An Undetectable Blackness in Coogler’s ‘Black Panther’ (2018)

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“Real G’s move in silence, like lasagna.” 

My favorite line of Lil’ Wayne’s brilliant and catchy “6 Foot 7 Foot” resonates with me seven years later after seeing Marvel’s (Ryan Coogler’s) Black Panther for the second time. The fact that the “g” is silent in the word lasagna, and supposedly also “real G’s” in the world, signals for me a pattern in the recent blockbuster film. It’s a pattern where blackness — usually hyper spectacular and inescapably legible in the world, and in films — goes unnoticed and undetectable, thus foreclosing any opportunity for consumption and surveillance of black bodies, or control by non-black gazes.

My favorite scene in Black Panther occurs when the star trio of T’Challa (Boseman), Nakia (Nyong’o), and Okoye (Gurira) infiltrate the secret nightclub in Busan looking to catch and apprehend (or kill, if W’Kabi (Kaluuya) has his way) Wakanda’s version of Osama bin Laden, Ulysses Klaue (Serkis), in the act of illegally selling a handful of precious vibranium. They don’t know who Klaue plans to sell to in the nightclub, but they are suspicious of all the Americans around the space, gambling away their earnings in the proper capitalist tradition. As it turns out, T’Challa discovers, Klaue will sell the vibranium (stolen from a British museum, no less) to an American CIA agent (Ross, played by Freeman). This entire scene recalls a very similar scene in Skyfall (2012) featuring Daniel Craig’s James Bond working alongside Naomi Harris’s Moneypenny going undercover in a casino in Macau. But there’s so much more going on here in Coogler’s remix.

What made this scene my favorite was how it began. With Nakia’s espionage and linguistic expertise — she plays on Asian stereotypes of African people, and on stereotypes of Asian tendencies for negotiation — the Wakandan trio gains access to the secret gambling bar. Of course, the club is heavily guarded by big, meaty men as expected. But there’s also a metal detector that our heroes much walk through. The first time I saw this, I moved toward the edge of my seat. I didn’t know whether Nakia’s ruse would work anymore. The metal detector would surely go off, they would be “outed” and Okoye would have to get her spear out and start cutting people — well, she did have to do this, but a little later.

You see, every time I walk through a metal detector,  my heartbeat speeds up just a little bit. Even if I’m sure to not have any accessory on my body that would set the detector off, I still get nervous. Every. Single. Time. In the library at my graduate institution, the detector is especially narrow. I scrape by it almost every time I try to slide through to leave the library. Sometimes I have a book (or ten) with me, and sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I have books of my own with me, and I still get nervous that the books — my books — will do something to set off the machine simply because they’re with me. You see, it’s not the books or the accessories that present the problem here. It’s the fear that my black body, my dark skin, my legible Blackness (and the physicality of my Black Maleness) in a lily white elite and exclusive space that I fear will set off the detector. When I inhabit the many spaces of the university, I can pretend to “hide” my blackness in my research and in my many other ways of being and doing in the many spaces around the institution. I can even play that “token Black” card every now and then, labeling myself as a “safe” one, a person who happens to be black. But then I approach the metal detector, and all bets are off. “Surely this is the end,” I think as I slow down my pace and glance left and right to see if anyone is around to witness my impending exposure, my downfall. It doesn’t help that a security guard waits constantly by the door, by the exit, by the detector, waiting, watching, for me, and any other black person to come after me, until they come after me, to apprehend me.

And so T’Challa, Nakia, and Okoye — carrying an array of vibranium gear including the Black Panther suit, Okoye’s iconic spear, and a bunch of other cool gadgets — pass through the metal detector. One. Two. Three. Nothing happens. No sound. No defensive looks from the guards (other than the usual). Nothing. They just walk in. I noticed, I will admit, a slight bit of caution in T’Challa’s face as he passed, and irritation in Okoye’s countenance as she was forced to submit to such “primitive” procedures. But they just strolled through, undetected. In fact, no one paid them any attention at all until (1) Agent Ross recognized T’Challa (from a previous film), and (2) Okoye broke their cover and began to speak in their native tongue. A lot of people cheered at various moments in the film — during the ceremonial fight for the throne, during T’Challa’s reawakening and subsequent arrival on the battlefield, at Okoye’s resolve to stop W’Kabi, etc. I cheered, too, at these moments. But the only moment that continued to move me toward the edge of my seat in the second viewing of the film was this metal detector scene. I cheered both times, quietly, when they passed what I knew to be a grueling and all-too real test. It’s a test many people like me undergo each and every day, and I was so happy to see such amazing and complex characters not just “win” or “pass”, but effectively beat the system at its own game. Gambling at its best.

