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Afrofuturist superhero movie Black Panther breaks new ground in more ways than one

As well as being the first mainstream black superhero movie, it’s witty and includes plenty of leading women. 

It’s clear almost from the start of the latest Marvel adventure Black Panther that the title character is not your run-of-the-mill superhero. Did Captain America or Wonder Woman have to drink a purple potion while being buried in red sand, only to emerge in the long grass of the Ancestral Plane, where fiery-eyed panthers doze in the trees under a pink sky before metamorphosing from cat to human? They did not. It is only one of several dozen instances during which the more reflective cinemagoer has cause to wonder if there is anything separating the movie from, say, Yellow Submarine or the psychedelic Monkees film Head. Black Panther is, in every sense, a trip.

There are numerous ways in which the picture breaks new ground, none of which would count for very much if the film itself didn’t work some wonderful miracles within the confines of its genre. It is the first black mainstream superhero movie, the most expensive studio project ever made by an African-American director (take a bow, Ryan Coogler, who only made his debut, Fruitvale Station, five years ago) and the first picture of its kind to be populated almost entirely by black actors. Relatively new faces including Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out) and Michael B. Jordan (Creed) mingle with veterans such as Angela Bassett and Forest Whitaker.

It is just as notable, however, for tipping the gender balance of its leading characters in favour of women: T’Challa, aka Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), is protected by an all-female security squad from his birthplace, the technologically-advanced African country Wakanda, where the infrastructure and aesthetic provides a good, working, one-stop definition of Afrofuturism. Those bodyguards, known as the Dora Milaje, are headed up by the exacting Okoye (Danai Gurira), who wields her magic spear and sniffs at guns (“How primitive”). Also on hand are T’Challa’s former squeeze Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), around whom he goes weak at the knees, and his teenage sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright), a gadgets expert who mocks him relentlessly and comes on like a sassier version of Q from the Bond films. Any victories Panther notches up in his efforts to find the villain who has stolen quantities of Wakanda’s deadly metal vibranium are as much theirs as his.

Meanwhile, an audacious theft is in progress over at the world-famous Museum of Great Britain. What do you mean, you’ve never been there? The heist is being masterminded by Erik Killmonger, who represents an example of nominative determinism in action. What if he’d wanted to be a marriage guidance counsellor or a chartered surveyor? He would likely still have exuded the same mixture of suavity, sincerity and menace that is the stock-in-trade of the charismatic Michael B. Jordan. Announcing his decision to simply steal an African artefact from one of the glass cases, he says “how do you think your ancestors got it?” while the (white) curator looks on in horror.

As his South African partner-in-crime Ulysses Klaue, Andy Serkis relishes the chance to show his face after nearly two decades of working predominantly in performance capture roles. He is also one of only two white actors in the main cast, the other being Martin Freeman as the CIA agent Everett Ross, and it’s unexpectedly refreshing to see normal superhero film proceedings turned upside down when Everett is left in the lab to operate the tech while his black allies get stuck in on the battlefield, dirtying their hands in the combat proper. Serkis, who played Gollum in the Lord of the Rings series, and Freeman, who was Bilbo Baggins in the Hobbit trilogy, have referred to themselves rather marvellously as the new picture’s “Tolkein white boys”, which is as witty as anything in the script itself.

That script, by Coogler and Joe Robert Cole, adheres to the usual genre formula of tomfoolery, in-jokes, mythology and outright poppycock, but their knack for teasing emotional resonance out of standard scenarios gives them the edge over predecessors and competitors alike. One character contemplating death says: “Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from ships because they knew death was better than bondage.” You don’t hear that sort of thing in Batman V Superman.

Black Panther is on release.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

PHOTO: ROBERTO RICCIUTI/GETTY IMAGES
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“I want the state to think like an anarchist”: Dutch historian Rutger Bregman on why the left must reclaim utopianism

The Dutch thinker advocates global open borders, a universal basic income and a 15-hour working week. 

History consists of the impossible becoming the inevitable. Universal suffrage, the abolition of slavery and the welfare state were all once dismissed as fantastical dreams. But in the Western world, politics today often feels devoid of the idealism and ambition of previous generations. As the mainstream left has struggled to define its purpose, the right has offered superficially seductive solutions (from Brexit to border walls).

