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  • Conall Brown

What ‘Black Panther’ teaches us about identity in global politics

Ryan Coogler’s film, Black Panther, has been a cultural landmark which has rightfully spurred discussion on the nature of oppression, identity and conflict in contemporary global politics. Coogler presents his film in metaphor and symbolism to explore these themes. The primary metaphors are the conflicting characters of T’challa, the King of Wakanda, and his cousin, Killmonger. These two are, in the words of Jelani Cobb, ‘duelling responses to five centuries of African exploitation at the hands of the West’; it is these duelling responses that provide the attention for the role of identity in global politics.

The character of Killmonger is presented as a symbol of African-American suffering, as is eloquently expressed by Adam Serwer. Serwer focuses on the void of identity that is felt by African-Americans (even the hyphen in African-American represents immense human cruelty and suffering). This void is ‘the loss of life, culture, language and history’, after oppression leading to aspects of black culture being subsequently eliminated, while simultaneously excluding black people from American culture; thus producing ‘the void’. This is the source of Killmonger’s militarism and hatred, and it is an urgent issue within global politics which demands a solution. However, unpacking the principle behind Killmonger’s weaponised identity politics, illustrates its failure as a solution to the problems within global politics.

The form of identity that Killmonger represents is an extreme version of one of the core features of global politics: us and them. Killmonger simplifies world politics to fit his narrative of the oppressors and oppressed; constructing homogenous and intrinsically opposed global identities to fuel his imperial ambitions, as he states, ‘the sun shall never set on the Wakandan empire.’ This ironic modification of the famous British phrase leads Serwer to critique Killmonger’s solution; ‘to say that the master’s tools cannot dismantle the master’s house’, as the same principle of identity based oppression, the masters’ tools, remains. To paraphrase Nathan J. Robinson, the aim of any solution to oppression must be to dismantle the house, not to change the occupant. So, if Killmonger is wrong, if he only changes the occupant, how can we destroy the house? Here, T’challa enters the equation.

In his closing speech, T’challa states that, ‘We must find a way to look after one another as if we were one tribe.’ This represents a post-structural perspective on global politics, deconstructing the dichotomies that provide the foundations of our understanding of the world: East / West, North/ South, Male / Female, Black / White. To dismantle the house of identitarian oppression, common humanity is T’challa’s solution, in his idea of the global ‘tribe’.

Nevertheless, within the setting of contemporary global politics, T’challa’s sentiment is far from common . Since Huntington’s famed ‘clash of civilisations’ thesis, and the events on 9/11 that his supporters claimed solidified the thesis, identity has become increasingly foundational in world politics. The idea that people are divided, that who ‘we’ are is inherently opposed (a ‘clash’) to who ‘they’ are, thus we cannot possibly co-exist, seems a prominent discourse today. This is the narrative, to quote Trump, that ‘Islam hates us’, that, just like Killmonger’s construction of homogenous blocks, Islamic identity is opposed to American identity. This is, as is often the case, reciprocated by extremists on the other side. Bin Laden’s infamous ‘Letter to America’ relies on the construction of Muslims as a unified ‘us’, and American’s as the ‘you’, the other to be feared. Neither perspective is correct, they both rely on Killmonger’s principle of homogenous, opposed, identities and provide the fuel that keeps each hatred burning.

It is to T’challa’s principle that provides an alternative solution to the real suffering that Killmonger represents; the concept of ‘belonging’. This is the idea that, through deconstructing the imposed divisions of identities through ‘humanizing the other’, a sense of common humanity can be realised, transcending the artificial opposition of identity groups like ‘Muslim’ and ‘American’. It is the embodiment of T’challa’s declaration that ‘in times of crisis, the wise build bridges while the foolish build barriers.’

Though, this principle seems extraordinarily idealistic. How, for example, can we build bridges and create a sense of ‘belonging’ with people who deny others’ basic right to life, either as ‘kafir’, homosexuals, non-white, or woman?

This helps to illustrate how complete deconstruction of identity is itself problematic. The ultimate ‘us’ of humanity can only include those who are willing to observe the shared humanity of others. Therefore, there may always be a ‘them’, those that reject the values of ‘us’, and may indeed, as is Killmonger’s idea, be deserved of punishment. The issue, however, arises when this ‘them’ becomes a universalised construction of identity around an entire group, not just specific individuals, thus becoming oppressive.

Image: Adapted from Flickr

So, Black Panther’s two primary characters represent a somewhat false dichotomy of identity politics, they may not be ‘duelling responses’ at all. There cannot be complete division and ‘othering’, nonetheless there cannot, for now, be complete unity. Somewhere, in the middle ground, lies the solution.

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