What Did You Just Call Me?!? The Cruel Optimism of Black Panther (2018)
Updated: Jan 17
What are words? A collection of characters whom, in Latin-based languages, follow the ordered set of an alphabet. What is a language? As suggested by Jeffrey Sconce in terms of the paracinema, a language contextualizes words as a reading protocol, in the same ways a film can contextualize its subjects. This is a metaphor to explain an overly-simplified aspect of cinema that has recently inspired the “representation matters” discourse. While there are many sources cited as the origin of the representation “problem” in cinema, the conversation almost exclusively revolves around an interrogation based on looking – who has the “privilege” of seeing themselves on screen, and how does that recognition act as a violence against those without said privilege? This view is not an invalid one, though it can become short-sighted when holding a dominant position of racial discourse, specifically involving Black people on-screen. Beyond the dominant position of “representation matters,” as it earworms from the figurative parasocial media “streets” into the ear canals of well-intentioned academia, the phrase “representation matters” ascribes a goal to a theory in an attempt to actualize progress. What is progress as a word, how is the phrase “representation matters” implemented as a reading protocol to understand progress as it assigns fixed goals for fluid problems? The function of “representation matters” as it is specific to cinema, namely referring to Marvel’s representation porn Black Panther (2018), presents a tantalizing mindset for audiences to buy into: the idea of progress, to one day reach a solution. This argument is one based on time as it defines the future as a place to advance to, a notion that quickly becomes ironic when considering the definition of solutionism as the belief in a technocratic future, one ruled by a timely obligation to society’s proverbial iOS updates as a form of infrastructure. As it pertains to cinema, how might such films as Black Panther (2018) boast accomplishment, when the unification of the infinitesimal social processes within race are to be looked at as a monolith of having solved, or, approaching one solidified answer to a dynamic question, and what problems can be parsed out within the school of film theory?
Feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey’s careful consideration of the female as the dual subject/symbol of the filmic other is applicable to conversations of representation as it reflects misrecognition, and ideology as it pertains to dominant culture’s invisible, forceful hand. Mulvey uses psychoanalytic theory as a weapon to liberate a cognoscente feminist analysis. She takes from Freudian castration fear, citing phallocentrism as an implicit force that “others” women through presenting their phallic lack on screen, (Mulvey, 6). In relation to the man, “Woman then stands in patriarchal culture as a signifier for the male other, bound by symbolic order in which man can live out his phantasies and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent image of woman still tied to her place as bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning,” (Mulvey, 7). This idea refers to looking as a process that reinforces ideology through the indirect, felt thing that it engenders, rather than dictates. There is pleasure in the woman object, in how Hollywood can be seen as participating in “formal mise-en-scène” to power the ideology machine of cinema (Mulvey, 7). Within pleasure, there is a type of fetish in looking, where “…the position of the spectators in the cinema is blatantly one of repression of their exhibitionism and projection of the repressed desire on to the performer,” (Mulvey, 9). Exhibitionism as it is defined here brings about a question of the conscious performer and the violated performer – what becomes of looking at them? There is a distance between the spectator and the performer literally projected on the screen, where the atmosphere of the darkened movie theater auditorium allows a kind of “voyeuristic phantasy,” (Mulvey, 9). This relationship as it is defined by a looking-generated distance presents Mulvey’s feminine gaze onto the Lacanian mirror stage, this “Recognition is thus overlaid with mis-recognition: the image recognized is conceived as the reflected body of the self, but its misrecognition as superior projects this body outside itself as an ideal ego, the alienated subject, which, re-introjected as an ego idea, gives rise to the future generation of identification with others,” (Mulvey, 10). Permitted looking in the controlled setting of the theater as well as the social conventions attached to cinema-going “…allows temporary loss of the ego, and simultaneously enforces it,” (Mulvey, 11). More dynamic forms of looking exist: a scopophilic one, where pleasure comes in using another person as an object of sexual stimulation, versus a narcissistic one, based on identification with the image seen, (Mulvey 10). Two caps are contrasted here: sexual instinct, and ego libido. Where women are icons, they become objects for the gaze, “…the looks of the audience is denied an intrinsic force: as soon as fetishistic representation of the female image threatens to break the spell of illusion, and the erotic image on the screen appears directly (without mediation) to the spectator, the fact of fetishization, concealing as it does castration fear, freezes the look, fixates the spectator and prevents him from achieving any distance from the image in front of him,” (Mulvey, 18). The dynamics of the male gaze as they objectify women through lack and distance create proximity through the act of looking itself; women-objects are vessels, presenting lurid opportunities that, to Mulvey, capture the shadows of ideology in the tangible world in cinema.
