Black Panther’s Rage: Sovereignty, the Exception and Radical Dissent

Abstract

Black Panther, directed by Ryan Coogler, became one of the highest grossing films of all time. It also received a lot of critical attention for its direct engagement with black experience and black politics. It speaks to the legacy of slavery and the exploitation of African-Americans and the ongoing post-colonial struggle represented most starkly by the Black Lives Matter Movement. However, the film was also criticised for supposedly leaving that radical black politics behind, even demonising it in its lead antagonist, Killmonger, and instead proposing a liberal, reformist agenda very much in keeping with current forms of sovereign power, bolstered under the current neoliberal regime by the charity of billionaires. To some extent this is understandable, but it is also a very limited reading of what happens in the film and does a disservice to the radical dissent that the character of Killmonger represents. To address this, the paper uses the concept of sovereignty and asks how superheroes can help us unpack this concept. It argues that rather than seeing superheroes as vigilantes, thinking of them as sovereigns helps us unpack the complex knot of law, authority and violence that is key to understanding it. In particular it draws on Agamben’s discussion of sovereignty and the politics of the exception, and how this might be relevant to Fanon’s work on counter-colonial violence to show how the film remains true to radical protest throughout. On the way it also addresses the important cultural politics of the original comic.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    The spelling of the villain’s name varies. In the film it is Klaue.

  2. 2.

    One criticism of claims that the film is Afrocentric has been that the advanced technological state of Wakanda is a very Westernised view of civilization, culture and progress, so it is important to understand that this move towards technological development was a necessity within the comics, and that in both the film and the comic the role of traditional religion, ritual, knowledge and medicine remains central to Wakandan society.

  3. 3.

    Camille Fried’s commitment to the strong representation of natural black hair is also an important cultural signifier within the film, the politics of which is becoming increasingly prominent in the work of musical artists like Solangė Knowles and Princess Nokia.

  4. 4.

    In a later essay, Derrida explains autoimmunity as it appears in the processes of colonization and decolonization, especially in his country of birth, Algeria. Here, ‘the violent imposition of a culture’ finally resulted in ‘a war for independence waged in the very name of the political ideals extolled by the colonial power’. In an effort to quell the upsurge of this new demos France declared a state of emergency and suspended the law supposed to protect all citizens of the Republic. As a result, democracy attacked itself [13: 34–35].

  5. 5.

    There is more work to be done on Killmonger’s villainy and his narcissistic desire to rebuild the world in his own image (a subject certainly not alien to contemporary US politics), but those topics exceed the limits of this paper. One related and very important issue would also be the summary execution of his girlfriend, which requires a separate study of the narcissistic and toxic masculinity in the film, which runs counter to the very positive gender politics that otherwise dominates the film.

  6. 6.

    This has involved a ‘historical process of mediation’ dominated by ‘a one-sided movement from sovereignty’s transcendent position toward capital’s plane of immanence’ [23: 327] in which capital creates an imperial order of both control and governmentality.

  7. 7.

    “The constituting power of this always already externalized universal standpoint rests in the fact that it is not intricately related to any one state, but rather all states and no states simultaneously, as illustrated in the aforementioned bridging of historical distinctiveness (the particular) and universalized externality (the general). ‘Sovereignty’, as the instance of supreme power within a given state, remains unchallenged as long as the concept of sovereignty itself is never questioned. A universalized perspective of sovereignty must therefore be brought to bear on the state-centered version in a way that not only challenges the state of exception by exposing the fiction of law and life from the perspective of lawlessness, but also supplants the state as the ultimate sovereign power by breaking the fictitiousness of the relationship between state law and justice” [6: 216].

  8. 8.

    Lebron writes: “Black Panther presents itself as the most radical black experience of the year. We are meant to feel emboldened by the images of T’Challa, a black man clad in a powerful combat suit tearing up the bad guys that threaten good people. But the lessons I learned were these: the bad guy is the black American who has rightly identified white supremacy as the reigning threat to black well-being; the bad guy is the one who thinks Wakanda is being selfish in its secret liberation; the bad guy is the one who will no longer stand for patience and moderation—he thinks liberation is many, many decades overdue. And the black hero snuffs him out” [25].

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Curtis, N. Black Panther’s Rage: Sovereignty, the Exception and Radical Dissent. Int J Semiot Law 32, 265–281 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11196-018-9597-2

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Keywords

  • Sovereignty
  • Superheroes
  • Colonialism
  • Dissent
  • Black Lives Matter