Black Panther and Django Unchained are perhaps the two most successful movies featuring black actors in lead roles that Hollywood has ever made. But are they as radical as they seem? This week I analyse these films, how they operate as emotive fantasies for black audiences. Focusing in on the dual themes of violence and (in the case of Black Panther) technology I discuss whether their radical credentials are warranted. I also look at what role the CIA had in Black Panther, and to what end.
We’ll start with Black Panther because it is by some way the bigger and more popular of the two films. It was an enormously successful film, taking over $1.3 billion in worldwide box office revenues, a huge amount for what is a standalone story within the MCU that has little relevance to longer-term story arcs. Perhaps it will become more integrated into the overall Marvel Universe over time – the indications are that its enormous box office success sent a signal to Marvel and Disney and they will try to exploit its unexpected popularity.
As I’ve discussed before, the identity politics surrounding the release of Black Panther were quite ridiculous, with false stories of fights between black and white audience members queuing up to see the film, all sorts of bullshit. I’m not going to recap all of that. Instead I’m going to offer a political and geopolitical analysis of the film and its position in our popular culture based in part on an article by Tricia Jenkins, author of The CIA in Hollywood. We discussed her article while she was drafting and developing it, so while some of this is her research and ideas, some of it is mine as well.
The first thing is to identify what sort of fantasy Black Panther offers its audience, in particular its African and other black audience members. For those of you who haven’t seen it, most of the action takes place in the fictional African kingdom of Wakanda, situated roughly where Uganda is. While the outside world thinks Wakanda is a backward, under-developed third world shithole country, in reality it is enormously technologically advanced, a quasi-utopia. This is largely the result of the country being blessed with an enormous amount of Vibranium, the Macguffinum of the Marvel universe.
As Tricia observes, this makes it almost unique in the culture of colonial-related fantasy. The story is neither pre- nor post-colonial, it isn’t about a place untouched by colonisation from without, nor is it about a country that used to be a colony and is no longer. Instead, Tricia called it an ‘extra-colonial fantasy’, about a nation that has secretly developed alongside the major powers but without being influenced by them or influencing them. While there probably are other examples of this sort of fantasy, I can’t think of one.
Despite being technologically very advanced, Wakanda is a tribal, monarchial society that chooses its new king through ritual combat, literally fighting (potentially to the death) on top of a waterfall while the various tribespeople stand around doing gyrating dance moves like they’re on Soul Train. Nonetheless the costumes and production design is rich with genuine African cultural influences – the clothes and colours and jewellery and so on are all based on real African fashions. It’s clear that the crew did their homework and were trying to make Wakanda a blend of some of the best of African cultures, and in my opinion they succeeded. The whole thing feels more genuine and authentic than most blockbusters.
The implication of all this is that if Africans had just been left alone to develop by themselves and not been subject to colonisation by outside forces that they could have created the most advanced nation on earth. This is epitomised by Wakandan technology, which includes flying crafts, energy shields, high tech weapons and transport and – critically – some sort of holographic generator which disguises the country and makes it look like it is covered in dense jungle forests.
At the start of the film the Wakandans receive the news that the old king has been killed – an event depicted in Captain America: Civil War, so his son T’Challa ascends to the throne. T’Challa is also the Black Panther – a demi-god superhero whose powers derive from some Vibranium-laced flower, who protects the kingdom. T’Challa is briefly challenged by the leader of one of the other tribes, but defeats him in combat and retains the throne.
Meanwhile, the illegitimate cousin of T’Challa, Eric Killmonger, is warming up to seize the throne. We see him stealing an ancient Wakandan artifact from a museum, and there’s some nice dialogue about how the British stole it from his ancestors so he’s stealing it back. Killmonger’s background – growing up in poor neighbourhoods in the San Francisco bay area – is based on director Ryan Coogler’s background.
While the main conflict in the film is between T’Challa and Killmonger, shortly after T’Challa ascends to the throne the underlying geopolitical and philosophical conflict is made clear in a conversation with his military chief.
In essence, Wakanda faces a dilemma – choosing between isolationism and interventionism. While T’Challa wants to keep the kingdom isolated from the world, some within the society want to intervene to help people in other countries. When Killmonger shows up in Wakanda and challenges T’Challa and his right to the throne, Killmonger advocates using Wakandan technology to cause a global revolution.
This, of course, reflects real divisions in the black rights/civil rights movements. T’Challa is more like Martin Luther King, Killmonger more like Malcolm X or Huey Newton. Martin Luther King was focused on making America into a country that respected the civil rights of black people, while the more radical thinkers saw it as a springboard to overturn centuries of racism and repression.
