Tuesday, February 20, 2018

A Political History of the Future: Black Panther at Lawyers, Guns & Money

In my latest Political History of the Future column at Lawyers, Guns & Money, I discuss Black Panther, a genuinely remarkable movie that sets a bar that other MCU films are going to struggle to clear.  There's been a lot of fascinating conversation about this movie, not least its importance to African-Americans as both the first MCU movie to star a black man, and a representation of a fictional African nation that is powerful, self-sufficient, and never colonized.  In this essay, I discuss how that act of worldbuilding puts Black Panther squarely in the tradition of utopian SF, and how its utopia is enriched by the film's deep interest in blackness and African heritage.  As I write in the essay, it's interesting to compare Black Panther to Star Trek: Discovery, and find that the movie delivers exactly what I was looking for in that show.
Beyond its importance as a work of worldbuilding, however, what excites me about Black Panther—and sets it head and shoulders above any other work in the MCU, as far as I’m concerned—is the fact that it’s a story about worldbuilders. "Just because something works doesn’t mean it cannot be improved", T'Challa is informed by his sister, the bright-eyed inventor Shuri (Letitia Wright). And indeed, Black Panther and Wakanda are full of people who, despite living in a seeming paradise, keep asking themselves how they can make it better, and what responsibility they have to help improve the rest of the world.

7 comments:

George Pedrosa said...
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George Pedrosa said...
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George Pedrosa said...

I feel like the worldbuilding is sketchy at times, working more on a visual and rethorical level than a practical one. Are we expected to believe that an extremaly advanced utopia would choose their leaders through what amounts to a cockfight? I understand they wanted to show Wakandans as having a deep respect for their traditions, but surely such an advanced nation would have already moved past that particular tradition and adopted a more efficient method of representation? Coupled with their radical isolationism, it makes Wakanda seem positively reactionary. Also found the idea of a prosperous nation which isolates itself completely from international trade to be highly unlikely - there are no real world examples, really - but Hollywood's lack of understanding of trade and microeconomics is par for the course, so it's not really a capital sin. Vibranium is the explanation, of course, but it's still inaccurate, and takes away all merit from Wakandans themselves. It's a popular misconception that's advanced by both the far left and the far right - if we cut ourselves off from globalization and protect our rich natural resources, our nation shall prosper - and I wonder how much of the movie's global appeal is due to current responsiveness to populist, nationalistic ideas.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I got into the questions raised by Wakandan worldbuilding in the comments at LGM. Bottom line: if we take what the film says at face value, Wakanda is North Korea, with Scandinavian quality of life and better clothes. I'm not inclined to treat this as a meaningful flaw in the film, because I still feel that the "tear it all down and build something virtually identical" approach that other MCU movies take to social change is ultimately more destructive.

Pascoe said...

I do struggle to see how it's a more complete, coherent world than, say, that of the The Handmaid's Tale television series. Not that I think that's a huge issue with Black Panther's storytelling, but I guess I still haven't quite figured out your criteria for a world's inclusion in this column.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I do struggle to see how it's a more complete, coherent world than, say, that of the The Handmaid's Tale television series

I'm not sure I said that it was. And, after all, Black Panther and The Handmaid's Tale are trying to achieve very different things with their worldbuilding. The former is a fantasy of agency, and the latter is an exaggeration of the real world meant to function as a warning about authoritarianism and religious fanaticism.

Pascoe said...

Sorry, I think I came across more antagonistic than I meant to with that comment - should try not to leap in with out-of-nowhere pedantry.

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