2018년 3월 2일 금요일

BLACK PANTHER's African Connection-- Interview & Discussion with Professor Corrie Decker, Associate Professor of African History, UC Davis

Black Panther, the solo starring vehicle for the Marvel Comics' African superhero, invented in 1966 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby (also the year the Black Panther Party was founded by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, perhaps not-so-coincidentally), had already received much pre-release attention due to its rare status as a major studio tent-pole blockbuster with a predominantly black cast.  Once it was released in February 2018, the film decimated box office, earning more than 412.9 million dollars domestically and reaching the total figure of appx. 704 million dollars worldwide total (as of February 28), with the United Kingdom, South Korea (yay!), Brazil, Australia and, not surprisingly, African nations leading the fray (for some reason, it is not playing as strong in Germany and Italy).  Most industry analysts agree that the film will eventually surpass 600 million dollar mark domestically to become one of the five or six biggest hits of all time, possibly outgrossing all Marvel superhero films in the process. 

All this is pretty staggering in itself, but Black Panther is also provoking discussions all over the world for its dazzling portrayal of the fictional African nation, Wakanda, and its powerful characterizations and themes that draw upon the real-life histories of colonialism, imperialism, systematic racism and transnational exploitation of resources.  For instance, many reviewers and critics have noted that how the film's central villain Erik Killmonger (Stevens) is so much more than just a comic book bad guy.  Erik explicitly criticizes Wakanda's stance of isolationism and seeks to usurp the throne from T'Challa, the film's hero, so that he could turn the superior technological power of the African kingdom to "liberate" the black races throughout the world against their white oppressors. 

I have sat down with Associate Professor Corrie Decker, my wonderful colleague from History Department at University of California, Davis, to inquire about Black Panther's "African connection," and how the film could help us understand history and politics of the continent.  

Professor Decker, a Ph.D. from UC Berkeley History program, is the author of Mobilizing Zanzibari Women: The Struggle for Respectability and Self-Reliance in Colonial East Africa (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014). In addition to histories of African regions, she also teaches courses on sexuality, gender, youth and education.  I learned so much from her knowledgeable commentaries on various aspects of Black Panther's portrayal of Wakanda and other elements. Needless to say all this education further increased my appreciation of the film.  I am sharing our discussion below, slightly edited for flow and clarity: I hope you find it as enlightening as I did. 

The interview was conducted at Berkeley, CA, on February 23, 2018. The content of the interview is copyrighted to Corrie Decker, 2018.

Kyu Hyun Kim (hereafter Q): Let's begin with the geographical location of Wakanda. In the movie's prologue they actually show the map of the African continent and to my surprise Wakanda's location is sort of specified. It looks like somewhere near Uganda.

Corrie Decker (hereafter D): I got the sense from the map shown briefly in the film that it would be located somewhere around the border between Eastern Congo and Uganda. The map and geographic features imply that Wakanda could be in Central or Eastern/Southern Africa, but other elements of Wakanda point to other regions in West or West/Central Africa, and of course the language used (isiXhosa) is South African.

Q: And the filmmakers show the landscape of Wakanda.  The city looks futuristic, of course, but the plains, the waterfalls… do they remind you of specific places in Africa?

D: They did not look like specific places in my view. There are the very large Victoria Falls on the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia, and there are certainly other places with large waterfalls and lakes in the Great Lakes region. Plains and savannahs seem to invoke Eastern Africa-- Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania… the mountainous region on the other hand…

Q: The Jabari territory.

D: Right, that was more of a fictional landscape, at least in terms of what really exists in Central/East Africa.

Q: I am impressed nonetheless that they tried to show a diversity of climates, including snow-covered, presumably very cold places.  Many North Americans might not immediately associate "Africa" with snow (Laughter).

D: It does snow in the tops of Mounts Kenya and Kilimanjaro, for example.

Q: Vibranium is of course not a real resource. The idea that a country becomes dependent on a particular mineral actually dates from the original comics. What do you think about this set-up involving vibranium?

D: You know, I kept thinking about coltan and cobalt. They are metals/minerals mined in Africa and are used in almost all high-end electronic products, such as cell phones and laptops. The scramble for coltan has contributed to some serious conflicts in Eastern Congo.  It does make me think about the alternative history-- not likely, but still-- in which Congo had actually controlled the mining and selling of coltan, what might have happened then?  Congo had been subject to external mining, beginning with copper, for the past one hundred plus years, of course, under Belgian colonialism.  

Professor Jim Smith in the UC Davis Anthropology Department has done fieldwork on this issue, and it is an extraordinarily complicated situation.  There are dozens of militia groups in conflict with one another and with various governments, and also refugees from Uganda and other countries, a lot of border crossing, upheavals, based on the exploitation of resources that goes all the way back to rubber.

Q: The main villain is Erik Killmonger, an American, and his career trajectory seems to openly indicate that the US has played a colonizing, politically destabilizing role.  And T'Challa's sister Shuri uses the term "colonizer" as a generic term for white people.  The filmmakers don't dwell on it, but still I find the choice very interesting. 

I think Lupita Nyong'o's father stated in an interview that Wakanda shows the third alternative between Africans sticking to traditions at the expense of keeping up with the rest of the world, and, conversely, embracing the Western modernity and abandoning their traditions.

