White nationalists have embraced "Black Panther," Marvel Comics' blockbuster, to push their argument online that nation-states should be organized by ethnic groups, according to new research published Wednesday, an unlikely convolution of the groundbreaking African superhero movie.
One popular image circulating on far-right corners of the internet shows the title character -- the superhuman king of the fictional, secluded and wealthy African nation of Wakanda -- wearing a red "Make Wakanda Great Again" hat. This is an explicit homage to President Donald Trump's "Make America Great Again" campaign gear.
The image, first posted online in June, months before the film's February release, carried a headline of "BLACK PANTHER IS ALT-RIGHT," referring to the movement that espouses racist, anti-Semitic and sexist views and seeks a whites-only state. It claimed the superhero opposed immigration, diversity and democracy while favoring "ethno-nationalism" -- a profound mischaracterization of the movie's main themes, according to researchers at Data & Society, a New York-based think thank, that studied far-right online conversation about the film. They said the film uses science fiction and "Afro-futurism," a thematic exploration of African and African-American history, to explore real-life questions of culture, race and politics.
Similar misleading messages, the researchers said, are being delivered over YouTube, Twitter and 4chan, an anonymous online message board where far-right political activists often exchange views and plan disinformation campaigns, such as the recent effort to portray last month's high school shooting in Parkland, Florida, as a hoax. The researchers noted efforts by white nationalists to "downvote" "Black Panther" on the popular movie-rating site Rotten Tomatoes.
"They're very savvy about social media use. They know if they can cover 'Black Panther,' it'll show up in search results for people looking to learn more about the movie," said Becca Lewis, one of the Data & Society researchers. "They try to phrase white nationalism as identity politics for white people ... They're essentially trying to co-opt its identity politics."
Researchers said the episode seemed to mark a turn for white nationalists online. Instead of avoiding a cultural phenomenon that conflicts with their ideology, they have sought to subvert and transform it in hopes of recruiting followers and normalizing their views on white supremacy. The misinformation campaign also shows how such groups are increasingly propagating disinformation, by morphing breaking news and cultural touchstones into staging grounds for hateful ideologies and racist ideas.
Malkia Cyril, the executive director of the Center for Media Justice, an Oakland, California-based nonprofit group, said, "The claim that the Black Panther hero, King T'Challa, represents the core beliefs of the alt-right -- isolationism, antiglobalist, and racial homogeneity -- is preposterous, and can only be asserted by white supremacists or people who really don't understand the relationship between Africans in the diaspora and on the continent."
The research also described widespread efforts by conservative commentators to portray "Black Panther" as "anti-white" because of its mainly black cast and celebration of African heritage and identity. The movie, based on a series of comic books, focuses on the struggle of the superhero to protect his kingdom from attack while wrestling with moral questions about whether to share Wakanda's natural wealth and technology with the outside world.
The Black Panther and other characters in the film also engage extensively with the United States, where some of the action is set. But the traditional portrayal of Africans needing help from wealthy, white Westerners is flipped, with the superhero and other Wakandans bringing advanced technology and a quest for justice to a world badly in need of both. One of the few white characters, a CIA officer, is portrayed as generally well intentioned but occasionally feckless.
The researchers said white nationalists seeking to manipulate the portrayal of "Black Panther" created Twitter hashtags, including #Wakandaisntreal and #OpenBordersforWakanda. Others highlighted a number of Jewish people who worked on the film, to bolster the white-nationalist argument that the mainstream media is controlled by a Jewish cabal.
Alt-right podcasts and neo-Nazi blogs have for several months encouraged listeners and readers to call black Americans "Wakandans" and use memes in an attempt to belittle the movie's characters, fans and ideas.
A YouTube personality who the researchers say often espouses "ethnonationalist views" uploaded a video titled, "Black Panther: A Hero the #AltRight Deserves?" It says, "The Alt-Right should not only consider supporting the Black Panther movie, they should meme it all over social media, and attend screenings en masse, proudly showing their solidarity with him and his values. If not only just for the giggle factor, it would definitely confuse, disorient, and discombobulate those on the far-left."
Conservative and far-right groups have sometimes jumped on pop-culture phenomena to allege conspiracies or so-called liberal agendas. In December the self-described "alt-right" leader of a Facebook page named "Down With Disney's Treatment of Franchises and its Fanboys" blamed "Star Wars: The Last Jedi" for what he described as advancing a "feminist agenda."
NRA spokesman Grant Stinchfield at the time also went after Mark Hamill, who has spoken out in favor of stricter gun-control laws, by saying on NRA TV that "lightsabers and laser guns are what gave the good guys in every Star Wars movie a fighting chance." Stinchfield told Hamill to "go back to Hollywood, drink a latte, and call security to watch your back."
But this incident marks a reversal of sorts. Rather than use "Black Panther" as evidence of Hollywood's wayward liberalism, the alt-right has suggested the world's largest entertainment company is quietly supporting its beliefs.
The fact the movie has become a massive hit -- it currently sits as the seventh-highest grossing domestic movie of all time not adjusting for inflation -- has been used to further support its case.
The movie drew accolades as the first superhero movie featuring a predominantly black cast and has drawn particular enthusiasm with African-American audiences and in screenings in several African nations. It also has attracted a massive audience beyond these groups, grossing $242 million in its opening weekend in the United States and more than $1 billion worldwide.
Disney, the studio that produced the film, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
The movie's creators went to great lengths to incorporate elements of African culture, including authentic fabrics and other costume elements from around the continent, in producing the film. The Black Panther first appeared in Marvel comics in 1966 as a member of the Fantastic Four and later was the hero of several comic books.
"Wakandans are isolationist because they don't want to become refugees," said Kinjal Dave, one of the Data & Society researchers. "The far-right is isolationist because they don't want to accept refugees."