Black Panther, Whitewashing: Colonialism and Neocolonialism Ideals in Marvel’s Black Panther
By Matthew Dickinson
LAS 410: Disney-Fication
Matthew wrote this paper for LAS 410 A (The Disney-fication of Identities, Representations and Development). The assignment was to write a critical analysis paper analyzing a Disney artifact (film, TV show, theme park etc.) based on a theme from the course that makes an argument about why studying these images/environments are important. Matthew’s analysis of Black Panther makes a strong argument for how the film, despite being celebrated for its representation of people who are Black both behind and in front of the camera, nevertheless perpetuates colonialist and neocolonialist values. Matthew includes in-depth analysis of specific examples from the film, and also demonstrates implications of whitewashing this particular film. His understanding and use of organizing terms such as colonial and neocolonial is impressive, and the timeliness of this film makes his analysis especially interesting and important for his peers to read.
The movie was especially significant since it was the first Marvel film to feature a Black lead and predominantly Black cast. Additionally, the movie featured an African setting and a soundtrack featuring traditional African-style music with contributions from contemporary music stars such as Kendrick Lamar, Travis Scott, and The Weeknd. Black Panther proved successful commercially and critically, grossing over a billion dollars and winning numerous awards- -including three Academy Awards and a Best Film nomination, the first for a superhero film at the Awards.
While the movie generally shows a commitment to representing Black American and African culture, some plot elements endorse colonial and neocolonial values. According to Buescher & Ono (1996), colonialism happens when one country takes over another territory and steals resources, land, and culture from the conquered place with little to no regard for its residents or sovereignty. While colonialism still happens today, its roots are often based in historical contexts such as the British Empire and the exploits of Alexander the Great. In contrast, neocolonialism works to “cover up” unsavory parts of colonial histories and present a new interpretation of events that reinforces colonialist ideals of superiority and inferiority. These narratives are especially harmful when they become part of the mainstream media and reinforce negative ideals in popular culture.
The Walt Disney Company acquired Marvel in 2009, and thus Black Panther was produced under the gaze of the media giant, even if it did not have an outsized impact on production. Disney has had issues with fairly portraying cultures outside of the white hegemonic lifestyles that many of their top producers come from. These shortcomings perpetuate and justify the physical and cultural devastation that ravaged many different indigenous countries and cultures in the name of securing land and resources for European and United States powers, who were led by predominantly wealthy white men. This literal and figurative whitewashing makes truly acknowledging historical events nearly impossible, or, even worse, repackages them in a way that justifies the bloodshed, rape, and cultural degradation of once-thriving countries and communities.
Black Panther is not immune to the problematic elements that can be found in more “traditional” Disney classics, and, in fact, promotes colonialist and neocolonialist values. Colonialism proves to be a major plot device throughout the movie, as many of the plot points include direct or indirect references to the pain and suffering caused by hundreds of years of oppression for Black Americans and Africans. However, neocolonialist values seep into the film through the characters M’Baku, leader of a rival tribe who challenges the main character T’Challa for the title of Black Panther, and the larger role for Agent Ross, a white male CIA operative. Through its mostly ineffectual attempts to highlight the problems with colonialism, endorsement of neocolonial ideals, and inability to allow a Black colonizer to be shown in a positive light, Black Panther espouses many of the problematic ideologies shown in Disney films, while also adding a few colonial twists specific to the film.
Colonialism Through Portrayals of Wakanda
From the beginning of the film, the main setting of Wakanda deals with the effects of colonialism through isolationism. In a storybook- type opening, the origin of the mysterious African nation is told, with stories of tribal wars, a powerful element named Vibranium, and an ancient warrior consuming the Heart Shaped Herb, which gave him supernatural abilities and made him the first king and Black Panther, “the protector of Wakanda” (Black Panther, 2018). Later on in the introduction, the audience learns that the nation chose to “hide in plain sight” amidst the chaos happening in the outside world (Black Panther, 2018). Although colonialism is not explicitly mentioned, images of slave ships, tanks, and planes suggest that the Wakandans were aware of the dangers that surrounded them. As a result, the residents chose isolationism, or not being involved in world affairs, “to keep Vibranium safe” (Black Panther, 2018). Since the Wakandans knew that the element was a resource that gave them a great technological edge over other nations, they decided to avoid the colonialists that would doubtlessly come to pillage their greatest asset and overthrow their carefully preserved way of life. In just a few minutes of screentime, the colonialist themes of the film are on full display.
