The Moral Horror of Black Panther
Earlier last year, we were served up yet another superhero blockbuster. In a much-needed departure from Hollywood orthodoxy, and from the trend of the previous seventeen Marvel movies, the leading role was occupied by a black superhero. And he was only one of a superb cast of African and African-American actors, both men and women, in roles which shattered stereotypes and make Black Panther a triumph for representation.
The same was true of the film’s depiction of the fictional African country Wakanda (especially compared to past Hollywood outings). We saw an ultra-futuristic state in which there is no sign of instability, poverty, or disease. Yet, culturally, it remained distinctly African. Actors could even be heard frequently speaking the Xhosa language onscreen.
The film dealt with colonialism, racial identity, and oppression with a surprising level of thoughtfulness for a superhero flick. The villain wanted to use violence to combat racial injustice across the globe, but we’re positioned to be largely sympathetic to his goals — it’s his violence, not his redressing of racial injustice, that the filmmakers wanted us to oppose.
It was also a plenty entertaining movie, as you’d expect from its ‘97% fresh’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
But there was one element of Black Panther which is disappointing. We were shown what was meant to be an African utopia, but the fictional Wakanda, over which the protagonist T’Challa rules as king, is steadfastly isolationist. The country is wealthy beyond belief due to its vast reserves of the mineral ‘vibranium’ (valued at $10,000 per gram). It is also far more technologically advanced than any other nation on Earth, and has been for hundreds of years. Yet it doesn’t involve itself in the affairs of others.
(Spoiler alert: This does change at the end of the film, several hundred years too late.)
For hundreds of years, Wakanda has hidden itself behind enormous holograms and cut itself off from the rest of the world. They offer no aid to countries in need, take in no refugees, abstain from diplomacy (except for a single foray in the most recent Captain America movie), and intervene overseas only when Andy Serkis steals their vibranium.
This may appeal to those who oppose foreign aid and humanitarian intervention, particularly the far right in many Western countries. It probably seemed idyllic to creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1966, in the midst of the Vietnam War. Nonetheless, on reflection, it’s rather horrifying.
Worldwide, 750 million people live on less than $1.90 a day (even after accounting for the greater purchasing power in low-income countries). 1 million people die of HIV/AIDS each year. 1.6 million people die slow and painful deaths from nutritional deficiencies. 700,000 die of malaria, mostly children under the age of 5.
The fictional Wakanda could prevent an enormous portion of this (as could many wealthy countries in real life). Despite the various myths surrounding foreign aid, it is also shockingly easy, and inexpensive, to save people from extreme poverty and from dying. To lift people out of extreme poverty is comparably cheap — in theory, it would take less than $1.90 per person per day. In practice, it’s estimated that it would take $150 billion per year to eradicate extreme poverty entirely. Note that that’s less than current global spending on aid. On the health front, the comprehensive Disease Control Priorities Report estimates that, when carefully targeted, aid interventions can prevent deaths from malaria, nutritional deficiencies, and vaccine-preventable diseases for only a few thousand dollars each. And this is without even making use of the wondrous medical technology available in Wakanda, which we see used to heal an otherwise fatal spinal injury overnight.
And that’s just what can be achieved today. Historically, there’s so much more that a wealthy, technologically advanced nation could have done. For instance, smallpox killed more than 300 million people in the 20th Century alone, before it was eradicated in the seventies. Just after World War I, the Spanish influenza pandemic killed 50–100 million — roughly 5% of the world population — in just two years. And that’s before even considering two world wars (more than 50 million dead), the Ukrainian (4.6 million) and Ottoman (2 million) genocides, political purges in China (8 million, plus 20 million deaths through penal labour), in the USSR (1 million), and in Cambodia (1.3 million), as well as the countless famines and natural disasters that have struck since 1900. With its vast resources and space-age technology, Wakanda’s failure to intervene in these cases allowed billions of needless deaths.