bell hooks addends Mulvey’s perspective of object and gaze with her own – her Black looks in her larger work black looks address a reflexivity within Mulvey’s pleasure principles, a mutability within the gaze that Blackness as a process can illuminate. hooks applies her looks to Paris is Burning (1990), a film where, in the face of audiences singing its praises, she finds a bone to pick in with regard to representation. The collective, downtrodden Black and brown queer community depicted in the film through drag balls presents the “we” as a valiant other, one for spectators to believe in regardless of their constant “bombardment of a colonizing whiteness,” (hooks, 149). There is a pleasure in this notion that hooks cites, and “indeed it is the very ‘pleasure’ that so many white viewers with class privilege experience when watching this film that has acted to censor dissenting voices who find the film and its reception critically problematic,” (hooks, 150). This pleasure reflects a white colonialism, where even cauldrons of dissenting opinion surrounding the film’s reception is censored by those taken by the pleasure of representation, as in, seeing these Black performances of oppression, and hard-fought survival. These Black performances are defined by the pageantry in these drag balls, where “…it is precisely the mood of celebration that masks the extent to which the balls are not necessarily radical expressions of subversive imagination at work undermining and challenging the status quo,” (hooks, 150). The “fantasy” of the drag world is not revolutionary in its ability to be seen, it doesn’t open people’s minds by its existence; the scene wasn’t looked at until it was represented by a white lesbian director, and it wasn’t seen until the cinema allowed it to – this feeds a narcissistic looking, an ego libido in audiences given material to gaze upon. Ideas of the gaze are extended in hooks’ chapter ‘Oppositional Gaze,’ where looking, as a Black woman spectator, operates like Mulvey’s definition of “other” as woman, with the adage of race. On representation, “Even when representation of black women were present in film, our bodies and being were there to serve – to enhance and maintain white womanhood as object of the phallocentric gaze,” (hooks, 119). How do Black women spectators cope? Through her interviews with Black women moviegoers, hooks posits that to experience the fullness of a Hollywood film, Black women must forget their Black womanhood, which, in the intellectual schools of thought, is attributed to remaining neutral, looking at the figures in the film as a means to assess effectiveness, where any thought relating to holding onto one’s racial identity is seen as too political for a proper film analysis, (hooks, 120). This conscious resistance to the ideology of identity construction via a film functions, in this way, as a means of self-preservation, a way for the body to save itself from pain. A woman hooks interviewed echoed this sentiment, saying “I could always get pleasure from movies as long as I did not look too deep,” (hooks, 121). The choice to look away can function as a way of protest, to “negate negation,” where the oppositional gaze can be honed through finding a power in looking through critique, through compartmentalizing Black womanhood, (hooks, 121). Identification, even when seeing oneself on screen like a Black woman spectator observing a Black woman on-screen, can have a disenabling effect, because that filmic character represents fantasy as a reminder of how she doesn’t exist in real life. On the other hand, hooks highlights another interviewee who enjoys these conventions of moviegoing as they relate to the ambience of the theater, the act of not being seen while looking, and the dual importance of that compartmentalization. This interviewee “…stresses that unaware black female spectators must ‘break out,’ no longer be imprisoned by images that enact a drama of our negation,” that identity cannot be defined by a resistance to the gaze, by an oppositional gaze (hooks, 127). These two concepts, the pain and pleasure that looking may engender for Black woman spectators specifically, is a reminder that “As critical spectators, black women participate in a broad range of looking relations, contest, resist, revision, interrogate, and invent on multiple levels,” (hooks, 128). There is no singular Black woman in desperate need for cinema to valorize her when the gaze is not limited to attending a movie screening at a theater; the movie theater is merely the locus for its mimesis.
