This fall, Disney/Marvel have launched the next entry in their comic book mega-franchise, What If…?, an “alternate history” anthology series that is setting up the two forthcoming major tentpole pictures, December’s Spider-Man: No Way Home and March’s Dr. Strange and the Multiverse of Madness. Each week begins with the setup of earlier pictures before pivoting, based on a significant plot change, that brings things into wildly new direction. What if a British woman used the super-soldier serum and, instead of Captain America, we got Captain Carter? What if a serial killer axed Earth’s mightiest heroes before they formed The Avengers? What a zombie apocalypse transformed Iron Man into a cannibalistic drone? These preliminary examinations are intended to develop the infamously intricate Marvel Multiverse, a cornerstone of their comic books storytelling strategy for the past few decades.
Unfortunately, these counterfactual scenarios remain steadfast to the regressive politics that have been perpetuated across every entry in this media behemoth. The last several episodes of this television series have perpetuated a subtle, cynical form of white liberal racism that is all-too-familiar, particularly a recent episode’s extended sojourn back to the Black Panther’s homeland. In this episode, the Panther’s nemesis Killmonger succeeded at taking over the fictional homeland of Wakanda.
The contradiction of being a “white” reporter and media analyst that seeks to articulate a meaningful critique of Black politics and media is manifestly obvious: the fact my pink bottom has never been and never will be Black, ergo W.E.B Du Bois’ color line segregates my brain away from a full comprehension and understanding of the issues I try talking about. Yet simultaneously, it also is true that people that look like me should confront my skin-folk when they engage in various forms of racism, including extremely complicated and difficult behaviors like tokenism, the invocation and use of a particular favored “Black friend” to justify white socio-political behaviors.
And so this is the lens I bring to the Disney/Marvel Black Panther franchise-cum-subcultural phenomenon. It is impossible to deny that, upon release in February 2018, the film became a massive hit unlike any other Black superhero film produced in the last 35 years. Does anyone remember when Shaquille O’Neal played Superman’s Black friend Steel in 1997? There have been less than 10 of these films produced since Christopher Reeve’s Superman kick-started the genre in 1978 and very few have been successful for a multiplicity of reasons.
Disney/Marvel tapped into a famine-level hunger with Black Panther because it not only had Black faces on the marquee, it addressed serious Black social and political topics, including systemic racism and poverty in the ghetto, fatherhood, and the way that poor Black families are ripped to shreds by the brutality of our white supremacist social contract. Black folk were easily enraged by any white person that dared criticize the film and they had legitimate reasons for feeling this, something reflected in my original review of the film.
The problem, however, is that Disney/Marvel isn’t and never has been a Black-owned/Black-led film studio. Instead, from its foundation it has been the whitest film studio in Hollywood. While the other major studios in Tinseltown were founded by Jews escaping their own ghettos, Walter Elias Disney was a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant heterosexual male who reflected every single one of the prejudices in each of those demographics. He grew up in the Klan city of Kansas City, MO. During the Depression, he fraternized with Nazis, including hosting propaganda filmmaker/alleged Hitler mistress Leni Reifenstahl. He refused to hire women cartoon artists and blacklisted animators that tried unionizing his studio as “Communists,” which included testimony to the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) and snitching to his close pal, the arch-racist psychopath FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. His films include blatantly racist caricatures of minorities, toxic gender archetypes, and slobbering worship of the American empire in all its insane glory.
Even more than half a century after his death, his legacy and visage are sanctified by a company that still promotes his ultra-reactionary political agenda. This includes continuing to operate that veritable child’s Mecca known as Disney World in the Right to Work state of Florida, where employees make a pittance whilst broiling the tropical sun every day, and lobbying hard in Washington to eviscerate any law or regulation that might prevent it from becoming one of the largest mega-corporations in human history, an enterprise whose annual profits dwarf the GDP of several US states.
All these factors bear a tremendous level of power over the ostensibly-Black media projects that Disney/Marvel releases. As Matthew Alford and Tom Secker showed in their astonishing study National Security Cinema: The Shocking New Evidence of Government Control in Hollywood, every Marvel Cinematic Universe screenplay is run by the Pentagon’s script approval desk, trading editorial control for access to military bases and hardware to be used as sets and props. The mega-franchise is umbilically linked to the most regressive sector of the military-industrial complex.
This means that “Blackness,” which functions as an ill-defined signifier, has a clear agenda. Put simply, it is Booker T. Washington’s accommodation/appeasement agenda.
In 1901-3, W.E.B. Du Bois engaged in a bitter polemic with Washington, whose “Atlanta Compromise,” a deal brokered between the Tuskegee Institute founder and Jim Crow government officials, had traded mild economic investment for the acceptance of state-sponsored segregation and disenfranchisement. This polemic, later expanded into a chapter of The Souls of Black Folk, is the American version of Rosa Luxemburg’s pamphlet Reform or Revolution, which inveighed against creating a “kinder, gentler” capitalism rather than overthrowing the system. Du Bois, contra Washington, said there is no hope for the American free enterprise system because it thrives on racism and imperialism.
Washington’s view is the political agenda underwriting Black Panther. Killmonger, a disinherited son of Wakanda who was raised in the Oakland ghetto, stands for the ideals of Du Bois and Luxemburg. Disney makes anyone advocating Black internationalism, self-determination, and liberation into villains. Hell, at the end of the 2018 film they glorify a CIA agent as a great hero, something I can imagine Patrice Lumumba having a few thoughts about. It does bear mentioning that I imagine these particular elements were imposed by white Disney executives upon the Black talent that made up the production but have little corporate power in the grand scheme, a nuance that might escape some.
It is very common these days to encounter contrarians, like Glen Greenwald and Matt Taibbi, who moan and groan endlessly about “wokeness” in liberal media. It is not so much that they are totally wrong because there is a genuine issue here worth discussing. Instead, the problem is that they are too stupid to understand and analyze why this aesthetic is so repulsive, that these media venues are promoting a type of tokenizing politics masking a regressive liberal polemic against the most marginalized in our society.
What is so particularly detestable is how Disney poisons the well. Du Bois understood the balancing act between pragmatism and idealism, hence his long record of tempered political stances around issues like elections. What Disney seeks to bring about is a foreclosure of the ability for Black people to even dream of liberation. The radical Brazilian education scholar Paulo Freire once wrote “I cannot avoid a permanently critical attitude toward what I consider to be the scourge of neoliberalism, with its cynical fatalism and its inflexible negation of the right to dream differently, to dream of utopia,” which perfectly describes how the Mouse House seeks to bulldoze a Black utopian horizon.
In the era when Black political uprisings under the banner of #BlackLivesMatter/Movement for Black Lives have fundamentally shifted paradigms of discourse and re-introduced a dynamic radicalism to mainstream analysis, this is unpardonable.