In the film itself, the general conception of Wakanda by the outside world shows the nation as a primitive third-world country that needs help from more developed countries. Collste (2019) notes that “enduring social relations of the superior and subordinate has a tendency to create images of the Other and of oneself, and these images are shared by both the superior and the subordinate” (2). This phenomenon, known as epistemic injustice, causes ideas of superiority and inferiority in both affected cultures, which often comes as a result of a colonialist history. While Wakanda itself has not been colonized by the traditional European or Western powers, the ideals of how they relate to the outside world, in comparison to other African countries, remain.
The most harrowing example of epistemic injustice happens during the capture and questioning of Ulysses Klaue, a lowlife weapons dealer and secondary antagonist. After T’Challa tracks him down and removes the villain’s prosthetic arm that doubles as a cannon and exposes its Vibranium contents, he angrily asks him where the weapon came from. In response, Klaue retorts, “you savages [the Wakandans] didn’t deserve it” (Black Panther, 2018). Even though the pejorative word “savage” has ties to Native Americans for most audiences, Africans have also been subjected to the term that implies they are less than human and in need of salvation and reform (Asante, 2013; Stam & Spence, 1983). This defiant and racist response to a powerful ruler who has the powers of his elders coursing through his veins and technological advancements that are greater than any in the world shows the feelings of superiority that define epistemic injustice, even though the villain knows the Wakandans’ power better than any outsider.
In the interrogation itself, Klaue asserts to Agent Ross, a White male CIA operative, that he “shouldn’t trust the Wakandans” and that he “is much more [Ross’s] speed” (Black Panther, 2018). When he is speaking to a fellow White male, the villain uses a more coded approach to justifying colonial ideals by suggesting that he is more trustworthy than the Black Africans Ross is currently with. After this move fails, Klaue asks the agent what he truly knows about Wakanda. After Ross replies “Shepards, textiles, cool outfits,” referencing the third world status the Wakandans show to the outside world, the villain fills him in on how powerful Vibranium truly is. Klaue likens the country to the fabled El Dorado, a magical place chock full of gold that Spanish conquistadors searched for in the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries (Cartwright, 2014). By connecting this colonialist tale to the real nation of Wakanda, Klaue again attempts to capitalize on white superiority to convince the agent that he should side with him and steal the ultra powerful Vibranium from the inferior Wakandans. Ross dismisses this argument out of hand, leaving Klaue alone and rejoining T’Challa and Okoye.
Gorillas and Guns: Neocolonialist Values in the Film
While Klaue’s overtly colonialist rhetoric gets lambasted, portrayals of Wakanda elsewhere in the film betray neocolonialist ideologies. Historically, media representations of Africa and African life have “othered” this continent and its culture (Asante, 2013; Bonsu, 2009; Stam & Spence, 1983). As a result, a great deal of regressive views about what Africa looks like today have seeped into the minds of audiences across the world, especially in so- called first world countries such as the United States. While these representations may be misguided, ideologies such as neocolonialism can have a dangerous influence on how historical events are remembered. Buescher & Ono (1996) note that “neocolonialism is contemporary culture’s willful blindness to the historical legacy of colonialism enacted in the present’’ (130). While Wakanda itself does not suffer under colonialism in the film, certain aspects of colonialist actions are swept under the rug or are barely mentioned. Although Black Panther makes great strides in presenting African culture in a positive light, the film still leans on stereotypical ideals of tribalism and “othering” to show why the advanced Wakandan culture needs colonialism to reach their full potential.
The mysterious Jabari tribe and Agent Ross are the main ways that neocolonialism inserts itself into the film. In the aforementioned opening story, the Jabari are described as a secret fifth tribe that “isolated themselves in the mountain” and refused to follow the original king’s rule. Although this mention occurs early in the film, audiences do not see any indication of the group until the ritual combat that will determine which warrior will be crowned the next king and Black Panther. While none of the four monarchical tribes put forth a challenger, the Jabari emerge from the rocks with a tribal chant and put forth their leader, M’Baku.
