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Self-Awareness in Progressive Ideologies: How "Black Panther" Handles Just Causes With Self-Examination

Jamal is a graduate of Northeastern Seminary and writes on a broad range of topics. His writings are based on other points of view.

Courtesy of Marvel Studios.

Courtesy of Marvel Studios.

Black Panther is hailed as one of the most successful portrayals of diversity in media. Not only did it show a Black superhero at the forefront, which at the time was rare beyond that of a supporting character, but it also showed a distinctly African world. Within so many hours on screen, it showed all at once the legacy of colonialism on the African continent, the struggle of the African-Americans in America and the baggage that came with it, and a positive image of dark-skinned people across the world.

However, for me, these mattered less than one specific scene in the latter half of the movie. It is when T’Challa, who is nearly killed by Killmonger, visits the afterworld to see his father and the past Wakandan kings. Still disturbed by the revelation that the villain that Killmonger is actually his cousin who was abandoned as a child in America after T’Chaka killed his father/T’ Chaka’s brother, T’Challa confronts him about why.

Though clearly guilt ridden, T’Chaka tries to explain that he chose loyalty to Wakanda and its tradition of secrecy rather than loyalty to family. All at once, the purity that T’Challa believed in about Wakandan tradition, as well as his own pride in how he has defined himself and his family for years, is shattered. Angrily, the defeated man decides that he cannot accept death and the afterlife as tradition holds. A monster now rules the country and it isa monster of our own making.

"You were wrong! You were all wrong!!"

— - T'Challa, Black Panther, 2018

Cultivating Self-Awareness

My reasoning behind this being my favorite and most impactful scene of the movie is its depiction of self-accountability wrapped within a story about African pride. Wakanda had hidden technological advantages for centuries, allowing it to develop without the direct influence of imperialism or Western domination that had plagued the rest of Africa. The movie heavily emphasizes this point both within it and as an idealistic what if fantasy in real life. It would have been easy for it to go on a pride parade without depicting any flaws as most nationalistic propaganda does the world over.

Yet as the movie goes along and we learn more about Kilmonger’s past and family connection, we also indirectly start to see the blind side in Wakanda’s pride. In isolating itself from the rest of the world and helping others across history, the people allowed themselves to believe that the preservation of their tradition at all costs was a good thing. A necessary thing. That there was no wrong in it and it was both the morally and culturally right thing to do, given history’s record of the global Black experience.

That inability to see or examine their own flaws left them open to the fallibilities that Killmonger and later T’Challa accuse the nation of. Black Panther is very explicit in making it clear that T'Chaka’s faults are not an excuse for racist, imperialist policies or Killmonger’s rage-fueled drive for revenge. But that did play a part in perpetuating the problems of the larger world by not self-examining their own traditions. Thus this leads to the situation of Killmonger legally taking the throne, but with ill-intent, and T’Challa’s decision to break from centuries-old traditions by opening Wakanda to the world and revealing their advanced tech and creating agencies to address world issues.

Courtesy of altamar.us/defund-the-police.  Though many have tried to get out to the world a concrete definition of what defund the police means, seems to me that few either share it or know what that is.  Even more so to those outsie.

Courtesy of altamar.us/defund-the-police. Though many have tried to get out to the world a concrete definition of what defund the police means, seems to me that few either share it or know what that is. Even more so to those outsie.

Where The Lack of Self-Examination has Stumbled or Failed

The main reason this strikes me so hard is that this willingness to accept blindness for the sake of righting wrongs or protection from the unjust is something that I see much of in the many progressive movements of the last seven years or so. While operating against a more clear and longer lasting injustice of racial superiority/patriarchy, the lack of examination has led some to attitudes that are comparable to the enemy they are fighting. Or at least an opening that the enemy can exploit. That some unseen/holy power protects them from doing any wrong and placing them above human flaws.

Take for example Occupy Wall Street in 2011. That movement started as some hundreds of people protesting and encamping themselves in front of the wealthiest street in America, if not the world. The common narrative on the street was that it was to stand against the financial exploitation of the 1%, those Americans who were not just wealthy, but controlled how that wealth was distributed across the nation. And usually the distribution favored upholding the power of those same people at the expense of the rest of the populace. It was a worthy cause that nearly half the nation agreed was legitimate. Not only that, it inspired similar events across the world and went on for over a year.

However, within Occupy, it suffered from a lack of leadership and thus a condensed definition of what it actually stood for. This was best shown when reporters would ask many protestors on Wall Street what they were there for and they almost always gave different answers. Because no one in the movement had been willing to address that, it allowed the besieged elite to simply wait and bide their time until Occupy collapsed or local businesses cleared their opponents out because of the disruption it caused to their own smaller businesses.

Another example is my involvement in the Black Lives Matter protests last year in Rochester, NY. I was involved because I believed that the cops who killed George Floyd needed to be held accountable and were not. And that there was a systemic problem within the law enforcement of a inherent bias towards seeing non-White people as criminals or potential criminals to be. It is a worthy and needed cause and I am still glad I was a part of that.

However, I saw the lack of a coherent and tangible goal. What was the endgame to the marches? New government oversight? City councils specifically created to watch over the police? Re-education of cops?

I myself heard ideas and damn good ones at that. But not everyone I talked to shared those same ideas. Some I talked to were there just because they were enraged. Some were there because they wanted to make it known that they would not be silent, despite not having experienced issues with the cops themselves. And others demanded the total removal of the police from Black neighborhoods entirely.

While this led to multiple marches across the city, few were coordinated, even though good did come of it in that the problem of cops with non-White people was now in the public’s face. Many cops even sided with BLM and it was truly genuine.

Yet the problems continued, and though there were people who tried to lay out a clear definition and codex of what BLM was about and what was permissible, I still saw a lack of clarity beyond rage and the right side of history points among many on the forefront. I had several discussions from those, at the events themselves, at the parks, and in dive bars where to even suggest that there may be points BLM could touch up on to be more effective resulted in talks going nowhere and myself being referred to as an enabler.

And in my opinion and experience, that righteous unwillingness led to those who were truly enemies of BLM or any type of change manipulating the narrative via the media, making backroom deals with politicians, and reinforcing the infamous blue wall of silence.’ Since I left Rochester some time after, it seems like that was exactly what happened.

Courtesy of Marvel Studios.  The ending sequence of Black Panther has T'Challa learning from the past mistakes by revealing Wakanda's power to the world, but doing so as an outreach and not a powerbroker.

Courtesy of Marvel Studios. The ending sequence of Black Panther has T'Challa learning from the past mistakes by revealing Wakanda's power to the world, but doing so as an outreach and not a powerbroker.

Fighting Nobly Without Dying Stupidly

I could go on and on with examples, but I think I communicated my point. No matter how moral and righteous your position and allegiances may be, the people who make up those ideals are still human. Thus they are still vulnerable to the same weakness and margins of error that the evil they fight exists in.

Black Panther paints a picture of a man blessed to be in a position to see pride in his past, where it has fucked up, and the power to do something to break the cycle. By opening Wakanda to the rest of the world with its technologies and agencies at the movie’s end, T’Challa honors his heritage by not repeating the same imperialistic measures that other nations had, but also reject those policies that had nearly led to the corruption of his country into the very thing it feared.

And I believe that in a world of cancel culture, media-manipulated worldviews, and hyper-sensitivity to both self-preservation and the expansion of influence, that lesson of self-accountability is sorely needed right now.

I get it. People fighting injustice don't want to give the enemy any space to maneuver or rationalize their way out of accountability. This is certainly legit, but to do so with no kind of foresight of the future you are creating for yourselves is just as dangerous. It leads to a vicious cycle that neither side really wants to leave for the sake of attaining that momentary sense of victory.

So to me, Black Panther’s success lay not just in its portrayal of dark-skinned people to the world, but more importantly in its meta self-awareness that even the righteous can fuck up if they’re not careful.

© 2021 Jamal Smith

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