By Christina Rose Walcott
On the afternoon of March 1, 2023, students and faculty members gathered in the Higgins Lounge at Dana Commons to listen to a panel moderated by Mia Davis ‘24, an English and CYES double major, with Dean of the Faculty and Professor of English Esther Jones, Professor of English Justin Shaw, and Professor of History Ousmane Power-Greene. The panel was organized by Professor Shaw. They gathered to discuss and explore the historical and critical lenses of two Marvel Studio movies Black Panther and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. In the panel, each of them addressed their own interests in the Black Panther films in relation to their scholarship. The conversation moved from discussions of utopia and grief to white supremacy and nationhood.
Professor Justin Shaw began the conversation with a discussion of mourning, Black motherhood, and utopia as crucial elements of understanding Black panther in the contemporary conversation. He quoted from the poet Claudia Rankine’s 2015 New York Times article where she wrote that “the condition of Black life is one of mourning” in the wake of the murders of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice.” Professor Shaw emphasized the impact on Black motherhood in particular.
Professor Shaw then moved to a discussion of utopia. “Utopia literally means no place, not here, nowhere… In the western tradition, there exists no utopia, but Black folks have always sought out their own utopias.” However, he moved on to say that, “There is no magic space rock that will save us from the grief and rage” referencing the fictional Wakanda and its reliance on the mystical space ore Vibranium in comparison to reality.
Professor Shaw also brought up television shows that focus on how Black immigrants from the diaspora created communal enclaves and how the characters in these shows “access what Shakespeare’s Moors cannot.” He spoke about how the places are real in these shows, whereas Wakanda is not. He transitioned here to a discussion of utopia through noting that the Black professionals were building community in the white-topias, a term coined by the late philosopher Charles W. Mills.
Professor Shaw ended his introduction by considering the joy in a utopia and who is and isn’t allowed to share in that joy. He returned to his opening with Claudia Rankine’s question of mourning. “Black death in America has become even more pervasive… we might call it viral.
Is mourning the price that we pay for the price of Black life and joy today?”
Professor Power-Greene spoke next offering his perspective on the films. He focused on Ryan Coogler, who is the director of both films. He looked at the subtopics from the comic books that emerge, as well as how different Wakanda Forever is from that series. He specifically focused on the way that the film reflects the Black Power movement of the 1960s and 70s.
“Cougler’s priority is to utilize the fictional form (Afro-futurism and Black speculative fiction) in a way to make a very specific reference to more recent history: that in particular being the Black Panther Party.”
Power-Greene mentioned that Oakland, California, where Coogler is from, is prominently known as being active with the Black Panther Party. “Returning to Oakland is less of a feature in this film but the organization of the Black panther party is very much reflected.”
Power-Greene also made an effort towards emphasizing how women were most often the leaders of the Black panther party, specifically Elaine Brown. He noted how, “Coogler having Black female leadership reflects the leadership of the Black Panther Party.”
Power-Greene concluded his introduction by moving towards addressing how the introduction of characters from the Latin-American region reflects how the Black Panther Party began dealing with the consequences of colonialism and trying to unify globally with nations that were non-Western as a central goal of the Black Panther Party. Black Panther is “a film that in many ways engages with the history of the past, and the importance of Haiti at the end, a film that is interested in engaging with the most recent history.”
In her introduction, Dean Esther Jones moved towards a discussion of gender, affect, emotion, and grief. She also addressed how women play a much more central role in the second film:
“A question of women’s leadership in the second film, women’s responses to seismic threats, to their culture, their individual existence….”
Dean Jones also addressed the cultural consciousness and affective element which intertwined with the real loss of Chadwick Boseman and his death at the very young age of 43 to cancer with a palpable homage to him at the beginning of the film. She mentioned how this serves the broader collective consciousness of grief and begs the question: “What does a nation do with the loss of a leader?” These are questions that come up in the African American context as well.
“When we lost Malcolm, when we lost King, when we lost so many of the iconic figures of the revolution of change for black freedom: what do we do with that grief? What do we do with that loss?”
She also brought up how, “women who were not always recognized in the movement–asking questions about Shuri’s balancing act with the raw anger.” She mentioned, “her individual pain and loss and suffering, but she is also working through what I view as a collective grieving, mourning, and loss.” This underscores the expectation between gender roles, Black men in particular are not allowed grieving, mourning, in particular ways.
