“Representation matters, and is so important that we have to try and try again to get it right…”
By Malikah A. Shabazz
Since the epic release of the film Black Panther, a few voices coming out of the US Muslim community have called the movie anti-Muslim. Black Panther is an amazing film and, while it has its flaws, I join others who find it a bit of an overreach to cast the entire film as anti-Muslim. Nevertheless, I think this claim does raise three important questions: Can media made by Black people or that centrally features Black storylines traffic in myths made about other people of color? And if they do, how should we interpret that? And, what should be our response?
Those calling Black Panther anti-Muslim point to an early scene in which the Wakandan spy Nakia is on a mission to free a group of women held captive by an armed group clearly patterned off of the Boko Haram. I have seen the film three times so far and, each time, I, as a Black Muslim woman, did find that scene deeply disappointing. While the Boko Haram are to be condemned and it was exciting to see them vanquished (on screen, at least), I was disappointed because of a series of tired Hollywood tropes the film relies on: men wearing keffiyeh scarves as masks, a man shouting in Arabic (he says wallahi or by Allah) before trying to shoot the good guys, and the women tearing off their large head scarves (but, tellingly, not their smaller ones) as soon as they were liberated.
Pick your Hollywood blockbuster that deals with terrorism and Muslim bad guys (which is about most of them) and you have seen this all before. To give the film’s writers the benefit of the doubt, I assume they chose to focus on this particular group of African guerrilla warlords because the “Save Our Girls” campaign resonated in the US, particularly for the Black public. Yet there are myriad of ways they could have set up Nakia, her passion, heroism and the conflict she represented for Wakanda without relying on the kind of tropes that help fuel anti-Muslim sentiment; tropes whose perpetuation has life and death consequences for all kinds of folks, including Black people. And so for me, in a film that was intentional in so many other ways, the scene came off as a bit lazy and irresponsible.
That being said, I still do not think it is appropriate to call the film anti-Muslim as a whole. The scene did help establish Nakia’s narrative but it was not central to entire film’s story arc. Moreover, as others have also noted, there were other allusions to Islam and Muslims in the film. This included the use of the famous architecture of Timbuktu in Wakanda and the Merchant tribe of Wakanda whose dress resembles that of the Tuareg and Fulani people who are real-life Muslims. Furthermore, the tribe is described as “traders” in the film, which is also a reference to prominent role of commerce in spreading Islam throughout Africa. Moreover, there were other things in the film that were not Muslim-specific but represented shared beliefs amongst African-descended people, such as T’challa’s visits with his deceased father in a place Muslims call the barzakh.
So while this claim is not exactly accurate, how should we understand the use of tired and dangerous Hollywood tropes, and not just in Black Panther, but when we find it Black media in general?
This was a question that came up for me last year when Cardi B released the video for her chart-topping song Bodak Yellow. With all the camels and veils, was she being orientalist? I also had this question when watching the groundbreaking show Underground in which the Native Americans who appeared in the show never actually spoke, recalling the “noble savage” depictions of Indigenous people in Hollywood. Did this make Underground anti-Indigenous? Should we throw it out with the proverbial bathwater?
No, I don’t think Cardi is an orientalist or Underground is anti-Indigenous. Nor is Black Panther anti-Muslim. After all, a [Muslim] Merchant elder sits on T’challa’s council. Yet I do think that the manner the Middle East, Indigenous people and the war on terror made cameos in each does demonstrate the ways Black folks can tell really powerful stories and at the same time reproduce stereotypes, whether or not that is the intention. Of course, intentional or not, this does not mean we should not be critical, we should. Criticism makes for better art, especially art that is better at saving lives. Black creators should be pushed when they rely on tropes to bring more nuance to how they depict other people of color as well as Black folks, like Black Muslims, who are often missing from popular media. Yet this critique must come with engagement because, no matter how acclaimed in the mainstream, Black storytellers, even when reproducing stereotypes, are still Black. They are still constrained by white supremacy—they do not have the same power as their white counterparts.
Which means that when we see stereotypes perpetuated we don’t write this media off wholesale, as some have suggested for Black Panther. Rather than write offs, moments like these are really opportunities for engagement and solidarity building. Let’s use the problematic depiction in Black Panther to open up a conversation on anti-Muslim racism, media images and its consequences for all Black people. Let’s take the next Bodak Yellow or Underground moment to think through Arab-Black and Black-Indigenous solidarity. And let’s celebrate those works that do a better job. Like Queen Sugar’s subtle inclusion of Vietnamese-American fishmongers and its graceful handling of Black and non-Black Latinx farmworkers or the character Randall’s endearing stumble with a Sikh hardware store employee in This is US.
One of the hashtag mantras folks tied to Black Panther is #representationmatters. Indeed, representation does matter. Seeing deep and complex reflections of ourselves remind us of our inherent value, worth and potential. And when we know our inherent value, worth and potential we do great things in this world. Representation matters, and is so important that we have to try and try again to get it right—for all kinds of Black folks and, everyone else as well. After all, to paraphrase our dearly departed brother, Killmonger, since humanity began in Africa, doesn’t that make all people our people?
(This article was written by Su’ad Abdul Khabeer. She is an associate professor of American Culture at the University of Michigan, the author of Muslim Cool: Race, Religion and Hip Hop in the United States and directs the award-winning blog Sapelo Square: An Online Resource on Black Muslims in the United States. You can follow her on Twitter: @DrSuad)
[Malikah A. Shabazz is a Detroit-born Brooklyn-based content creator and producer. She is a Content/Production Coordinator for FuseTV, the Art & Culture editor for SapeloSqaure.com, an online resource for Black Muslims in America, host of the podcast HeadRAPS, and owner of the blog, SeeHerSpeak.com]