Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Black Panther and the Public Discourse Surrounding the Film

"I'm for truth, no matter who tells it. I'm for justice, no matter who it's for or against."                            
--Malcolm X (1925-1965)

"A civilization that proves incapable of solving the problems it creates is a decadent civilization. A civilization that chooses to close its eyes to its most crucial problems is a stricken civilization. A civilization that uses its principles for trickery and deceit is a dying civilization."
                           --Aime Cesaire (1913-2008)

“One cannot change in one’s head that which can only be changed in society”
                          —CLR James (1901-1989)

"Knowledge is Freedom. Ignorance is Slavery.”
                         —Miles Davis (1926-1991)

"Strong people don't need strong leaders"
                          --Ella Baker (1903-1986)

“Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it.”
                      — Frantz Fanon (1925-1961)


In the explosion of public discourse on the the new Black Panther film which as one would rightly expect is expressing itself in a myriad of different contending and contentious directions at once, all seething more or less with their own ideological, aesthetic, political, philosophical, and personal perceptions, perspectives, values, opinions, ideas, biases, and desires there are emerging certain pieces that are asserting their views in a particularly dynamic, incisive, and intellectually challenging manner.

One of these that I personally find of particular interest and value is the following by Adam Serwer from the Atlantic magazine entitled "The Tragedy of Erik Killmonger." The intellectual and emotional clarity, honesty, depth, passion, knowledge, and insight that Serwer's piece demonstrates is yet another indication that the questions, issues, and concerns raised by the film have great meaning and value for many, many people far beyond any particular commercial interest one may or may not have in Marvel comic books (and movies) or the aesthetic genres of science fiction and/or fantasy.

I find that I not only strongly identify and empathize with what Serwer reveals and says in his article (and how he says it) but that I now even more appreciate and respect what Ryan Coogler the director and cowriter of this cinematic blockbuster has both attempted and accomplished with this flick within the always tricky, weirdly challenging, and often highly problematic context of what is called popular mass entertainment...Stay tuned and let the the public discourse attending this film continue to thrive and flourish...


The Tragedy of Erik Killmonger

The revolutionary ideals of Black Panther’s profound and complex villain have been twisted into a desire for hegemony.

by Adam Serwer
February 20, 2018
The Atlantic

PHOTO:  Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) and W'Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) in Black Panther

Black Panther is a love letter to people of African descent all over the world. Its actors, its costume design, its music, and countless other facets of the film are drawn from all over the continent and its diaspora, in a science-fiction celebration of the imaginary country of Wakanda, a high-tech utopia that is a fictive manifestation of African potential unfettered by slavery and colonialism.

But it is first and foremost an African American love letter, and as such it is consumed with The Void, the psychic and cultural wound caused by the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, the loss of life, culture, language, and history that could never be restored. It is the attempt to penetrate The Void that brought us Alex Haley’s Roots, that draws thousands of African Americans across the ocean to visit West Africa every year, that left me crumpled on the rocks outside the Door of No Return at Gorée Island’s slave house as I stared out over a horizon that my ancestors might have traversed once and forever. Because all they have was lost to The Void, I can never know who they were, and neither can anyone else.

Related Story:
Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o), T'Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), and Okoye (Danai Gurira)

The Provocation and Power of Black Panther

It is also The Void that creates Michael B. Jordan’s Erik Killmonger, the antagonist of Black Panther, cousin to Chadwick Boseman’s protagonist King T’Challa and a comic-book villain so transcendent that he is almost out of place in a film about a superhero who dresses as a cat. Black Panther is about a highly advanced African kingdom, yes, but its core theme is Pan-Africanism, a belief that no matter how seemingly distant black people’s lives and struggles are from each other, we are in a sense “cousins” who bear a responsibility to help one another escape oppression. And so the director Ryan Coogler asks, if an African superpower like Wakanda existed, with all its power, its monopoly on the invaluable sci-fi metal vibranium, and its advanced technology, how could it have remained silent, remained still, as millions of Africans were devoured by The Void?

“Two billion people all over the world who look like us whose lives are much harder, and Wakanda has the tools to liberate them all,” Killmonger scolds the Wakandan court. “Where was Wakanda?”

Killmonger has come to Wakanda as a conqueror. His father N’Jobu facilitated the theft of vibranium in an attempt to arm black people all over the world against their oppressors; N’Jobu is killed by T’Challa’s father T’Chaka for his insubordinate attempt to end the centuries of isolation that have kept Wakanda safe. T’Chaka abandons Killmonger in Oakland, California (the birthplace of the Black Panther Party), leaving Killmonger literally and figuratively an orphan, who sees in his lost homeland a chance to avenge the millions of black people extinguished in The Void, and those who still suffer in its wake.

Killmonger’s stated purpose, to liberate black people all over the world, has sparked a lively discussion over whether he is a bad guy to begin with. What could be so bad about black liberation? “I fist-pumped in the silent, dark theater when he was laying out his plans,” writes Brooke Obie at Shadow and Act. “IT’S A GOOD IDEA!” That Coogler’s villain has even inspired this debate is a testament to how profound and complex the character is.

“In the end, all comes down to a contest between T’Challa and Killmonger that can only be read one way,” writes Christopher Lebron in a well-argued piece in Boston Review, “in a world marked by racism, a man of African nobility must fight his own blood relative whose goal is the global liberation of blacks.”

This is not actually what happens in the film. Killmonger’s goal is, in his eyes, the global liberation of black people. But that is not truly his goal, as Coogler makes clear in the text of the script and in Killmonger’s interactions with other characters. Like Magneto, another comic-book character who is a creation of historical trauma—the Holocaust instead of the Middle Passage—Killmonger’s goal is world domination. “The sun will never set on the Wakandan empire,” Killmonger declares, echoing an old saying about the British Empire, to drive the point home as clearly as possible. He sees no future beyond his own reign; he burns the magic herbs Wakandan monarchs use to gain their powers because he does not even intend to have an heir.