The CIA and Black Panther
Adding to this complex geopolitical conflict is the character of Everett Ross. Ross did appear in the Black Panther comics but he was a State Department lawyer, very much a fringe character who was mostly there for comic relief and to try to encourage white people to buy the comic. Curiously, the comicsgate twitterati never discuss this character.
In the film Ross has been upgraded to a CIA agent, though Tricia Jenkins notes that they cast Martin Freeman in the role – perhaps the most likeable, physically unimposing guy they could have chosen. Adding to this, the character is shown as being supportive of the Wakandans, ignorant of their societal and technological advancement, friendly, good humoured and self-sacrificing. In short, an advert for the real-life CIA.
This, of course, led some people to ask whether the CIA were involved in the production of Black Panther, but the CIA have denied this. Both their former entertainment industry liaison Kali Caldwell and a current public affairs officer said that the CIA did not help to make the film. And for what it’s worth, I believe them. There are none of the usual hallmarks of CIA influence, and there’s no obvious reason why the producers would have gone to the CIA for help. They didn’t want to film T’Challa breaking into CIA headquarters to steal a list of non-official cover agents.
However, that leaves open the possibility of unofficial cooperation, or at least the CIA quietly influencing the script without having to offer anything in return. Chase Brandon did this while he was the Agency’s entertainment liaison. But what would the purpose be? Why would the CIA want to promote themselves in this film? I can think of four distinct reasons.
1) Recruitment – the CIA wants nerds, and has trouble recruiting black people.
2) As a modern-day Luigi Luraschi-type project.
3) To encourage the American Left’s growing love affair with the CIA.
4) To whitewash the CIA’s real history in Africa.
On the other hand, Marvel has consistently shown that it is willing and able to promote US government and corporate interests, without or without production support from the government. Nonetheless Black Panther does help with all of these four possible motives for CIA involvement.
1) It is a well-made comic book adventure that proved popular with black and white people.
2) Though Killmonger refers to racism towards black people, we never actually see it in the film, thus the US looks less racist than it really is, especially in comparison to its perceived geopolitical enemy, Russia. This is exactly what Luraschi did when he was rewriting movies on behalf of the CIA back in the 1950s.
3) It shows a CIA agent working side-by-side with the Wakandans, thus making it seem like the CIA are on the side of progressive liberalism. While the ‘Trump vs the Deep State’ narrative is misleading for all sorts of reasons, it is misleading both for those who are pro-Trump and those who are anti-Trump. It encourages the pre-existing victim mentality among Trump supporters, and encourages Trump opponents to think the CIA is somehow on their side. Black Panther plays right into this.
4) Once Killmonger defeats T’Challa and takes over Wakanda, it is Ross who joins the counter-coup faction fighting against him, thus reversing the CIA’s true history in Africa.
This last point is the most important. In the real world the CIA’s role in Africa has primarily been helping overthrow governments, supporting violent extremists, propping up dictators and generally sewing chaos. They helped overthrow Nkrumah in Ghana, to assassinate Lumumba in the Congo, even the 1962 arrest of Nelson Mandela came after a CIA tip-off. While not quite as vicious and bloody as the CIA’s behaviour in Latin America, they certainly aren’t the heroes of the story of Africa.
And yet, in Black Panther Ross is a hero. He is repeatedly shown sacrificing himself for the sake of the Wakandans, and even explaining to them how black operations work. He teams up with the good Wakandans, not the ones who become loyal to Killmonger, and helps with the counter-coup. All of which portrays the CIA very positively and not just washes over the CIA’s real history in Africa, but makes it look like a good thing. Just like The Interview and Animal Farm, this is a film that portrays CIA-backed revolution as a good thing, even if it involves killing people.
Indeed, it seems the CIA were impressed with the results of what appears to be a co-branding exercise between them and the MCU. When Black Panther was up for an Oscar, the night of the ceremony the CIA were live-tweeting their support – the first time they’d done this since Argo in 2012. They’ve also published articles as part of their #ReelvsReal PR program, including one comparing Wakandan technology to CIA gadgets.
Why? Why would they do this? Especially the article about Wakandan tech, which on the face of it is utterly stupid?
The way I see it, there are two key themes in Black Panther – violence and technology, both of which subvert traditional cinematic stereotypes. One of the markers of colonialism is a claim to the legitimate use of violence by the colonisers, and cinema reflects this. Up until at least the 1980s the predominant use of legitimate violence in film and TV was by white male characters. While that has shifted to a more demographically diverse cast in recent years, nonetheless most of the legitimate users of violence work for the government.
