Watching Black Panther in the Netherlands

Watching Black Panther in the Netherlands


Black Panther – the Utrecht Experience.

On February 14th, 2018, my partner surprised me with a Valentine’s day film date to see Black Panther, the Marvel film starring a black superhero, a black anti-hero, and a mostly black cast. [1] I was thrilled. I study race, popular culture, and representation, and I had been following the advance hype for the film obsessively. As a personal bonus the film catered to my partner’s interest in superheroes, myths, and the Marvel Universe.

The film more than satisfied our hopes. It pulled together the threads of representation, activism and social media that preoccupy me in my work.

But the experience of watching Black Panther in the Netherlands was odd. I ended up watching the audience, as well as the film. I recently moved to Utrecht after living on the East Coast of America for twelve years. I am not sure what I expected. The anticipation in the US was intense. Here in the charming Dutch university town, Utrecht, the frenetic excitement, long lines, and creative dressing (cos-playing) that accompanied the premieres in the US were missing.

What was on display, though, was an audience that had much more ethnic diversity than I’ve ever seen in the lecture halls of the University. I expected that. But it was a jarring commentary on the distance between “town” and “gown” here in the Netherlands – or maybe just Utrecht. Its visibility in the theatre made the invisibility of (English language) discussion around it in my department striking. What does it tell us about ourselves, when our classrooms don’t resemble the social mix we see on our streets? The experience of attending a popular film in Utrecht made me wonder about that, not for the first time since my arrival here.

Museums, Colonizers, and Killmonger’s Choice

The film is great. And hilarious. There are lines in it that have become almost instant twitter memes and social media classics. Early in the film Eric Killmonger, the complex anti-hero, turns to a Museum curator:

Museum curator: “These items aren’t for sale.”
Killmonger: “How do you think your ancestors got these? Did they pay a fair price, or did they take them, like they took everything else?”

Killmonger then kills the curator, steals the object – a Wakandan Axe, and another – an African mask.

At the theatre in Utrecht this line was greeted with a gasp, and laughter of recognition. As museums here in the Netherlands grapple with how, whether, and when, to frame their stunning collections more fully within the context of colonialism and slavery that produced them, this moment had real, popular resonance. That might be a reflection point for museums here.

Much of the commentary on the film has tried to tease out how universal the themes are and how local. Something I couldn’t be one hundred percent sure of, but felt strongly, was that the Dutch audience immediately understood the white villain’s accent as not just South African, but Afrikaaner. South African, of Dutch descent, noted for their strong connection to instituting apartheid. That nuance, I suspect, was lost on American audiences. It points to the local resonance and the peculiarly Dutch colonial and national history into which the film landed.

Another line, that got maybe the biggest laugh of the evening, was the now-famous “Don’t scare me like that, colonizer.” Genius scientist, hero, my personal favorite character, Shuri, the sister of King and Black Panther T’Challa, snaps this at the white CIA character, when he walks up behind her, unexpectedly, in her high-tech science lab, her territory. The audience roared. The redress, the clapback, evident in Shuri’s line, hit a solid nerve of appreciation here, as it did in America, and by all reports throughout Africa too.

For me the most poignant scene in the film is the one in which Killmonger turns down a chance to be healed from deadly injuries, after a fight with T’Challa, the Black Panther. He assumes, once healed, he would be imprisoned for his crimes against the Wakandan state. He stares his cousin who is also his opponent, in the face, and calmly refuses life. “Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors that jumped from the ships. Because they knew death was better than bondage.” That scene left me in tears. I don’t know what the rest of the audience was doing. I was a mess.

Reflections and Conversations: Race, representation and Dutch society

black panther quoteWhat do we make of all of this. What might we reflect on, from a viewpoint devoted to equality and difference? I could go many ways. There are so many academic intersections possible I won’t even get to the gender analysis (but others have).

One reflection and question I’d pose for a Dutch audience is how the major opposition between t’Challa (the hero) and Eric Killmonger in the film resonates with the history of anti-racist activism here. The central opposition in the film reflects broader global black discussions, both now and over the centuries since slavery, as I point out in another blog.  I’d be interested in how Dutch conversations about race and colonialism resonate with the divide between t’Challa and Killmonger – law-based reform versus radical revolutionary activism. Does the conflict over the racist figure of Zwarte Piet demonstrate a corresponding split between gradual reformers and urgent confrontational mobilization?

A second central theme in the film is the role of Wakanda, the fictional African homeland of the Black Panther. This land has never been colonized and is a stable, well-governed, nation with powerful and sophisticated technology, well in advance of that of the West. Uncolonized African space. This fictional homeland resonates with ways in which Haiti and Ethiopia have had powerful mythic value for the African diaspora. Is there a corresponding history or representation in Dutch history? I’d love to follow that line of inquiry through.

I have a couple of other directions of inquiry, one of which is particularly appropriate to this conversation for MOED. Black Panther is a “popular” film, based on an underestimated genre within historical and “high culture” circles. Yet it has generated so many think-pieces, so much serious and sharp intellectual analysis and inquiry that it seems hard not to call it an artwork. But what does this do to our conventions of “Art”?

I’m not sure the Dutch audience cared whether the film counted as “art.” However, many global commentaries hailed it as history as well as entertainment. It reminds us that scholars have an obligation to see popular culture and social media as an essential terrain of engagement for how society and social relations are structured. For how they are experienced. This film was about race and power. Foucault eat your heart out.

The global embrace of the film, the deep hunger for it, revealed in the gloriously energetic audience response, also leaves activists, artists, and culture creators with the clear message that this kind of fun, entertainment, that takes black excellence, black dignity for granted, that assumes it as the natural center of a narrative – that’s a message the world wants. And the hunger for it also reveals just how unavailable it has been, just how difficult to offer in the confines of a massive mainstream success. I wonder if that is as true for the Netherlands as the United States.

[1] The two exceptions, being Andy Serkis and Martin Freeman, stars of the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films,  sparked the  joke they were the “Tolkien white guys” of the film. And yes, Valentine’s Day is lame/consumerist, and predicated on marketing and heteronormative representations.


Dr. Rachel Gillett is assistant professor in Cultural History, at Utrecht University.

A free film screening and discussion of Black Panther will be organized in Utrecht:

Movie Theatre ‘T Hoogt

6 June 2018, 14-16:15

*Welcome from 13:30, Q&A from 16:30 onwards

This workshop and the Decolonisation Group that organizes it are supported by UGlobe, the Utrecht Centre for Global Challenges. Film viewing organized with the UHSK Movie Commission and the support of the Cultural History Section of the Department of History and Art History.