I should really know better than to do this. One should not comment on works they have not seen or reviewed. But what is a blog for if not for occasionally indulging in partially formed thoughts and tossing out ideas for others to follow up on.
Critical and popular response for Black Panther is overwhelmingly positive and I do intend to watch the film — as soon as I find a moment and find the right place for it my the triage list of backlogged books, films, and television shows. Indeed, I am really looking forward to it.
But even before doing so, I have noticed something about the way Wakanda is being positioned in popular culture. It is the place that should have been — an idealized African nation where native culture could develop without of the oppression inherent in a century or more of European colonization. The film then engages this Afrofuturist place with the problem of the African American context through the character of Eric Killmonger.
As I have not seen the film and am not a longtime reader of the comic book adventures of the Black Panther, I have no intention on commenting on the specifics of the confrontation. Nor am familiar enough with Afrofuturism to do more than invoke the name of the genre. I have been struck by a strange contrast between the looking back in time and across the sea (with all the remembrances different cultures have with their immigration, whether is be forced, unavoidable, or seen as some kind of new start in the land of opportunity) creates.
In Black Panther, we are shown an idealized culture that could have been. Strangely, this places it in the same tradition as the idealized nostalgia films of other hybridized American identities, whether it be The Quiet Man, Darby O’Gill and the Little People, or Brigadoon. But Black Panther sits uneasily in this tradition, at best — not because of the skin color of its actors, its geographical location, or its artistic quality (No one is going to claim Darby O’Gill is high art — even in jest.) but because it is looking forward while the above mentioned films associated with Ireland and Scotland look back into an idealized past of the kind Eamon de Valera invoked in his 1943 address “The Ireland that We Dreamed Of”.
This is not an easy comparison/contrast to tease out. The three films that look to the Celtic nations of the British Isles were made in a much different era than Black Panther. And while the Atlantic Slave Trade, the Irish Potato Famine/An Gorta Mór, and the Highland Clearances were all tragedies, there is limited benefit in trying to directly compare them. Indeed, discussing them together only serve to alienate the American descendants of these tragedies from one another rather than building any kind of sympathy or understanding for what each went through — an alienation significant enough that I hesitated to write this post at all.
But I do think that there is an interesting question here — one that someone should tease out because the stories we tell to ourselves about ourselves matter. What is it that caused one group to invoke their nostalgia in an idealized past and the other in an idealized future? What does each tell us about the way we imagine ourselves when we self-identify with these communities?