewed, in October 2019, Mr. Sowore (publisher of contested and lost the February 23, 2019, election. He continued his activism by planning a mass protest hashtagged #revolutionow. (The movement’s Facebook page has the following words of Angela Davis to summarize its goal: “I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things I cannot accept.”) The Nigerian government arrested Sowore for treason on August 3, 2019, and has kept him in detention ever since. On more than one occasion, his applications for bail have either been denied outright or granted with conditions that stand no practical chance of being met.

2 The phrasing is from Spivak, Gayatri, A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), 384CrossRefGoogle Scholar. The other, however it is conceived, should be deemed to have the right to not reciprocate being embraced: “Ethical singularity is approached when responses flow from both sides. Otherwise, the idea, that if the person I am doing good to resembles me and has my rights, he or she will be better off, does not begin to disclose-efface the (im)possible ethical relation.” Although Coogler’s Wakanda does not include formal colonization in its official historical recollections, the legacy of enslavement and displacement of its people, as well as the deracination this engendered, are embodied narratively in Killmonger’s return.

3 Diagne, Souleymane Bachir, African Art as Philosophy: Senghor, Bergson and the Idea of Negritude, trans. Jeffers, Chike (London: Seagull, 2011), 45136Google Scholar.

4 Black Panther was released within a milieu of early twenty-first-century “Africa Rising,” Black globalism—for example, “Afropolitanism,” “migritude,” “Afropeanism”—in which self-conscious individuals claim African belongingness but free of the explicit liberation seeking proclamations that drove antislavery, anticolonial, civil rights, and anticapitalist movements of earlier times. For “Africa Rising,” see Edozie, Rita Kiki, “Pan” Africa Rising: The Cultural Political Economy of Nigeria’s Afri-Capitalism and South Africa’s Ubuntu Business (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Knudsen, Eva Rask and Rahbek, Ull render a comprehensive overview of Afropolitanism in In Search of the Afropolitan: Encounters, Conversations, and Contemporary Diasporic African Literature (London: Rowman & Littlefield International, 2016)Google Scholar. And Haskell’s article “Plotting Migritude” is a good introduction to migritude; see Haskell, Rosemary, “Plotting Migritude: Variations of the Bildungsroman in Fatou Diome’s Le ventre de l’Atlantique and Celles qui attendant,” South Atlantic Review 81.1 (2016): 136–55Google Scholar.

5 See, for example, Lindfors, Bernth, “Armah’s Histories,” African Literature Today 11 (1980): 8596Google Scholar, and Achebe, Chinua, Morning Yet, On Creation Day: Essays (London: Heinemann, 1975)Google Scholar.

6 Although T’Chala later loosened the grounds of Wakandan belongingness a little bit—“We must find a way to look after one another as if we were one single tribe”—it was not exactly as Killmonger wished.

7 In the African context, chapter 6 of Obiechina, Emmanuel, Language and Theme: Essays on African Literature (Washington, DC: Howard University Press, 1990)Google Scholar remains the classic reference on that genre. Narratively, Armah, Ayi Kwei, Two Thousand Seasons (Nairobi: East African Publishing House, 1973)Google Scholar contextualizes the persistence of crisis in the postcolonial nation.

8 T’Challa’s cautious reaching out at the end of Black Panther develops after its feasibility has been tested by others, including his fierce cousin and many of the nation’s prominent war chiefs.

9 “Thin” (“uninterpreted data”) and “thick” (cogent explications of data) depictions are adapted from Geertz, Clifford, The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays (New York: Basic Books, 1973), especially 16–17Google Scholar.

10 The sense of ritual deployed here derives from Soyinka’s theoretical interpretations in “Who’s Afraid of Elesin Oba?” (chapter 7 of Soyinka, Wole, Art, Dialogue, and Outrage: Essays on Literature and Culture (Ibadan: New Horn Press, 1988)Google Scholar. According to Soyinka, “Ritual is the irreducible formal agent for event-disparate and time-separated actions of human beings in human society.”