Professor Power-Greene then moved towards talking about what he finds most exciting about Black Panther: Black radicalism and the Black power movement. He noted how in the film, it appears that we see “Black Panther’s ability to be violent” “but actually what we see in the film is Black panther’s ability to bring it all together through leadership.” He also put attention towards “women who came forward in ways that they were silenced and Black Panther has become to complicate this and allow for a different model.”
Professor Shaw expanded on the cold open with the death of T’Challa, clips of Boseman playing T’Challa, and Shaw: “I felt kinship as a viewer and that I grieved his death because it brought the viewer into a sense of kinship, not being able to grieve him because he died right before COVID.”
He also began moving towards a discussion of grief and utopia: to “grieve the fact that this utopia doesn’t exist.”
Professor Jones then entered the conversation again with expanding on utopia in Black Panther. She moved towards a discussion of family and kinship: “But we also know that there are very real distinctions about the question of kinship in the diaspora, in the continent, that is not kind of a shared sort of ideal, per se… When I think about kinship, I think about the normal natural tensions that happen and do wonder about some of the challenges about kinship when it comes to Blackness–the notion of Blackness as this connectedness of all Black people”
Jones expanded on this to emphasize the different experiences of what Black people go through, and she also connected this to a desire of her’s of wanting all POC to collaborate together (and potentially marry to form these alliances) denoting that a utopian impulse that undergirds the kinship narrative. But, Jones pushed back, “this is a fraught and challenging narrative that doesn’t allow us to work through the stickiness and messiness of the challenges that we face—the messiness of the kinship narrative of Black people. Politically it makes sense to ally, but it’s difficult, and it’s messy.”
Then Professor Shaw spoke on the shared pain and loss between Shuri and Namor, who end up not killing each other because they recognize and see the mother in each other. Ultimately, he said, “kinship between allies and would be friends and is actually what saves them and protects each utopia.” Professor Shaw associated this with the histories of colonialism. Moreover, he questioned how they recognized in each other the loss and pain that helps save the civilizations and other problems of white supremacy.
Mia Davis then posed a question to the panel, asking them to delve into the role of white supremacy, saying it’s “obvious that there’s motivations, they want to protect their nation, keep their resources to themselves. What are your thoughts on white supremacy’s impact on the two nations? First or second film?”
Professor Power-Greene responded first by noting his reaction to the references to France, which he thought were odd. He also elaborated to demonstrate how the first film painted the UK/US as the white savior.
“Wakanda suggests a future. In this case, if you raise the child in the Pan-African utopia, you’re good, but then Killmonger who was raised in Oakland… you are trained to kill people.”
“For a person raised in Haiti, perhaps you won’t have the traps of US imperialism. Maybe that’s why I like the film so much,” Power-Greene said. “Wakanda’s idea of being the leader of the world with their values instead of imperialism values.” He expanded to emphasize the role of racism as a manifestation of imperialism. “Coogler clearly as a co-writer is interested in telling that story as opposed to other versions and other ways of configuring it. The role of white supremacy is an extension of imperialism.”
Professor Shaw built upon these ideas from approaching the second film. “Particularly in the second film you have a nation, Wakanda, which is clearly able to address and redress the violence of white supremacy in the world. Killmonger: what’re you gonna do about it for the rest of the world? For ‘our people?’ whatever that is.”
“They make a shift thanks to Killmonger and Nakia to shift and open up and make these borders more permeable. What is the responsibility of this place to redress white supremacy in the world?”
Shaw delineated a few potential ways, “Seek allyship in this sort of war against white supremacy and Namor wants an almost genocide, I guess you can say.”
“What is the responsibility of a place like Wakanda in this world now that the borders are closed? What is its responsibility to the other utopia as well? Its actions conflict with the vision of the Indigenous utopia that is underwater, when both have the capacity to act with vengeance in response to the mechanisms of white supremacy in the world.”
Professor Jones responded, “They’re in hiding because they want to be left alone. At the end of the day, the question of power and what people do with it, wield power in particular ways, what’s at the core within the history of white supremacy… Coogler is suggesting that the epistemological stance of any particular culture is going to drive how they wield power—Subjugation and power over others.”
