Marvel Studios

The main villain in Black Panther is not Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), an arms dealer with a white African accent, but Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), a super-buff former soldier raised in an Oakland project. Killmonger's father is N’Jobu (Sterling K. Brown), a member of Wakanda's royal family, while his mother is an unknown black American. The film's opening scene involves Killmonger's father, who has become a revolutionary in the very city that the Black Panther Party was born, Oakland, and ends with a mystery that, when later revealed, concerns the secret that Wakanda—a small (fictional) country in East Africa—is keeping from the world.


Killmonger is not your typical comic book baddie; his mission is not so much to become the ruler of the world (though there is some of that in him, as evidenced in the scene with the burning of the special purple flowers), but to liberate all black people with the advanced technology developed in Wakanda.

Most people think that Wakanda is poor and backward, but it's not. It has a very high standard of living, and medical, communication, and transportation technologies that put to shame those developed in the West. Wakanda, however, hides this fact from the world because it fears if other nations discovered how it accomplished its extraordinary technological leaps (by the society-wide application of vibranium—an alien substance delivered to the ancient people of Wakanda by the accident of a meteorite crash), this body of knowledge, and its source (vibranium), would be used to harm rather than improve humanity. The Wakandians do not want vibranium to become like uranium.

But the leaders and philosophers of Wakanda made a terrible error—one that ultimately cost Killmonger his dignity and life. They failed to specify what this evil thing or danger is? What exactly is the country hiding from? Exactly why whatever entered this seemingly amorphous thing became more harmful than useful? If Killmonger had an accurate understanding of what Wakanda was up against, he, too, would have seen the wisdom of keeping the country on the down low.

This thing has a name. We call it free enterprise.

In the heart of a movie produced with millions upon millions of dollars, and on its way to making billions for one of the leading profit-making enterprises in the history of the world, Disney, is a country whose success, whose eradication of poverty and application of rational urban planning was made possible by the absence of capitalism. If Wakanda wasn't hidden, and as a consequence connected to the global network of markets, its capital of Wakanda would have high levels of poverty, sprawling suburbs, and cars that burn fossil fuels. Because it is outside of the productive and distributive circuits of this system, it does not.

To ignore the absence of cars in the capital of Wakanda is to unwisely dismiss a key and telling competent of a form of capitalism and urbanism that has yet to break with the second half of the 20th century. Indeed, in Netflix's mess of a film Cloverfield Paradox, which is also directed by a black man (Nigerian-born Julius Onah—his twin brother, Anthony Onah, however recently directed the compelling African Wall Street, The Price), opens with a couple waiting in a car to buy petrol during an extreme and possibly world-ending energy crisis. Think about that for a minute: a global energy shortage; people still in cars, waiting for gasoline. Keep that image in your mind—the formidable grip that one capitalism's most productive ideologies, car ideology, has on our imagination—when you turn to the streets of Wakanda's city and find it has no cars. What made this vision even possible? The idea that the whole country is hidden from the world we know and live in.

Car-less Wakanda...
Car-less Wakanda... Marvel Studios

Killmonger is right to return to his father's country and reclaim his citizenship. But he is wrong to expose Wakanda to the ruthless forces of the world-wide market. Also, the country's leader, Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), is wrong to become sentimental about his dying cousin's black liberation dreams and finally break with the tradition of secrecy. Globalization will do two things to his small nation: one, submit its technologies to the laws of market competition, and two, impose on Wakanda the structures that predictably make capital scarce for most and over-abundant for a few. As a consequence, inequality would explode, and slums like those in Oakland proliferate in its once-green and car-less egalitarian capital. The profits from vibranium would not be socialized locally but privatized and exported to Wall Street for the purchase of financial assets, whose ever-inflating values would more and more constitute the wealth of Wakanda's elite and align them with the politics of the global elite.

Since the mid-19th century, movement after movement in country after country has tried to break with or permanently reform raw capitalist accumulation. These movements have names: socialism, social democracy, chartism, communism, the New Deal, Marxism, Keynesianism, and so on. We have not, however, had something like hiddenism. What this Disney film shows but does not say is that it's much better to hide from capitalism than be seen by it and its inequality generating processes.