It is remarkable that many viewers seem to have taken the “liberation” part at face value, and ignored the “empire” part, which Jordan delivers perfectly. They are equally important. Killmonger’s plan for “black liberation,” arming insurgencies all over the world, is an American policy that has backfired and led to unforeseen disasters perhaps every single time it has been deployed; it is somewhat bizarre to see people endorse a comic-book version of George W. Bush’s foreign policy and sign up for the Project for the New Wakandan Century as long as the words “black liberation” are used instead of “democracy promotion.” Killmonger’s assault begins in London, New York, and Hong Kong; China is not typically known as a particularly good example of white Western hegemony in need of overthrow.
There are other Wakandan characters who wish to end the kingdom’s isolation for reasons of their own. Lupita Nyong’o’s Nakia is seen at the beginning of the film rescuing people from a Boko Haram–type militia, and later urges T’Challa to take in refugees; T’Challa refuses, citing Wakanda’s tradition of isolationism. Killmonger seeks more than aid or revolution—he seeks hegemony. Here, there are echoes of the breakdown of the original Black Panther Party in its later years, as radicalized chapters sought a direct armed struggle to overthrow the U.S. government—a plan that most of the Party’s established leadership saw as folly. In so doing, the film’s conflict symbolizes, as my colleague Vann Newkirk writes, an old argument over “the nature of power and the rightness of its use” that has long “dominated black thought in the United States,” and even beyond.

“You want to see us become just like the people you hate so much,” T’Challa tells Killmonger during their climactic battle. “I learn from my enemies,” Killmonger retorts. “You have become them,” T’Challa responds. That the climactic battle in Black Panther is a bloodbath between Wakandan factions is no accident; it is Killmonger putting the never-colonized Wakanda through a taste of colonialism in microcosm. In one of many sly references to the Black Panther Party, it is Wakanda’s women—Nakia, Danai Gurira’s General Okoye, Letitia Wright’s Princess Shuri, Angela Bassett’s Queen-Mother Ramonda—who sustain Wakanda through its darkest moments. Where T’Challa cannot survive or triumph without Okoye, Shuri, or Ramonda, Killmonger is alone. His African American mother is absent from the story; Killmonger kills his own lover the moment her body stands between him and his ideological ambitions.

The following distinction is crucial: Black Panther does not render a verdict that violence is an unacceptable tool of black liberation—to the contrary, that is precisely how Wakanda is liberated. It renders a verdict on imperialism as a tool of black liberation, to say that the master’s tools cannot dismantle the master’s house.

Yet because Killmonger’s plans are rooted in a recognizable idealism and a wounded soul, the audience is supposed to empathize with him, even care for him. Viewers are meant to mourn him as T’Challa does when he dies, invoking his ancestors who chose to be consumed by The Void rather than toil in bondage. When T’Challa goes to the spirit world, he sees his ancestors. When Killmonger goes, in one of the most moving scenes in the film, he sees only his father; the rest of his ancestors have been lost to The Void. He is alone in a way T’Challa can never comprehend. So like his father N’Jobu, Killmonger is radicalized. “We can rule over them all the right way,” N’Jobu says during a flashback.

Killmonger himself is a kind of avatar of the BPP’s deterioration in its latter years, when rebelling against white supremacy gave way to internecine bloodshed. He embodies the Black Panther Party’s revolutionary possibility and noble intentions, but also its degeneration into fratricidal violence, and a sexism that persisted despite party doctrine. The film’s title thus has a double meaning, an indication of the gravity of Killmonger’s character—a Black Panther against the Black Panther. In one of the many subtle touches Coogler adds to a film in a genre not known for them, Black Panther ambiguously refers to either of them.

It is also a mistake, to, as Lebron does, view Killmonger as “as a receptacle for tropes of inner-city gangsterism.” Killmonger is not a product of the ghetto, so much as he is a product of the American military-industrial complex. Here too, the script is explicit. Noting Killmonger’s technical background (he studied at MIT) and his war record (tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, even in Africa where, he acknowledges, “ I killed my own brothers and sisters on this continent”). The CIA agent Everett Ross says of Killmonger, “he’s not Wakandan, he’s one of ours,” later observing that Killmonger’s coup is what the U.S. government “trained him to do.” The part of Killmonger that makes him a supervillain is not the part of him that is African.

Ross’s inclusion is perhaps the weakest part of the storyline—the history of the CIA in Africa is a history of the suppression of democratic movements like the African National Congress, the backing of brutal dictators, and opposition to racial equality in the name of anti-communism. Shuri hints at this history when she derisively calls Ross a “colonizer.” Nevertheless, Ross’s heroism in the film, even in a fantasy, feels like a kind of propaganda.

In spite of his ambitions for global domination, Killmonger does something remarkable and perhaps unprecedented for the superhero genre—he wins the argument. When T’Challa learns that his father killed N’Jobu and abandoned N’Jadaka (Killmonger), he is horrified: The truth shatters his faith in his father and in his father’s infallibility. On the spirit plane, T’Challa declares to the manifestations of his ancestors, the previous Black Panthers, “You were wrong. All of you, you were wrong.”

Where was Wakanda? Wakanda failed. Killmonger was right. He is blinded by his pain to the evil of his own methods, but he is correct that Wakanda abandoned its responsibility to use its unmatched power to protect black people around the world. They could have stopped the endless march of souls into The Void. They did not.

After defeating Killmonger, T’Challa ends Wakanda’s isolationism and, beginning in Oakland, starts to deploy Wakandan capital toward an international social-service project focused on impoverished black neighborhoods—again echoing the legacy of the Black Panther Party. Killmonger is dead, but he has changed Wakanda forever, ended the isolationism that defined its existence for all time, and unleashed a powerful new ally to oppressed black people all over the world. Is this inadequate? Too little, too late? Maybe. But it is folly to think that Killmonger’s preferred plan of Wakandan world hegemony through massive bloodshed, using a method that has never once worked as intended, is a preferable outcome.

Lebron laments that “Killmonger ... will not appear in another movie. He does not get a second chance. His black life did not matter even in a world of flying cars and miracle medicine.” On the contrary, Killmonger’s ascension and death is the event that catalyzes Wakanda’s redemption from its greatest failure, and his death ensures that unlike Loki, Thanos, the Red Skull, or any other of Marvel’s endless stable of world-conquering despots, the pathos of his tragic end cannot be infinitely repeated as farce. His death not only matters, it is also why he matters more than all the rest of them.

Shortly after he is crowned King, during his vision on the spirit plane, Killmonger sees N’Jobu and recalls a moment from his childhood, when N’Jobu expressed the fear that should Killmonger return to Wakanda, they would not accept him, but instead see him as lost. “Maybe your home’s the ones that’s lost,” a young Erik tells N’Jobu.