In the comic source material, this character is named Man-Ape and serves as a villain to T’Challa. This portrayal of Africans as apes, even if the connection is in the fantastical world of Marvel, makes them seem less than human, which has been a historical comparison to justify the enslavement of Black people for hundreds of years. Over time, these overtly racist representations have been toned down, but many individuals in recent times still give social meaning to the notion of these racial groups as apes (Ratten & Eberhardt, 2010). Instead of shying away from this character or acknowledging the colonial undertones of this portrayal, the film attributes the gorilla image to the only Wakandan tribe that is “othered” and does not follow the implied acceptance of T’Challa as rightful ruler. However, when M’Baku attempts to take the throne and gain sovereignty over Wakanda, he is defeated despite being much larger and stronger than the incumbent king. While this outcome may be chalked up to a plot point that helps set up the rest of the film, the fact that a stereotyped “ape-man” cannot even defeat his own black kin implies that he is not worthy of success and status.
Agent Ross serves as a neocolonial whitewashing of CIA operations in African countries. In the film, he first appears as the anonymous American buyer for a shady Vibranium deal with Klaue in South Korea. After he meets T’Challa and has a terse interaction with the Wakandan ruler, he radios his backups and informs them that they cannot let the Black Panther take the criminal hostage. Although the plot never reveals what Ross planned to do with the Vibranium “on behalf of the United States government,” his decision to prevent Klaue from being taken into custody is curious. After the deal blows up, figuratively and literally, Ross saves Nakia from dying when Killmonger rescues his fellow antagonist from interrogation. After this heroic act, he becomes a permanent member of the team and is a rare outsider that the Wakandans bring into their home turf. Despite the cagey introduction, Ross reveals himself as an innocuous and caring individual that is subject to taunts such as “colonizer” by Shuri, T’Challa’s younger sister. M’Baku jokingly threatens to “feed [Ross] to [his] children” (Black Panther, 2018). In the climactic battle, the CIA agent uses his aerial expertise to virtually pilot a fighter plane to wipe out opposing forces while risking his life yet again in the process.
While Ross may serve a key role in helping the Wakandans restore peace to their kingdom, the historical connections between the CIA and Africa are far more pernicious. While the secretive nature of the organization and its declassified documentation makes evidence of direct meddling almost impossible to find, evidence suggests that the CIA had vested interests in East Africa during the War on Terror and in political instability in the Congo during the 1960s, among other issues (Hajdarmataj, 2020; Robarge, 2014). With this suspicious history and the ethical and moral gray area that comes from international surveillance, caution should be employed when taking the portrayal of Ross at face value.
Another complicating factor is the noticeable softening of the CIA’s image in recent films such as Argo and Zero Dark Thirty. The agency’s image has improved from one deserving mockery for its incompetence to an entirely benevolent force that spreads neocolonial values by “saving” foreign cultures. This shift has a direct correlation with the organization having more creative control over projects that depict them, and therefore the agency can control its image in the public eye (Schou, 2016). With this obvious conflict of interest, Ross becomes less of a benevolent (White) savior just performing his duty, and more of a neocolonial whitewashing of the negative effects that the United States has had on surveillance in foreign countries.
I Just Can’t be King: The Killmonger Colonial Complex
Perhaps the most compelling colonialist storyline in the film comes through the main antagonist, Erik Killmonger. Instead of shying away from the colonial narratives that the film contains or using them as a cheap punchline, Killmonger has a radical ideology that will enforce an uprising that will help “around two billion” historically oppressed Black people across the world come into power and erase hundreds of years of unfair treatment based solely on the color of their skin (Black Panther, 2018). However, instead of rewarding a man who survived the harsh conditions of urban life as a Black American, the plot instead refuses to allow this aspiring colonialist to “beat [white colonialists] at their own game” in his bid to rule Wakanda (Black Panther, 2018).