Black Panther turns this on its head, depiciting the legitimate use of violence by black people, even black women. There is a sort of praetorian guard of bald, black women who kick ass throughout the whole film, and their violence is never shown to be unjustified or immoral. This is quite subversive, genuinely, given the history of cinema that came before.
However, in rejecting Killmonger’s claim to legitimately use violence to overthrow or fight back against oppression of black people, the film undermines these radical leanings and subversive deployments. Likewise, in having our black heroes team up with a white CIA agent in order to succeed, the film’s third act is actually quite conservative. This is amplified by the fact that the film’s climax – like all action movies – is a great big fight. While the film subverts cinematic norms of who can legitimately use violence, it reaffirms the long-standing cinematic norm of violence as a means of conflict resolution. As such, I gave it a score of 6/10 for how radical it is when it comes to violence.
When it comes to technology the film is more consistently subversive. Another marker of colonialism is the claim to technological superiority – both in practice and in symbolism, propaganda and so forth. The notion of darker-skinned people as backward, and therefore inferior, is a critical belief underlying much of our colonial history. Cinema reflects this by having most technological advancements be the work of white male characters.
Black Panther subverts this by depicting a technologically advanced society that was developed entirely by black people. In particular, while T’Challa is something of a black James Bond his Q, who develops and provides his equipment, is his younger sister. So the film subverts cinematic norms of who can develop high technology, by depicting not just black people but black women doing this. Unlike the theme of violence, the third act of the film does not compromise or undermine this subversion of norms about technology.
Which is why the CIA had to come along and write one of the dumbest articles you’ll ever find on a government website, both comparing their own tech to Wakandan tech, and also pointing out that in the real world the CIA wouldn’t be blind to Wakanda’s existence like it is in the film. Tricia suggested that the CIA are guilty of a bit of hyper-sensitivity here, that they just couldn’t accept someone else being better than them so they sought to undermine the film’s subversive imagery. So while it’s a 6/10 for subverting norms of violence, I give Black Panther an 8/10 for subverting norms around technology.
Django Unchained is in many ways a very different kind of movie. Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, it is a Western set before the American Civil War, and is about a bounty hunter who rescues and teams up with a slave – Django – and their adventures in the deep south. Like all Tarantino movies it is horribly violent, full of swearing and the n-word and is hyper-stylised.
Like Black Panther it is a fantasy, aimed primarily at black people. Django proves to be a very talented gunman, who wreaks violent vengeance on racist slave owners and miscellaneous cowboys. So this is a black revenge fantasy, where instead of blacks and native Americans being killed by a lone white gunslinger the races are reversed.
And if you want my opinion, it’s a great film. Not quite as brilliant as The Hateful Eight, which is a 3-hour epic where the first hour is entirely set in a stagecoach on a snowy mountain. But Django isn’t far behind – it’s funny, imaginative and very cool. If you don’t like Tarantino films then you probably won’t like it but if you do then it’s very Tarantino. There’s a superb moment where Django is escaping from some slave-owning miners, one of whom is played by Tarantino himself, and shoots him while he’s carrying a saddlebag full of dynamite and he just explodes. One of the best cinematic deaths I’ve ever seen – up there with Dick Jones in Robocop.
The alt right hated Django Unchained, because they felt it was designed to inspire violence against white people by vengeful blacktivists. One scene where Django viciously whips a slave supervisor caused them particular consternation. The fact that this is direct revenge for an earlier incident we’re shown in flashback where the guy brutally whips Django’s wife, Broomhilda, appears to have escaped them. Likewise the fact that the film deliberately reversed the races to provide a new take on a relatively old and well-worn story.
But they aren’t wrong that this is a revenge fantasy and that we’re supposed to see Django’s violence as legitimate. The reality of slavery – the painful, excruciating reality – is depicted throughout. Early on, just after Dr Schultz has bought Django from two slave owners because he needs Django’s help in tracking down some fugitives he is bounty-hunting, the two go into a saloon. The barkeep runs out screaming for the sheriff simply because Django is black. There’s also a running joke about black guys not being allowed to ride horses. Then, there’s the depiction of the KKK.
So the film depicts racism as it truly is – absurd, stupid and often harsh and violent. In this context, Django killing a bunch of people, most of whom are trying to kill him, is entirely legitimate. So Django goes way beyond Black Panther in this respect – Black Panther never shows the racism that Killmonger is responding to with his calls for violent revolution. It is referred to in dialogue but we never actually see it.
