Marvel and Walt Disney’s blockbuster “The Black Panther” has already raked in $922 million globally and is soon expected to blow past the billon mark. So far the film ranks as the ninth-biggest domestic moneymaker of all time.
With a dazzling, predominantly black cast; a compelling futuristic vision of a mythical African country untouched by colonial predation; a kickass regiment of bald female warriors; gorgeous men shrink-wrapped into panther suits; and a brilliant female scientist carrying the torch for the character Q of the James Bond series, there’s a lot to enjoy in Marvel's high-adrenaline adventure. (The Black Panther character first appeared in Marvel Comics in July 1966.)
There’s a plot point, however, that is leaving some moviegoers a bit puzzled. In the film, agent Everett Ross (Martin Freeman) is a white CIA operative (spoiler!) whose selfless heroics help the Wakandans save their kingdom. However given the intelligence agency’s checkered history, especially in Africa, the CIA’s star billing and heroic turn in a celebration of black empowerment feels a touch off-key.
The CIA’s star billing and heroic turn in a celebration of black empowerment feels a touch off-key.
The character of Ross debuted in a 1998 Black Panther comic as a bumbling State Department attorney. Christopher Priest, one of the comic's most influential writers, has stated that Ross, based on the Chandler Bing character from the TV program “Friends,” was enlisted to help bring in white audiences — the primary readers of Marvel comics. Not until the character made the leap to film in “Captain America, Civil War” (2016), was Ross reinvented as a skillful CIA operative.
The agency, as Tricia Jenkins explains in her 2016 book “The CIA in Hollywood,” has a long history of partnering with Tinsel Town, dating back to the 1950s. During the Cold War, movies helped win over foreign audiences, shape U.S. foreign policy and promote a rosy view of American life. The agency would often push for script adjustments, to make the United States look less racially divided.
Before the 1990s, CIA agents in film and on TV were either bad guys (“Three Days of the Condor”) or comical screw-ups ("Get Smart”). That was partly the result of stunning revelations from the Church Committee, a 1975-6 Senate panel chaired by Idaho Sen. Frank Church that investigated abuses by U.S. intelligence agencies. The committee revealed that, among other things, the CIA and FBI had been spying on and harassing American civil rights leaders and anti-war protesters. In response, some Democrats, like Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, went so far as to call for the abolition of the CIA. Congress demanded greater transparency and oversight of its spying operations.
By the end of the Cold War, the agency needed an image makeover. So it hired Chase Brandon, a veteran secret operative, to help it get cozy with filmmakers, actors and producers. CIA agents in the movies soon became heroes working for a highly moral organization desperately needed in the world.
The 1990s saw the birth of the Tom Clancy film franchise, with Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford and Ben Affleck portraying intrepid CIA agent Jack Ryan. Since 9/11, the CIA has worked directly on programs like “24” and “Homeland.” Jennifer Garner, who played agent Sydney Bristow in the TV show “Alias,” even did a CIA recruitment commercial. The moviemakers behind “Zero Dark Thirty,” a film about hunting down Osama bin Laden, worked closely with the agency.
Indeed since 9/11, as author Nicholas Schou laid out in his article, “How the CIA Hoodwinked Hollywood,” the agency has been working overtime with moviemakers to bolster its image. Langley regularly grants special access and favors to movie people at its headquarters — access often denied to journalists.
So while it’s not so surprising that a CIA agent is a hero on the screen, what does it mean in this particular movie?
“The Black Panther” tells the tale of T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman), the new king of Wakanda, an independent country that possesses the most potent mineral on Earth. T'Challa is confronted by Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordon), a black revolutionary whose violent creed puts not only Wakanda, but the whole world at risk. T’Challa and his people must team up with Agent Ross to save the day.
Since 9/11, the agency has been working overtime with moviemakers to bolster its image. Langley regularly grants special access and favors to movie people at its headquarters.