And thanks to Killmonger, now they are found.


Adam Serwer is a senior editor at The Atlantic, covering politics.

‘Black Panther' and the degeneration of Black public and popular discourse
by Rayfield A. Waller
February 21, 2018
The Panopticon Review

 'Black Panther' cast.  Marvel Studios

I am willing to see “Black Panther” as entertaining and exciting fantasy, as in some ways less noxious fare than usual for young Black Americans, as entertaining, though a little too cultural nationalist. However, do young blacks really need to idealize concepts like monarchy in the name of pride?  Some people are trying to ascribe the manufactured popularity of “BP” to the emerging re-interest over the last two decades that we see in ‘The Mother Country’ on the part of all diasporic African peoples, and on the part of beleaguered and currently re-segregated African Americans suffering from ‘negative media imagery’ that “BP” assuages.

Yes, it’s true that African diasporic peoples are returning in appreciable numbers to our homeland, but that homeland is a place which is NOT a paradisiacal kingdom of super Negros but is, as Wole Soyinka used to remind we his graduate students at Cornell, "A very non-idealized and challengingly flawed absolute diversity of hundreds of states, traditions, histories, nations, tribes, villages, city states, ideologies, myths, clans, and communes." 

I know three people who picked up and moved to South Africa, which has been anything but ideal thanks to the flaws of the ANC, the venality of political leadership, continued injustice for the trade union movement, and to its still lacking adequate land reform, and lack of a will to nationalized diamond and gold resources that ought to have made South Africa hands down the wealthiest Black nation on Earth after the revolution. All those lost opportunities are the things Nelson Mandela claimed to stand for. Everyone I know who went there is happy they did, admittedly. Struggle in one's own home is better than triumph in the prison founded by one's oppressor.

The problem, those who've moved to South Afrika, Ghana, and Cote d'Ivoire have told me, is that one has to banish naive idealization of the homeland and deal with corruption, pollution, capitalism, misogyny and class injustice just like everywhere else one might be drawn to live. Once returning to the real African continent not as super heroes but as citizens, we will have to deal with Africa not as a fantasy of glorious esteem and muscle padding in our spandex costumes, but as a real polity demanding struggle, disappointment, sacrifice, and even critique. I'd move to Capetown's De Waterkant, Green Point, or Mouille Point at the ocean the moment I could get a good job there, though, and say screw the US, if that were the end point of the debate.

To my alarm, though, I am finding dear friends, degreed, published, otherwise politically conscious people my age (Generation X), collapsing into overweening positivism over this little movie. This morning at the supermarket a Black man and Arab-American came almost to blows over whether “BP” is really about any real Africa that ever existed, and because the Arba-American expressed distrust that “BP” is real or even should be real, I must admit I sided silently with the Arab American brother even as he was driven out of the frozen food section to take cover in produce with angry African Americans on his heels. This irruption of discussion can take on the character of cathexis, and as Jung taught, the relative non-importance of the OBJECT of cathexis drops away in analysis, because the cathexis ITSLEF and what it betrays about the psyche, is the real issue. 'Movies' as opposed to film, never deserve a great deal of critical energy, as far as I'm concerned, even when Arab Americans are sent afoot into the spinach, but along with other diatribes I’ve overheard a recent spate of comments I've seen and heard comparing "BP" to the film, "Color Purple" troubles me.

          “Color Purple”? Time out. 

That is unfair to "Color Purple" (Spielberg and Meyjes, released in 1985) which was a serious film, not a movie. Comparisons to other Hollywood product from that much earlier in our history is begging the question; the issue is not that we ought to be starting out by accepting conversations about 'movies' as if they de facto reflect some desired reality, but we should be drawing a distinction BETWEEN movies (particularly capitalist Hollywood cartoon movies) and reality, both positive AND negative.

Anyone who criticized OR complemented Color Purple decades ago as a reflection of reality was given a hard time, as I recall clearly since I was involved in public debates and panel discussions about "CP" at the time, in Detroit. Most Black public intellectuals were saying something or other about "CP" that it had this or that historical significance as a film, not at history, and even those who favored "CP" kept in sight of the understanding that it was a Hollywood rhetoric. We were that conscious back then. To cite “The Color Purple” is to re-enter the realm of actual cinema (as opposed to the fantasy and wish fulfillment of “BP”). Cinema demands that we raise the level of discourse now, by taking to task all Hollywood films as clearly not comparable to reality. MARVEL Hollywood even more so. Marvel movies are not nor are they meant to be real or meant to be allegories of the real.

          What's problematic about euphoria over this (bad comic book based) movie, "BP", is the way “BP” does the same thing all profit driven 'blockbuster' product is intended to do: manufacture a shift in focus from history to fantasy. We can safely say that whatever its flaws and virtues, "CP" was not primarily constructed to do that. American capitalist culture had changed immensely since “The Color Purple” was produced, shot, and released; specifically, American film has degenerated a great deal since then. Furthermore, it is not at all fair to draw a comparison between "Color Purple", a film that can legitimately be either supported or criticized history, as regional reality, as a depiction of life under southern segregation, and as an artifact that captured in many ways a failure of critical capacity in a Hollywood film that we all argued over IN THOSE INTELLECTUAL TERMS (how accurate is it, we asked, how fair? How racist? How open to interpretation of author intention, and how acceptable as an American-Jewish and Netherlandish production (Steven Spielberg- -director and Menno Meyjes--Screenplay/adaptation) instead of being a Black production? And,  how representative of the Hollywood ethos was it?). 

          I would resist comparing "CP" to "BP" therefore, inasmuch as “BP” is not being discussed at that level, but is increasingly being discussed in a way that begs whether we are even still capable as Americans of discussing our popular art forms in terms of history, politics, economics, and even ethics (all of the things that "Color Purple" DID evoke as any legitimate cinematic work does). "BP" too frequently evokes discussions about 'positive images', 'feeling proud', 'grandeur (??)" , "pride", and how 'magnificent' the fictional characters are. "CP" was an adaptation of a critically acclaimed novel by one of our most gifted authors, while "BP" is an adaptation of a largely failed Marvel comic book which I collected every copy of, and had long discussions with my boyhood friends  about, as we cited the flaws therein. The comparison to "CP" is unfair to "Color Purple," as it is unfair to "In the Heat of the Night," "Cotton Comes to Harlem," "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," even "Shaft," all of which were problematic as all get out, but were also challenging American filmmaking and social reality in some way or other and thus evoking Americans to have thoroughgoing debates over these artifacts as touchstones of social and political reality. These films were not confined to a superficial level of debate in terms of simplistic concepts (public relations, mass media, advertising, image, self-esteem, and let's be honest, Black Christian positivism).