D: That is very interesting.  In some ways, though, I feel that statement is a bit of an oversimplification. The dichotomy between African traditions and Western modernity has never been clear-cut.

Q: There have been African forms of modernity that this dichotomy tends to ignore.

D: Absolutely.  This idea makes more sense in terms of political discourse, as much of the political struggles in Africa have been about negotiating the impact of Western colonization, but to describe this in terms of tradition vs. modernity does not take into account the ways in which both change over time. Also, the notion that African tradition has been under threat by Western modernity has led to highly problematic ideas and arguments, such as, for instance, the concept that homosexuality is a "disease" brought by the colonizers to Africa. This kind of idea completely disregards the multitudes of sexual orientations that had existed in Africa prior to colonialism.  

Scholars such as Ugandan legal studies professor Sylvia Tamale (editor of African Sexualities: A Reader [2011]), really challenges this dichotomy through her work.

Q: This is fascinating, because some of the criticisms levelled at Black Panther's portrayal of Wakanda have been about its "unevenness," for example, how can a country still be a monarchy and also be so technologically and scientifically advanced?  But listening to you, it appears that this "unevenness" is actually much closer to the African reality.  Co-existence of traditions and modernity is a norm, not an exception, for Africans.

D: Exactly. In the Western notion of linear historical progress, democracy is always conflated with industrialization, for example, but that kind of view flattens our ability to comprehend histories of the other parts of the world.  I don't find any serious contradiction in the idea that there could be a human society ruled by a monarchy but with extremely advanced technology.

Q: Or, for that matter, a monarchy supported by very strong women.

D: Yes, although we can debate that part. Historian Robyn Spencer at Lehman College (author of The Revolution Has Come: Black Power, Gender and Black Panther Party in Oakland [Duke University Press, 2016]) has written a terrific critical reflection on feminism and the women of Wakanda.

Q: Yes! A great observation she makes in the article is that men are regarded as thinkers but women are actors. So this means that having very physically powerful, kick-ass women may not necessarily be the final answer.  Although I think someone like Shuri can perhaps be both a thinker and an actor.

D: Yeah!

Q: Let's talk about generational conflict.  What I found so moving about T'Challa's character arc is the way he recognizes the hypocrisies of his father's generation.  Chadwick Boseman gives an almost Shakespearian performance here, expressing the agony of the younger generation who painfully finds out the part of the narrative that constitutes his identity has been false, a series of lies.  

I think this kind of depiction is really resonant to the young people.  On the one hand they need role models.  But in the back of their minds they are aware that the actions and ideas of their elders have been flawed.

D: Totally.

Q: It's okay to challenge your fathers, even if you carry on their dreams.

D: Right! 

Q: How does Black Panther impact North American viewers, and not just Americans of African descent, to change their perceptions of Africa?  Or what would be the ways to improve the relationships between North Americans and Africans? Does the movie provide clear, positive messages regarding that question?

D: I think this is where the movie was perhaps a bit disappointing to me.

Q: You mean the ending?

D: In the sense that the gesture of generosity toward Oakland could signal the new beginning, it was fine, I got that. But I think it could have addressed… could have made explicit a few more issues. This topic is perhaps a bit sensitive, but I felt that Killmonger was calling to the African diaspora to rise up, but he is in a sense directing the criticism not just to the US but also to African nations. 

There is a big debate about the responsibility of African nations in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, for instance. A large number of slaves sold into the coastal slave trade came from the interior and had been captured by other Africans. So there is a nod, perhaps not explicitly intended by the filmmakers, to the abandonment of Africans in the diaspora by African nations going back to the era of the slave trade.

Q: I totally see that now that you have explained it to me. But I think that's where having a fictional nation like Wakanda works so much better. If Black Panther were an African-American hero, he would be a lot like Erik Killmonger and he would go to Africa to violently "help" "poor Africans" against the colonizers.  And in such a format there would be no room to address these complex and difficult real historical issues.

D: I am so glad that's not the movie they actually made (Laughter). What happens to the people who had left the continent against their will?  Erik's messages are conflicted: on the one hand, "let's join forces against our oppressors." On the other, "you have abandoned us."

It is a bit problematic that Erik's mother, an American, is never seen, too. But what Erik's father was trying to do, before he was stopped by his own brother, T'Chaka, in the context of black liberation movement in the US, carried much resonance with African independence movements, which, historically, led to the new wave of Pan-Africanism in the mid-twentieth century.  And yet some African Americans engaged in these global movements against racism expressed a sense of abandonment by Africans once African nations gained independence in the 1960s, and the connection between the movements faded.

African American Studies Professor Jemima Pierre at UCLA has conducted fascinating research on this and related topics centered on the African diaspora experience and global racial formation.  This disjuncture is, for instance, mirrored in the divisions between the academic fields of "African Studies" and "Black Studies" since the 1960s.

Having said this, I do think it is remarkable that Black Panther emphasizes the deep connections- past, present, and future, between the continent and the diaspora. The fact that we have a blockbuster movie centered entirely on Africans and African Americans is something to celebrate!

Q: Incredible. So many new things to learn!  Thank you so much for your time, Professor Decker.

D: My pleasure!