Most of the now-18 Marvel superhero movies can be described as comic confections. Perhaps overdone desserts. Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther serves far richer fare. Perhaps a Marvel meal. Some have hailed it a “masterpiece”, others have called the now-much-laud-laden work a “triumph”, a crowning piece in a “21-st century Black Renaissance”. And with such a dense film follows readings: sociopolitical, racial, cinematic and particularly allegorical. None should collapse the meaning of Coogler and Joe Cole’s story into a singular message. But let me offer one about class.
In high fictive fashion, the plot of Black Panther turns on the slaying of one brother by another. The conquering brother, for decades, rules the rich land of Wakanda hidden in the heart of Africa. The slain brother leaves behind a son. That son suffers the poverty of the American ghetto, climbs the ranks of the US marines and then the super-hero underworld. He returns to Wakanda, on behalf of his dead father, to avenge that death and conquer the hermit kingdom. He vows to disperse its natural wealth out of Africa, outsourcing the riches for all those not-as-fortunate slum-dwellers like himself (and presumably for some bad guys.)
At the heart of the tale rests an enigmatic bind. The Wakandans come to believe that their power, their store of priceless vibranium, is both too much and too little. They fear that their alien element will overwhelm the world with its destructive potential. At the same time, they fear that they are not powerful enough, that they will be plundered and destroyed by that same fragile world. To skirt this paradox, these twin nightmares of strength and weakness, they isolate. They hide, looking after themselves, developing a hyper-advanced but insular culture. They ignore the plight of other cultures not so materially blessed.
Such quandary suggests other allegories for other times. Here I underline one: Within the African American experience, the unfolding stakes speak not just to race but to class. Will elite Africans or African Anglo-Americans (the Wakandans) help those poor who have fallen behind? Or, by extension, must those successful in the black diaspora stay hidden? Have they hidden? In a white-dominated society have fortunate African Americans been forced to don the cloak of the exceptional Negros? Have they felt compelled to pull up the ladder once they have climbed? Must the Erik Killmongers (or the Wire’s Wallaces) be abandoned so that at least a few may achieve? And when is it time? When will the riches of the few be shared with the many?
It is a seductive set of questions. And, perhaps, a dangerous one. The suggestion that one’s success is contingent on leaving others behind bares a cruel zero-sum logic. It denies the cumulative and often multiplier effect of success and progress. Such limited reasoning, such reason of limits, plays heavy on an older model of development. It is a model now discarded. It is a model, perhaps not coincidentally, that ruled during mercantilist days when empires were built on resources like vibranium and slaves, on mine and not yours. Such dreary logic emphasized that one’s gain rested on another’s lost. It denied the fruits of free trade, invention and group advancement that have been the staple of modern society. In Black Panther, by implication, the corruption in Wakanda, the isolationist path that the Wakandans choose, comes from it being a single-resource state. Isolated, they remain the kind of power over-reliant on material and not human capital, the type of state that ruled during those darker mercantilist times.
And yet, for all the flash and spark, the true royalty the film displays are its unequaled cast: Angela Bassett, Chadwick Boseman, Sterling K. Brown, Winston Duke, Danai Gurira, Michael B. Jordan, Daniel Kaluuya, Lupita Nyong’o, Forest Whitaker and Letitia Wright. They are indeed as fine a cast as has been recently assembled. And they are joined in direction and design by Coogler and Cole, Kendrick Lamar, Hannah Beachler and Ruth E. Carter. They represent (and make up) an Anglo-American artistic elite. Like the vibranium ore the Wakandans’ mine, this luminescent ensemble is pooled to peak power and grace, not a note misplayed. But, to follow the film’s logic, they represent the kind of elite, an upper class, that, like the Wakandans, must decide whether they will pool their own resources or sacrifice for the many, as Mary Church Terrell preached, lift as they climb.
In answer, in the final grace note of the movie, amidst the confines of a [bit ratchety] United Nations assembly, Boseman as King T’Challa promises to come out of hiding. He pledges to share his people’s gift of vibranium with the despairing world. And just so, like an Inceptive spiral the completion of the film fulfills the very promise of its teaser. So far from hiding, the film Black Panther presents full-throatedly the pooled glory of the black diaspora for all to see, poor and rich—in defiance and for our troubled times. It is no comic confection.