Analysis, Storytelling Geekery

7 Reasons that Black Panther is Great Middlebrow Science Fiction

Black Panther is both a commercial and critical success, currently sitting at the top of the US weekly movie charts, and set to become the most financially successful Marvel Cinematic Universe movie. I’d argue that Black Panther sits alongside Star Trek, Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica and the Culture novels as a great example of middlebrow science fiction – accessible and fun but smart enough that it offers more than just spectacle. Here are the reasons why.

It’s an Alternate History

Imagine if, during the 1940s, the resource-rich America decided to double-down on their isolationist policy rather than enter World War Two. Imagine if, rather than becoming a nation of ever greater inequality and wasted talents, America invested in it’s people’s talents. Imagine all of this happened in a resource-rich nation in Africa. That’s essentially the history of Wakanda.

Alternate histories have been a big part of modern science fiction. The Man in the High Castle and SSGB imagine a world in which the Nazis won, while writers such as Harry Turtledove and Kim Newman have built careers specialising in ‘what if’ novels. By creating a world which is like our own but different, storytellers are able to depict the familiar from an odd angle, hopefully bringing freshness to old debates.

Black Panther is a film about colonialism. As a nation Wakanda have hidden themselves away to avoid both the colonialism of empires and the modern colonialism that Everett Ross and Eric ‘Killmonger’ Stevens put into practice for the CIA. The film centres on Killmonger’s plan to seize control of Wakanda, in order to wage a war of colonialism to aid the oppressed black diaspora around the world. Debates about the morality of colonialism aren’t new – the British Empire’s looting of African resources (referenced in the London museum scene) was justified with the idea that Britain was generously bringing civilisation in place of backwardness. Killmonger states that the “sun will never set on the Wakandan empire”, repurposing a famous quote about the size of the British Empire at its peak. Ulysses Klaue, despite being one of the few non-Wakandans to know of their true technological ability, refers to the nation as “savages” several times – an obviously ludicrous statement in light of Wakandan achievements. (Though perhaps it’s not any more ludicrous than real-life claims of African backwardness, given the achievements of the Egyptian pharoahs.) Fiction that engages with the morality of colonialism tends to have Africans in a place of weakness, still needing the help of westerners, because of an unequal power dynamic than western nations have put Africa into. Instead, by having Killmonger aim to wage a war of imperial conquest, the same questions can be asked, but with the power dynamic reversed.

In short, Black Panther is a film that engages with discussions around the morality of colonialism and non-interference while coming from an angle that prevents the film feeling stale.

German colonial lord in Togo c1885
Colonialism was an ugly idea, but at least it looked ridiculous. / German colonial lord in Togo, circa 1885.

 

It Subverts Traditional Perspectives

Science fiction great Arthur C. Clarke once wrote that “science fiction is the only genuine consciousness-expanding drug.” Scifi, at its strongest, has this tendency to upend expectations, to either introduce something wholly new, or subvert what the viewer expects.

In the first Sherlock Holmes story (and in Elementary, the BBC’s Sherlock, and many other adaptations) the reader/audience meet Doctor Watson first, and build a sympathy with this character before meeting Holmes. There isn’t the same opportunity afforded to Sherlock‘s Lestrade, or the host of other police detectives in various adaptations. As a result the reader/audience tends to sympathise with Watson, while Lestrade and his fellow officers appear foolish to the reader for being so far behind Holmes. The use of perspective is powerful. Because of the story’s perspective, the reader is encouraged to sympathise with Watson but not with Lestrade – these are Holmes’ and Watson’s stories, rather than Lestrade’s.

As other commentators have pointed out, a more traditional version of the story in Black Panther could have begun with Everett Ross as the focus, and have the audience encounter Wakanda for the first time as he does, having the CIA agent act as the audience stand-in. (Given that Martin Freeman is probably the world’s premier ‘everyman in over his head’ thanks to his roles in The Office, Sherlock and The Hobbit, he was probably cast as Everett Ross with this in mind.) But rather than embracing this archetype, Black Panther subverts it. Everett Ross’ first appearance in the film is about half an hour in, when the audience have had a chance to understand Wakandan culture, and the key characters. As a result the audience’s impression of Ross is more Lestrade than Watson, with Ross’ reactions are almost played for comic relief, behind both the other major characters and the audience in his understanding. This is a film about black characters, black excellence, black points of view.

In his 1999 run as writer on Black Panther, Christopher Priest made Everett Ross the narratorial figure of the story. In talking about his decision he has said that “comics are traditionally created by white males for white males. I figured, and I believe rightly, that for Black Panther to succeed, it needed a white male at the center”.
The fact that Priest felt that this story about black Africans needed to be told from a white American perspective in order to succeed underlines what a bold decision it was to encourage the audience to sympathise with the Wakandans to the point of mocking the Everett Ross.