While a reading of this refusal to allow the antagonist to “fight fire with fire” through colonial rule may seem logical, the company payrolling the film has a checkered history with portraying colonialism. Disney has historically struggled with telling the stories of minorities and historically oppressed people fairly in classic films such as Pocahantas and Mulan, as well as more contemporary works such as Moana (Anjirbag, 2018; Buescher & Ono, 1996). The themes in these films mainly portray colonialism as positive and necessary to help indigenous “others” become more “sophisticated” through (white) colonial interference, as well as coloniality, which upholds the structures of privilege that have survived traditional colonial practices and continue in a neocolonial age. While Black Panther received deserved praise for its sensitivity in portraying traditional African customs and mannerisms in a mostly positive light, the film nonetheless displaces white colonialist desires onto Killmonger, a Black American character who is then vilified for these aspirations.
Audiences first get a taste of Killmonger’s fiery rhetoric and no-holds-barred approach to gaining power from an early scene set in a quasi-British Museum in London, United Kingdom. While he enters an African exhibit, a white female museum curator instantly approaches him and asks if he needs help. Killmonger obliges, asking the whereabouts of a number of artifacts. When he reaches the one containing Vibranium, he disagrees with her account of where the axe comes from, saying, “it was taken by British soldiers in Benin, but it’s from Wakanda” (Black Panther, 2018). He then goes on to say that he will “take it off [her] hands,” which she responds by saying the artifact, “is not for sale” (Black Panther, 2018). Killmonger is incensed by this reply, moving towards her and sneering while saying, “How do you think your ancestors got these? You think they paid a fair price? Or did they take it, like they took everything else?” This powerful exchange shows the deep rooted hatred the villain has pent up over the years at those with colonialist backgrounds who fail to acknowledge the ill-gotten gains of colonialist rule in countries like England, who take important artifacts and resources and peddle them like they are their own. Immediately after the curator asks him to leave, Killmonger makes a point about racial profiling before revealing that he poisoned her, setting up his path to steal the axe and escape with Klaue.
Killmonger also employs colonialist rhetoric when he unceremoniously enters Wakanda after ruthlessly killing his significant other and Klaue, presenting the body of the wanted criminal as a path to entry. After explaining that he did something that T’Challa could not deliver on, one of the elders asks what he desires, to which he retorts, “I want the throne” (Black Panther, 2018). Killmonger points out that while the Wakandans live a fairly sheltered and privileged life, the aforementioned two billion Black people are suffering. However, he believes that, “Wakanda has the tools to liberate ‘em all,” through the use of Vibranium and advanced weaponry. After T’Challa explains that, “It is not [the Wakandans’] way to be judge, jury, and executioner,” for outsiders, Killmonger rhetorically asks, “Didn’t life start right here on this continent? So ain’t all people your people?” (Black Panther, 2018). By bringing up the fact that Africa is the first known site of human existence, the revolutionary flips the argument on its head, showing that he believes Wakanda is responsible for every Black person around the globe. Killmonger ends this terse encounter by shouting out his royal lineage and setting up the first duel with T’Challa for the role of king and Black Panther.
This revolutionary dialogue continues after Killmonger defeats T’Challa and takes the throne. He begins his upheaval of Wakandan tradition, culminating in the burning of the sacred Garden of the Heart Shaped Herb. In a meeting with top ranking officials, he laments the fact that previous uprisings in America did not have the firepower that could have been provided by Wakanda. This reference alludes to failed revolutions from historical leaders like Nat Turner, an enslaved man who organized an armed assault on slave owners in 1831, and John Brown, a white abolitionist who undertook a similar conflict a few decades later. Killmonger then notes the distinct strategic advantages that Wakanda has to incite a widespread uprising. He says that “[he] know[s] how colonizers think” and that Wakanda is “gonna use their own strategy against ‘em.” He explains more semantics of the plan, which will help “oppressed people . . . finally rise up and kill those in power. And their children. And anyone else who takes their side” (Black Panther, 2018).
