In light of the excitement about Black Panther’s Oscar nominations, Screen Actor’s Guild Award wins, and theatrical re-release for Black History Month, it’s time to revisit Black Panther as an example of the problems of the academic “hot take,” particularly when those takes promote discourse about male characters and elide a focus on Black women as film subjects or as scholarly voices. Public intellectuals must be more mindful of the ways that their work can unwittingly reinforce the marginalization of Black women’s perspectives and overshadow the celebration of Black heroines onscreen.
The day after Black Panther’s North American premiere, Christopher Lebron published “Black Panther Is Not the Movie We Deserve”in the Boston Review. Lebron’s essay focused extensively on the figure of Killmonger. “You will have noticed I have not said much about the movie’s women,” he admitted near the end of his essay. Lebron’s take on Black Pantherwas deeply influential turning early critiques of the film into a referendum about Killmonger. By March 8, 2018, the L.A. Times published "Pantherpedia: A Guide to the Cottage Industry of Essays about Ryan Coogler's 'Black Panther'". Lebron’s essay headed the “Killmonger” section, and women were far down on the list. Meanwhile, early examinations of the female characters, such as Arica L. Coleman’s examination of the True Story Behind Black Panther's Strong Womenin Time on February 22, 2018, went largely overlooked in the rush to discuss Killmonger. To that end, Karen Attiah of the Washington Post, complainedabout the “category-4 flood of man-takes, with mostly male critics responding to each other about Black Panther And What It All Means For Black People” rather than focusing on “the collective power of Wakanda’s women who offer the real vision of what black, radical internationalism could look like.” Feminist critiques became framed only as a backlash to the focus on Killmonger typified by Lebron’s hot take.
We need to slow down. We need to examine whether the rush to produce public intellectualism replicates a default interest in male perspectives. Along those lines, I noticed that Salamishah Tillet’s first Black Panther article, published a week before the film’s release, began by quoting T'Challaand included a comparison to nostalgia for President Obama. Then, a week after the film’s release, she penned "Black Panther: Why Not Queen Shuri?"and celebrated the diverse representation of Black womanhood in all of director Ryan Coogler’s films.
What if we slowed our roll until we could imagine beginning the public discourse with Shuri instead?
I am firmly in favor of public intellectual work that topples the stereotypes of disengaged Ivory Tower snobbery, and I champion practices that challenge traditional scholarly publication models. But while the glacial pace of many academic journals risks irrelevance in cultural commentary, hot takes risk inaccurate scholarship and a narrow focus that then dominates the trending responses to a work.
A call for a moratorium on Black Panther critiques—which is, essentially, a call to slow down the production of hot takes—brings to mind the arguments promoted in Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber’s The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy.Berg and Seeber express concern that “the fast models of mechanization have taken over how we think about scholarship and ourselves. Slowing down is a matter of ethical import” (58). An ethics of slowing down results in stronger work: work that notices more nuance, particularly where the Black heroines are concerned. Slowing down creates room to celebrate Black cinematic achievement before turning to a more surgical approach for public intellectualism.
Susana M. Morris of the Crunk Feminist Collective spoke outagainst the early oversaturation of Black Panther reactions, especially about Killmonger, and urged readers to pause for simple enjoyment or celebration: “Seeing my Blackness represented on screen has been a powerful healer. It was nothing short of glorious.” As Morris so poignantly wrote, “Black Joy Matters.” Experiencing this film as a celebration of Blackness—particularly in the current political climate—seems more urgent than any critique, no matter how intellectually generative.
With watershed films like Black Panther, I, too, worry about the diminishment of joy; of failing to celebrate films as revolutionary and inspirational for audiences that have so often been marginalized or stereotyped by Hollywood. We should pause to create space for joy. Then we should use that space to make sure we amplify and center Black women’s perspectives.
Berg, Maggie and Barbara K. Seeber. The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy, University of Toronto Press, 2016.