It Connects the Past to the Future

Depictions of Africa in modern and future-set fiction tend to gloss over how their history makes them different from other nations. Even in Star Trek Ben Sisko’s African heritage was mostly in the background, while was very little mention of how Uhura’s childhood as a 23rd century African influenced her character. It’s rare for a mainstream depiction of African culture to achieve what Black Panther did – depicting a futuristic Africa while drawing on existing African cultures.

Take for example the scar tattoos Killmonger has on his chest, and the lip plates worn by one of the major tribes. As a white westerner I don’t think I’ve seen lip plates used as anything other than a joke in western fiction, so it was one of the minor pleasant surprises to see so many Wakandans wear them. Similarly I wasn’t aware of the history of Basotho blankets, which are used as one of the defining visual traits of one side of Wakanda’s brief civil war. Wakanda is in it’s own way a vibrant, multicultural nation, drawing on the various traditions of Africa.

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A couple of less intimidating real life Basotho blanket wearers. / Parade of Basotho Women by VirtualSteve, via Wikimedia Commons

It Empowers the Downtrodden
In the past week a Scottish politician accused a Muslim opponent of “hiding under a burqa” by supposedly not addressing his official duties. Similarly, the half-Ghanian news reporter Afua Hirsch has written about her childhood experience of being told not to enter a boutique because “it’s off-putting to other customers”.
These small acts of discrimination, delivered in great enough numbers, will naturally have a cumulative effect. Hirsch also wrote that, before visiting Accra in 1995 aged 14 “I don’t think I had realised that there was a world in which black people could be in charge.”

Whoopi Goldberg and Mae Jemison (the first black woman in space) have both spoken about the way Star Trek‘s Uhura inspired them as young girls, and that kind of excitement has been evident in the reactions to Black Panther.
It’s impossible to say yet how big the legacy of Black Panther will be, but it seems that many audiences were amazed in the same way that those two young black American girls were. Black Panther could be a breakthrough in a culture where even the leads in intergalactic scifi epics like Star Trek and Doctor Who tend to have appearances and accents that place them as being from America or Britain. Particularly for young people, it can be powerful to see someone like themselves treated with respect and behaving intelligently, nobly, skilfully.

It Sets a Standard to Aspire To

The problem with idealising real life people is that real people tend to be complicated, and morally troublesome. In Britain there’s a strong tendency to celebrate Winston Churchill’s role in World War Two, to the extent that the recent Gary Oldman film, Darkest Hour had no appeal to me – its a story I feel like I’ve heard many times before. By contrast we tend to gloss over his darker side – using troops against striking workers in Wales, Liverpool and Glasgow; worsening a famine in Bengal. The same is true with Gandhi and his behaviour towards women.

Plenty of people refuse to accept these complexities of course, seeming to prefer an uncritical celebration to a complex examination of a complicated person. Fiction allows us that option, giving us the ability to admire Princess Leia or Jean-Luc Picard in a less problematic context. There are still relatively few strong, wise black leaders who have a prominent place in pop culture. Star Trek‘s Ben Sisko is one example, as is Law and Order‘s Anita van Buren. Although he probably doesn’t have one truly iconic role, Morgan Freeman has repeatedly returned to that archetype. T’Challa is a major addition to that category.

It Makes Abstract Ideas Concrete

The argument that Africa continues to suffer from the effects of colonialism is not a new one. For centuries European empires stripped Africa of its resources and enslaved its people. Academics argue that through the ‘neocolonial’ tactics such as using foreign aid to enforce lopsided trade deals, this power imbalance continues to the modern day. What would an Africa without colonisation look like? My understanding is that Ethiopia is the only African nation never to have been colonised, so it’s difficult to judge the entirety of unrealised African potential based on one case study.

Lupita Nyongo has argued that Wakanda is what an Africa free of colonialism would look like, which is a little fanciful as few nations are as well-ran and forward looking as Wakanda. Still, it’s useful to have cultural touchstones representing big, abstract ideas. Star Trek‘s Federation is a commonly understood representation of what a better future might look like, allowing discussions around the viability of techno-utopian futures. Similarly, Wakanda can be used to discuss a future in which Africa stands strong, able to resist the pressures of imperialism. It can also be a way to facilitate discussion of other questions. What if, rather than being seen as a place needing charity, Africa was home to one of the world’s major superpowers? Does Wakanda have a moral duty to try to help Africa and Africans outside of their borders? And if so, does this apply to Humanity as a whole?