Affect theory is useful to consider in terms of the environment of Black spectatorship as it relates to looking and being looked at, as it relates to atmospheric transmission. Theorist Teresa Brennan defines “atmosphere” as it pertains to a given environment, as it literally gets inside the individual, (Brennan, 1). This movement is a “transmission of affect” in that it captures a process that is social in origin, but biological and physical in effect. “The origin of transmitted affects is social in that these affects do not only arise within a particular person but also come from without,” (Brennan, 3). This stands in historical opposition to the Western scientific understanding that humans are biologically determined and socially conditioned (Brennan, 2). Brennan refers to affects as physiological material that is projected outward; exhaustion, love, depression: the physiological effects of these feelings are a transmission of affect, or the effect of an environment on the affective energy one emits. With respect to affect, there is energy in looking, and being looked at. The environment of the movie theater shrouds looking in its own social conventions: silence your cell phones, remain quiet, and look. Watching a film, in any setting, modifies the transmission of affect because of the representation of the people on screen. Film literaly projects through the use of a projector in a theater, where dually, film figuratively projects an affect outward, to the audience. What are these affects, and can they be typified? Brennan outlines how “…we are accustomed to judging and thinking of one another as affective types, or at least as having distinctive affective personas. The persistence of the affect in a given individual raises the question of endogenous affects, as distinct from transmitted any transitory affects,” (Brennan, 8). This idea can be linked to hooks’ ideas on the cinema as a chamber of racial reflection for the Black woman spectator via the literal/figurative projection outlined earlier. Race itself is a process enacted on the individual, where those affective transmissions occur in a different way in the theater, as the racially processed spectator is faced with a projection of objects on screen, the trick that defines cinema as the moving image, moving subjects as perfect objects for projection, that also project.
As affect radiates from individuals, where does it go, how is it organized? Is affect organized, or is it a free-flowing energy, anarchic in its emanation? Sara Ahmed postulates that in a hierarchal, capitalist society, affect is transmitted like an economy. Affective economies don’t function in a literal sense, where affects become a fungible currency, but rather, that the expressions of affect hold certain value, (Ahmed, 117). A key understanding of the affective economy is that “emotions do things,” and that is what differentiates affect and emotion, (Ahmed, 119). As opposed to psychoanalysis, that particular field “…allows us to see that emotionality involves movements or associations whereby ‘feelings’ take us across different levels of signification, not all of which can be admitted in the present,” (Ahmed, 120). In this way, affective economies have to do with sociality, how individuals wear these feelings. This idea is applied to race via the concept of an “economy of hate,” defined by the way emotions don’t possess anyone or anything in free-space like that of The Exorcist; those who wear affects are nodes of a larger, figurative body where their individual body is valued based on their affective participation. There is no origin of, say, the first racist person, because that implies a lineage or inheritance of an affect, which is impossible; affects have sideways-backward movements, they are mutable, where this movement is independent of any point of origin in the “psyche,” but are traces of how histories “remain alive with the present,” (Ahmed, 126). These nods to the “body” as form can relate to an individual’s literal body, a “body of a nation,” or say, a body of films of some like categorization, (Ahmed, 122). With respect to cinema, films act as encounters between affective “bodies.” With race: “The white child misrecognizes the shivering of the black body as rage, and hence the ‘grounds’ for its fear. In other words, the other is only read as fearsome through a misrecognition, a reading that is returned by the black other through its response of fear, as a fear of the white subject’s fear,” (Ahmed, 126). This scenario could play out between two characters on screen, and also between Black and white spectators to the characters on screen. Fear does something here; it re-establishes distance whose difference is already read on the skin, through the process of race; this fear emanates from a misrecognition like the one Mulvey speaks about. Fear is an affective economy, it’s an attempt at “containing” certain bodies, where even the “success” of this containment is contingent on its failure, because fear succeeds when it is open for exchange in affective economies,” (Ahmed, 127). Fear, in this way, can also be mediated by love: objects of acceptance are used as modes of representation within fear economies to establish and promote difference, as will be discussed later with Black Panther (2018).