The CIA’s long history of involvement in the affairs of African nations presents a contrasting backdrop, however. Take what happened in the Congo in the early 1960s, when independence was stirring on the African continent, a region long battered and looted by colonialists and profiteers.
Patrice Lumumba, a young intellectual and Pan-African nationalist, was elected the first prime minister of the independent Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1960. He was determined to make the mineral-rich country an African success. But Lumumba got on the wrong side of Washington by being friendlier to the Soviets than was thought acceptable to U.S. interests. Declassified documents reveal that the CIA engaged in covert actions in the country, including plans to replace Lumumba with a more pro-Western leader. The agency even allegedly cooked up a scheme to poison his toothpaste. Then in 1961, Lumumba was captured by a secessionist group and brutally murdered.
In 2002, the former colonial power Belgium admitted involvement in the killing. But there has never been a full explanation of the U.S. role.
The CIA is also widely believed to have meddled heavily in the governments of Chad and Angola. The 1962 arrest of South Africa’s Nelson Mandela was claimed by ex-CIA agent Donald Rickard to have come as a result of a CIA tip-off. At the time, Mandela was considered a communist enemy of the U.S. and a dangerous revolutionary. He spent 27 years behind bars before his release and election as South Africa’s first black president.
Writing for “Esquire,” Steven Thrasher asks, “Does the film ask its audience to root for the wrong character?”
Not surprisingly, the fact that a black revolutionary leader in “The Black Panther” is the bad guy, while the CIA agent is a good guy, rubs some black audiences the wrong way. Writing for “Esquire,” Steven Thrasher asks, “Does the film ask its audience to root for the wrong character?”
“Killmonger wants to use Wakanda’s weapons to stop the suffering of black people globally, and we, the audience, are manipulated into rooting against this because we live in an ideology in which nonviolence is always expected of black people no matter what,” Thrasher writes. “I could not bring myself to root against Killmonger’s desire to help the black diaspora any more than I could begrudge him wanting to take the throne of… the child of the man who’d killed his father.”
Thrasher also quotes author James Baldwin, who believed white people wanted to think of black people as nonviolent because “white men do not want their lives, their self-image, or their property threatened.”
It should be noted that the CIA tried to influence the writing of many authors and artists, including Baldwin, through the Congress for Cultural Freedom. This organization, founded by intellectuals in 1950, was later revealed to be secretly sponsored by the agency.
If there’s a new stage in the rapprochement between Hollywood, American liberals, and the national security state, Agent Ross’s leap from an inept comic book character to an adroit film persona may capture it.
Thrasher is critical of how Killmonger is morally contrasted with Ross aka “your friendly neighborhood CIA agent,” noting that the agent prevents “Killmonger’s crew from exporting weapons from Wakanda to help black people.” Ross, Thrasher argues, is therefore used tovalidate and excuse U.S. imperialism, “granting cover to how the CIA (in our Wakanda-less world) has been arming African countries and playing them against each other for decades.”
There’s also a Twitter hashtag, #TeamKillmonger, that expresses the views of filmgoers like Thrasher, who are more sympathetic to the anti-hero than the dull-by-comparison heir to Wakanda.
The movie also seems to track with a political realignment in regards to U.S. intelligence. Since the Ronald Reagan era, Republicans have typically viewed the CIA as the movie treats agent Ross: the ultimate good guy. By contrast, many Democrats have often been far more skeptical.
In the Trump era, however, these positions have been essentially reversed. Conflicts between the president and the national security apparatus appear to have encouraged many Democrats’ friendlier stance toward to the agency.
If there’s a new stage in the rapprochement between Hollywood, American liberals, and the national security state, Agent Ross’s leap from an inept comic book character to an adroit film persona may capture it. “The Black Panther” takes moviegoers for a ride — but perhaps not quite as liberating as it promises.
Lynn Stuart Parramore is a cultural theorist who studies the intersection between culture and economics. Her work has appeared at Reuters, Quartz, Lapham’s Quarterly, Salon, VICE, Huffington Post and others.