'Black Panther' is the latest super-hero action movie extravaganza from Marvel Studios, the burgeoning film production division of the venerable comic book publisher. The title character is a prince named T'Challa, from the mysterious African country of Wakanda who has a masked identity as the crime-fighting hero 'Black Panther', costumed as a anthropomorphized panther, who is black. The comic books upon which the movie is based first came out in 1966, in a "strange coincidence" but apparently unrelated to the Black Panther political party founded in the same year. However, this production is surely not divorced from recent events and fills a demographic hole in Marvel Studios metastatized film stable, which features notable characters: 'Captain America,' a thawed-out caveman from the last time Brooklyn was white, and 'Thor,' hammer-god of the Nordic race.
The movie begins with a brief history of Wakanda, which appears to the world and our President as another shithole African country, but is secretly a high-tech superpower employing technologies from the future. This is all due to Wakanda's large meteoric deposit of 'vibranium,' a space metal which is also a source of energy and can heal bullet wounds. While Wakanda manufactures vibranium-powered monorail trains, hovering energy-beam shooting drone airplanes, and a cloaking device sufficient to hide an entire city, politically, it appears to be a feudal monarchy, with five aristocratic families or "tribes" who maintain their own indepedent military forces. After we learn about Wakanda, it is revealed that the king has been assassinated and the essential problem of monarchy rears it's head: the succession of the king. T'Challa, heir to the throne, appears to have a strong alliance with a character played by Daniel Kaluuya of "Get Out," who leads one of the tribes wearing a ceremonial blanket and looking absolutely stoned. However, when the leader of another tribe challenges T'Challa to ritual combat, it is revealed that the tensions within the aristocracy are on the verge of violence. This perhaps explains why most of Wakanda's technological efforts appear to be devoted towards creating various super-weapons, anti-tank spears, energy-beam weapons and the eponymous character's bullet-proof cat suit, despite their official peaceful and non-interventionist international stance.
The rest of the picture plays out the theme of feudal power struggle between warring aristocrats, popular in recent productions such as 'Game of Thrones.' Alliances are made and broken as the royal family struggles to hold onto the monarchy and power over Wakanda's super-weapons. The royal familiy finally obtains the support of the CIA, who supplies a drone-pilot to aid in this Wakandan civil war. In the background is an odd pantomime of certain debates within politically-liberal circles at the time of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq: should Wakanda use it's immense military power to right wrongs in the world, particualy the racist oppression of black Americans? However, the central question of the film appears to be: can a feudal society, a society which endorses ritual combat as a means to transfer supreme executive power, also sustain power based on technological superiority?
This runs to the central fact of feudal societies, which, aside from dominance by a few oligarchial families, is the conviction that the traditions and beliefs of that society are eternal and unchangeable. You can observe this dynamic in the current drive of the crown-prince of Saudia Arabia, the part of Arabia belonging to the Saud family, to "modernize" his nation, which makes the question of this movie decidedly relevant. The problem is that any technological advance involves, by definition, doing a socially necessary task in a new and, presumably, better way. Technology is nothing if not the tools which we use. This is a problem for feudal societies because the social order depends on everyone playing the role given to them eternally in time. If you use new tools to do things in better ways: why not invent new societies which work in better ways, why do you have to obey the commands of a hereditary king and his lords? You can see this in Wakanda: even as the insane consequences of using ritual combat are revealed, the high officials of the monarchy strenously sustain the ritual because to do otherwise is to put the whole system into doubt.
There is a more subtle point which is: an individual will never build new tools unless they believe the society they live in can be improved by their effort. Capitalists believe that this individual must also believe they will be financially rewarded; either way, in a society where improvements are a threat to the local lord, this will never happen. The collapse of Tsarist Russia is a historical case in point for this essential contradiction. The movie solves this problem by having the chief technologist and engineer be T'Challa's sister Princess Shuri (who, incidentally, has perfect 20-/20 vision.) However, technology is never the product of one individual genius. Any particular example of technology is a moment isolated from a process; examine your cellphone and it is composed of a thousand different parts with thousands more inventors, each part created with no idea of the device they would eventually be incorporated into. Technology is the collective process whereby separate improvements and creations reinforce each other, creating a feedback loop which is the basis for future improvement.
This writer does not believe that feudalism is compatible with sustained technological improvements. If this is so, history will not be kind to Wakanda, or Saudi Arabia. Given the large crowd which turned out for 'Black Panther' at Greenfield Garden Cinema, we will see in future episodes whether Wakanda will survive the essential contradiction at the heart of it's society.
Published: The Montague Reporter, March 13, 2018
Date: February 18, 2018
Author: George Shapiro