This extreme approach harkens back to traditional colonialist methods of taking over nations, as toppling leaders and murdering family members and sympathizers makes establishing a new order much easier for the conquering country. Killmonger seethes that “the world’s gonna start over, and this time, we’re [Wakandans and Black people] on top. The sun will never set on the Wakandan empire” (Black Panther, 2018). These lines clearly outline the colonialist nature of his plan, since he aims to assume power and keep a tight command on those who have systematically done the same to Black people all over the world for centuries. The last line also brings up the famous phrase “the empire on which the sun never sets,” which refers to one country having outsized colonial control. Most commonly used to refer to the historical British Empire, the sentiment behind the phrase is that the country it describes has gained so much land that their influence can be felt on all corners of the earth, even when the sun moves away from the main country. By incorporating overtly colonialist rhetoric and connecting it to Killmonger, Disney makes sure that audiences are fearful of a Black colonialist who poses a threat to both a utopian African society and to the white hegemonic systems that have ruled countries for centuries.
Although Killmonger may be written off as a deranged Nat Turner wannabe, his psyche has been formed through the harsh conditions of Oakland, California and the rigors of military training. In the very first live action scene, audiences witness his father being murdered by T’Challa’s father, T’Chaka, when he was a young boy. As if losing a paternal figure was not enough misery to endure, Killmonger is abandoned by the Wakandans because he “was the truth [T’Chaka] chose to omit,” a fact only posthumously revealed by the late king to his son in a spirit world visit (Black Panther, 2018).. When the skilled assassin shows up in Wakanda after killing Klaue, Ross reveals that his birth name is Erik Stevens, and he “joined the [Navy] SEALs” after quickly graduating undergraduate school from Navy college and graduate school at MIT. After he joined the elite secret force, he shipped out to Afghanistan and “wrapped up confirmed kills, like it was a video game” (Black Panther, 2018). Thus, he earned the nickname “Killmonger” and continued on to an even more elite JSOC ghost unit, who “will drop off the grid, so they can commit assassinations and take down governments” (Black Panther, 2018). In this rapid debriefing, audiences gather that he has received elite training from the best the United States has to offer, all while dealing with unresolved trauma from his father’s assassination at the hands of his uncle.
On top of a laundry list of trauma for Killmonger, his failure to acknowledge his own mental problems is systematic of his upbringing. Adewale et al. (2016) found that Black Americans tended to be more cognizant of injustices stemming from issues such as colonialism and imperialism than their Nigerian-American counterparts. Additionally, Black Americans were less likely to seek mental health treatment and held more stigmatized views on mental illness in the same study. These findings demonstrate how a combination of viewing social injustice issues and a refusal to acknowledge mental health issues can create a devastating cocktail of problems that are almost impossible to overcome. For Killmonger, his inability to recognize issues stemming from a troubled childhood in Oakland compounded with his affiliation with the United States military. Together, these forces turned him from a sympathetic child into a killing machine with no compassion and a single- minded approach to gaining and maintaining power. The end result is a powerful Black colonialist who challenges the norms of Wakanda while also providing a threat to dominant (white) societies around the world that still give its citizens advantages from the ill gotten gains of their own imperialist actions over the years.
Black Panther has proven to be one of the most successful commercial and critical superhero movies of all time. This widespread popularity and acclaim are a testament to its dedication to portraying historically oppressed populations and cultures fairly, which has helped create positive role models and images for Black Americans and Africans. However, the film does not do enough to dispel colonialist ideals, which are often referred to but often not overtly refuted. However, they are challenged by Killmonger, who correctly identifies the problematic elements of colonialist ideals and attempts to reverse-colonize the world through Wakanda with Black people in power this time. However, Disney refuses to allow a minority be the “good” colonizer–a la John Smith in Pocahontas– and instead vilifies Killmonger as a Ratcliffe figure since his ideas are too radical for a white audience. Neocolonialism also presents itself in some truly problematic ways throughout the film. M’Baku may be a traditional comic book character, but his connection to apes and his tribe’s outsider status engender and fail to rebuke ugly stereotypes that have made Black people, especially men, seem less than human in the public eye and also show them as an Others who must be controlled and eliminated for the safety of whites. Additionally, the promotion of Agent Ross from a bumbling sidekick in the comics to a trustworthy helper for the Wakandans ignores a checkered history of CIA interference in Africa, while also creating a sympathetic alternative to the seemingly dangerous Killmonger. Additionally, this movie serves as a major “seeing,” or representative, moment in comic book cinema for minority audiences, particularly young Black Americans. If some of the problematic elements of the film translate to how these groups see the world, they may believe they are inferior or should believe in the whitewashing of the colonial legacy. While Black Panther has made great strides in promoting diversity and inclusion in superhero movies, the insidious colonialist and neocolonialist values that Disney has made mainstream over the years and propagated in the film must be accounted for.