Now, the drama was heightened here not just because of the trio of beautiful black bodies, but because of the fact that they indeed carried metal weapons into the club. They went there not to gamble, but to catch a thief, police a thug, kill a terrorist, eliminate a national threat. Klaue is not smuggling guns or drugs, per se. He’s interested in something more valuable. What makes vibranium so interesting (for him and everyone else in the film and the audience) is that it’s not simply a metal. In fact, it undermines our understanding of what “metal” truly is. It’s a space rock, as the opening sequence of the film tells us. It constitutes the threads of “their” clothes, says Klaue. It’s what the Black Panther suit is made of. It can materialize at a moment’s notice. It can save a white man’s life, transport you to the ancestral plane, and wake a king from a coma. It is a special herb, and a ritual drink. It is purple and blue and black, all the same. It is, too, a nearly indestructible metal-like substance. It can be used to make weapons and to bring aid and to build infrastructure. It’s the most valuable “thing” on the planet. And it’s all in Wakanda.

Well, maybe. The opening scenes of the film suggest that vibranium is not only located in Wakanda, though the motherload (you read that correctly) is there, guarded safely by Princess Shuri (Wright). It’s hidden in plain sight around the world, and has been that way for a long time, apparently. Thanks to the keen eye of N’Jadaka/Killmonger (Jordan) the British museum has a piece of it. Of course, Captain America via S.H.I.E.L.D. has famously carried a piece of vibranium for decades. At the beginning of this film, we learn that Prince N’Jobu (Brown) has helped to orchestrate the theft of a “small piece” of the stash of Wakanda’s vibranium to use to help black people around the world. Though it’s not clear that this is Klaue’s goal, too. I’m almost certain that it’s not. We see some of it in Age of Ultron, with Klaue in South Africa (if I remember correctly). Anyway, it makes me wonder if vibranium is everywhere already, and we just don’t know about it. As such, it would’ve been really cool if Klaue had said, instead of “it’s woven into their clothes”, that “it’s woven into our clothes.”

Vibranium is very interesting for all the aforementioned reasons, but it is also important to my point here because it absorbs kinetic energy and sound. It is literally undetectable. The Wakandans identify themselves with it, and so when it was stolen years ago, many in the country, like W’Kabi feel personally attacked. It’s a vicious wound that hasn’t healed. A physical, spiritual, and metaphorical piece of the Wakandan body has been taken away, in their minds, by an outsider — the greedy, white, bigoted Klaue — a sobering sign of the continued and inescapable presence of Whiteness in an otherwise pro-Black film/society. When Klaue steals the small stash of vibranium, he ruptures the very heart and symbol of Wakanda, exposing it as fragile to begin with. What it reveals is that Wakanda cannot sustain its policy of isolantionism and perpetual autonomy. Miles beyond something like a “black Switzerland,” Wakanda must confront globalism one way or another. W’Kabi is afraid that globalism will confront Wakanda first and ruin what’s left of its fragile self-knowledge. Like the return of bin Laden in America, the return of Klaue to the centerpiece of Wakandan politics opens up a dormant crevasse in the court. It must contend with its long and complicated history, its continued dependence on vibranium as a symbol — the symbol — of national pride and identity, and its significance in the future, should it have one in the changing world (and MCU). This, of course, lays the foundation for the conflict between the ideologies of Killmonger and Nakia in the film.

To Killmonger, the ultimate grown-up teenage fan-boy of Wakanda, vibranium is what will conquer the world, and pay back the centuries of oppression inflicted by white hegemony on people of color around the world. To Nakia, the skeptic, vibranium will save the world and provide humanitarian aid to all people in need. Vibranium is like our American flag. To some, it is meant as a symbol of democracy around the globe. To others, it is imperialism by another name. To some, it means aid; to others it means war. But Americans from all walks of life are sure to protect the flag at all costs. Desecration of the flag is taken as a personal offense in many cases. Anyone who does it must be shamed, or in the extreme, hunted down and killed.

But I digress.

Vibranium is everything, and is in everything, and has the capacity to be or do anything. And to the world, it’s a secret hidden in plain sight.

The notion of black undetectability occurs again in the film in the design of the Black Panther suits. In Shuri’s lab (after she shows him the soundless “sneakers” — yes), T’Challa is introduced to her newly designed super sleek vibranium superhero monarch suits. When she tells her brother to strike the suit he likes, Shuri demonstrates vibranium’s absorption and displacement of kinetic energy. Such energy, such detectability actually enhances the suit’s power. It makes him stronger. It’s a great interaction that shows the beauty of black siblinghood at its best while showcasing all that vibranium could be.

