African Fantastic

Originally published at City-Journal.org.

Richard Wright did not expect his neighbor’s houseboy to be a fan of Mickey Spillane when he visited Ghana, then known as the Gold Coast, in 1953. The boy had knocked on the door of the black American novelist’s bungalow to ask for money for a correspondence course to become a detective. “From where did you get this notion of becoming a detective?” Wright asked. “In a magazine. You know, sar. One of those American magazines.” Wright tells him that being a detective is not a good profession, barely better than being a stool pigeon. “Do you know what a stool pigeon is?” “Yes, sar. I know that from the movies, sar.” “American movies?” “Yes, sar. I see a lot of them.”

On further questioning it becomes obvious that the young man has no idea what being a detective really means; he imagines that if he becomes one, he can go around locking up Englishmen for stealing the Africans’ land. “His view of reality was warped,” Wright reflected. “It was composed of fragments of Hollywood movies and American pulp magazines and he had lived his life so far from such manufactured dreams that he was unable to tell what was plausible or implausible in them.”

The new Marvel Comics film Black Panther seems to have left many of its viewers with the young man’s problem in reverse, unable to tell what is plausible or implausible in their Hollywood-based picture of Africa. No one over the age of ten actually thinks Wakanda is real, but several of the actors have said that the movie is meant to suggest “what would Africa look like if it was not colonized” (Lupita Nyong’o) and to “prove to the colonialists that if they had not interfered with Africa we’d be so far advanced” (John Kani).

The movie takes place in the fictional country of Wakanda, which disguises itself as an impoverished nation of stock herders but is really the most technologically advanced society on the planet, thanks to its reserves of the mystery substance “vibranium,” which can power mag-lev trains, build seemingly indestructible suits, communicate holographically, and probably cure cancer. Aside from the fact that it is a hereditary monarchy, Wakanda is also socially progressive. Its top general and its director of scientific research are both women, and its all-Amazon army is made up of what one character calls “Grace Jones–lookin’ chicks with spears.”

Director Ryan Coogler had never been to Africa before he went to do research for this movie, and he even cut short what was supposed to be a continent-wide tour after seeing just South Africa, Lesotho, and Kenya. He therefore can’t be expected to be a reliable guide to what in the movie is and is not authentically African. Coogler is from Oakland, California, home of those other Black Panthers, and his aesthetic background owes more to Huey Newton than the Hausa. Less scramble, more sixties.

Though even about the sixties there seem to be gaps in the moviemaker’s sense of global history. The master plan of the film’s villain, Killmonger, is to distribute Wakanda’s technologically advanced weapons to black people around the world to ignite revolution. Up to then, Killmonger laments, black revolutions “never had the firepower or the resources to fight their oppressors.”

Arming revolutionaries in underdeveloped nations is hardly a novel idea; what does Coogler think the Cold War was about? No rebel group in Africa lacked for weapons in those years. All they had to do was call the Soviets or the Chinese, who would supply as many guns as there were warm bodies to carry them. Lots of advanced countries armed anti-colonial rebels. That great symbol of African resistance, the AK-47, was not locally produced. The last liberation movement to fight with spears and pangas was the Mau Mau—which, come to think of it, still drove the British out of Kenya.

At the end of the film, our hero King T’Challa adopts a more benign version of Killmonger’s plan, moving to Oakland to open, not an armory, but “the first Wakandan Outreach Center.” This has been taken as a sly inversion of colonialism, but there’s nothing inverted about it. Going to a foreign country and teaching them a better way to do things is fundamentally imperial, and imperialism that confines itself to humanitarian interventions does not escape the fundamental dilemmas of empire.

Every imperialist starts off thinking that he can accomplish everything he wants through moral suasion alone. The British in Southern Africa certainly hoped so. But what do you do when you need to dip all the cattle in an area to prevent a disease outbreak, and the native tribesmen refuse to cooperate because they think it’s a trick to steal their herds? Or—to take another real story from Richard Wright’s Ghana travelogue—when the authorities want to drain a stagnant pool to stop local children from dying of yellow fever and malaria, but the local people protest that the spirits in the lake bring their tribe victory in battle?

Do the writers of Black Panther imagine that Oakland will automatically warm to the Wakandans because they are the same color? It did not work that way for the early settlers of Liberia, who found that the local tribes held their civilized amenities in low esteem, except for their rum, which they would steal at every opportunity. If Wakanda really is as overwhelmingly superior as the movie suggests, it would learn the same lesson as every other well-intentioned empire in history: You can hold off using coercive measures for about as long as Lenny could avoid crushing the rabbit.

For all that, if you see Black Panther, you will probably enjoy it. If you have seen it, and you did enjoy it, then my exhortation is: don’t let anyone tell you that it’s overrated or that you only liked it out of political correctness. Aside from the hype that has attended the movie’s release, its representation of an alternate history of Africa is intriguing and enjoyable. There is a reason that the continent has exercised a powerful fascination on so many people from the moment they catch their first glimpse of it: Africa is amazing. Western liberals insist that the most interesting struggles in Africa have been born from the issue of race, but that leaves no room for stories like the tragedy of Shaka Zulu, the martyrdom of St. Charles Lwanga, or the plays of Wole Soyinka. Black Panther belongs in this class—an African story about something more interesting than white oppression—and that alone makes it hard to begrudge the movie its hype.