Black Panther: Detournement of the Culture Industry

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Source: Black Panther Marvel/Walt Disney Pictures

The recent release of Marvel’s Black Panther has become the second-largest debut for a Marvel film, bringing in well over $200 million and breaking records internationally. It is a film not just with a predominantly Black cast, but also one portraying a country in Africa (albeit, the fictional country of Wakanda) for once as a developed, techno-intellectual stronghold. The breakthrough activism within the film industry transcends the theater as the film has also initiated the call for the release of incarcerated members of the Black Panther Party (BPP) partially due to the similar, yet unrelated names. The marketing, the high draw of Black viewers (37% black viewers), and its rekindling of activism for the incarcerated BPP members, has led to a backlash of attempted sabotage with false reports of Black violence on White viewers. It is thus more than just a popular film, it is a cultural event, as one article puts it, it is detournement of the culture industry.

Adorno and Horkheimer’s culture industry is at an all-time high, with the ethnocentric ideology of the White dominate class permeating through the social, cultural, and physical fabric of the U.S. We are told we are in a colorblind society, especially in light of the election of Barack Obama (Bonilla-Silva and Dietrich 2011). Yet today is remarkably similar to the conditions that led to the foundation of Black resistance through the BPP: Black bodies are still entangled in the confining web of the lower class demarcated by police violence, disproportionate incarceration, poor, segregated school systems and neighborhoods, etc. (Alexander 2010, Bonilla-Silva and Dietrich 2011, Darity 2008, Turner 2016).

The BPP was originally formed by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in the late 1960’s in Oakland, CA where the Black Panther director Ryan Coogler was also born. BPP posed a distinct threat to the capitalist status quo because the BPP sought to re-appropriate institutions from the capitalist class to the Black community. They were responding, like the Black Lives Matter movement, to police brutality and institutionalized racism, but were focused not only on social reform and police, but also on creating free health clinics, accessible transportation services, and improving education and housing amongst black communities (Cleaver 1969, Lendman 2008, Levin 2018, Turner 2016). Without these supportive institutions, the Black community could never be liberated from the domination of White capitalism. Domination by the elites achieved not just from getting people to purchase products at the store, but by also dominating the housing market you live in, the healthcare clinics grandma goes to, the media your kids watch and read, the art you purchase, and so forth.

The BPP’s resistance to domination invoked a State response through State sanctioned violence.  For example, the Civil Rights Act of 1968 included a rider attached to the bill which makes it a felony to “travel in interstate commerce…with the intent to incite, promote, encourage, participate in and carry on a riot” (Babcox 1969). This provision has been criticized for equating organized political protest with organized violence. Then, on June 15th, 1969, J. Edgar Hoover declared that “the Black Panther Party, without question, represents the greatest threat to the internal security of the country” (Lendman 2008, Zinn 2003). The infamous COINTELPRO was formed to ‘combat’ the BPP and ironically operated like a terrorist group, from torture to wiretapping, to the murder of BPP members (Allen-Bell 2014, Lendman 2008). Prominent BPP members were tracked, interrupted and killed or falsely accused, indicted and incarcerated or scattered to the wind (Lendman 2008). There are still 16, now elderly, BPP members still incarcerated today, for whom parole is continuously denied (Lendman 2008, New Internationalist 2016):

  1. Sundiata Acoli (imprisoned since 1973)
  2. Herman Bell (incarcerated since  1973)
  3. Jalil Muntaquim (incarcerated since 1971)
  4. Mumia Abu-Jamal (incarcerated since 1982)
  5. Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin (incarcerated since 2002)
  6. Veronza Bowers (incarcerated since 1974)
  7. Romaine “Chip” Fitzgerald (incarcerated since 1970)
  8. Kenny “Zulu” Whitmore (incarcerated since 1977)
  9. Ruchell “Cinque” Magee (incarcerated since 1970)
  10. Pete O’Neal (convicted since 1970, currently fugitive)
  11. Ed Poindexter (incarcerated since 1970)
  12. Assata Shakur (incarcerated since 1977, currently fugitive)
  13. Mutulu Shakur (incarcerated since 1988)
  14. Russell “Maroon” Shoatz (incarcerated since 1970)
  15. Kamau Sidiki (incarcerated since 2003)
  16. Seth Ben Ysaac Ben Ysrael (incarcerated since 1974)

The culture industry would like us to forget BPP and only remember the movie. The culture industry would prefer that you buy a Marvel Black Panther shirt but remember the BPP as only criminals from an era a long time ago. Yet despite the cultural industry’s domination, Black Panther director Ryan Coogler has been able to initiate a cultural move to petition and pardon/free the sixteen Black Panther Party members. This is detournement: using the master’s tools to resist the master itself. Taking advantage of the capitalist mode to profit off both Marvel fans and Black citizens, Black Panther has used Disney to jam the dominant culture with a different ideology – one of inclusiveness and equality.

Sources Cited:

Alexander, Michelle. 2010. The New Jim Crow. New York City, NY: The New Press.

Allen-Bell, Angela. 2014. “COINTELPRO and U.S. State Terrorism Against the Black Panther Party”. Retrieved Feb. 20th, 2018 (https://www.globalresearch.ca/cointelpro-and-the-u-s-state-terrorism-against-the-black-panther-party/5400304)

Babcox, Peter, et. al. (1969). “The Committee to Defend the Conspiracy”. The New York Review of Books.

New Internationalist. 2016.“Black Panther Still Caged”. Retrieved Feb. 20th, 2018 (http://go.

galegroup.com.er.lib.k-state.edu/ps/i.do?&id=GALE|A454487237&v=2.1&u=ksu&it=r&p=AONE&sw=w)

Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo and David Dietrich. 2011. “The Sweet Enchantment of Color-Blind Racism in the Obamerica”. Ann Am Acad Pol Soc Sci 634(1): 190-206.

Cleaver, Eldridge. 1969. On The Ideology of the Black Panther Party. Black Panther Party.

Darity, Edward (ed). 2008. “Black Panthers”.  International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences 1: pp. 318-320.

Lendman, Stephen. 2008. “Black Panthers. Targeting Dissent: The San Francisco Eight”. Retrieved Feb. 20th, 2018 (https://www.globalresearch.ca/black-panthers-targeting-dissent-the-san-francisco-eight/10754)

Levin, Sam. 2018. “Black Panther film fuels call for release of jailed political activists”. Retrieved Feb. 20th, 2018 (https://www.theguardian.com/film/2018/feb/16/black-panther-party-marvel-film-jail)

Rattansi, S. 2018. “Is Black Panther Co-Opting African Struggles Against Oppression?” Retrieved Feb. 20th, 2018 (http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/02/black-panther-co-opting-african-struggles-oppression-180217145412378.html)

Turner, Hugo. 2016. “The Black Panther Party. The Battle against Poverty, Racism, Imperialism and Police Brutality”. Retrieved Feb. 20th, 2018 (https://www.globalresearch.ca/the-black-panther-party-the-battle-against-poverty-racism-imperialism-and-police-brutality/5546369).

Zinn, Howard. 2003. A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present. New York City, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.

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