Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld


Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Monday, February 19, 2018

Colonial Counterfactuals in "Black Panther"


I finally saw Black Panther last night and have been thinking a good deal about its counterfactual subtext.

The film is not a work of alternate history.  It does not depict how a point of divergence changes the course of our world. It is more of a secret history – a work that depicts a reality hidden from contemporary society that remains unaffected by it and, in turn, does not affect it.   (For the record, I am tempted to quibble with the claim that the film is a work of “Afrofuturism,” given that it takes place in the present.  Sure, there is plenty of high-tech gadgetry, but it merely lends the film a “futuristic” veneer, while the plot remains squarely set in the contemporary world).


Despite not being a work of alternate history, Black Panther nevertheless has a clear counterfactual subtext.  This past weekend in The New York Times Magazine, Ava DuVernay alluded to the impact of European imperialism on Africa, reflecting that at the heart of the film’s fictional country of Wakanda, “lie[s] some of our most excruciating existential questions: “What if they didn’t come?...And what if they didn’t take us? What would...have been?”  Other responses to the film have echoed the claim of one blogger that it “shows what Africa Would Have Been if White People Didn’t Destroy It.”

There is ample precedent for reflecting on this topic.  Back in the 1972, the left-leaning historian Walter Rodney devoted some thought to how Africa would have developed without European imperialism in his book, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, proclaiming, for example, that “there would have been no difficulty in...African societies mastering European technical skills and bridging the rather narrow gap which existed between them and Europe at that time.”  More recently, the conservative scholar Bruce Gilley sparked controversy in a paper entitled, “The Case for Colonialism,” by claiming that colonialism had actually been good for Africa, which would have been worse off without it.  He cites the case of Guinea-Bissau, for example, arguing that “what might have become a prosperous and humane Macau or Goa of Africa is today a cesspool of human suffering.”  He further praises peoples who have accepted colonial rule, saying of the British, “If anti-colonial sentiments had gone unchallenged in Britain, the country today would be a backwater of druid worshippers.”

Black Panther contributes to this counterfactual debate by offering something of a mixed message. 

Contrary to what one might expect, the film is not an unalloyed fantasy.  It certainly depicts Wakanda as a thriving, prosperous, technologically-advanced society, replete with ‘African-Moderne’ high-rises, ultra-sleek magnetic trains, and miracle medicines.  All of these wonders can be attributed to Wakanda’s possession of Vibranium, an element derived from a prehistoric meteor strike that affords the country untold power. 

Wakanda’s power also derives from its hidden location in the heart of Africa, far from the European colonial gaze, which has enabled it to avoid European incursions.  That said, one suspects that had Europeans actually “discovered” Wakanda, they would have swiftly been trounced by the country’s Vibranium-possessing inhabitants.  For this reason, the factor allowing Wakanda to thrive is less the counterfactual absence of European colonialism than their possession of a technological trump card.

Still, the absence of colonial overlords in Wakanda allows us to imagine how Africa would have evolved without them.   Interestingly, the answer is mixed.  Black Panther displays elements of a fantasy scenario combined with features of a stasis scenario.  It shows history to be better in some respects, but more or less the same in others. 

On the plus side, Wakanda is entirely autonomous and enjoys full sovereignty.  Women play elite roles in the military, economy, and political system.  The society is prosperous and technologically advanced.  We don’t see much about class relations, but a diverse range of people are visible in the few shots of urban commercial activity, so we are left to assume a “live and let live” atmosphere.

On the minus side, Wakanda is not immune from internal political struggles.  The country’s tribes have long been unified in support of the monarchy, but the rebellious Jabari tribe continues to mount the occasional insurrection. 

Moreover, Wakanda’s monarchical political system is depicted as uniquely vulnerable to destabilization.  When the American-raised claimant to the throne, Erik Killmonger, defeats T’Challa in a challenge and claims the crown, the bulk of the citizenry rolls over and accepts him without a murmur.  This allows the new king to order the destruction of the Kingdom’s all-powerful heart-shaped herbs and unilaterally launch a campaign of global mayhem to pay back the world for its crimes against Africa.  The susceptibility of Wakanda’s political system to being taken over by a sociopath is clearly meant as a critique and an obvious endorsement of democracy’s checks and balances. (The ease with which Killmonger’s slides into power and starts wrecking things cannot help but have resonance in present-day America).

Further evidence that not all is rosy in Wakanda is the fat that when T’Challa’s mother, Ramonda, sister, Shuri, and ex, Nakia, decide to mount a resistance campaign against the new tyrant, civil war erupts, pitting tribal rivals against one another.  It is hardly an endorsement of Wakandan social relations that Killmonger gets collaborationist support from the forces of T’Challa’s erstwhile friend, W’kabi, who launches an attack on T’Challa’s forces in an epic battle featuring armor plated rhinos.

In short, Wakanda’s avoidance of European colonialism hardly makes it a utopian society.  It suffers plenty of its own problems relating to the age-old human penchant for competition, jealousy, and so on.  These realities make it tempting to conclude that the film ultimately shows history not turning out that differently than it did reality.

This would be false, however.  For while Wakanda has its share of problems, they are easier to accept because they are home-grown.  They are not the result of European interference – of the colonizers stirring up rivalries between local groups, picking winners and losers, and establishing a cycle of violence lasting for more than a century. 

The film reminds us that even if power struggles remain inescapable in human affairs, they are infinitely easier to bear if they are the result of forces internal to society than of forces imported from without.




3 comments:

  1. Well to look what Africa would be without Europe just look at Etiophia. Except for a really short time from 1936 to 1941 it was never a colony of an european country. It had dictatorship, a ruler, slavery till 1936 and starvation. Sure some Africain nations like Kenya, Senegal and South Africa are fonctional but other such as Somalia, Liberia and Zimbabwe are a mess. So colonialism gave a mixed results. Also if the European would't have taken Africa the Ottonam empire(wich occupied most of North Africa) or even imperial Japn would have taken a slice of it.

    Even now, with the withdraw of former european colonial power and the over extension of the USA , China has taken a soft influence on many African contries. Maybe some contry or regions are just not enoufg organized to not fall to antother region infuence or domination.

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    1. But are Ethiopia's natural resources typical of Africa?

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  2. Ethiopia is an excellent comparison, as is the speculative point about other empires filling the vacuum left by an absent Europe.

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