Lauren Berlant’s idea of cruel optimism is key in furthering the conversation of the fear economy as it is mediated by representations of love and acceptance on film. The foundational idea here is how affective power and value systems, in tandem, can help recognize privileges. The exchange of affects can be likened to value systems, though the implicit notion of value = power is not an absolute one. Berlant approaches this idea through the children in Rosetta (1999) to establish normativity as a type of currency in terms of the film’s affective economy. In the film, Rosetta exemplifies how the “…instabilities of the contemporary capitalist economy engender new affective practices, in which children scavenge toward a sense of authentic social belonging by breaking from their parents’ way of attaining the good life,” (Berlant, 166). Extending the idea of the affective economy into a metaphor, the currency of normativity as contrasted with Rosetta’s actions in the movie are like a second economy, a grey area of counterfeit goods which, like fear, have their own economy. Rosetta doesn’t aspire the “good life” that her mother yearns for, because that same yearning imprisons her in toxic aspiration. The way Rosetta rejects normativity as currency in favor of a second economy of adolescent impulsivity implicates her actions as to interrogate the relationship between recognition and rejection as it relates to solutions. In a way, Rosetta’s recognition of the second economy, as it relates to normativity as a dominant currency, is a misrecognition – normativity is not a solution, impulsivity is not a solution, and there might not be a solution, there’s just life. There is an emotionally wrought “theater of compassion,” where “…recognition all too often becomes an experiential end in itself, an emotional event that protects what is unconscious, impersonal, and unrelated to anyone's intentions about maintaining political privilege,” (Berlant, 182). This is Berlant’s cruel optimism, a toxic definitive end, where, when represented on film, presents an assuredness of having solved, though the subjects within the film have merely been looked at; seen. Berlant defends personhood beyond the spectacle as “…an effect of the relation between capitalism’s refusal of futurity in an overwhelmingly productive present and the normative promise of intimacy, which enables us to image that having a friend, or making a date, or looking longingly at someone who might, after all, show compassion for our struggles, is really where living takes place,” (Berlant, 189).
Marvel’s Black Panther (2018) is an example of cruel optimism, of a representation of progress that, while a grand gesture in film to activate the voices of Black people as we are kept out of the industry, is hardly any revolutionary action as related to the toxicity of seeing and being seen as a unifying solution. hooks’ notes on fantasy foreground Black Panther aptly: “What could be more reassuring to a white public fearful that marginalized disenfranchised black folks might rise any day now and make revolutionary black liberation struggle a reality rather than a documentary affirming that colonized, victimized, exploited, black folks are all too willing to be complicit in perpetuating the fantasy that ruling-class white culture is the quintessential site of unrestricted joy, freedom, power and pleasure,” (hooks, 149). While hooks is commenting on Paris is Burning as a documentary, the same effect can be said of Black Panther: it engenders white colonial framework through images of love and appreciation for Blackness as contextualized by the Marvel Universe. Black Panther is a film based on a comic of the same name, one that illustrates the adventures of Prince T’Challa as a young, spiritual hero protecting the fictive African region of Wakanda. The film follows much of the origin story from the comic: Wakanda poses as a third-world country to protect their chief resource, Vibranium, a hyperintelligent element introduced to Wakanda after a meteorite crash centuries before. Prince T’Challa must protect the sanctity of the various tribes within Wakanda from enemies, namely the British museum imperialist Ulysses Klaue, through the ancestral hero spirit of the Black Panther. With that stage set, the story of the film is that of Black-on-African relations and colonialism, classified by reductive Pan-African aesthetics and odd nativist undertones. Prince T’Challa’s father, T’Chaka, had killed his brother N’Jobu for violating Wakanda’s secrecy policy while working undercover in Oakland, CA, a family secret that is revealed through N’Jobu’s survived son Eric “Killmonger” Stevens, a former Navy Seal Black Ops agent who takes the Wakandan throne from T’Challa. While T’Challa is a representation of a peaceful, African stereotype, Killmonger is a representation of Black angriness, of “by any means necessary,” a line even spoken by his character in the film. The Wakandans were taken by Killmonger’s anger, his want to mobilize Wakanda’s resources to help Black Americans like those from his