One of those seeking to resolve what he calls a “crisis of imagination” is the Dutch historian and journalist Rutger Bregman. His book Utopia for Realists advocates policies including a universal basic income (a guaranteed minimum salary for all citizens), a 15-hour working week and global open borders. Since its publication last year, Bregman’s manifesto has been translated into more than 20 languages, establishing him as one of Europe’s pre-eminent young thinkers.

“I was born in 1988, one year before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and people of my generation were taught that utopian dreams are dangerous,” Bregman recalled when we met for coffee at the London office of his publisher Bloomsbury. A softly-spoken but forceful character, dressed casually in a light blue jacket, jeans and Nike Air trainers, Bregman continued: “It seemed that the age of big ideas was over. Politics had just become technocracy and politicians just managers.”

Bregman’s imagination was fired by anarchist thinkers such as the Russian philosopher Peter Kropotkin. He identifies with the left libertarian tradition, which emphasises individual freedom from both market and state domination. Another formative influence was Russell Jacoby, Bregman’s history professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, whose book The Last Intellectuals (2000) lamented the decline of the polymath in an era of academic specialisation. Utopia for Realists, a rigorously argued and lucidly written work, fuses insights from history, politics, philosophy and economics. Bregman echoes Oscar Wilde’s sentiment: “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at.”

Such romanticism partly filled the void left by Bregman’s loss of religious faith at the age of 18 (his father was a Protestant minister in the church opposite the family home in Zoetermeer, western Netherlands). “Maybe utopianism is my form of religion in a world without God,” Bregman mused.

For him, utopia is not a dogma to be ruthlessly imposed but a liberating and inclusive vision. It would be “completely ludicrous”, Bregman remarked, for a Western politician to suddenly propose global open borders. Rather, such ideals should animate progressive reforms: one could call it incremental utopianism.

“History will tell you that borders are not inevitable, they hardly existed at the end of the 19th century,” Bregman observed. “And the data is behind me.” Economists liken the present system to leaving “trillion-dollar bills on the sidewalk” and estimate that allowing migrants to move to any country they choose would increase global GDP by between 67 and 147 per cent.

The thoughtful Conservative MP Nick Boles recently objected to a universal basic income on the grounds that “mankind is hard-wired to work. We gain satisfaction from it. It gives us a sense of identity, purpose and belonging”.

Bregman did not dispute this but argued for a radical redefinition of work. “A YouGov poll in 2015 found that 37 per cent of British workers think their own job is absolutely meaningless,” he noted. Rather than such “bullshit jobs” (to use the anthropologist David Graeber’s phrase), work should be defined as “doing something of value, making this world a little more interesting, richer, beautiful – whether that’s paid or unpaid doesn’t really matter.”

In Utopia for Realists, Bregman decries “underdog socialism”: a left that is defined by what it is against (austerity, privatisation, racism), rather than what it is for. How does he view the ascent of Jeremy Corbyn? “Most of the ideas are sensible but they’re a bit old-fashioned, it felt like stepping into a time machine,” Bregman said of the 2017 Labour manifesto (which majored on renationalisation). Yet he recognised that Corbyn had expanded the limits of the possible. “All this time, people were saying that Labour shouldn’t become too radical or it will lose votes. The election showed that, in fact, Labour wasn’t radical enough.”

“We need a completely different kind of democracy, a society where you don’t think purely in terms of representation,” Bregman explained, citing the Brazilian city Porto Alegre’s pioneering experiments in participatory democracy (citizens’ assemblies, for instance, determine public spending priorities). “I call it the anarchist state. The anarchists want to abolish the state; what I want to do is to make the state think like an anarchist.”

Rutger Bregman has a fundamentally optimistic view of human nature: “People are pretty nice” (his next book will challenge “the long intellectual history in the West that says, deep down, we’re all animals, we’re all beasts”).

He dismissed those who cite the 20th century – the age of Stalinism and fascism – as proof of the ruinous consequences of utopian thought. “People are always yearning for a bigger story to be part of, it’s not enough to live our own private lives. If you don’t give them [people] hope, they’ll go for something else.” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist