Black Panther Transmedia: The Revolution Will Not Be Streamed

Written by Niels Niessen

The following text is the introduction of a longer essay published in the Journal for Cinema and Media Studies (2021), https://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/t/text/idx/j/jcms/18261332.0060.506/–black-panther-transmedia-the-revolution-will-not-be-streamed?rgn=main;view=fulltext.

The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense and the Black Panther figure of Marvel’s comic book universe were both created in 1966. There was no direct link, however, between the political organization that Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton launched in October that year and the introduction of the first superhero character of African descent a few months earlier in May, in an issue of Fantastic Four (vol. 1, no. 52), which was authored by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Introducing the Black Panther in Fantastic Four, no. 52 (Marvel Comics, 1966).

As Lee states in a 2009 interview:

It was a strange coincidence because, at the time I did the Black Panther, there was a political party in the country— mostly Black people— and they were called The Black Panthers. And I didn’t think of that at all! It had nothing to do with our character, although a lot of people thought there was some tie- in. And I was really sorry— maybe if I had to do it over again, I’d given him another name, because I hate that confusion to be caused. But it really had nothing to do with the then-existing Black Panthers (cited in Clark 2018).  

The 2018 film Black Panther directed by Ryan Coogler also does not make explicit reference to the Black Panther Party. But the film’s promotional materials do indirectly invoke the historical reality in which both Black Panthers appeared in the late 1960s cultural air. One of the film’s promotional posters depicts T’Challa— the reigning Black Panther— in visual citation of the iconic 1967 portrait of Huey P. Newton, seated on a throne, a rifle in one hand, a spear in the other (a photo that in turn was a mockery of colonialist portraiture). Moreover, one of the film’s trailers contains remixed samples of Gil Scott- Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televized,” a track from 1970, which is also the year Black Panther Party membership reached a peak. In this trailer, as the Black Panther flies across the screen, a male voice- over cites the following, tuned to the beat of Vince Staples’s “BagBak” (2017):

            You will not be able to stay home, brother.
            You will not be able to plug in, turn on, and cop out. . . .

            The revolution will not be televised. . . .
            The revolution will be live.

Marvel thus links its Black Panther universe to the long history of African American struggle. These offhand gestures beg the question of how Black Panther’s mainstream Afrofuturism holds up to the political activism it invokes. Does the film merely commodify revolutionary discourse, and wouldn’t such commodification prevent the film from constituting an “act of civic imagination,” as Henry Jenkins has called the film? (Jenkins 2018) Doesn’t Black Panther’s production by Marvel, a subsidiary of Disney, by definition preempt the film from its claim to politics— especially when recalling the imperative of turn-of-the-1970s Third Cinema that a political film must also be made politically? And how to square Black Panther’s imagination of a never-colonized Black nation with Achille Mbembe’s analysis of “Blackness” as a discursive product of colonization?

Addressing these questions, it is important to acknowledge the wide acclaim Black Panther has received from within the African American community. During a special event in Harlem’s Apollo Theater, Ta-Nehisi Coates described the film as “Star Wars for Black People,” sharing with the audience that he “didn’t realize how much [he] needed the film, a hunger for a myth that [addressed] feeling separated and feeling reconnected [to Africa]” (cited in Beta 2018). Similarly, Tre Johnson writes that Black Panther’s greatest legacy is that Black viewers find “a cultural oasis that feels like nothing we’ve seen before” (cited in Johnson 2018). And as Jenkins observes, Black Panther offered “a shared myth desperately needed in the age of Trump: the film inspired many different forms of participatory culture . . . as people fused its iconography into their personal and social identity” (Jenkins 2018).

So yes, following its release, Black Panther has undeniably manifested itself as a political-cultural event, but this does not, of course, prevent a critical reading of the film. That critique is the gravitational point of this essay. I argue that, taken on its own, the Black Panther film only marginally integrates its offhand promotional references to the history of African American resistance. Despite its multiracial cast and strong female characters, Black Panther at the end of the day is built on a conventional Hollywood logic, while its plot purports an anthropocentric American Dream narrative in which humanity masters nature through technology. (Figure 2)

Figure 2. Technology as second nature in Black Panther (Marvel Studios, 2018).

Yet the film cannot just be considered on its own. The film emerges out of and inscribes itself into a transmedia franchise that in recent decades has evolved as a platform for rethinking African American identity in the post–civil rights era. This has been the case under the authorship of Christopher Priest (who wrote the 1998 Black Panther comics volume on which the movie was largely based), Coates (who picked up the comics’ authorship in 2016, starting with A Nation Under Our Feet), and Kendrick Lamar (who cocurated the film’s soundtrack, including the hit single “All the Stars,” performed with the American singer SZA). As Coates writes elsewhere, in Between the World and Me (2015), the dreamed synergy between nature and technology at the heart of the American Dream is an all-too-human construction torching the planet, socially and literally (Coates 2015).

Figure 3. Black Panther’s science fiction of a nation shielded from global heating.