          These were films, even the Blaxploitation genre that were not primarily 'entertaining' though they entertained, yes, but whose primary significance as public topics was not how 'good' (OR bad) they made us 'feel', but rather how much in touch with material reality they were, and where they fit into what were then the current sociopolitical struggles we were engaging, thus they were reflective of how materially engaged we all used to be. How adult we used to be.

          In the end, the movie "BP" is not the point, it's just a movie, based on a comic book by multinational, corporate sell out Stan Lee's Marvel Comics conglomerate--it would do well to not lose track of the source. The point, the crucial issue particularly in these times of peril not just for African Americans but for people of color all over this planet, is whether or not African Americans still have the guts, the critical faculties and the will toward dialectical analysis that we used to display only twenty years ago when we had serious debates over the reality and significance of Denzel Washington's performance in the film "Fallen," a strange and in many ways disturbingly unreal fantasy based in White Christian dogma about Satanic possession, but one which because it was rooted in narrative reality (unlike “BP”) still drew critical, and religious, social, political, and even cinematic argument.

          Black Americans were more than up for THAT kind of debate twenty years ago, before cell phones and global visual culture through internet regimes.  It is telling that very little has been said so far by us about BP's cinematic techniques (which in some ways, as with “Avengers”, remind me of fascist, Leni Riefenstahl), it's mise-en-scene, it's direction, it's strategic passages of cinematographic high key schemes (ala Disney), and all of the same suspect visual elements that make it just another questionable, socially revisionist Marvel movie (not unlike the VERY suspicious "Iron Man",  another of Marvel's adolescent revisions of real technocracy, and real geopolitical, post-colonial issues as fantasy and wish fulfillment).

          African Americans have never been of the sort that we would disregard the larger social and political issues of American cinema ITSELF while being narcissistic about our own place in a specific film. "BP" is not the point, WE are.  Are we willing to buy into one of the most destructive and negative developments in American cinema (many critics say the Marvel regime’s supremacy is in fact ruining cinema through its degrading of complexity of plot, adult theme, and complexity of characterization) simply because a monopolist Marvel movie is doing it now in Blackface?


Rayfield A. Waller is a poet, cultural critic, labor activist, and political journalist who is a professor of literature, history,  Africana Studies, and the social sciences at Wayne State University and Wayne County Community College in the postindustrial city of Detroit, Michigan


“One cannot change in one’s head that which can only be changed in society”
—CLR James (1901-1989)


This is an excellent piece by Christopher Lebron and thank you for sending it. Here’s my take on what he says:

I thoroughly agree with Lebron that the film’s depiction of the conflict between T’Challa and Killmonger is the direct result of Africa--as represented here symbolically by Wakanda and Black America as represented by Killmonger and his family in Oakland— not taking full moral or political responsibility for its historical complicity and neocolonial role in the ongoing oppression and exploitation of its diaspora in the West and especially in the United States. This is a very serious historical and ongoing reality that can and must be addressed. That said however there are some major issues here that Coogler and his co-writer raise in their script about the complex questions of what the profound and fundamental differences are between freedom and license, justice and vengeance, equality and moral/political depravity, revolution and oppression in this film that I think Lebron ultimately fails to take seriously enough in his own otherwise important analysis.

For example in his analysis of the film Lebron has an unfortunate tendency to conflate the struggle for genuine revolution with the very understandable yet ultimately indefensible desire for revenge on Killmonger’s part and to thus incorrectly identify the necessity to combat and even defeat this tendency with what he calls “respectability politics.” This is a recurring problem and blindspot that I keep seeing cropping up among far too many critics, intellectuals and activists under 50 who far too often think that the phrase “by any means necessary” by Malcolm and the subsequent black revolutionary movements and organizations in the wake of his assassination like the BPP and many, many others is a statement about what social revolution is and isn’t. In Lebron’s piece the entire argument about the depiction of black American men while accurate to some degree fails to address the larger issue of how and why white supremacy and colonial politics and its neocolonial extensions among both Africa and Black America continues to contribute to this overall dynamic.

I share your discomfort with how as you put it "Radical black liberation was beat down by those who for millennia supported the status quo.” But I would suggest that this discomfort and its ongoing reality as depicted to some degree in the film is the result NOT of the film’s basic politics or POV but is really the net result/outcome/fallout of our real actual history and the politics that we and others have used or tried to use in combatting this fundamental problem. No film or artistic representation or statement can possibly address this crisis in and of itself which to Coogler’s great credit he thoroughly understands. The film can only raise these issues in a critical context artistically and philosophically but only WE can resolve them in any meaningful way IN SOCIETY and not merely in art itself. Lebron and others is deeply frustrated by that fact and thus goes overboard in his analysis of what the film can or should do about this problem but he should realize that EVERYONE inclusing T’Chaka, T’ Challa, and Killmonger among many others are ALL deeply responsible for what they do (and don’t do) and what it ultimately means. Needless to say that principle goes double/triple/quadruple for the rest of us in real time in the society beyond the confines of the movie theatre…


On Feb 19, 2018, Linda wrote:

This is the thing: Radical black liberation was beat down by those who for millennia supported the status quo. That made me VERY uncomfortable.

On Feb 19, 2018 Linda wrote:

I don't agree with everything in this review, but this explains my discomfort with the dueling motives of Killmonger and T'Challa and the way they are resolved.…/christopher-lebron-black-panther


‘Black Panther’ Is Not the Movie We Deserve
by Christopher Lebron
February 18, 2018
Boston Review

‘Black Panther’ Is Not the Movie We Deserve
Black Panther cast.  Marvel Studios

Black Panther, the most recent entry into the Marvel cinematic universe, has been greeted with the breathless anticipation that its arrival will Change Things. The movie features the leader of a fictional African country who has enough wealth to make Warren Buffet feel like a financial piker and enough technological capacity to rival advanced alien races. The change that the movie supposedly heralds is black empowerment to effectively challenge racist narratives. This is a tall order, especially in the time of Trump, who insists that blacks live in hell and wishes that (black) sons of bitches would get fired for protesting police violence. Which makes it a real shame that Black Panther, a movie unique for its black star power and its many thoughtful portrayals of strong black women, depends on a shocking devaluation of black American men.

