The film's anti-French tropes lean into the Russian militia's propaganda
This weekend, a clip from the Hollywood film Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, tweeted out by French journalist Jean Bexon, went viral. It depicts a group of rapacious French mercenaries humiliated and forced to take the knee in front of the United Nations for attempting to loot an African country’s natural resources. The country is fictional, but the parallels were clear enough for the French Minister of Defence Sébastien Lecornu to “strongly condemn this false and deceptive representation of [France’s] armed forces.”
📸|Propagande – Dans la dernière production américaine Marvel (Black Panther Wakanda Forever), les mauvais mercenaires français qui opèrent au Mali sont habillés comme des soldats de l'opération Barkhane. pic.twitter.com/8qKJnutvL5
— Jean Bexon (@jean_bexon) February 11, 2023
While this might seem like an overreaction to Hollywood’s milquetoast tropes on colonialism, it appears as though there are many other aspects of the film that are in fact leaning into Wagner Group propaganda.
Over the last decade or so, the Russian mercenary group has been waging a major information war against its adversaries, especially against France in Western Africa. Ranging from cheap cartoons that frame French soldiers as invading zombies or snakes to films like Tourist, the themes remain the same: Russia’s mercenaries are the gallant saviours of the locals whereas the French are parasitic “demons”.
Those clips have gone viral through social media, but also via radios in countries with less internet access. Wagner pays local influencers to spread their talking points and even had some success recruiting local mercenaries. The mercenary group only narrowly missed a major propaganda coup when Wagner men attempted to stage a mass grave near one of France’s freshly abandoned bases in Gossi in Mali, only for their ploy to be caught on camera by a drone.
Parts of the Wakanda film are set in Ansongo, in the Gao region of Mali, where French soldiers first intervened and are still regularly targeted by jihadists. In the movie, the French mercenaries (that have been hired Wagner-style by the French government) use their outpost in Ansongo to prey on Wakanda’s natural resources.
But most disturbingly, Marvel took scrupulous care to equip the French mercenaries with uniforms (including battle fatigues) worn by French soldiers in the region for the past decade. Understandably, Lecornu thus saw in the movie a “serious informational attack” against his army. No doubt Wagner is grateful that one of the most powerful anti-French pieces of propaganda of the past decade was produced in America.
It’s easy to forget that it was at the request of the Malian government that France intervened a decade ago to save the country from a hostile takeover by jihadists. The conflict against these jihadist groups subsequently spread to the larger Sahel region at the cost of 58 French soldiers and billions of euros. And while in 2013 the French were warmly heralded as liberators, today they are increasingly seen as occupiers. Wagner propaganda was crucial to the souring of those relations.
Marvel are so far yet to respond to the controversy. It is unlikely they ever will. But this is an opportunity for France to be much more forceful in defending the raison d’être of its struggle at home and abroad against jihadism and its allies. It should also make the case very clearly that if a movie sounds at times like Wagner-style propaganda, then it might want to reconsider exactly which audience this is for.