It Leaves Room for Debate

Killmonger is an interesting villain because a large proportion of his plan and motivation makes sense. As a member of the international black community he’s furious at being left to suffer while the world’s most advanced nation sat back and did nothing. Even though he takes a heel turn into melodramatic villainy by burning the plants that would allow a successor to take the Black Panther’s strength, many viewers have taken his side. A running line of debate throughout the film is Nakia’s belief that Wakanda should do more to fight injustice outside of the country’s borders – the film opens with her infiltrating a group of captive women, in what appears to be a reference to Boko Haram.
Should real countries be isolationist or use their strength abroad? And how do they make sure to keep their idealism pure (as Nakia does) and not succumb to the attraction of building an empire?

Black Panther is escapist fun first and foremost – a film of colourful battles and witty one-liners. But like all truly great pop culture, it has enough substance beneath the shine to make a lasting impact.

2018-03-23 Black Panther scifi

Analysis, Egotism

Reflective Analysis – Freedom

Freedom 20180217_1725 cropped
Yesterday I published a poem here on the blog – Freedom – which I’ve also written a ‘reflective analysis’ about. This is a form of literary analysis which involves the writer going back and thinking about the choices they made – often on a subconscious level – as a way of better understanding their creative impulses.

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Analysis

Mythos in Star Trek Discovery 1.13: What’s Past is Prologue

This blogpost is focused on looking at how What’s Past is Prologue, the sixth episode of Star Trek: Discovery fits into the events and themes of the previously established universe. I’ve written similar blogposts looking at each previous episode (you can read the first here, and a full list under the Star Trek Discovery tag).

Climate Change

The Terran Empire’s toxic approach to the mycelial network is essentially a fossil fuel metaphor. Whereas the Prime Universe crew are conscientious about doing as little damage as possible, the Charon’s mycelial power core poisons the wider mycelial network while drawing power from it. Saru to be shocked by the Terran Empire’s short-sightedness, given that the process means that eventually, in Stamets’ words, “life as we know it will cease to exist”.

This recklessness works as a parallel to the real-world use of fossil fuels. Despite its hippyish idealism, the Star Trek franchise hasn’t touched on climate change and environmentalism as often as might be expected. The most notable exception is the TNG episode Force of Nature – built on the premise that warp engines damage areas of space which have excessive warp travel, an issue which isn’t revisited on-screen. (I’ve read that the reason Voyager’s warp nacelles physically rise before the ship goes to warp is to counter this effect, though I’m not sure whether this is canonical.) The climax of What’s Past Is Prologue implies that this analogy won’t be immediately revisited, but it’s a storytelling device that DIS could reuse in future.

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Analysis

Mythos in Star Trek Discovery 1.10 Despite Yourself

This blogpost is focused on looking at how Lethe, the sixth episode of Star Trek: Discovery fits into the events and themes of the previously established universe. I’ve written similar blogposts looking at each previous episode (you can read the first here, and a full list under the Star Trek Discovery tag).

The Pseudoscience of Star Trek’s Parallel Universes

The TNG episode Parallels has Worf travelling through parallel universes .On his way back to the Enterprise from a holiday, Worf’s shuttle passes through a “quantum fissure“, which causes a “quantum flux” in Worf’s cellular RNA. As a result throughout the episode when Worf is close to Geordi La Forge, a “quantum field pulse” that Geordi’s visor sends out, interacting with Worf’s altered state, pushes him into the body of himself in a slightly different parallel universe. During this process Data confirms Worf’s account by noting that his ‘quantum signature’ is different to the rest of the crew – a line repeated in Despite Yourself.

These shifts are very subtle at first. The first Worf notices being that Picard shows up unexpectedly at a party. These differences become more divergent from the main timeline, until Worf ends up in a timeline where Captain Riker commands the Enterprise, Worf is his first officer, and Wesley Crusher is a member of the senior crew.

The coincidences of the Mirror Universe often seem incredibly unlikely – same people, children of the same parents, serving on the same ship…even though the fundamental philosophy of their society is different. But using Worf’s example justifies this. In a multiverse of infinite possibilities, he travels first to those universes most like his own, getting further and further away, but never too different. (He is always serving on the Enterprise, never anywhere else.)

Perhaps the Mirror Universe has a few big differences in it’s ‘quantum signature’ but is otherwise similar to our own, which makes it easier to access than some others. If you think of it in terms of magic rather than hard science, it works. I doubt that any of this has anything to do with the real theoretical science behind parallel universes, by Hugh Everett and others. It’s probably best to think of this level of ‘science’ in the same manner as magic – what matters is that it serves the story and is internally consistent.

(Incidentally, Burnham refers to the ‘mirror Discovery’ which I think is the first textual mention of the term ‘mirror’ in relation to the mirror universe.) There’s certainly no mention of the term in Mirror, Mirror – the TOS episode which introduced this timeline.

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Analysis

Mythos in Star Trek Discovery 1.06: Lethe

This blogpost is focused on looking at how Lethe, the sixth episode of Star Trek: Discovery fits into the events and themes of the previously established universe. I’ve written similar blogposts looking at each previous episode (you can read the first here, and the fifth here).