To explain my complaint, I need to reveal some key plot turns: spoiler alert.

Wakanda is a fictional nation in Africa, a marvel beyond all marvels. Its stupendous wealth and technological advancement reaches beyond anything the folks in MIT’s labs could dream of. The source of all this wonder is vibranium, a substance miraculous in ways that the movie does not bother to explain. But so far as we understand, it is a potent energy source as well as an unmatched raw material. A meteor rich in vibranium, which crashed ages ago into the land that would become Wakanda, made Wakanda so powerful that the terrors of colonialism and imperialism passed it by. Using technology to hide its good fortune, the country plays the part of a poor, third-world African nation. In reality, it thrives, and its isolationist policies protect it from anti-black racism. The Wakandans understand events in the outside world and know that they are spared. This triumphant lore—the vibranium and the Wakandans’ secret history and superiority—are more than imaginative window-dressing. They go to the heart of the mistaken perception that Black Panther is a movie about black liberation.

A movie unique for its black star power depends on a shocking devaluation of black American men.

In Black Panther, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) has risen to the throne of Wakanda. We know that his father, T’Chaka, the previous king, died in a bomb attack. T’Challa worships his father for being wise and good and wants to walk in his footsteps. But a heartbreaking revelation will sorely challenge T’Challa’s idealized image of his father.

The movie’s initial action sequences focus on a criminal partnership between arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) and Eric Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan). They both seek vibranium but for different reasons: Klaue is trying to profit from Wakanda’s wonder-material; Killmonger is trying to make his way to Wakanda to make a bid for the throne. He believes he is the rightful king.

Killmonger, it turns out, is T’Challa’s cousin, orphaned by T’Chaka’s murder of Killmonger’s father and T’Chaka’s younger brother, N’Jobu (Sterling Brown). Why did T’Chaka kill his brother? N’Jobu was found with stolen vibranium. The motive for the theft is where the tale begins—and where the story of black wonderment starts to degrade.

We learn that N’Jobu was sent to the United States as one of Wakanda’s War Dogs, a division of spies that the reclusive nation dispatches to keep tabs on a world it refuses to engage. This is precisely N’Jobu’s problem. In the United States, he learns of the racism black Americans face, including mass incarceration and police brutality. He soon understands that his people have the power to help all black people, and he plots to develop weapons using vibranium to even the odds for black Americans. This is radical stuff; the Black Panthers (the political party, that is) taken to a level of potentially revolutionary efficacy. T’Chaka, however, insists N’Jobu has betrayed the people of Wakanda. He has no intention of helping any black people anywhere; for him and most Wakandans, it is Wakanda First. N’Jobu threatens an aide to T’Chaka, who then kills N’Jobu. The murder leaves Killmonger orphaned. However, Killmonger has learned of Wakanda from his father, N’Jobu. Living in poverty in Oakland, he grows to become a deadly soldier to make good on his father’s radical aim to use Wakanda’s power to liberate black people everywhere, by force if necessary.

By now viewers have two radical imaginings in front of them: an immensely rich and flourishing advanced African nation that is sealed off from white colonialism and supremacy; and a few black Wakandans with a vision of global black solidarity who are determined to use Wakanda’s privilege to emancipate all black people.

These imaginings could be made to reconcile, but the movie’s director and writer (with Joe Cole), Ryan Coogler, makes viewers choose. Killmonger makes his way to Wakanda and challenges T’Challa’s claim to the throne through traditional rites of combat. Killmonger decisively defeats T’Challa and moves to ship weapons globally to start the revolution. In the course of Killmonger’s swift rise to power, however, Coogler muddies his motivation. Killmonger is the revolutionary willing to take what he wants by any means necessary, but he lacks any coherent political philosophy. Rather than the enlightened radical, he comes across as the black thug from Oakland hell bent on killing for killing’s sake—indeed, his body is marked with a scar for every kill he has made. The abundant evidence of his efficacy does not establish Killmonger as a hero or villain so much as a receptacle for tropes of inner-city gangsterism.

In the end, all comes down to a contest between T’Challa and Killmonger that can only be read one way: in a world marked by racism, a man of African nobility must fight his own blood relative whose goal is the global liberation of blacks. In a fight that takes a shocking turn, T’Challa lands a fatal blow to Killmonger, lodging a spear in his chest. As the movie uplifts the African noble at the expense of the black American man, every crass principle of modern black respectability politics is upheld. 

In 2018, a world home to both the Movement for Black Lives and a president who identifies white supremacists as fine people, we are given a movie about black empowerment where the only redeemed blacks are African nobles. They safeguard virtue and goodness against the threat not of white Americans or Europeans, but a black American man, the most dangerous person in the world.

Even in a comic-book movie, black American men are relegated to the lowest rung of political regard. So low that the sole white leading character in the movie, the CIA operative Everett Ross (Martin Freeman), gets to be a hero who helps save Wakanda. A white man who trades in secrets and deception is given a better turn than a black man whose father was murdered by his own family and who is left by family and nation to languish in poverty. That’s racist.

Who could hope that this age of black heroes represents thoughtful commentary on U.S. racism rather than the continuation of it? Black Panther is not the first prominent attempt to diversify the cinematic white superheroics and thus not the first to disappoint. After Netflix’s Daredevil affirmed the strong television market for heroes, the media company moved to develop shows for other characters that populate the comic. Jessica Jones, about a white heroine, was a critical success. It handled its tough female protagonist intelligently. That show introduced the character of Luke Cage (Michael Colter), an indestructible black man. When Netflix announced that Cage would have his own show, the anticipation was intense: a bulletproof black man in the age of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown? And he would wear a hoodie and fight police? Instead we got a tepid depiction Harlem poverty, partly the consequence of institutional racism but more closely tied to the greed expressed by two of its big bad black baddies, Black Mariah (Alfre Woodard) and Cottonmouth (Mahershala Ali). But that was not the worst of it. The ultimate evil in the show’s first and only season is Willis Stryker (Eric Laray Harvey), another black man whom Luke Cage must defeat. Stryker is not only a black villain, but Cage’s adopted brother. Cage must beat his brother to a pulp, just as Panther must kill his cousin.