And we’re not just talking about a passive failure to intervene elsewhere in the world. As one savvy commentator points out, in the Marvel universe, the fictional Wakanda lies directly between Uganda and Tanzania. Between 1971 and 1979, it’s estimated that 300,000–500,000 people died at the hands of Idi Amin’s regime in Uganda. 20,000 refugees escaped this fate by fleeing into neighbouring Tanzania. Except, in the world of Black Panther, they would have found their way blocked by Wakanda — a nation which does not involve itself in the troubles of other countries and which has never admitted refugees. (In the film, the head of border security dismisses the possibility, saying outright “If we take refugees, we inherit their problems.”) Wakanda’s active refusal to admit 20,000 desperate Ugandans would have simply added to the death toll. On top of that, in reality, it was the intervention of the Tanzanian armed forces (spurred by the influx of refugees) that was largely responsible for ending Amin’s reign. With the Black Panther’s obstinate hermit nation barring the way, however, Amin would have remained in power many years longer.
Taking a step back from these examples though, can we really say that any country has an obligation to help others? In the academic study of ethics, various arguments have been given in favour of a ‘duty to rescue’. (Similarly, in international relations, arguments have been given for a formal ‘responsibility to protect’.) Here is just one argument, perhaps the most significant, which was put forward by philosopher Peter Singer 50 years ago.
Imagine that you’re out for a walk one afternoon. You come across a shallow pond, in which you see a small child struggling to stay afloat, clearly about to drown. You could walk on by and let the child drown, or you could wade in and pull the child to safety. In doing so, you incur a small cost — perhaps you will ruin your clothes with mud, perhaps you will damage your wallet and phone (which you don’t have time to pull from your pocket), perhaps you will be late to work. Given this, do you have a duty to save the child? Most of us would say yes, absolutely!
What about a child in another country who is dying of a preventable disease, and whom we could save with a small donation? Do we have a duty to save them? Many people would say we don’t. But why not? There seems no good way to justify the difference.
Our relationship with the child? They are strangers in both cases. Nationality? It seems perverse to say that someone counts for less, morally, based on their nationality. Distance? To discriminate based on distance is no better than discriminating based on nationality. Our emotional reaction to the child? We may feel our heartstrings pulled more forcefully by the child drowning in front of us and be more likely to help, but what we are more likely to do has no bearing on what we should do, and it would be absurd to think that we don’t have a moral obligation to help based on what we feel like doing. What of the fact that, in the second case, there are others who are failing to help too? So what — if there were others standing by and ignoring the drowning child, that surely cannot make it okay to stand by as well.
In short, there seems to be no justifiable way of separating the cases. If we have a duty to save a child drowning in front of us, at some minor cost to ourselves, then we also have a duty to save those elsewhere in the world when we can do so at similarly low cost.
It is not just us as individuals but also governments who have this duty — especially when governments control large amounts of surplus resources, when they can often run more cost-effective health programmes due to economies of scale, and when there is the additional goal of redressing the injustice of how resources are distributed among countries.
What, then, should we think of T’Challa, the titular Black Panther, who becomes king of the wealthiest and most technologically advanced nation on Earth, and continues to do nothing to aid those who were unlucky enough to be born elsewhere? (Minor spoiler:) Admittedly, at the end of the film he did at last get involved in international affairs, but he certainly took his time deciding. His decision also seemed due largely to guilt over how the film’s antagonist was treated, and the urging of his romantic interest, Nakia (who shows far greater compassion than he does). He showed no remorse over the tens of thousands who died while he was still making up his mind, nor did he show any great regret over the billions of unnecessary deaths his country allowed to happen over the past hundred years. (Another minor spoiler:) In a particularly jarring moment, he railed against his father’s ghost for his mistreatment of a single child, but does not blame him for letting billions of others die.
Of course, moviegoers thoroughly enjoyed Black Panther. It was a ‘marvel’ of a film, and light-years ahead of other superhero movies in its representation of people of colour and of the world’s second largest continent. This makes it particularly disappointing that Marvel allowed its African utopia to be a moral failure, just as callous as Western nations have been at their very worst. We mustn’t idolise the isolationist Wakanda as a paradise free from the troubles of modernity, even if it is tempting to do so. The tragedies and horrors of our world are still there; they’re simply out of view. Worst of all, in this setting, they could have been prevented.
What do you think? Leave a comment.