All Power to the People:
Rethinking Black Panther through Historical Struggles for Community Empowerment
by Max Felker-Kantor
Black Panther has stimulated conversations and produced a range of reactions, many overwhelmingly positive, and some critical. By all accounts it is an enormously successful and significant film. It is a breakthrough in black cultural representation and reflects the long history of struggles for an independent black homeland that harkens back to maroon societies of escaped slaves in the Americas, the Haitian Revolution, and demands from freedmen and women for land after the Civil War. Through the portrayal of Wakanda, an independent central African kingdom, Black Panther represents the dreams of many throughout the African diaspora for a space free from white supremacy, colonialism, and racism.
Black Panther offers an opening to think about real world struggles for liberation by interrogating the film’s portrayal of the theme of community empowerment and its lack of engagement with underlying questions related to state violence. The vision of community empowerment portrayed in Black Panther, however, falls along a divide. On the one hand, it rests on isolation of Wakanda from the outside world in order to protects its resources and technology from Western nations long-bent on colonial exploitation of Africa. On the other hand, it suggests the need for Pan-Africanism, a belief in the common experience of black people around the world and the responsibility to struggle in solidarity against oppression.
The tension between isolationism and Pan-Africanism in Black Panther leads to the fundamental conflict portrayed in the heart of the film between T’Challa and Killmonger. They are divided over a fundamental question of the way to achieve community empowerment: how should Wakanda interact with the rest of the world and what is its responsibility in aiding black people throughout the diaspora facing oppression and racism? While Killmonger hopes to use Wakandan technology for what he envisions as the global liberation of black people, T’Challa promotes Wakanda’s isolationism and opposes what he sees as Killmonger’s attempt not at global liberation but domination, conquest, and empire building. The two characters represent two different but real-world responses to the long history of the West’s exploitation of Africa and American racism.
In presenting this narrative, however, Black Panther reinforces longstanding tropes of divisions within the black community and family and downplays alternative means of achieving community empowerment. Most directly, the climactic battle reflects how the debate over the proper role of Wakanda in aiding black people around the world created divisions both among the tribes of Wakanda as they fought one another and between black Americans (in the character of Killmonger) and Africans (in the form of Wakanda). The obstacle to community empowerment and liberation, in this framing, was internal conflicts and factions within the black community instead of white supremacy, racism, and colonialism.
Yes, T’Challa ultimately incorporate elements of Killmonger’s vision of global liberation, not to mention Nakia, Shuri, Okoye, and other Wakandan women’s more radical visions for using Wakanda’s wealth and technology to create the world anew, by using Wakandan technology to help oppressed people around the world through buying a few buildings to provide education for Oakland youth (raising another question about the ability of education to address structural inequalities, which is outside the scope of this piece). Yet, T’Challa’s transformation to a position ending Wakanda’s isolationist policy relied ultimately on the destruction of Killmonger. While the conflict between T’Challa and Killmonger makes for a riveting movie and, indeed, reflects very real historical divisions within the black community over the way to achieve liberation, the film misses an opportunity to explore an alternative history of efforts by black activists to achieve community empowerment through cooperation and coalition building to address common problems and mutual goals. In this history, activists hoped to empower and mobilize oppressed people in common cause to become the agents of their own liberation.
Black Panther not only downplays the importance of coalition building in the history of the black freedom struggle, but also avoids a critical examination of the role of state violence—the police in particular—in the containment and domination of communities of color in cities around the world. Indeed, the film does not have much to say about state violence despite the opening scene in Oakland with footage of the 1992 Los Angeles rebellion—ignited by the acquittal of Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) officers for the beating of African American motorist Rodney King—playing on a television in the background. In addition, the inclusion of white CIA agent Everett Ross as a heroic figure, not to mention Killmonger’s own association with the CIA, ignores the CIA’s historical role in political repression, surveillance, and assassination of foreign leaders, such as the U.S.-sponsored plot to kill Congolese independence leader Patrice Lumumba in 1961. By uncritically presenting the CIA and leaving examples of state violence unexamined, the film neglects the long history of African American struggles against the police and the enormous energy spent by law enforcement to repress organizations demanding community control of the police, self-determination, and empowerment.
Historical examples of anti-police brutality movements in Los Angeles, however, offer a window into efforts of the city’s residents of color to work together to transform their neighborhoods from spaces targeted for control to spaces of empowerment. Black activists and residents in Los Angeles, for example, worked together to combat common problems of police abuse after the 1965 Watts uprising through the Temporary Alliance of Local Organizations (TALO). The organization intended to provide a “united voice” for the African American community. TALO sought alternatives to law and order through community-policing, self-determination, and justice.
The primary effort focused on a program whereby civilians would patrol black neighborhoods to observe and monitor the actions of the police, known as the Community Alert Patrol (CAP). Playing off of the Los Angeles Police Department’s (LAPD) own slogan, “To Protect and To Serve,” CAP members rode in cars marked, “To Protect and Observe” to put the police on notice that they could not act with impunity in their neighborhoods.
The LAPD, however, viewed the organization with suspicion. Patrol drivers were often pulled over for no reason and given tickets for nonexistent traffic infractions, such as speeding in a parked car or having a torn driver’s license. The hostile response from officers and department leadership reflected the efforts of the police to contain the black community and refusal to cede power to black residents. In fact, CAP fell apart in the face of opposition from political officials and the police department.
Police repression did not destroy efforts at coalition building, however. Rather, they expanded in the following decades. A multiracial group of activists, for instance, established a coalition for mutual support in the struggle against police harassment, killings, and abuses of power in 1976 called the Coalition Against Police Abuse (CAPA). In contrast to Black Panther’s portrayal of division and in-fighting among Wakandan factions created by the villain Killmonger, CAPA’s history provides a different vision based on its hope to address the “isolated and ineffectual” efforts of all oppressed residents—African American and Latinx most notably—to combat police abuse through mutual support and cooperation.
CAPA’s example of coalition building and community empowerment also demonstrates the importance of demanding power and control over resources, not merely access to them, as the film suggests when T’Challa tells Shuri that he bought buildings in Killmonger’s neighborhood in Oakland to provide outreach and education programs. CAPA sought to empower and mobilize communities to take control of their own destiny. They did so by reaching people through fliers and newsletters and then mobilizing people through filing complaints with the police, organizing defense and justice committees, holding protests, attending city council meetings, and pursuing legal action.
Black Panther opens up avenues for the discussion of how to achieve community empowerment and resistance to state violence. Through its commitment to community control of the police, CAPA and other anti-police coalitions pushed forward a vision of freedom from state violence for all oppressed peoples. These examples show that African American struggles for freedom and liberation, especially from police violence and repression, often relied on coalition building and mutual cooperation. Considering these anti-police abuse coalitions sheds light on alternative means than those presented by Black Panther for transforming neighborhoods of color from ones targeted for control to spaces of empowerment.