Fetishising Black Panther

Black Panther has taken the cinematic world by storm – and the dust is far from settling. In the wake of the film’s release, discussions around its cultural impact have lost none of the excitement and vigour they enjoyed in the lead up. If anything, such discussions have reached a new crescendo, adding to the film’s box office success a level of prestige likely to consecrate Black Panther as a breakthrough cultural text. Yet where its context is concerned, it is less clear how the film is seen to exist in the world and, indeed, whether at times it is seen as doing so at all.

Black Panther’s arrival as a cultural milestone is no doubt due to the exquisite novelty of it being a Hollywood film, and to the odd mixture of thematic correspondence and incongruence with the material realities of millions of people across the globe. There’s something unsettling in its resonance: the Afro-futurist, techno-utopia of Wakanda is both familiar and alien at one and the same time. But it is also uncanny in the discomfitting way it rubs up against the contemporary moment of race politics.

This tension, I think, underlies debates raging around the film’s inexorable presence. Put simply, there is an intractable uncertainty as to what the single greatest black superhero film has to say to an anti-black world. Does it reflect a cultural shift that makes it possible to imagine a form of resolute blackness unmarked by colonial whiteness? Does it instead sit comfortably in a long cinematic tradition that depends on the shocking devaluation of black American men? Or is it another defining moment that, exhilirating as it is, nevertheless leaves behind it a mass of anxious spectators unsure of what the future will bring?

These are ruminations of black activists, scholars, and writers, and they testify to the productive dissensus internal to the African-American community in particular and the African diaspora more generally. They also reflect a deep, emotional investment that is irreducible to the stakes of onscreen diversity and representation. Rather, it’s an investment that depends on whether or not a cultural product infused with blackness can survive a cultural landscape organised by white supremacy. In its specificity as a symbol of black resilience, the significance of Black Panther also continues to elude certain sections of the ‘woke’ crowd.

Whether it’s the hot takes around the film’s ‘Islamophobia’ and stereotypical representations of ‘people of colour’, on the one hand, or derision of its ‘liberalism’ from the left on the other, the film’s varied reception demonstrates that any form of black achievement and visibility, small or large, will incur the wrath of a ‘critique’ industry geared towards shaming and ‘calling out’ the easiest and most obvious targets. It is not enough to dwell in the indeterminacy of this film’s content, of what it has to say and what it has to offer – an indeterminacy found in all texts and forms of cultural production. Nor is it enough for the text to have a frame of reference that does not begin and end with the viewer’s own prerogatives. The ‘woke’ crowd wants it to speak to us, here and now; to offer a way forward and to change ‘the conversation’ around race and radical politics. In other words, they want it to do their work for them.

The problem with this critique industry can hardly be accounted for simply by intellectual laziness or anti-blackness, though both are no doubt accomplices. Rather the main culprit here is the power of fetish, and the fetishisation of cultural products like Black Panther. Fetishisation involves both detachment and inversion: detaching of the text from the social relations and the field of power that made it possible to begin with, but also inverting the order of causality so that the text comes to be anticipated, not as the product, but as the source of social change or reproduction. In this way, Black Panther has come to be seen as having a life and a power of its own, rather than as being animated by the ferment of activism and critique of the past half decade.

From the Movement for Black Lives to the writings of Ta-Nehisi Coates, there has been no shortage of inspiration for films like Get Out and Black Panther. The so-called ‘post-racial’ moment of the Obama presidency ironically culminated in an effervescence in the fields of anti-racism and radical politics, and the concomitant literary, musical and cinematic renaissance is better understood as reflections of a widening, more emancipatory political imagination rather than as arbiters of the latter. Where this relationship is clear to see, especially from the perspectives of those directly affected by its dynamic, it is easily lost in the fetishistic abstraction of cultural products: they appear, ex machina, to be animated by nothing if not their own intrinsic qualities as self-contained texts.

The relationship between the text and the politics of ‘real world’ is one thing, but there is also a need to triangulate this with our position as people interested in both – more urgently so, for those of us not immediately or directly impacted by the survival or ‘success’ of a cultural product. Echoing a poignant commentary on the film, and beyond the question of what the movie will bring to us, sits what might be a more important question – what will we bring to Black Panther and the distinct experience it is imbued with? What is our relationship to the politics and history that animates it, and the potentiality with which it is pregnant?


Image: crop of Black Panther 3D poster.

Faisal Al-Asaad

Faisal Al-Asaad is an Iraq-born writer, researcher, and educator based in Tāmaki Makaurau, Aotearoa. He is primarily interested in critical theories of race, settler colonialism, and racial capitalism.

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