Whereas in Django we see a slave ripped apart by dogs, no end of racial slurs and bigotry, and in the middle of the film we end up in Candyland, a plantation owned by Mr Candy (played by Leo DiCaprio). It turns out that Django’s wife is a slave there, so Dr Schultz and Django travel to Mississippi pretending to be interested in purchasing a mandingo fighter. We find out that Mr Candy’s primary pleasure in life is watching two black guys beating each other to death.
Due to his frequent use of the word ‘nigger’ and variants thereof Tarantino has been accused of being a racist, or at least of making racist films. So I do enjoy how he turned the tables on his critics and gave them a true depiction of racism – not the idiotic, mouthy kind that is unpleasant but rarely adds up to a lot – the deep-seated, institutionalised kind that causes no end of damage. I think the whole movie is a little tongue-in-cheek, where a white Italian-American film-maker produced an anti-white revenge fantasy in that most white supremacist of film genres – the Western. After all, most Westerns barely acknowledge slavery, or the genocide of native Americans, and the hero is almost always a violent white guy who kills anyone who stands in his way.
So Tarantino reversed the races, to powerful effect.
Of course, this is not the first black cowboy film. That honour goes to Blazing Saddles. I’m kidding, the earliest one I know of is 1938’s Two Gun Men From Harlem, and there are at least a dozen others. I was going to include Blazing Saddles in this episode but I’ll quickly sum up my thoughts on how it fits into all this. I think it’s one of the funniest comedies ever made and probably Mel Brooks’ funniest film.
When it comes to racism, we see how the new town sheriff Bart – who is black – is subject to relentless racist insults and how he eventually wins the town over. But the context is that every race that appears in the film is subject to racism, and there’s one moment where they put all that aside and join forces to defeat the bad guys.
Legitimate violence in cinema
Getting back to Django, the key theme here is cinematic violence. Even more so than Black Panther – because it never relents or compromises – it subverts the norms of whose violence is legitimate. Django is never shown killing someone who doesn’t have it coming to them, and in one scene where Schultz and he are hunting a fugitive and they see him with his son, Django hesitates because he doesn’t want the son to see his father die.
Whereas the violence of the white slave owners and their employees is never shown to be just or fair or just part of that world. We’re supposed to view it with antipathy, not sympathy. There is never any excuse or justification for it, in many ways it is the primary antagonist in the film. This is embodied in Mr Candy, who is not just a racist, he’s a phrenologist who believes in the fundamental inferiority of his black slaves.
While Schultz and Django masquerade as buyers looking for a mandingo fighter their true aim is to buy Broomhilda so she and Django can be together again. Part way through their ruse, Candy’s butler (played by Samuel L Jackson) figures it out and tells Candy, leading to the most tense and unpleasant scene in the whole film.
What I think Tarantino is saying here is that the racist you have to worry about isn’t the mouthy idiot at a bar using racial slurs, it’s the committed racialist who believes that his attitudes are scientific, grounded in reality. That goes beyond prejudice – which we’re all guilty of to some extent – and into delusion, which is much more dangerous. Because once you’ve established in your own mind that your prejudices are reality, there’s no longer any reason to hold back from brutalising the subjects of those prejudices. It becomes part of your own self-identity to treat them horribly, because in your mind they deserve it, it is inevitable.
In this context, what choice does Django have except violent resistance?
This is still problematic because it still fails to challenge or subvert the notion of violence as the primary means of conflict resolution, but this is a Tarantino film so that was never going to happen.
The violence of black people in Black Panther is shown to be legitimate, but the big fight at the end is black-on-black, and there’s a white hero on the side we’re supposed to be rooting for. So its subversion is compromised, whereas in Django Unchained we’re not only supposed to be rooting for Django, we’re supposed to enjoy the violence he inflicts on the bullies and slavers around him, we’re supposed to see it as the inevitable response to their violence. As such I’d give Django a 9/10 for its subversive approach to norms of violence.
In this sense I think Django Unchained is a more radical film than Black Panther, though neither are as radical as The Spook who Sat by the Door, the benchmark for black radicalism in cinema. One last point on this – and spoiler alert – at the end of the film Django blows up the mansion at the heart of Candyland, which is obviously modelled on the White House. Without getting into the metaphor of Candyland for the US, one little point I’d like to make is that Django stops and turns around to watch the explosion. Even this is a little bit subversive, because the fashion in recent movies is to have the cool guy blew something up as he walks away, so you can get the cool shot of the guy walking towards the camera while something blows up in the background.
Indeed, this became such a common meme in films that at the 2009 MTV awards Will Ferrell and JJ Abrams helped make a comic music video drawing attention to this, called ‘cool guys don’t look at explosions’. But not in Django, in that film the coolest guy – played by Jamie Foxx in a great performance – watches the explosion, before riding off into the night with his true love.