"Black Panther" and the Plausibility of Esoteric Reading

 /  April 14, 2018, 12:16 p.m.


A well-respected auteur holds some controversial political opinions. In keeping with the principles of artistic honesty, he would like to be able to communicate these opinions in his art. Although he lives in a society in which free speech is nominally tolerated, his work will remain more or less unknown unless it receives the imprimatur of one of a small number of major distributors, whose executives hold uniformly conventional political views. And even if he does manage to find a sympathetic patron among these executives, the public will castigate his work and prevent him ever from having any mass-market success again. Our auteur must find some way of communicating his views to his true readers, the few who are capable of receiving them, without troubling the moronic many who would instantly dismiss them as dangerous and illiberal.

This is a difficult task—but there is hope for our writer. One way he might proceed would follow a pattern given in broad strokes by Leo Strauss in Persecution and the Art of Writing. Strauss’s description is worth quoting at length:

We can easily imagine that a historian living in a totalitarian country, a generally respected and unsuspected member of the only party in existence, might be led by his investigations to doubt the soundness of the government-sponsored interpretation of the history of religion. Nobody would prevent him from publishing a passionate attack on what he would call the liberal view … Only when he reached the core of the argument would he write three or four sentences in that terse or lively style which is apt to arrest the attention of the young men who love to think. That central passage would state the case of the adversaries more clearly, compellingly, and mercilessly than it had ever been stated in the heyday of liberalism … His reasonable young reader would for the first time catch a glimpse of the forbidden fruit. The attack, the bulk of the work would consist of virulent expansions of the most virulent utterances in the holy book or books of the ruling party. The intelligent young man who, being young, had until then been somehow attracted by those immoderate utterances, would now be merely disgusted and, after having tasted the forbidden fruit, bored by them. Reading the book for the second and third time, he would detect in the very arrangement of the quotations from the authoritative books significant additions to those few terse statements which occur in the center of the rather short first part.

This passage takes liberalism as the ideology that flourishes in secret in the shadow of totalitarian rule. But we know, as Strauss knew, as Tocqueville knew, that in a democratic and capitalistic society the public is the harshest and most intransigent censor of all. A popular work of fiction that, let us say, praised black nationalism and blamed the self-serving globalism of Westerners bent on homogenizing and eventually expropriating the non-white world, would be rapturously received on a few university campuses, but among the public at large it would be despised and probably boycotted.

Its author would not of course be jailed, but he would probably receive death threats, and men and women with political ambitions would hurry to suppress pictures of themselves shaking his hand. He would certainly not have any more of his work taken up by the major distributors, with the consequence that he would no longer have an audience beyond a few impotent and insincere seminar-room radicals at small liberal arts colleges.

Our auteur is of course Ryan Coogler, and his movie is Black Panther.

This movie, an entry in Marvel’s fun, inoffensive, and interminable series of superhero flicks, has a resolution that will bring joy to the Western liberal heart: instead of remaining hidden and militating quietly against global oppression through its network of spies, or exporting worldwide revolution to the downtrodden, the hermit nation of Wakanda opens itself and its immensely valuable resources to friendly technological and cultural exchange with the world. The film’s first post-credits scene shows the Wakandan king T’Challa preparing to reveal his country’s vast technological power to the United Nations; its main ending depicts the king opening up a sort of science center in inner-city Oakland as a form of outreach to black Americans.

But the Straussian hermeneutic, with its emphasis on the compelling but apparently disapproving statement of the prohibited position in the center of the book, suggests the possibility of a different interpretation of the movie. For the middle of Black Panther does give its viewers a glimpse, and more than a glimpse, of the forbidden fruit.

As many reviewers have pointed out, the movie’s villain, Erik “Killmonger” Stevens, is an astonishingly powerful character: brilliant, formidable in battle, a defender of his people. When he ascends to the Wakandan throne in the middle of the film, he gives a short speech—something like Strauss’s two or three sentences—insisting on Wakanda’s responsibility to use force to help oppressed blacks around the world. He speaks again with equal force toward the end of the movie, when he asks to be buried at sea in homage to captive Africans who leapt from slave ships, preferring death to submission.

The power of Stevens’s words  would be diminished if he found his match in T’Challa. But one striking thing about this superhero movie is its hero’s ineptitude. T’Challa is twice defeated by Stevens, once in a street battle in Korea and once in single combat for the throne. Although the king manages to renew the fight through a technicality and eventually overcome his enemy with a spear to the heart, Stevens wins two falls to one. Even in the movie’s opening scene, which according to Marvel convention is supposed to be an opportunity for the hero to display his strength in a low-stakes battle, T’Challa, lovestruck, freezes in the middle of the fight and has to be rescued by one of his cadres. His sentimentality is admittedly rather charming, but it also makes for a remarkable and surely intentional contrast with Stevens’s single-minded devotion to his people; for Stevens kills his own lover without flinching when she is taken hostage by his and Wakanda’s greatest enemy.

There is only one scene in which Stevens’s conduct is truly repulsive: when he orders the burning of the vibranium-infused herb that gives the Wakandan kings their power, enraged by the suggestion that there might be another king after him, and then nearly strangles its elderly female caretaker when she protests. But more than anything else this scene feels like a desperate attempt to persuade audiences that Stevens really is meant to be a wicked man.

To the young, fiery, idealistic viewer, Stevens’s devotion to his cause and his terse, lively defenses of armed revolt do indeed make the film’s virulent closing defense of the virtues of global trade and cooperation seem boring—even, as Strauss says, disgusting.

It would be far too much to suggest that Ryan Coogler is simply reversing the roles of hero and villain and making Stevens into a mouthpiece for the true opinion. As another of Coogler’s characters points out, there is some point at which expropriation of the expropriators becomes nothing more than colonization in reverse. But it seems likely that Black Panther’s defense of global integration is not as straightforward as it looks.

There is no reason to believe that Coogler, who studied finance in college, has read Strauss or is intentionally following the pattern described in Persecution and the Art of Writing—although of course it’s far from impossible. But what I think is significant about Black Panther is that it follows the Straussian pattern naturally, as a way of “writing between the lines” without offending the democratic public. Persecution is not meant to teach hermetic philosophers how to write; it is meant to teach scholars how to read. Strauss’s esoteric readings are often dismissed as far-fetched and conspiracist by readers who associate them with mysticism and numerology. But at its core the Straussian account is relatively modest: Strauss simply asks what it would take for an author to write against the current of his times while nevertheless reaching the right audience and so, perhaps, changing the world. The fact that writers in our own time continue to discover for themselves the methods he describes suggests that he was onto something.

The image featured in this article is used under the Creative Commons license. The original can be found here.

Malloy Owen

Malloy Owen is a fourth-year in Fundamentals and philosophy. He wrote his Fundamentals junior paper on the political theology of Plato’s Laws and is currently working on a BA essay on Kierkegaardian self-legislation. He has interned at The American Conservative magazine and spent last summer teaching high school students in the Great Books Summer Program at Stanford University. On campus, he is the publicity chair of UChicago Students for Life.


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