Courtesy of Cornell University

Cornell Professors praised the portrayal of women in 'Black Panther' and emphasized the movie's cultural significance in a panel.

March 4, 2018

Black Panther is a ‘Deeply Politicized’ Film, Africana Studies Experts Say

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In light of the huge success and heated discussion around the recent Marvel blockbuster “Black Panther,” several scholars of Africana Studies examined its cultural significance in the current political environment and dissected the historical and political elements behind the movie.

Prof. N’Dri Thérèse Assié-Lumumba, African and diaspora education, commended the movie for its representation of Africans and those of African descent by comparing it with the inauguration of former president Barack Obama in 2009.

“Experiencing Black Panther as [it is] in the center of Hollywood is like [experiencing] the inauguration again in 2009,” Assié-Lumumba said. “I once said, ‘Obama will not change the institutions or the system,’ but what we can gain from him and the movie is shattering the idea that there are barriers for African people.”

Despite the “understandable defensiveness” of many social media users against politicizing the movie, Prof. Russell Rickford, history, said that Black Panther is “already deeply politicized” because of its indirect connection to current events.

“This movie is basically a response to Trump’s ‘shithole countries.’” Rickford said. “[It] really draws on the idea of imagining Africa as this sanctuary, a safe haven beyond white supremacy.”

The panelists also praised the movie for its representation of African women. Rickford appreciated that the movie portrayed the women as “strong and independent minded rather than as a sexual object.”

Prof. Kevin Gaines, Africana studies, described how people tend to remember figures like Queen Elizabeth I when thinking about female rulers in history, often forgetting about powerful African women like Queen Njinga of Angola.

“Queen Njinga was a military leader, she fought off the Portuguese invaders, and was skilled in diplomacy … [she is] a notable figure who doesn’t get much discussion.” Gaines explained, adding that the women in the film, such as Shuri, Okoye and Nakia reflected powerful female figures like Queen Njinga.

All three panelists brought up the idea that Wakanda, the fictional country depicted as a wealthy technological powerhouse in the movie, is the realization of African sovereignty and African people’s hope for development.

“[African sovereignty] is a beacon and inspiration to black people everywhere,” Gaines said. “Images of African sovereignty and power are extremely inspiring for Africans and African-Americans.”

However, despite the movie’s reputation for being what Vanity Fair called a “worldwide phenomenon,” Rickford also discussed the parts of the movie he believed “not satisfying,” especially in terms of its Pan-Africanism representation.

He explained how Pan-Africanism has two branches, racial Pan-Africanism and revolutionary Pan-Africanism. He said that the former calls for the union and restoration of Africans and their descendants, while the latter thinks that the ties between Africans and their descendants do not lie in racial identity or culture, but rather in the existing political, social and economic realities that connect black people around the world.

According to Rickford, the movie portrayed a “unfulfilled” representation of both types of Pan-Africanism because the character of Killmonger was unable to claim his inheritance when he finally made it home, and also was portrayed as a “demented sociopath,” which ruined the vision of unity and liberation.

By comparing Vibranium — the fictional Wakandan metal with extreme value and scarcity taken by white smugglers — to the “stolen objects” of Africa, Assié-Lumumba used the movie to remind the audience of the importance of remembering Africa’s history.

“Africa cannot advance while forgetting its representation across the globe,” Assié-Lumumba said. “African can lead, and must lead. Africa has a lot to offer.”