home in Oakland. The narrative difference between these two characters is like a respective comparison of Martin Luther King Jr. to Malcom X: one is productive, and one is angry. With T’Challa and Killmonger: one is African, with the power of his ancestry, and one is Black, descendant from slaves, and necessarily bittered. Killmonger works with Klaue, likening the unproductiveness of angry protest and colonial violence in a narrative sense: though they both want the same thing for different reasons, the moral imperative of Black Panther is that violence is never the answer. This moderation is exemplified by CIA Agent Everett K. Ross, a white man, who ends up as a liaison between American imperialist motive and Wakandan isolationist fear, who is at the social mercy of T’Challa’s kid sister Shuri’s persistent “it’s because you’re white!” zingers. The message is solidified in the end of the film when Killmonger dies in battle as yet another statistic; a Black kid, rightfully angry, whose failure to “rise above” results in his death. T’Challa holds his cousin as he dies in his arms as a narrative remorse from the African, self-assured through his connection to his ancestry, and the Black, dejected from the oppressive American system and doomed to die. Where, I ask, is the representation? Wakanda is a means to re-appropriate the white fantasy of “unrestricted joy, freedom, power and pleasure” that hooks talks about. Black Panther is a film that re-imagines Africa in a positive light as if to ask, “what if it was always like this?” and further, “what if America didn’t ruin our people?” An overtly nativist tone powers the film, one that operates on origins, lineage, and the return to Africa as a way of “solving”: Killmonger and T’Challa are the same, the image of a loving Africa only saves one of them. T’Challa ends up revealing Wakanda’s advancement to the world, re-visiting the same Oakland basketball court where Killmonger grew up to initiate an educational program that teaches local Black youth about their roots in Africa. These uplifting images of Black joyousness and celebration, scenes of a thriving Africa not ravaged by war or imperialism are loving images to mediate white guilt, and fear. Ultimately, Black Panther (2018) promotes an odd flavor of Pan-Africanism, a strange sense of the downtrodden Black person’s lineage to the motherland as a save, as a solution; while the movie itself, through the spectacle of a never-been-done-before display of fictive Africanness, allows criticisms of the gaze to hide in plain sight.
Well what else are we supposed to do, if not find solutions?”: an oft repeated phrase in the academic sphere of those well-meaning spectators who observe Black culture, who fight tooth and nail to avoid bystander effect, who need to feel as if they are doing all they can because of their ego libido. What film theory highlights in these contexts is an easy way to participate in looking, to pick apart not only what it means to look, but the language that foregrounds any sense perception that the content of a film might inspire. The idea of a noble, humbling search toward the answer of “what do we do about racism in film?” assumes that there is not only a unified answer in the first place, but that the question itself is a viable one to be solved by representation. In looking at the multitudinous ways in which we look, it becomes clear that “representation matters” is a term coined under the guise of well-meaning racial solidarity, a feudal answer to a question of racial process that, ultimately, is a futile one to attempt to answer. “Solving” becomes increasingly less viable when solutions themselves mobilize ways of looking for near-sighted ends – there cannot be a fight to end racism, or even to progress toward any imagined, future point of equity via “abolishing” or “unlearning” – such thought lines prove to be fault lines in deconstructing the socially governing bodies of approaching racism, as seen in affect theory and its continued tenuous relationship with psychoanalysis. Films, as they are cannibalized by their runtime onscreen, and later digested, provide rich opportunity for discussion, regardless of political attribution. Proximity to quelling latent racial processes applied to Black people as they embody DuBois’ twoness can be achieved by looking as it is independent of solutions, as it urges uncomfortable communication with oneself, with others, with moving images, one to the Other.
Ahmed, Sara. "Affective Economies." Social Text, vol. 22 no. 2, 2004, p. 117-139. Project MUSE muse.jhu.edu/article/55780.
Brennan, Teresa. The Transmission of Affect. Cornell University Press, 2014.
“Is Paris Burning?” Black Looks: Race and Representation, by Bell Hooks, Routledge, 2015, pp. 145–156.
Laura Mulvey, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, Screen, Volume 16, Issue 3, Autumn 1975, Pages 6–18, https://doi.org/10.1093/screen/16.3.6
“The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators.” Black Looks: Race and Representation, by Bell Hooks, Routledge, 2015, pp. 115–131.