Killmonger isn’t a hero or villain so much as a receptacle for tropes of inner-city gangsterism.

The offenses don’t end, though. If one surveys the Marvel cinematic universe, one finds that the main villains—even those far more destructive than Killmonger—die infrequently. They are formidable enemies who live to challenge the hero again and again. A particularly poignant example is Loki, brother to Thor, the God of Thunder. Across the Thor and Avengers movies that feature him, Loki is single-handedly responsible for incalculable misery and damage; his power play leads to an alien invasion that nearly levels all of Manhattan. Yet Thor cannot seem to manage any more violence against Loki than slapping him around a bit and allowing other heroes to do the same—even as Loki tries to kill Thor. Loki even gets his turn to be a good guy in the recent Thor: Ragnarok. Loki gets multiple, unearned chances to redeem himself no matter what damage he has done. Killmonger, however, will not appear in another movie. He does not get a second chance. His black life did not matter even in a world of flying cars and miracle medicine. Why? Perhaps Killmonger’s main dream to free black people everywhere decisively earns him the fate of death. We know from previous Marvel movies that Killmonger’s desire for revenge is not the necessary condition to eliminate him; Loki’s seeming permanence is proof.

My claim that Killmonger’s black life does not matter is not hyperbole. In a macabre scene meant to be touching, Black Panther carries Killmonger to a plateau so that he might see the sun set on Wakanda before dying. With a spear stuck in his chest, he fulfills his wish to appreciate the splendor his father described, when Wakanda seemed a fairy tale. T’Challa offers Wakanda’s technology to save Killmonger’s life—it has saved the white CIA agent earlier in the film. But Killmonger recalls his slave heritage and tells Panther he’d rather die than live in bondage. He knows the score. He knows that Panther will incarcerate him (as is disproportionately common for black American men). The silence that follows seems to last an eternity. Here is the chance for the movie to undo its racist sins: T’Challa can be the good person he desires to be. He can understand that Killmonger is in part the product of American racism and T’Chaka’s cruelty. T’Challa can realize that Wakanda has been hoarding resources and come to an understanding with Killmonger that justice may require violence, if as a last resort. After all, what else do comic-book heroes do but dispense justice with their armored fists and laser rifles? Black Panther does not flinch. There is no reconciliation. Killmonger yanks the spear out of his chest and dies. The sun sets on his body as it did on Michael Brown’s.

It is fair to wonder whether the movie merely reflects the racial politics of the comic books that serve as its inspiration. Yes and no. In the movie, Killmonger’s relationship to T’Challa is as the comic-book canon portrays it. Killmonger is a deadly killer in the comics as in the movie, but he is also extremely intelligent, studying at MIT to understand the technology he goes on to deploy. In the movie, Killmonger’s only skill is killing; if Coogler intended to make Killmonger a hood-born genius, he has failed badly.
In the comics, Killmonger also dies at Black Panther’s hands. But KIllmonger dies long after he has come to live in Wakanda, albeit under a veil of deceit, before attempting a coup. The comic thus opens (but ultimately rejects) an opportunity to save Killmonger to fight for another day, just as Loki is repeatedly saved. The movie completely forecloses this possibility, which is odd since we can all be fairly certain that there will be a sequel.

Black Panther is a movie about black empowerment in which the only redeemed blacks are African nobles.

What alternative story-lines might have satisfied?

I couldn’t help think of Ulysses Klaue, a mainline villain in the comics who lives a long, infamous life. He would have been a perfectly good villain to motivate the movie’s attempt at wokeness. In the comics, there is bad blood between the Klaue clan and Wakanda’s royal lineage (Klaue’s Nazi grandfather died by the hands of Chanda, an earlier Wakandan king and Panther). In Klaue, we had a white villain whose bloodline is imbued with the sins of racism. Ramonda, played by the ever-regal Angela Bassett, is temporally misplaced in the movie. In the comics canon, T’Challa takes the mantle of the Panther while Ramonda, T’Challa’s stepmother, is being held captive by a white magistrate in apartheid South Africa. If Coogler had at all been interested in making Panther a symbol of racial reparation he could have easily placed Klaue in South Africa, even post-apartheid, and the rescue of Ramonda—with Klaue in the way—could have driven the narrative. Ramonda is prominent in the movie, but she does not animate the movie’s central drama. Instead, Black Panther is set on a course to kill off his cousin in his first outing, suggesting yet another racist trope, the fractured black family as a microcosm of the black community’s inability to get it together.

You will have noticed I have not said much about the movie’s women. They are the film’s brightest spot: the black women of Wakandan descent are uniformly independent, strong, courageous, brilliant, inventive, resourceful, and ethically determined. I take it that a good deal of this is owed to Ta-Nehisi Coates’s success at elevating the series’ women to central characters with influence and power that turns more on their minds and integrity than their bodies. T’Challa’s sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright), is sufficiently brilliant to make the Q character from James Bond films seem a clever child with some interesting ideas, while Nakia (Lupita N’yongo) is the ethical center of the film, thoughtful and lacking any stereotypical hysterics or emotional cloudiness that so many movies use to savage the intellect of leading women. Thus the movie deserves praise for its gender politics—save in relation to the only black American woman. The character, Tilda Johnson, a.k.a. the villain Nightshade, has, by my count, less than fifteen words to say in the movie, and is unceremoniously murdered by Killmonger because Klaue is using her as a shield and Killmonger just ain’t got time for that. The lone American black woman is disposed of by black-on-black violence. She is also invisible and nearly silent. In the comic books her character is both a genius and alive and well.

Black Panther presents itself as the most radical black experience of the year. We are meant to feel emboldened by the images of T’Challa, a black man clad in a powerful combat suit tearing up the bad guys that threaten good people. But the lessons I learned were these: the bad guy is the black American who has rightly identified white supremacy as the reigning threat to black well-being; the bad guy is the one who thinks Wakanda is being selfish in its secret liberation; the bad guy is the one who will no longer stand for patience and moderation—he thinks liberation is many, many decades overdue. And the black hero snuffs him out.