An even more interesting moment occurs just before this when T’Challa picks out his favorite among the two new suits he’s shown. The one Shuri likes initially has gold trim and looks aggressive but ostentatiously regal, for sure. It looks like a power suit. T’Challa smiles but then offers a bit of education for the teenage genius, saying that “the goal is to not be noticed.” Such a statement might contain the entire premise and conflict of the film, if not the determining policy of Wakanda. He then chooses the more subdued fully black suit with the small silver necklace. This nearly unremarkable necklace operates as and contains the entire suit and can be activated at will when T’Challa wears it. It’s so unremarkable and undetectable that Shuri is able to sneak it out of Wakanda when Killmonger takes over. It’s undetectability (and Shuri’s genius design) is what allows T’Challa to save the day, and the kingdom.

But the gold suit — the one that T’Challa doesn’t choose — still gets its chance to shine, for those who really wanted to see it in action. Killmonger chooses it when he becomes king (though it honestly may just be the only one left). But it fits his character. Killmonger/N’Jadaka wants to be an emperor, and wants to be the only and last ruler of Wakanda. He burns all the herbs to ensure that the throne is his and his alone, for example. As king, he has the power to regulate the flow and distribution of vibranium to the “rebels” across the world. Thus as with W’Kabi, Killmonger’s beef with the kingdom is personal. But he chooses the gold suit — the one that T’Challa denounced as too detectable. One might say that T’Challa, in this situation, represents the “respectable Negro” position, preferring to blend in and assimilate than to stand out and be authentic. But that thinking comes from a Western, non-Wakandan perspective, as does Killmonger with all of his learning and study and half-heritage. But Killmonger’s choice of suit also represents his authoritarian rule. He wants to and believes that he must visually represent unchallenged control and unencumbered power (through gold, no less — let’s talk about colonization) through his apparel. Black Panther, and Wakanda, for him, must be noticed because (in his reality) black people around the world have gone unnoticed for so long, or have been exploited for how they look. Killmonger, thus, turns this on its head. But he fails because his worldview is not Wakanda’s, and it’s not a good idea to simply force the people of Wakanda to fundamentally change their ways, to move from global obscurity to global domination overnight.

One more thing about Killmonger’s suit. Did you notice that T’Chaka wore a similar gold trimmed suit when he visits N’Jobu in the opening scene in Oakland? The whole notion of undetectability is present even in this scene — the ship is shrouded from view by clouds over the Oakland building (though a young N’Jadaka catches a glimpse, and T’Chaka’s sudden appearance in the room is straight up spooky. However, when the king shows up, he’s got all this gold on, enough to make Mr. T jealous. That Killmonger chooses the gold suit, I argue, calls back to this scene, and his attempt to find a tenuous connection to the only idea of Wakanda and Black Panther he had — the one of T’Chaka’s suit and the remnants of the king assassinating his father.

That N’Jobu was a spy or War Dog for Wakanda in the 90s, participated in the theft of vibranium, and was killed dishonorably by the king himself, means a lot for the young Killmonger. What he knows of Wakanda’s undetectability is that it’s a failure at best and a problem at worst. If Wakandan spies had been placed around the world for so long, what were they doing? Just watching, observing, surveying the various events going on? Why? For educational purposes? did they just want to watch the world burn and change, like a reality show, from the comfort of their [undetectable] homeland? Spies are naturally undetectable. It’s a part of the job. But does being undetectable, and relishing in that pseudo-reality mean that one has no responsibility toward those who are excluded (by no fault of their own) from those privileges? Does being undetectable mean being passive? N’Jobu, Killmonger, and Nakia all want to intervene because they’ve all seen firsthand the horrors for people of color around the world, and they each know what Wakanda can do to help fix those problems. But even T’Challa’s efforts to “save” Nakia and take out the Boko Haram-like caravan somewhere in Africa in the beginning is met with skepticism and hostility from the court.

What does it mean to be undetectable and black? What does it mean to live like a Wakandan spy, or like T’Challa in the real Black Panther suit, and “move in silence, like lasagna?” Does having power and control over something like vibranium mean sharing it with others? If so, then how? What responsibilities does the undetectable Black have to others who live in a world where they are constantly subject to controlling gazes and spectacular exploitation? Is it enough to see them on screen passing safely and calmly through metal detectors, or should they help us pass through them as well?

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