While this study covers colonial and neocolonial themes in Black Panther well, there are some limitations to the analysis. Although Marvel produced the film as a subsidiary to Disney, research could not find a link that determined how much creative or productive influence the parent company had while it was being made. As a result, this lack of scholarship lessens the impact of discussing colonial and neocolonial themes that can be more viscerally found in Disney-produced films such as Pocahantas and Moana (Anjirbag, 2018; Buescher & Ono, 1996). The possible influence (or lack thereof) of the Disney Company on Black Panther and other Marvel movies that may potentially have these themes could be examined more thoroughly using a production analysis that examines how media texts are constructed and for what purpose. Another limitation with the study has to do with the lack of information on the extent that these narratives have on audiences, especially for children. Since many impressions on the world are formed from an early age, this population is especially important to look at when determining the long-term impact of a media text. As a result, an audience analysis would be useful to see if Black Panther causes viewers to take in colonial or neocolonial ideals, and how these ideals may have negative effects if they are assumed. Overall, a colonial lens brings into focus vague allusions to a sordid African colonial history and neocolonial themes in some important characters, as well as raises important questions about how Disney portrays minority colonialists in the film. These concepts should be taken into consideration as the company looks to expand its representation of different cultures into media subsidiaries such as Marvel.
Adewale, V., Ritchie, D., & Skeels, S. E. (2016). African-American and African Perspectives on Mental Health: A Pilot Study of the Pre and Post Colonial and Slavery Influences and their Implications on Mental Health. Journal of Communication in Healthcare, 9(2), 78-89. doi:10.1080/17538068.2016.1170316
Anjirbag, M. A. (2018). Mulan and Moana: Embedded coloniality and the search for authenticity in Disney animated film. Social Sciences, 7(11). DOI:10.3390/socsci7110230
Asante, M. (2013). The Western Media and the Falsification of Africa: Complications of Value and Evaluation. China Media Research, 9(2), 64-70.
Black Panther. Directed by Ryan Coogler, performances by Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, and Lupita Nyong’o, Walt Disney Studios, 2018.
Bonsu, S. K. (2009). Colonial images in global times: Consumer interpretations of Africa and Africans in advertising. Consumption Markets & Culture, 12(1), 1-25. doi:10.1080/10253860802560789
Buescher, D. T., & Ono, K. A. (1996). Civilized Colonialism: Pocahontas as Neocolonial Rhetoric. Women’s Studies in Communication, 19(2), 127-153. doi:10.1080/07491409.1996.11089810
Cartwright, M. (2014). El Dorado. Retrieved November 16, 2020, from https://www.ancient.eu/El_Dorado/
Collste, G. (2019). Cultural Pluralism and Epistemic Injustice. Journal of Nationalism, Memory & Language Politics, 13(2), 152-163. doi:10.2478/jnmlp-2019-0008
Hajdarmataj, F. (2020). America’s Covert War in East Africa: Surveillance, Rendition, Assassination. Insight Turkey, 22(3), 271+.
Rattan, A., & Eberhardt, J. L. (2010). The role of social meaning in inattentional blindness: When the gorillas in our midst do not go unseen. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46(6), 1085-1088. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2010.06.010
Robarge, D. (2014). CIA’s Covert Operations in the Congo, 1960–1968: Insights from Newly Declassified Documents. Studies in Intelligence, 58(3), 1-9.
Schou, N. (2016, July 14). How the CIA Hoodwinked Hollywood. Retrieved November 16, 2020, from https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2016/07/ operation-tinseltown-how-the-cia-manipulates-hollywood/491138/
Stam, R., & Spence, L. (1983). Colonialism, Racism and Representation. Screen, 24(2), 2-20. doi:10.1093/screen/24.2.2