When T’Challa makes his way to Oakland at the movie’s end, he gestures at all the buildings he has bought and promises to bring to the distressed youths the preferred solution of mega-rich neoliberals: educational programming. Don’t get me wrong, education is a powerful and liberatory tool, as Paulo Freire taught us, but is that the best we can do? Why not take the case to the United Nations and charge the United States with crimes against humanity, as some nations tried to do in the early moments of the Movement for Black Lives?

Black Panther is not the movie we deserve. My president already despises me. Why should I accept the idea of black American disposability from a man in a suit, whose name is synonymous with radical uplift but whose actions question the very notion that black lives matter?

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Our National Complicity With the Scumbag-in-Chief And Its Lethal Assault on Democracy

"In the age of Trump, history neither informs the present nor haunts it with repressed memories of the past. It simply disappears. Memory has been hijacked. This is especially troubling when the "mobilizing passions" of a fascist past now emerge in the unceasing stream of hate, bigotry, lies and militarism that are endlessly circulated and reproduced at the highest levels of government and in powerful conservative media, such as Fox News, Breitbart News, conservative talk radio stations and alt-right social media. Power, culture, politics, finance and everyday life now merge in ways that are unprecedented and pose a threat to democracies all over the world. This mix of old media and new digitally driven systems of production and consumption are not merely systems, but ecologies that produce, shape and sustain ideas, desires and modes of agency with unprecedented power and influence. Informal educational apparatuses, particularly the corporate-controlled media, appear increasingly to be on the side of tyranny. In fact, it would be difficult to overly stress the growing pedagogical importance of the old and new media and the power they now have on the political  imaginations of countless Americans. This is particularly true of right-wing media empires, such as those owned by Rupert Murdoch, as well as powerful corporate entities such as Clearwater, which dominates the radio airwaves with its ownership of over 1,250 stations. In the sphere of television ownership and control, powerful corporate entities have emerged, such as Sinclair Broadcast Group, which owns the largest number of TV stations in the United States. In addition, right-wing hosts, such as Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity have an audience in the millions. Right-wing educational apparatuses shape much of what Americans watch and listen to, and appear to influence all of what Trump watches and hears. The impact of conservative media has had a dangerous effect on American culture and politics, and has played the most prominent role in channeling populist anger and electing Trump to the presidency. We are now witnessing the effects of this media machine. The first casualty of the Trump era is truth, the second is moral responsibility, the third is any vestige of justice, and the fourth is a massive increase in human misery and suffering for millions.

Instead of refusing to cooperate with evil, Americans increasingly find themselves in a society in which those in commanding positions of power and influence exhibit a tacit approval of the emerging authoritarian strains and acute social problems undermining democratic institutions and rules of law. As such, they remain silent and therefore, complicit in the face of such assaults on American democracy. Ideological extremism and a stark indifference to the lies and ruthless polices of the Trump administration have turned the Republican Party into a party of collaborators, not unlike the Vichy government that collaborated with the Nazis in the 1940s. Both groups bought into the script of ultra-nationalism, encouraged anti-Semitic mobs, embraced a militant masculinity, demonized racial and ethnic others, supported an unchecked militarism and fantasies of empire, and sanctioned state violence at home and abroad.
Words carry power and enable certain actions; they also establish the grounds for legitimating repressive policies and practices.

This is not to propose that those who support Trump are all Nazis in suits. On the contrary, it is meant to suggest a more updated danger in which people with power have turned their backs on the cautionary histories of the fascist and Nazi regimes, and in doing so, have willingly embraced authoritarian messages and tropes. Rather than Nazis in suits, we have a growing culture of social and historical amnesia that enables those who are responsible for the misery, anger and pain that has accompanied the long reign of casino capitalism to remain silent for their role and complicity in the comeback of fascism in the United States. This normalization of fascism can be seen in the way in which language that was once an object of critique in liberal democracies loses its negative connotation and becomes the opposite in the Trump administration. Politics, power and human suffering are now framed outside of the realm of historical memory. What is forgotten is that history teaches us something about the transformation and mobilization of language into an instrument of war and violence. As Richard J. Evans observes in his The Third Reich in Power:
Words that in a normal, civilized society had a negative connotation acquired the opposite sense under Nazism ... so that 'fanatical', 'brutal', 'ruthless', 'uncompromising', 'hard' all became words of praise instead of disapproval... In the hands of the Nazi propaganda apparatus, the German language became strident, aggressive and militaristic. Commonplace matters were described in terms more suited to the battlefield. The language itself began to be mobilized for war.

Fantasies of absolute control, racial cleansing, unchecked militarism and class warfare are at the heart of much of the American imagination. This is a dystopian imagination marked by hollow words, an imagination pillaged of any substantive meaning, cleansed of compassion and used to legitimate the notion that alternative worlds are impossible to entertain. There is more at work here than shrinking political horizons. What we are witnessing is a closing of the political and a full-scale attack on moral outrage, thoughtful reasoning, collective resistance and radical imagination. Trump has normalized the unthinkable, legitimated the inexcusable and defended the indefensible.

Of course, Trump is only a symptom of the economic, political and ideological rot at the heart of casino capitalism, with its growing authoritarianism and social and political injustices that have been festering in the United States with great intensity since the late 1970s. It was at that point in US history when both political parties decided that matters of community, the public good, the general welfare and democracy itself were a threat to the fundamental beliefs of the financial elite and the institutions driving casino capitalism. As Ronald Reagan made clear, government was the problem. Consequently, it was framed as the enemy of freedom and purged for assuming any responsibility for a range of basic social needs. Individual responsibility took the place of the welfare state, compassion gave way to self-interest, manufacturing was replaced by the toxic power of financialization, and a rampaging inequality left the bottom half of the US population without jobs, a future of meaningful work or a life of dignity.

The call for political unity transforms quickly into the use of force and exclusionary violence to impose the authority of a tyrannical regime.
Trump has added a new swagger and unapologetic posture to this concoction of massive inequality, systemic racism, American exceptionalism and ultra-nationalism. He embodies a form of populist authoritarianism that not only rejects an egalitarian notion of citizenship, but embraces a nativism and fear of democracy that is at the heart of any fascist regime.

