Since the election of Donald Trump (because honestly, who doesn’t start an article about nationality with the words ‘Since the election of Donald Trump’ nowadays), his rhetoric of a ‘great’ America and who could, will and should belong to this, nationality, national identity and racial identity seem to have been thrown into a new state of crisis, not just in the US, but all over the world. Some people strongly support the divisive idea of a whiter America as one that is ‘great again’, others argue that America is great exactly because it was never white. Yet others argue that it was never great.
Benedict Anderson wrote in 1983 that nations are ‘imagined communities’, a self-fulfilling social construct where the idea of belonging to a nationality allows us (or forces us) to feel connected to people we don’t know simply because we imagine that there is a concrete thing that binds us: it is impossible for a US citizen to personally know every other US citizen. Yet up until recently, many would argue that there is such a thing as ‘Americanness’ that is either present or not in people and unites those who have it, while setting apart those who do not have it.
For diasporic subjects the concept of the imaginary takes on an even more significant role. While non-diasporic people can put their ideas of belonging in things that are typically, though falsely, considered to be intrinsic and unchanging (borders, language, physical closeness, a particular area of land), diasporic people have to make do with imaginaries that are also commonly considered imaginaries: the dream of a homeland that we are no citizens of, that we are not resident in. The dream of a language that we don’t hear around us. The dream of what could have been, had we not become displaced subjects.
In this respect, the two latest Marvel films, Thor Ragnarok (2017, dir. Taika Waititi) and Black Panther (2018, dir. Ryan Coogler), provide interesting commentary on various questions of the diaspora. It is not surprising that the first Marvel films to be directed by diasporic People of Colour (Waititi is Jewish-Maori working in the US, Coogler is African-American), look at the superhero genre as one that is quintessentially attached to an obviously imagined identity.
Both Thor and Black Panther raise questions about a people’s relation to a possible homeland: what responsibility to maintain our residence in (or return to) this land do we have? Do we belong to our land or does the land belong to us? And if, like Thor, we come to the conclusion that a people is defined by its people alone, does that immediately delegitimize any attempt at a more material definition of a nation, be it in gaining its own money that isn’t controlled by the colonizer, a land to call its own, or cultural artifacts to keep among its people?
And yes, what about culture? Do we have a responsibility, a duty, to continue the traditions of old, in order to keep them alive? What if we don’t agree with particular traditions, but letting them go or criticizing them would, for all intents and purposes, legitimize the view that the colonizer already has of our cultures as backwards or not worth preserving altogether? Black Panther contains a beautiful scene in which Killmonger, the main antagonist of the film, violently kills museum guards in order to retrieve an artifact that rightfully belonged to Wakanda and was forcibly taken by colonizing powers. Despite Killmonger being presented as ultimately a character in the wrong, his methods destructive and informed by masculine individualist approaches to conflict, as opposed to Nakia’s community-oriented approach (I beg of you to click the link and read the amazing article) – his argumentation in this particular scene is not at all questioned.
The beauty of the films in my view is that they do not attempt to give a simple answer, because these are no simple questions. Instead we are given motivations, (possible) consequences, and a wide variety of character’s opinions, none of which are immediately or wholly dismissed, not even the ones that end up on the losing side in the film. We are exactly encouraged to see that characters can be partially right, do the right thing for the wrong reasons, or do the wrong thing for the right reasons. And hopefully, we are then able to debate among ourselves how to do the right thing for the right reasons. Just like the diaspora can only ever be observed in flux between seemingly fixed points (though how fixed these points are, is a question in itself), this debate is ever-evolving.
Indeed, when I was discussing Black Panther with my mother (regardless of what we think of the film, I think we can acknowledge that Black Panther signifies turning point in the portrayal of race on film if it can get my mother, who never voluntarily watches superhero films if she can help it, to the cinema), she explained that she was uncomfortable with the melting-pot that Wakanda seemed to be, with languages and accents that reach over the entire continent being brought together in one country. She argued that it reinstates the idea of Africa as a country, and of these cultures as basically indistinguishable and interchangeable.
Before she told me this, I would have argued that in this case, it is because Wakanda is a diasporic dream aimed at the diaspora, rather than an accurate portrayal of what a real hyper-technological nation could look like. I interpreted the various cultures as not being mixed into one, but existing parallel to each other, each one retaining their unique aspects. It is a dream of what Africa could have been like if colonizing forces hadn’t robbed the continent of its resources, people, and potential. I assumed that it was obvious to all audience members that this was what the film was aiming for.
However, similar to what my mother argues, Azad Essa makes the case that the Wakanda portrayed in Black Panther is one that the West is comfortable with: non-violent, passive, preferring to throw money at problems than fight for material change. Killmonger (you only have to read his name to know that we are not supposed to be on his side) is painted as a cautionary tale of radicalization of Black youth in lower socio-economic areas of the US.
While there are many ways to interpret Killmonger’s character, and a lot of audience members have taken to the internet to defend his honor, fact remains that by the end of the film he is dead and T’Challa is not. This is seen as a direct result of Killmonger being a body out of place in Wakanda, as in the last fight he is defeated by not paying enough attention to the way T’Challa and Shuri can manipulate their surroundings. The message is clear: however noble Killmonger’s motives, his methods of realizing his dream are ‘not done’.
Furthermore, Liberal Current has already claimed Thor Ragnarok as a champion of liberal, imperialist supremacy. The article never seems to make up its mind as to what it’s actually arguing for and against, but it does spend about a third of its word count explaining that Thor shows that Odin’s violent and imperialist mission to take over other realms is justified because it built the beautiful Asgard, despite all this wealth literally being gained by the actual goddess of death, Hela. I don’t want to spend too much time discussing the piece, so let me just say that I am not ever going to agree with an article that follows up the sentence “None of this justifies the horrors of colonial, war machine liberalism” with the word “but”.
Both articles make very clear that when we are watching films about race, especially mainstream films, we are held in a double bind. Mainstream films will be seen by white people, by people who don’t realise that they are not supposed to identify with the colonizing forces. When we address the toxicity and danger of mainstream ideology, there will always be people who will consider the depiction of this ideology, even to criticize it, as a sign that they should continue celebrating it.
When we make films, and when we watch films, it is always a balancing act between the film’s intention and between the film’s reception. I would like to say that my mother, that Essa, and particularly that Liberal Current are objectively wrong. I would like to believe my interpretation, of these films as champions of radical anti-colonialist thought, holding up a mirror to the West, and creating conversations among diasporic subjects. Unfortunately this is not the case.
How then, do we devise a revolutionary cinematic language? If we aim it at the minority, we have to live with the fact that the majority can and will interpret some of the messages in a way that might harm the minority even further. If we aim it at the majority, we force ourselves to continue speaking their language, and having our debates on their terms. How then, so we devise a revolutionary cinematic language? Again this is a question that has effected more sub-questions and debates, than actual answers. The best option it seems, is to keep trying to find solutions that approximate an answer, and find out how to ask the right questions in the meantime.
This Article was written by Pippa Sterk
Pippa Sterk, LFFF Coordinator and Programmer, is a London-based writer from the Netherlands. She has an MA in Sociology from Goldsmiths and a BA in Film Studies from Sussex University. She writes articles about media and activism, with a particular focus on LGBT+ film, and she is currently working on her first novel.