Marvel’s “Black Panther” is now the most successful movie to star black people and, not coincidentally, it’s an American movie full of Americans. The press, however, neglects everything worth noticing about the story, so I’d like to draw your attention to two things that go very well together: Alexis de Tocqueville’s teaching about American democracy and America’s foreign policy shocks and struggles in the post-Cold War era.
First, a brief overview of the plot: Somewhere in the middle of Africa exists a mythical kingdom that lives with incredibly powerful technology far more advanced than anything else on earth, but it also lives in fairly simple and simple-minded ways. The place has the weapons and medicine of the Space Age and the politics of the Bronze age. The new king has to defend his country and his throne from a usurper and decide how to bring his country back into the world from its long isolation.
Now, let’s get to the intriguing stuff. “Black Panther” is full of imagery and stories that recall one of the strangest things you learn from Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, concerning the relations between the three races in America. Tocqueville says the red race, the Indians had freedom, but not civilization; the black race had civilization, but not freedom; and the whites had both.
The picture is more complicated, but it’s incredibly persuasive. Consider how Americans themselves believe the Indians embodied freedom. After Tocqueville’s death, and after the Civil War, America expanded westward. As a result, the wild west and the frontier became part of national mythology, culminating in the westerns of John Ford in the mid-20th century. His 1956 film, “The Searchers,” is as good a piece of evidence for Tocqueville’s claim as you can want.
Consider that Tocqueville saw immediately that Africans in America were fully persuaded by the civilization of the white majority, despite slavery—and this long before many American politicians themselves saw what Tocqueville described so readily. Instead, they spent considerable time in the first half of the 19th century trying to cook up colonization schemes to send America’s population of slaves to Central America or back to some part of Africa to be free.
In the vision of “Black Panther,” the equation is changed: Black equals red plus white. Back in their African setting, the different tribes that make up the strange nation of Wakanda, which seems to have little unity, can be as free as the Indians once were in America. At the same time, they enjoy all the technology and political sophistication of the whites. (The movie seems to want to have it both ways: some tribes live in relative simplicity, while others enjoy a high-tech economy.) There is no price to pay, and there are no tradeoffs to be made. This is what the story gets so badly wrong.
But why does the film get it so wrong? Well, you can rethink the African setting in the American terms of the filmmakers. Evidently, they didn’t think much about what life in Africa ever was or could be like. They deal with symbols, nothing else. The dream of Wakanda—that with sufficiently sophisticated or revolutionary technology you become invisible, or invulnerable, to the outside world you can then safely ignore—is an American dream. The problem is, this dream takes freedom for granted and thinks an abstract view of civilization is sufficient by itself.
This is the dream that shattered on September 11, 2001, when the greatest achievements of technical progress in a highly sophisticated commercial society, skyscrapers and airliners, were turned into weapons used by barbarians to murder thousands of people who had no idea they might ever find themselves on the frontlines of new forms of warfare.
The post-Cold War fantasy of the 1990s was shattered that day as well. No more waging war by bombing the Balkans or sending special forces to Somalia or assembling a coalition that fights a brief war against an enemy vastly their inferior in the Middle East, where airpower control the entire theater of war. Americans learned to fear that home was not safe, despite their technologically backed domination of the world.
The movie doesn’t do much with this, but it tries to show that this fantasy won’t work. It gives you a new version of the neoconservative dream, but with a liberal spin. You have to help democracy throughout the world, as one reads in George W. Bush’s second inaugural address. Democracy in America is only safe is democracy everywhere is safe.
That sounds crazy, but it’s not entirely crazy. America is better off if Mexico is not going through civil war, or if Central American countries do not ship vast quantities of illegal drugs, or if foreign powers that might cut off the sea lanes of communication on which American commerce depends are cowed from doing so. These truths, unfortunately, are ignored in the story, which deals not with grand strategy, but liberal fantasies. It’s more on scientific education and youth outreach and less on undermining undemocratic regimes.
That’s naïve, of course, but even that naïveté is all-American. From beginning to end, we see Wakanda has tech-based superheroes of great martial discipline, including its version of the Green Berets, Army Rangers, Navy SEALs, and a sophisticated foreign intelligence operation. Americans don’t know where their soldiers die—they don’t know where they’re deployed at any given moment—it’s all done in secret. But it’s those heroes who actually keep America safe. Here, we see in a small self-chosen minority the apex of the combination of freedom and civilization.
So the movie is true to American life far more than we might first guess. It reproduces with startling fidelity most of the delusions of the post-Cold War era. Well, wouldn’t you agree that it makes perfect sense to do that in the context of a story of a noble nation trying to return from its vacation from history? That nation, you guessed, is America.
By the way, even rednecks have a place of pride in that story. The Wakandan version of the redneck is despised in the beginning, openly sneered at by sophisticated scientists, only to prove utterly indispensable and nobler than most others at the end. Why? Because of their twin virtues, self-reliance, and defiance. They’re not easily enslaved or defeated. There again, you see freedom without civilization.
In its strange way, “Black Panther” is trying to revive a confident America, where power and morality have at least some things in common and make for a good, improving influence in the rest of the world. But to be persuasive, it would have to be much better able to pierce the illusions it illustrates.