The Divine Right of Black Panther

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Power to the people

The movie was cool and all, but also, fuck monarchies

One of the the things I liked best about Black Panther is that it had a very compelling villain. Part of me was kind of rooting for Killmonger , because he made a decent case for his side of things. Sure, his means made it hard to justify his ends, and branding himself as “Killmonger” has bad optics.

But, he claimed that what he wanted to do was help “two billion” people rise up against their oppressors. Given that Africa itself has only a little over a billion people , and he’s probably not aligned with all of them anyway, I take it to mean he’s not just thinking of the people of the continent he calls home, and is talking of a broader class struggle. Sounds good to me.

On the other hand, our hero is the latest in an divinely ordained patrilineal dynasty, whose rule over the people is not just determined by genealogy, but validated on succession by ritual MMA fights. I enjoy a good UFC match, but there’s no fucking way I’d want to live in a country where Conor McGregor had a shot at being head of state. And Wakandan kings aren’t just figureheads for the state like most other modern day monarchs. So far as we can see, there’s no constitutional constraints on his powers, there is no elected body. There are a group of elders or possibly tribal chiefs who counsel him, but other than a few ritual constraints, King T’Challa is unchecked. He has the political power of a thirteenth century Mongol Khan .

Luckily for everyone under the yoke of this backwards and oppressive political system, we’re led to believe that the Black Panther rulers have all been benevolent and wise. Possibly because as part of their ascension ritual they go into a sweat lodge where they undergo a shamanistic ritual involving glowing purple space peyote that allows them to commune with their ancestors.

The space peyote is special because it grows out of ground infused with the remnants of an asteroid that touched down in Wakanda aeons ago, leaving behind a huge deposit of an ore called “vibranium” , though it should be called “deus ex machinium” for all that it can do. Somehow, this material can not only be forged into really strong metal, not only can plants that grow in it turn people into super heroes, but somehow it can inspire a whole culture of people to develop technologies well in advance of the rest of the planet. I personally can’t quite make the leap to see how having access to one particular metal ore could have so many properties to it that it somehow is the foundation of everything a culture creates.

And actually, now that I think about it... if we lean on vibranium too much to explain the source of Wakanda’s successes, isn’t that getting a little too much into Chariots of the Gods territory? The racist assumption that non-European cultures could only have made advanced discoveries with help from outer space? Let’s not go down that road.

In any case, as much it would offset the antidemocratic problems of a monarchy to think that maybe the purple space peyote aligned the chakras of successive Black Panthers to make them into philosopher kings, we’re shown that’s not the case when Killmonger does the red sand spa and talks to his dead father, and comes out even more determined to kick ass and take names.

We’re shown the problem with monarchies when the head of T’Challa’s personal guard, a bad-ass squad of all female shock troops, Okoye , in a scene that might pass the Bechdel Test if you think of “the king” as a job and not a person, tells Nakia , a spy for Wakanda, that she serves the throne, not T’Challa. That’s what monarchies get you, you have to serve whoever is in the chair, regardless of how much their will goes against everything you believe in. Your only counter option is bloody revolution, which is awesome to watch when it involves armoured rhinoceri, but not so great if you have to live with the consequences. Even in a failing democracy like the current United States, there are processes that can potentially usurp a wannabe leader for life without bloodshed.

I really hate what monarchies symbolize, and I just find it bizarre that a country that had a whole revolution to do away with them not only fantasizes about them constantly in Disney wonderlands, but also seems to be okay with the real world slow coalescence of power into into a handful of families. The threat of a plutocracy from the over privileged wealthy is bad, but at least people seem to have their eyes somewhat open to the disasters that come from electing into office someone from a wealthy class so far removed from everyday people that they have absolutely no empathy for other classes they barely acknowledge as human beings.

When Hillary Clinton ran for president, people spoke about her time as first lady as “experience”, and not the privilege of being family with a ruler. In many other jobs, this kind of thing is called nepotism, but in the competition for arguably the most powerful job in the world, it’s marketed as resume building material. Nepotism in politics is how monarchies form. Why not just marry Chelsea Clinton to George P Bush, unifying House Elephant with House Donkey, and do away with the expensive farce of participation every four years? And yes, I know both are already married, but I’ve seen Game of Thrones , so I know that’s a solvable problem.

This is far from an issue only in the US. The county I live in now, Japan, is pretty much a defacto oligarchy, with a huge chunk of the Diet being made of people for whom politics is a family business. The Prime Minister is the grandson of a previous prime minister . My home country, Canada, currently has a leader that is the son of a previous leader. Had the previous administration not stripped my of my right to vote because of my time living in Japan, I would have voted against him on those grounds alone. Also, because unlike the last US elections, there were at least some viable alternatives. I have to admit, Trudeau The Sequel is more or less doing a decent job, and I agree with most of his policies. But that justifies nothing. There have been plenty of good monarchs in history, depending on your criteria for success. The point, though, is that good or bad monarchs are the result of a gamble the people have no control over, and in the long run, the casino always wins.

Personally, I’d like to see laws enacted that explicitly forbid family members from holding office, kind of like an anti-trust legislation for political power. The higher the office, the more relatives become ineligible to hold power. No children or grandchildren of any previous office holder. No spouses, no siblings, no cousins. I’m willing to take the risk of losing out on a potentially capable leader who happens to be too closely related, because I think a country with millions of people in it can find a suitable substitute.

Man, I really went off on a tangent there. What the fuck was I talking about? Oh, yeah, Black Panther . And monarchies.

In the context of Black Panther , what irks me about the Wakandan political system, and how it’s tied to the heroism of the main character is that symbolically, it’s a shitty message to send out in the world. It says that special people are born into being special. Where’s the meritocracy? Where’s the inspiration to try to achieve something n this world? Forget it, you’re not royalty, so go fuck yourself. T’Challa didn’t earn becoming Black Panther. He was born into it. All he had to do was to remember to breathe, and he is gifted a privileged life. And don’t even get me started on the the complications of having the leader of the country being the country’s most elite special forces soldier, blurring the lines between military and civilian rule.

My heart would have been swayed to T’Challa if, along with deciding to reach out to the world at the end of the movie, he also decided to abdicate in favour of a Wakandan democracy. Then, he could have dedicated himself to being just the Black Panther, maybe a covert operative for Wakandan peace missions, or maybe a national symbol of Wakandan diplomacy. The life of a super hero involves risk and sacrifice, and that’s the kind of hero I like to see in my fictional universes.

But no, he decides he’s going to use Wakandan resources to buy up land in Oakland to set up outreach programs, and presumably similar projects worldwide. Sure, that’s better in many ways than Killmonger’s violence, but, isn’t soft power just another way to exert influence in the world? It’s a lot less stick and a lot more carrot, but is it any less manipulative? What we have at the end is a non democratic leader proclaiming his intention to guide the world toward the values he personally holds dear, and this is supposed to be a good thing? It is, so far as you trust T’Challa and his successors to be benevolent dictators.

Killmonger’s approach was made out to be indiscriminately violent, but this might just be Wakandan propaganda after the fact. His stated aim in the movie was to arm the oppressed so they could fight back. What if that means giving the people of North Korea, Sudan, or Belarus the means to topple their shitty regimes? As much as violence should be abhorred, there are oppressed people around the world who I think made a good case for violent intervention. Right this very moment, every government large enough to do so is currently funding violent operations in other countries to see their interests furthered, usually on behalf of corporate powers that financially support those in power. At least Killmonger has a non capitalist ideology at his heart, which I can get behind.

My screed against monarchies may come across like I didn’t like the film, but, actually, it makes me like it more. I had a villain that compelled me, and a hero I was conflicted about, which makes for an incredibly dynamic story and food for thought. That, to me, is what a movie about super heroes should be. Super heroes are broadly drawn archetypes for morality, and morality should be explored, not dumbed down.