In Trump's world, the authoritarian mindset has been resurrected, bent on exhibiting a contempt for the truth, ethics and alleged human weakness. For Trump, success amounts to acting with impunity, using government power to sell or to license his brand, hawking the allure of power and wealth, and finding pleasure in producing a culture of impunity, selfishness and state-sanctioned violence. Trump is a master of performance as a form of mass entertainment. This approach to politics echoes the merging of the spectacle with an ethical abandonment reminiscent of past fascist regimes. As Naomi Klein rightly argues in No Is Not Enough, Trump "approaches everything as a spectacle" and edits "reality to fit his narrative."

As the bully-in-chief, he militarizes speech while producing a culture meant to embrace his brand of authoritarianism. This project is most evident in his speeches and policies, which pit white working- and middle-class males against people of color, men against women, and white nationalists against various ethnic, immigrant and religious groups. Trump is a master of theater and diversion, and the mainstream press furthers this attack on critical exchange by glossing over his massive assault on the planet and enactment of policies, such as the GOP tax cuts, which are willfully designed to redistribute wealth upward to his fellow super-rich billionaires. Trump's alleged affair with adult film star Stormy Daniels garners far more headlines than his deregulation of oil and gas industries and his dismantling of environment protections.

Economic pillage has reached new and extreme levels and is now accompanied by a ravaging culture of viciousness and massive levels of exploitation and human suffering. Trump has turned language into a weapon with his endless lies and support for white nationalism, nativism, racism and state violence. This is a language that legitimates ignorance while producing an active silence and complicity in the face of an emerging corporate fascist state…
--Henry A. Giroux, "The Ghost of Fascism in the Age of Trump" February 13, 2018, Truthout | News Analysis

Opinion | Op-Ed Columnist

Scandal-Ridden Scoundrel

February 15, 2018
New York Times

SCUMBAG-IN-CHIEF.  Credit Jim Watson
Agence France-Presse  Getty Images

Donald Trump has turned the political world upside down, again and again, like a kid flipping a coin. Every day we wake up to either a new scandal or several lingering ones.
It is astounding. It is maddening. It is numbing.
At this moment, he is embroiled in a scandal of a six-figure payment to a porn star who goes by the name Stormy Daniels and who, at one point, gave an interview in which she claimed that the two were engaged in an extramarital sexual affair.
He is also embroiled in a scandal over why a top aide, Rob Porter, accused of physically assaulting his two ex-wives, was allowed to remain on the White House staff even after these allegations had been brought to the attention of the White House by the F.B.I.
Exacerbating this scandal is the fact that the official White House timeline about the events leading to Porter’s resignation turned out to be a lie, according to sworn testimony on Tuesday by the F.B.I. director Christopher Wray. It is also exacerbated by the fact that after Porter resigned, Trump praised him, and initially failed to say anything about domestic violence in general, reserving that condemnation for a week later, when he said, “I’m totally opposed to domestic violence of any kind.”
And of course, there is the omnipresent issue of Russia attacking our elections in 2016 and the investigation into whether anyone in the Trump orbit colluded or cooperated with the Russians, conspired to commit a crime, lied to officers or tried to obstruct justice.

That’s just the big three at the moment. We also mustn’t forget that the president has never released his tax returns, he refused to sever ties with his businesses, and he is burning through our money going to golf courses or his properties with decadent regularity. He also defended Nazis and was disrespectful to the hurricane-ravaged people of Puerto Rico.
And Trump has lied about pretty much everything. As The Washington Post reported in November: “In the past 35 days, Trump has averaged an astonishing nine [false or misleading] claims a day. The total now stands at 1,628 claims in 298 days, or an average of 5.5 claims a day.”
Any of this would have crippled another president, but not Trump. In a perverse way, Trump appears to benefit from the sheer volume of his offenses. They overwhelm many Americans’ ability to process and track, maintain outrage or even fact-check.
This may rightfully be called Trump’s Deluge Doctrine of American Politics, a thing that many of us never properly feared because we never thought it possible. We never thought a man of such moral depravity and such little respect for propriety, protocol and honesty would ever be president.
But the storm is upon us; we are in it.
I must continue to submit that although I disagree vociferously with Trump on policy, my objection here isn’t about policy or partisanship. This is a fight for the soul of the country.
When more than a third of the country — among them many who once considered themselves part of the “moral majority” — stand with a man who is the literal antithesis of all the values they once professed, that is a problem for America. They are no longer interested in the health of the democracy. Their mission and objectives have veered into a dark place where vision is short and risks and dangers are multiple.
I know that it is a fool’s errand to try to convince these people that honesty, valor and character are fundamental requirements of the American presidency, and when they are lost from the office, the country itself is in peril.
As Trump himself said during the campaign, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” The enduring truth of that outrageous claim is a permanent stain that his supporters must carry.
These people are not only hypocrites; they are au pairs to his obscenity.
Who else would they have allowed to get away with paying off a porn star?
Who else would they have allowed to refuse to sufficiently acknowledge that the country had been attacked, with profound consequences and continued threat, by another country?
The director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, said Tuesday at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing:
“There should be no doubt that Russia perceived that its past efforts as successful and views the 2018 U.S. midterm elections as a potential target for Russian midterm operations.”
He continued:
“We need to inform the American public that this is real, that this is going to be happening, and the resilience needed for us to stand up and say we’re not going to allow some Russian to tell us how to vote, how we ought to run our country.”
But Wray testified at the same hearing that he had never been “specifically directed by the president” to prevent Russia from interfering in our elections.
That is a jaw-dropping statement. As the Harvard professor of constitutional law Laurence H. Tribe wrote on Twitter:
“F.B.I. director Wray just testified in the Senate that — despite Russia’s ongoing intrusions into our electoral systems — Potus has never charged the F.B.I. with protecting U.S. elections from Russia! Let that sink in. That’d be like F.D.R. doing nothing in response to Pearl Harbor.”
Let me be clear: Any president who refuses to protect Americans from a foreign threat is himself a domestic threat.
How can any of this be sustained? How can it be rationalized? How can it be tolerated?
America, what is left of it, is slipping away a little bit more every day, with a blessing and a wave from the truculent Trump supporters who simply get giddy whenever liberals lament.
This is the politics of the petty, where people dance and shout as the republic burns.
We patriots and dissidents, we many, we strong, we steadfast, are the last hope the country has of returning to what remains of a pre-Trump America, where porn stars weren’t paid off, accused wife beaters weren’t valorized and our president showed more allegiance to our country than to another.
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