The Conversation of Representation and Colonialism in Marvel’s Black Panther


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Earlier this year, Marvel released one of the most anticipated movies of 2018: Black Panther. Not only did it feature a majority black cast, and a black director, but it also contained elements that are rare in movies. For example, African countries that are the most technologically advanced in the world, and fierce and respected women that do not have to exist on an island, separate from men, because they are too powerful.  

So it is no secret that Black Panther, as well as being one of the highest grossing Marvel movies to date (Goldberg, 2018; Miller, 2018), is also a highly political one. The marketing strategy of this movie has on the one hand been about Black Panther being Marvel’s first black superhero film, as much as about the conversation of the importance of representation in Hollywood.

The American film industry, despite being the most successful and influential in the world, has been known to marginalise at best, and at worst exclude People of Colour (POC). Though it can also be argued that the production and success of movies such as 12 Years a Slave, Django Unchained, or even Selma are evidence that the this is no longer the case, the latter films appear to be limited to certain genres. These include, but are not limited to, bio-pics of famous black leaders, tales concerning the slave trade, and stories of the suffering of the help. It comes as no surprise therefore, that Black Panther, which falls into the superhero genre, is at the forefront of conversations concerning representation in Hollywood.

Yet a closer look at this Marvel adaptation of its popular comic shows that the movie is bigger than its marketing strategy suggests. Black Panther is, in essence, as much a discourse on the long-term effects of colonialism on people of black ethnic backgrounds, as it is an exploration of what African countries could have become outside the colonial rules of Europe. One only has to pay attention to the antagonist’s (Killmonger) scenes in this movie, and witness its director’s (Ryan Coogler) afro-futuristic imaginings of Wakanda, to understand the relevance of the conversations this superhero movie carries.

The first reference to colonialism in Black Panther can be found in the earliest Killmonger scene. Set in the Museum of Great Britain, which Cascone (2018, pg.1) refers to as a ‘thinly-veiled stand-in for London’s British Museum’, our antagonist is found looking at African artefacts in a display case. The dialogue leads to the museum’s director replying that the artefacts are not for sale. Killmonger’s significantly responds:

How do you think your ancestors got these? Do you think they paid a fair price? Or did they take it… like they took everything else?
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The latter highlights that though physical colonialism of Africa has ended, neo-colonialism persists. Defined as ‘the use of economic, political, cultural, or other pressures to control or influence other countries, especially former dependencies’ (Oxford Dictionaries, 2018), it is clear that the museums’ refusal to return artefacts is problematic. This, from a position of post-colonial theory, becomes an issue of representation.

One key theme of colonialism is its control of representation of the Other (Said, 1993). To justify the colonisation of African countries, for example, the colonisers had to present ‘other’ cultures as inferior, savage and primitive compared to their own (Childs and Williams, 1997; Said, 2003). Literature aided in this colonial mission in the past (Said, 2003); but in a post-colonial era, neo-colonialism has achieved this through controlling, for example, the movie industry. The depiction of black people has rarely veered from the tropes of the other. Until such a movie as Black Panther.

Therefore, it can be suggested that Killmonger’s museum scene addresses two points. Firstly, it presents museums as, ‘illegal mechanism of colonialism’ (Haughin, 2018 in Cascone, 2018, pg.1) which are also ‘a space[s] which do[es] not even welcome those whose culture it displays’ (Haughin, 2018 in Cascone, 2018, pg.1). Secondly, through the reference to the colonial history of the artefacts in Killmonger’s dialogue, Coogler (and by extension Black Panther) has removed the rosy lens placed on current post-colonial realities, and taken back the power of representation.

The latter is a very brief consideration of a Black Panther under the micro-lens of post-colonial theory. This article neither addresses the relationship between Africans and African-Americans; nor does it consider the inherently natural feminism in Wakanda, and how such elements both address and challenge colonialism. Yet one only has to watch Black Panther to observe and deduce the messages and conversations of the film, for none are subtle. And it is this unapologetic theme of the movie that have made it so popular, and such an uncomfortable experience for the false ideas of white supremacy that still exist even now in 2018.

 

Cascone, S. (2018). The Museum Heist Scene in ‘Black Panther’ Adds Fuel to the Debate About African Art Restitution. Available: https://news.artnet.com/art-world/black-panther-museum-heist-restitution-1233278. Last accessed 20th March 2018.

Childs, P. and Williams, R. (1997). An Introduction to Post-Colonial Theory. Harlow: Longman

Goldberg, M. (2018). Marvel Studios at the Box Office: How Much Has Each Film Made?. Available: http://collider.com/marvel-movies-box-office/#the-incredible-hulk. Last accessed 20th March 2018.

Miller, M. (2018). Every Marvel Cinematic Universe Movie, Ranked From Worst to Best. Available: https://www.esquire.com/entertainment/movies/g13441903/all-marvel-cinematic-universe-movies-ranked/. Last accessed 20th March 2018.

Oxford Dictionaries, (2018) In: 1st ed. [online] Available at: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/neocolonialism [Accessed 15 March. 2018]

Said, E. (1993) Culture and Imperialism. New York: First Vintage Books

Said, E. (2003) Orientalism. London: Penguin Books