This morning some thoughts occurred to me upon reading the proclamation that the soft sciences are 'fake news'. For the most part I agree and am, with qualifications, prepared to say that the Humanities have failed recent generations. Americans overvalue science and technology's roles in their well-being and become suckers in a permissive society in which ethics are not long considered or disciplined outside of the realm of today's journalistic games of scandal-gotcha. All of the wise men are considered to be dead. Gandhi's excoriation of Western Civilization being the last word. Although I'm not up on the latest by Pinker and Peterson, (I have to finish Taleb and Ferguson first), I find a great deal to be worthy of respect and admiration in Western society, including its Humanities which are failing to be properly instructed.
The failure of Humanities manifests itself in shallow literature, political correctness, cultural relativism and all manner of ethical backsliding I haven't the patience to enumerate. I know porn when I see it. I face it more often than I ever expected. So I have become a grouchy old man who perhaps takes classical pianists too seriously. I have retained the ability to enjoy the occasional action movie but I have noticed how much of our cultural production has leaned towards the cartoon. It's one thing to have a masterwork like 'Spirited Away' or 'Watchmen' hailed as great literature, but it's another to have clones of 'The Simpsons' and 'South Park' dominate prime time television. And if there is one clearly dominant form in the blockbuster movie genre, it is the miracle of Marvel.
Without going deeply into the Marvel Comic Universe (MCU), suffice it to say that Spiderman and the Avengers have become the last great bastion of Baby Boomer imagination trouncing everything else in society, limited as that imagination is. And so we suffer for it with a wave of films that rarely go beyond adolescent sensibilities. There can be no denying that these productions are expertly crafted and very entertaining. But they are ham handed when it comes to literary weight. Our superpowers vs their superpowers with some clever banter among the crashing buildings. Occasionally Tony Stark gets caught outside his Iron Man suit. Sometimes Wonder Woman has to pretend to be an ordinary chick. Batman (I know he's not Marvel) can be self-destructively brooding, but none of them really even approaches the vulnerability of Indiana Jones.
Enter T'Challa, the King of Wakanda who has access to two of the most powerful substances in the world. First is a gigantic supply of Vibranium, the element that makes Captain America's shield an irresistible force as well as an object that defies the power of Thor's own Hammer. Secondly is an African society of which he is the undisputed heavyweight champion. This is unique among all of the superheroes with the possible exception being Wonder Woman and Captain America. In this triumvirate, Marvel stakes out both sides of heroism. The power of war-ending combat ferocity and the power of heroic virtue. Captain America has, more or less, the proper virtue of America the Exceptional, and he has been right all the time, although successfully challenged in 'Civil War'. Wonder Woman, although not ultimate ruler of her secret island, has that same undeniable virtue and pronounces judgment on the entire planet and its foolish warmaking. T'Challa has all of the African virtue of tradition and inherits symbolically every feudal leadership quality we wished Ned Stark lived to exert over the Iron Throne. If people have a hard time recognizing the universality of Wakanda, it is not because Black Panther lacks it, but because it is expressed in an unfamiliar accent. The filmmakers didn't have to go far to collect such material, but the novelty of black cast films outside of Africa itself is still real.
The conflict T'Challa must face is perhaps the greatest of the three. There seems no chance for Wonder Woman to go back and convince her warrior-priestess culture to accept the challenges of world peace. They wish to stay invisible. Captain America will always be a prophet alienated from his corruptible society and it bureaucratic apparatus. Only Spiderman's youthful naivete survives this universe intact. Which makes me truly wish to see if and when Marvel Studios will deal successfully with the Silver Surfer. T'Challa however must handle the two boogie men of black American existential suffering. The first is the rejection of ancestor worship and every hidebound ethnic feudal tradition that has its roots in tribal bloodsport. Trial by combat is so well illustrated in Black Panther it echoes from the Toyi Toyi dancers in Soweto to fraternity step shows in the halls of Morehouse College. In the end he decides that Wakanda must enjoin with the world in the world's terms of constructive technology and democracy. The second is the rejection of the self-pity that justifies the Mao Mao mentality that would see the world purged by fire. And so T'Challa must meet and defeat his challenger to the throne who wishes to dominate the world in the world's terms of colonization and tyranny.
It is significant that T'Challa must remain King of Wakanda and cannot simply be a superhero. And the way he traces and finds his righteous path is the subtext of the entire film that makes it stand out in the superhero genre with the possible exception of 'Batman Begins'. Though the film clunks through at times it doesn't submit indulging in weaker jibes a prior generation of black American filmmakers were required to poke at Whitey. This is its saving grace. It needn't preach to an audience that has been well prepared to embrace it as a black cultural phenomenon. It adequately represents these age old black liberation tropes and applies them properly to the planet, and it does so with very pretty actors and visually arresting cinematic effects.
In the end however, as complicated as T'Challa's fate must be, he must contribute next to that multi-worldly combat of the MCU. Which means he will have to join forces with all of the superheroes of Earth to defend the whole of Earth. He will become what Earth desires him to be more than what Wakanda needs him to be. He will crossover and be rebuffed, just like Steve Regers and the Amazon Diana. So he will face the question that face kings of all ages, to be a good man or to be a good king?
If it must fall to the storytellers of our digital age to create new superheroes out of whole cloth they could do a lot worse than these three, and they have before and will again. It's a pity that the entire affair costs the multiple billions the industry requires. And it is sad that these are not tales we could tell of our own doing from our own experiences. Where is the Vibranium required to clean up the actual City of Oakland's violent ghettos? Where is the ritual combat that puts down the shamefaced fatherless son bent on destruction? Where was the wisdom of elders and assisting tribes that kept the integrity of the actual Black Panthers from tyranny? These are questions for another type of literature that will not soon be funded by Hollywood or appreciated by Hollywood audiences. In the meantime there is some comfort that the film did not fall to the lowest common denominator but embraced the highest common factor.
I recalled in the end, despite my own grumpy demeanor, that for a younger generation who never heard of a guy named Derrick Bell, that Wakanda has become something of their Afrolantica.
Derrick Bell is perhaps best known for the principled stand he took at Harvard in 1990 when he quit his tenured position on the law-school faculty to protest the school's failure to grant tenure to a black woman. Now a visiting professor at New York Law School, Bell is still deeply interested in issues of race relations and has chosen to explore the subject fictionally in Afrolantica Legacies. In a nutshell, the story goes like this: a mysterious land mass suddenly appears in the Atlantic Ocean, a fabulous island on which only black people can survive. American blacks set sail to the island to begin a new life, only to see it sink again before they can reach the shore. On the return trip to America, the passengers draw up a list of principles called the Afrolantica Legacies, defining how they want to reposition themselves in American society. The book uses a fictional setting to outline some remedies for the problem of race relations between African Americans and white people in our society.
I enjoyed reading Derrick Bell in the early 1990s before I had children, and entertained such fantasies appropriate to such writers who dreamed of being on the forefront of black cultural production. From time to time it's useful to revisit such dreams and see how they have become manifest in contemporary arts and crafts. I have been most impressed by the fact that Black Panther bears up best being a superhero movie rather than a race movie or a political movie. And though I've dismissed a lot of commentary on it. I understand that people need to see what they need to see. Today, I see Black Panther as the best Afrolantica there will ever be, which I hope says a lot about the dream in the first place, as well as the power of Hollywood to satisfy what we ask of the Humanities. Marvel did not invent nor re-invent Kunta Kinte, but Marvel makes damned good kinte cloth.