“Knowledge and power within this world-there’s going to be some challenges, of course it’s logical that these Indigenous communities have a different stance on how to utilize power—because this other world view could end up destroying us all. That to me is a logical articulation of why these utopias, these Indigenous utopias, are protectionist. It just makes sense in the context of what they’re up against with a white supremacist ideology.”
Professor Shaw turned to the importance of being able to choose one’s existence. “It makes one vulnerable, particularly Black and Brown people. The white gaze sees black and brown bodies as objects. They find liberation in their exclusivity and their hiddenness and their utopia.”
In the Q&A portion of the panel, Dr. Spencer Tricker asked the speakers: “To what extent do you feel like Africana studies has led to the ability for a movie series like this to be made? Do you see the insights of academia, not to inflate our position, create a dialogue? Do you see parts of these movies where it reminds you of criticism that we’ve read?”
Professor Shaw responded humorously, “should Marvel hire us as consultants?” to which the audience laughed.
Professor Power-Greene jumped in, “Legacies of oppression have shaped literary and artistic visions, in that sense playing with myth [and] mythology. Pauline Hopkins must be the root of the film, so clearly if you have the interdisciplinary training, you will be able to view the films and critique what some of the writers are trying to do, a sort of Marvel model.”
He raised the question, “What makes both films really good, besides the CIA being heroes, is they’re quite sophisticated, even though they’re in the modern element.”
English and Marketing double-major Tiffany Vo ‘23 asked, “One of the questions that I have when I watch this movie is this idea of utopia in the inner and outer world when the more gets through the barrier is utopia then destroyed for Wakanda and having them known to the outside world themselves, does utopia then no longer exist? When we lead off of the movie, are we trying to create a new utopia?”
Professor Shaw responded, “If we’re only going from the idea that the person from the outside, the colonizer is Edward Ross- the government agent.” There’s “always a sense that an other can get into the space.” But, “if Wakanda has a set of eyes around the world-are they spreading utopia?”
He asked, “In what sense can utopia be destroyed from the outside in, but also are we trying to create a larger utopia? A mega utopia? In the case of the film, no. I think that they’re still at odds… What happens when one utopia steps on the foot of the other?” This fits “deep into the understanding of what one’s utopia actually is” and “myths about what one’s utopia actually is.”
At this moment, Professor Jones asked, “utopia according to whom? Utopia for whom? If you kinda break down the etymology of utopia, it’s no place, correct, but it’s also the good place. Utopia is this place that is idealistic and idyllic, an unachievable ideal.”
She expanded, “Internally Wakanda is not a conflict free zone. Who is going to lead? How are we going to lead? Does Ukanda view themselves as a utopia? Strong nationalistic pride but maybe not. Would African Americans in Oakland view it as a utopia? Probably.”
She said, with “utopian imaginings I always like to ask the question, compared to what? Consider the source of who is creating the utopia.”
The last question from the panel came from a student who asked, “What is a utopia for Black people?” They elaborated, “The portion of Haiti that is shown is not what it looks like in Haiti-it’s the Wakandan version of Haiti. Seeing myself now and the century that I’m in and if I were to go there, I wouldn’t feel like it’s my utopia because there are certain aspects of what I consider my Black culture… [for example] do I really want to be wearing that every day to school? Their sense of community is different, and there are different types of Black.”
Professor Power-Greene applauded the student’s analysis of the film. He responded, “Intraracial workings are just not going to be globally appealing that might also be a part of the reality of it. The excitement that I remember hearing, the language in the first film—Excitement that there was effort at some sort of diasporic and broader representations… I wonder what Coogler would say in response.” Ultimately, “This film does open the door for more films, and I look forward to seeing where other writers will take this version.”
The student responded by bringing up a character that they felt was too forced: “I wouldn’t see her fitting in if she would establish a life there,” mentioning that she was a stereotyped character.
Professor Jones jumped in, “It’s interesting because do you want her to stay there?” She mentioned the references to cultural distinctions, African distinctive tribes, represented in the physical representation and the costuming. She notes this as a gesture towards distinction on the continent. Finally, Jones emphasized the “tendency to think of Africa as a nation, continent full of countries and those countries are full of tribes and cultural distinctions.”
Professor concluded the talk by illustrating that, “absent in this movie is Daniel Kaluuya, the actor who in the first film played a character allied with the antagonist, Killmonger. So, utopia itself is already fractured.”