Let Wakanda Vote

This doesn’t count.

Like most people who saw it, I thoroughly enjoyed Black Panther when it first came out. It was fun and propulsive, the characters were fantastic, and the whole film was a visual feast of art design that thrilled up until that plasticky Pixar-ass ending. Ryan Coogler even managed the rare and truly difficult feat of working a true contest of ideas into a popcorn flick.

However, there was a serious lapse in that contest of ideas, one that bordered on an outright betrayal of the audience. I didn’t really feel it was my place to dwell on this subject when I did my first write-up, since being one of the white naysayers of a landmark event for The Culture would’ve put me in some deeply questionable company. Beyond that, when every black guy you know is digging out the dashiki for a trip to the movie theater, it behooves a person of European descent to shut his trap.

However, a little time has passed, and T’Challa’s inclusion in the orgy of crass commercialism that was Avengers: Infinity War has relieved me of the white-guilt-based obligation to act like Black Panther was originally written by Martin Luther King Jr. and inked by James Baldwin. That interval frees me to point out something that MLK would certainly agree with: Wakanda’s lack of democracy is a problem, and not in a speculative, cutesy, “what if Wakanda was real” thinkpiece sense. I mean that in the sense that Black Panther 2, a film guaranteed to be a huge pop culture event, has a genuine and very serious ethical obligation to make an election a major element of the plot.

First off, choosing your head of state by fistfight, with the candidates limited to a selection of aristocrats, does not produce a robust culture of civil rights. Nations of men are not nations of laws. Chadwick Boseman’s Xhosa accent was undoubtedly a choice meant to evoke Nelson Mandela, the living embodiment of black political power, but the Rainbow Nation’s birth is generally attributed to Madiba’s democratic election in 1994, not when he beat the shit out of his guards on Robben Island and escaped on the Quinjet.

Speaking of South Africa, there are still millions of black South Africans surrendering their property and rights to T’Challa’s predatory real-world analogs, out of fealty to their pre-democratic tribal chiefdoms. At the risk of writing the whitest thing ever written, my nieces are currently being raised by Zulu women, and let me assure you: their king is an asshole. The king of Swaziland (incidentally a sovereign, landlocked monarchy in the center of sub-Saharan Africa) is much, much worse.

In the real world, every man on Wakanda’s wise council of tribal leaders would have eight wives, and Shuri would have been married off to Green Suit Guy by the time she was 13 years old. I won’t knock the film’s misplaced nostalgia for African chieftains, since lord knows I got misty-eyed when Aragorn assumed his rightful entitlement as the medieval warlord of Gondor, but unchallengeable hereditary power breeds abuse by definition. In Africa’s weaker nominal democracies, everyone suffers when tribal politics and the attendant nepotism and corruption usurp the popular will.

While Shuri is a great character played by a fantastic actress, and it’s all well and good that N’Doogie Howser has already mastered the MCU’s version of science (i.e. pulling proprietary weapons technology out of her ass) by the tender age of 15, she is still a fucking PRINCESS. Are we really gonna call that empowerment? Let alone a call for black women of modest origins to pursue careers in STEM?

The whole reason I feel compelled to write this now is that, since the film’s release, the importance of democracy to black political power has been proven in spades. In Alabama, black women got a Democrat elected statewide in the house that George Wallace and Bull Connor built, keeping it away from a pedophile who despises their kind. Stacy Abrams and Andrew Gillum are poised to become the first black governors on either side of the Florida-Georgia line (and Ms. Abrams the first black woman to govern any state). Furthermore, a ballot measure in Florida is looking likely to re-enfranchise 1.5 million mostly-black ex-convicts, handily defeating the Man’s intended purpose for those convictions.

The State of Texas came into existence for the sake of slavery, and the constitution of the Lone Star Republic literally banned any free black person from even being present in their “country” without a vote by the Texas Congress — to be clear, that was significantly more restrictive than the Confederate constitution. Now the descendants of those slaves are, against all odds, threatening to elect a Senator who’s arguably the 21st century’s best answer to RFK, who honestly cares about the injustices faced by black Texans. If they push Beto through, they will do so in defiance of a white Texan GOP power structure that maintains its power by convincing people not to vote.

Conversely, after Shelby County vs. Holder came to fruition in the form of the new Jim Crow, the country that elected Barack Obama turned around and elected Donald Trump. We’ve been fed a line of crap about why Hillary’s black turnout dropped so significantly, as if electing the first black president mattered so much more to black voters than stopping the mortal enemy of Black America. Given how many black folks have assumed hatred of Donald Trump as the core of their very identities over the past two years, I think the real reason might’ve been that millions of black voters were deliberately purged from the rolls, or the astounding number of polling places that were shuttered in black neighborhoods.

The evidence is clear: where black people can vote in free and fair elections, they have power, and their rights are protected. Where they can’t, they don’t, and they aren’t. Logic dictates that this maxim would be the case even in Wakanda’s idyllic version of Saudi Arabia (if you replace vibranium with oil and Bast with Sunni Wahabism, they are exactly the same country).

The indulgence of “We were all kings and queens in Africa” romanticism in the first film is understandable. They were trying to tickle the sensibilities of the black audience in every possible way, and its development began when our president was Kenyan-American and democracy didn’t seem to need the help. However, with democracy in retreat around the world, including in the United States, a movie that’s going to sell a billion dollars in tickets needs to unreservedly champion democracy, particularly after the first one portrayed Wakanda as heaven to black America’s hell. I’m not saying that those criticisms were unfounded or unwarranted, but the USA will not be made more just if a major cultural event subtly imparts the message that voting is white nonsense inflicted on noble, punching-based cultures.

And it can’t be T’Challa for president, either. Sure, Mandela was a tribal leader before he was the duly elected president of SA, but those tribes did not rule the country. T’Challa is the one in the Afrikaaner’s position, born into an all-powerful, centuries-old dynasty, and the house of T’ needs to lose power: not to Shuri, not to M’Baku, but to a character whose only source of power is the freely given civic authority of the people of their fake-ass country — preferably played by Kerry Washington or Viola Davis, because they’re both good in everything they do, and in recognition of the fact that black women are presently saving America from itself.

It would also be a nice touch if, as was the case with Laura Dern’s character in The Last Jedi, the audience is tricked into rooting for our hero to undercut the president of Wakanda with masculine, undemocratic swagger, which leads to our noses being rubbed in the importance of the rule of law.

When T’Challa gets reconstituted (I knew that ending was bullshit as soon as $1.5B in international box office fluttered away on the breeze) he needs to come to the realization that his father was wrong about a lot more than international outreach. He needs to make like the Queen of the Colonizers, invite the people’s chosen representative to form His Majesty’s government, and lay in the cut until the civilian-controlled military formally requests that the Black Panther kick some ass.

Regardless of the fact that there is absolutely no chance of any of this happening, because China: faith in democracy is shaky around the world, and producers of culture have a duty to push back against that dismal tide. While the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a ludicrous construct of absurd cartoon violence, which naturally inclines it more towards the bullet than the ballot, this is still a case where the ballot needs to be given its due.

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