BLACK PANTHER: The Progressive African Avenger
Since we’re all on an Avengers high, now is the perfect time for a close look at the fascinating sometimes-Avenger: The Black Panther, Marvel’s first black (/African) superhero. Specifically, let’s look at the 2010 BET animated TV series, Black Panther, because the politics in it are, frankly, stunning.
What politics? Well, here’s the premise: The Black Panther is the leader of the fictional African nation, Wakanda. Wakanda is the exclusive home to a precious mineral called vibranium, an impenetrable metal with exceptional properties, and so The Black Panther’s job is to protect Wakanda’s borders from bastards that want to invade and exploit its riches. This includes French colonialists, ruthless mercenaries and, in the TV series, the modern U.S. government.
This premise serves as a springboard for thinly-concealed commentary on US foreign policy and the problems with Western intervention in African nations. Specifically, Black Panther seems to me to be a love letter to the battered ideology of protectionism. Here’s a quick and (over)simplistic rundown: In the mid-20th century, when developing countries in Africa and Asia were freeing themselves of their colonial ties, many opted for protectionism. This is an economic policy to limit the amount of trade externally and instead focus on getting the economy pumping internally (eg. place high taxes on imports/exports so people are inclined to support local business and local businesses will trade with each other and build off each others’ development). Generally speaking, the protectionist policies in many of these countries were a success. But they were rudely interrupted by Western foreign powers that wanted access to their resources and access to their markets. So free market ideology was thrust upon them — sometimes violently — to get them to fling open their borders (eg. IMF loans only given out if countries open themselves up to trade; coups/dictators get the backing/resources of foreign powers if they promise to support free trade policies when in power).
So the series asks a big “what if?”: What if there was a country in Africa untouched by Western intervention? What could it look like today? Black Panther presents Wakanda as the (exaggerated for comic book purposes) utopian answer—a thriving technologically/medically/culturally/economically advanced African nation which gained such prosperity, not only from following a strict protectionist policy, but by rejecting any imperialist impulses of their own that come with power. Wakanda does not use its extraordinary achievements and technological know-how to conquer its neighbours. Instead, it treats its natural resources as a treasure that needs to be protected for the good of the world. The Black Panther makes clear in the series that Western nations (and several neighbouring African ones) cannot be trusted to use vibranium for peaceful constructive purposes.
While the series champions a pro-protectionism stance, Black Panther goes for the jugular when depicting US foreign policy. The US government is portrayed as nakedly imperialist—disrespectful of Wakanda’s sovereignty, motivated by delusions of entitlement to Wakanda’s natural resources and willing to play dirty and team up with dodgy figures to get its way. In my opinion, however, the series stumbles by blaming these flaws on the Bush Administration specifically, rather than acknowledging that such traits have been a common theme in U.S. foreign policy well before President Bush (Jr. or Sr.) and have been a common theme after.
Apart from that gripe, Black Panther is everything you’d hope pop culture could be. It places non-American people of colour at the centre of the story with agency and kick-assiness, embeds the story with interesting, relevant ideas about developing countries and the rights of their people and governments, and while the whole thing is drenched in politics it doesn’t take away a smidgeon of the entertainment value you’d expect from a comic-book action series. Watch the first episode below.
NOTE: A live-action Black Panther movie is in the works. It is unclear, however, whether the plan is to include him/her (the Black Panther changes identity every generation so has sometimes been female. Excellent, right?) as part of the Avengers franchise. Though Stan Lee has said in interviews he’d like the Black Panther to appear in the Avengers sequel!
NOTE: I originally wrote this article for PopMatters. Check it out here.