The Black Panther film revels in such phantasmagoric synergy, telling a fairy tale of an extractive utopia, while it has no sight for the exploitation of bodies and ecosystems that marks the reality of every mining economy (Figure 3). In that light Black Panther is like, say, Apple’s new American Dream, in which technology is posited as second nature and which was equally designed in California. Only when the film is considered in the light of its broader transmedia universe does its superhero texture open to the speculative potential that Michael Gillespie and others have embraced as central to film Blackness. As I will argue in the final section, “The Fire in the Sky,” at those moments Black Panther invites its transmedia traveler to think through what Mbembe calls the “Becoming Black of the world” (Mbembe 2017).

Niels Niessen is a Researcher in the Arts & Culture department.

For the full article and bibliographic references see:

https://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/t/text/idx/j/jcms/18261332.0060.506/–black-panther-transmedia-the-revolution-will-not-be-streamed?rgn=main;view=fulltext

Can’t imagine the world without music…

By Puck Wildschut

image

Thelast 15 years has seen a surge in speculative popular fiction focusing on theexistence of gods and mythical creatures trough a kind of thoughtform: If a
great enough number of people believe in the actuality of certain higher beings
deeply, passionately and for a prolonged amount of time, these beings are
enabled to ‘exist’, to intrude onto the physical plane of mankind and work
their not always so benign magic. In American
Gods
(2001), – soon to be transformed into another major fantasy
tv-production
 – Neil Gaiman explores numerous pantheon’s in this way, from the
ancient Egyptians’ to modern day media-goddesses; In his incredibly
entertaining urban fantasy series The Iron
Druid Chronicles
(2011- ongoing), Kevin Hearne makes the last remaining
Druid on earth battle witches, cooperate with vampires, and deal with Norse
gods and Native American tricksters; And traces of thoughtform motives can be
seen in the universes of such bestselling series as Jims Butcher’s The Dresden Files (2000 – ongoing) and
Seanan McGuire’s InCryptid series
(2012 – ongoing).

The
power of thoughtform as a literary theme, however, is not restricted to novels.
Last January, at the 2015 Image Expo in San Francisco, it was announced that a
third series of the comic book (or graphic novel, whatever suits your fancy) Phonogram by Kieron Gillen and Jamie
McKelvie is to be published in August of this year. Its first volume Rue Britannia (2006-2007) tells the
story of the highly unlikeable chauvinist David Kohl, who is a phonomancer, a
rare kind of magician who feeds on people’s love for a certain type of music
and who can channel that love for magical use. Kohl is facing a dilemma: His
specific drug is Britpop, but suddenly the world appears to be slowly
forgetting its existence, and therewith Kohl’s, since he is kept alive by their
remembering. Kohl then starts on a literal trip down memory lane to save
Britpop, ensuring that not only he himself does not disappear, but, more
importantly in his eyes, people will still remember Kenickie as being the ultimate
goddesses of Britpop, that the mysterious disappearance of Manic Street
Preachers’ Richey Edwards
will makes sure he will always be remembered… and
that (praise the good Lord!) people will not start thinking of those
proto-hipsters of Kula Shaker as actual Britpop. Phonogram is a mixed read: Kohl is one of the most unsympathetic
characters I have ever come across, but he is redeemed by his love for music.
Every reader of Phonogram, Britpop
fan or no, will be able to connect
with Kohl’s nostalgic longing for those days when you were being immersed into
a certain music scene for the first time in your life and your personal gods
came into existence – an experience that will form you, and maybe even haunt
you, for the rest of your days.

Our
current time in history, we might say, is an especially grim one, with
ideological wars raging all over the world, people becoming more and more connected
through electronics but less and less connected as human beings, and
differences are often more important than similarities. The gods we believe in,
if we do at all, are gods of hate and anguish – at least, those are the gods
that haunt our news bulletins. ISIS fighters destroy Muslim art in the world’s
museums, while Feyenoord supporters trash ancient Rome’s relics in Italy’s
capital. Their gods of religion and sports are ‘thoughtformed’ by annihilation,
hate and oppression, created through acts of barbarism rather than art.

Phonogram’s gods, on the other hand,
are thought into existence by love, admiration and creativity; and above all by
people’s passion for music. And that is why I am glad the Phonogram’s saga continues, while, as an avid reader of speculative
fiction, I believe the theme of thoughtform is becoming rather a cliché. Phonogram shows precisely what it is to
be human, to truly have faith in something outside of ourselves, and most
importantly, it shows that art, in this case music, is a symbol of hope in a
time when the world is so off-balance. Maybe, if the people of this world could
believe just a little harder, a little more passionately, in the gods we hear
on our radio’s, those we see expressed on canvases in our museums, those we see
on the stages of our theaters and encounter in the words of stories, the world
could be just that bit more of a
hopeful place. So if you stumble upon Phonogram’s
next installment ‘The Immaterial Girl’ somewhere this summer, don’t hesitate to
give a go; it might just change the world.

Image via: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Phonogramcover2.png