A version of this article originally appeared on VICE France.
Since its February 2018 release, Black Panther has sparked an unprecedented dialogue among black people across the globe. The blockbuster superhero film has ignited discussions on heady topics, like how to liberate all of the world's black people, not just some of them; how to facilitate dialogue between Africans and children of the diaspora; and whether we should fight for our liberation with weapons or with laws and ballots. The dialogue around the film has been especially resonant in France, driving a rift between a press wary of interrogating white supremacy and an enthused public who sees a lack of diversity in French media.
A particular controversy was sparked when Mwasi, an Afro-feminist collective whose aim is to combat "the capitalist, hegemonist white system," organized a special screening of Black Panther that was exclusively reserved for black viewers. The group, which was created in 2014, garnered attention last year when the Mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, banned a festival that Mwasi had organized because sections of it were "forbidden for white people." The festival's "non-mixed" forums were ultimately held in a private setting, but the case prompted a public debate that has continued with their recent effort to host a "black-only" screening of Black Panther.
To understand Black Panther's impact on young people across the African diaspora, our colleagues at VICE France talked with Alma, an activist from Mwasi who runs a popular blog dedicated to the role of black people in cinema. Like most members of the collective, she never gives her last name online in order to protect herself from right-wing harassment. On her blog, the 30-year-old describes herself as "undoubtedly Afro-feminist, politically black, and anti-imperialist." We talked to her about black superheroes, Afro-futurism, and the lack of diversity in French cinema.
VICE: We’ve already seen black superheroes in Blade, Black Dynamite, and Spawn. In your opinion, what is it that makes Black Panther special?
Alma: All those films are important, of course. But what sets Black Panther apart isn’t simply the color of the hero’s skin. It’s the environment in which he evolves—Africa—and the problems the film evokes in general. Black Panther highlights many aspects of the “black experience”: the effects of colonialism, intergenerational trauma, traditions…
And what’s more, Black Panther depicts ideological quarrels between its characters.
Yes. For example, there’s Nakia, who wishes Wakanda would leave behind its isolationism in order to help other countries. And then there's the vision of Okoye, who, at the beginning, attempts to put the notion of law before the notion of justice and intends to serve Wakanda’s royalty no matter who wears the crown. However, the film concentrates more on the opposition of Killmonger versus T’Challa. Killmonger is the only primary character who is African-American [in the film]: He plays “the lost child of the diaspora,” the black man who has lived in a primarily white country. He wants to liberate oppressed people by arming them, while on the other hand, T’Challa is a sort of pacifist monarch who refuses to come to the aid of others, despite his enormous riches.
"African women are portrayed in all their flamboyance and their complexity. They’re actresses of change, of mediation. "
As a militant Afro-feminist, what is your view of the black female characters?
I was very taken with the film’s Afro-feminine, Afro-feminist vision. African women are portrayed in all their flamboyance and their complexity. They’re actresses of change, of mediation. Furthermore, they’re dignified, ingenious, invested, loyal, powerful, funny, amorous, independent… And this isn’t only a vision of the future. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a reality here and now—and here, it's finally put on screen with an Afro-Hollywood flavor.
Can we call Black Panther an Afro-futurist film? Particularly with respect to the character of Shuri, a black teenager who is a professional in futuristic technology?
Absolutely. Wakanda is at the forefront of a technological empire thanks to its Vibranium. However, this Afro-futurist vision has its limits: The people of Wakanda hide their riches from the world, and that can make for an isolationist country.
But don’t you think that isolation acts as a means of protection here?
It’s true that [Wakanda] hides in order to protect itself. This isolationist position can be explained by trauma and by centuries of the West pillaging [Africa's] riches. But what bothers me is Wakanda’s nationalist approach. When I think of the future, I don’t envision such a nation-state structure.
In France, the film has been criticized a lot for putting its battle of ideas onscreen. Do you share that point of view?
Black Panther’s taste for discourse that utilizes an African royalty mythology—“we were kings and queens”—as a springboard in its fight against Negrophobia, imperialism, and Western predation, gives me pause. I’m not sure that’s the direction to take. It gives the impression of hanging onto the ghost of an absolute power.
"In France, the mobilization against institutional racism is getting stronger and stronger."
Mwasi, the Afro-feminist collective you’re part of, organized a private screening of the film. Controversy ensued. What exactly happened?
The screening did take place, followed by a conference. But there was a whole controversy beforehand. Started, of course, by so-called “anti-racist” organizations such as the International League Against Racism and Anti-Semitism, who had warned the cinema of the nature of our event. What we wanted was to privatize the location and screen the film for black children, teens, and adults exclusively. A private event, something we could share together as a community, as a minority. So of course people trotted out the same old absurd rhetoric: “Rosa Parks is spinning in her grave” or the same false equivalencies we saw during the Nyansapo Festival and the Decolonial Summer Camp.
What did you think of the response to the film in France?
The audience reaction was wonderful, but the [critical response] was a different story. As a cinephile, I have a particular soft spot for science fiction and issues of representation. Even if I tried to hold myself at a distance from film criticism in France, I couldn’t really stop myself from looking at what people were saying about the movie. I suppose I was hoping for a nice surprise… but, far from it. Libération’s headline about Black Panther was: “Ugly and sanitized, the Marvel stables’ latest adaptation fails to grasp the racial issue that is always consuming America.”
Besides assuming they have the monopoly on good taste, they’re associating the “racial issue” with the United States, as if it didn't exist anywhere else. Meanwhile in France, the mobilization against institutional racism is getting stronger and stronger. There are protests against slavery in Libya, against the “Night of the Blacks” in Dunkirk, against police brutality. And yet, an entire caste of journalists refuses to make the connection, to consider the film in a global context and not just through the African-American prism. To end on a positive note, I did appreciate Fania Noel's analysis of Black Panther, which allowed me to put certain aspects of this film in perspective and to better examine them.
"We have to break the codes of the Parisian white bourgeois microcosm around which French cinema revolves, along with the institutions that control it."
Do you hope to see a French film deal with these issues one day?
Yes, I hope so, even if it’s very difficult to compete with the impressive strength of an American production. In France, [we have] all the elements required to make movies that are just as interesting. The talent and the cultural diversity are very present. The only true obstacle is a financial one. I also think that in order to generate interest successfully, we have to break the codes of the Parisian white bourgeois microcosm around which French cinema revolves, along with the institutions that control it.
Yes, France is the country that saw the birth of cinematic technique and traditions. But today, we have Hollywood, Bollywood, and Nollywood in Nigeria. We’re not the center of the world, and I think that to have a greater impact, we have to leave behind the dichotomy which dictates that only auteur films are works of art, and that mass-market films can’t have the same esteem.
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