 

Science, Magic and Spirituality

Arthur C. Clarke famously claimed that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. The genres of science fiction and fantasy overlap a great deal in practice, with the ‘science’ in scifi being so advanced and unexplained that it may as well be magic. Star Trek has generally been more solidly scientific than Star Wars or Doctor Who, but there are beings like Q and the Squire of Gothos who are so highly evolved that they effectively play the same role the gods did in Greek mythology. On a smaller scale, an important part of series 6 of DS9 is the concept of ‘self-replicating mines’, which realistically would need to draw an enormous amount of energy from the vacuum of space in order to replace themselves. The scientific accuracy in any work of science fiction will be limited by the writers’ scientific knowledge and imagination, and the audience’s ability to understand. The story is more important than getting the jargon right, and that will mean some compromise.

Probably the most magical aspect of Star Trek mythos is the katra – the Vulcan idea of the soul. In The Wrath of Khan Spock incapacitates McCoy and instructs him to “remember” before entering Engineering to perform an operation which he knows will irradiate his body. After Spock ‘dies’ and his body is jettisoned, Kirk and crew learn that Spock’s katra is inside McCoy, prompting them to steal a ship to search for Spock’s body, and reunite it with his soul.

This potentially raises some interesting questions – what happens if Spock had survived the process, but had become separated from McCoy? Does this mean what’s probably the most iconic speech in the franchise (“The needs of the many” and “I have been and always shall be, your friend”) was delivered not by Spock, but by an empty husk, an echo of who he is? The location of Spock’s katra is either a plotpoint that we shouldn’t think about too much (like the self-replicating mines) or an interesting philosophical question.

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Analysis

Mythos in Star Trek Discovery 1.05: Choose Your Pain

This blogpost is focused on looking at how Choose Your Pain, the fifth episode of Star Trek: Discovery fits into the events and themes of the previously established universe. I’ve written similar blogposts looking at each previous episode (you can read the first here, and the fourth here.

Sometimes Down is Up

For the third time in five episodes we begin by viewing things from an unusual perspective, in this case a dream sequence in the halls of Discovery. (The Vulcan Hello begins by moving through a star cluster and through T’Kuvma’s eye; The Butcher’s Knife begins inside a replicator.) Approaching the familiar from odd angles and re-examining what we thought we knew appears to be a key theme for the show.

For example, Discovery draws on Lower Decks, the TNG episode which followed junior officers rather than the senior crew. After three episodes on Discovery we know very little about Airiam, (the android or cyborg who seems to be Discovery’s second officer) and Culber refers in this episode to “the CMO” implying that he is not the ship’s Chief Medical Officer. Normally all of the senior crew would be introduced in the opening episode, and be the focus of the show.

Similarly, it’s unusual to get the viewpoint of a non-Starfleet Human who’s expressedly against the actions of Starfleet. From across the whole franchise I can only think of Harry Mudd, Carol and David Marcus, Joseph Sisko, and you could arguably include Michael Eddington and Mortimer Harren on that list. Breakthroughs in science and diplomacy often require a shift in perspective, such as Stamets’ observation that (in Star Trek science) physics and biology are fundamentally the same. Discovery appears to be encouraging the viewer to look at the familiar from a fresh angle.

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Analysis

Mythos in Star Trek Discovery: The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry

This blogpost is focused on looking at how the Star Trek: Discovery episode The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry fits into the events and themes of the previously established universe. I’ve written a similar blogposts looking at previous episodes and one specifically looking at how The Vulcan Hello explores how phrases can have different layers of meaning to different groups.

Inside the Replicator

The episode opens with bursts of energy shooting up and down from the top and bottom of an undefined area, in a way that reminded me of the Badlands, a Maquis stronghold featured frequently in DS9 and in the opening of Voyager. My instinct was that this was going to be either the Badlands itself or a similar region of space that Discovery was moving through. (In Star Trek science, I think these are known as plasma storms.) But we zoom out to reveal that this is the process of Michael Burnham’s uniform being replicated – I assume this is the first time we’ve seen the process on such a microscopic level. It’s a similar trick to how the series began, with T’kuvma monologuing as the viewpoint moved through the stars, before transitioning into his eye and moving out to a room of Klingons. Given that the mycelial network that the Discovery navigates has been described as a microscopic web, and that the show has drawn attention to the importance of context to understand different mindsets, the opening is a quick reminder of the show’s themes – that sometimes up is down, and nothing should be taken for granted.

Replicators and plasma storms
/ Screencaps from Discovery S1E04 via Agony Booth and of the Badlands

Continue reading “Mythos in Star Trek Discovery: The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry”