Jackson Square Landmark Cinemas sold out Black Panther tickets for at least five days straight. I finally managed to find a showing one evening with three seats for my brother, my friend, and I. I was excited for a variety of reasons: I have always wanted to see a cat-themed superhero (Catman, for example); I had enjoyed the character development of T’Challa in Captain America: Civil War; and there was a hope that some kind of plot point would tie in the film to Infinity War (coming in May).
My brother asked me, tentatively, “What did you think?”
My response was: “Hm.”
On occasion, highly enjoyable films get me thinking. Sometimes due to personal interest/bias (Thor: The Dark World) or due to high production value (Harry Potter series) a film can “dupe me”, so to speak, so that it isn’t until after I leave the theatre that I really begin to question, critique, or consider what I had just seen. Confused films within which I have little commitment (emotional or cognitive), on the other hand, trigger my internal literary critic, disallowing me unalloyed enjoyment of a film. Black Panther was one such film for a variety of reasons, but in this post, I want to address a foundational issue with the film: a confused/confusing message packaged within the representation of Wakanda.
To the average viewer, Wakanda represents the best of African culture. However, like the representations of Nordic culture in the Thor franchise, I feel that Black Panther represented an uneasy meeting of present and past. These troubled representations of Africa, for Black Panther, resulting in a confused message about what Africa does and could mean. I found that the representation of Wakanda was complicated by a confused combination of “noble savage” and Western ideals surrounding concepts of culture, politics, and progress.
When it comes to the culture and politics of Wakanda, it was heartening to see how this futuristic representation of Africa still carries with it some vestiges of a long history of tribal culture (with an additional gloss of monarchy on top).
Still, it behooves us to consider that European culture in the far past was also based on “the clan” (one need look no further than the Scots for signs of close kinship bonds within a singular people group), yet such relationships are rarely (if at all) taken into account in mainstream Western culture, let alone politics. For example, on occasion, one might be able to participate or witness a Scottish ceilidh complete with fiddles and bagpipes, but in general, Europeans do not conduct political matters with the same clan/tribal processes as our Nordic and Gaelic ancestors. So, therefore, while it is gratifying to see Africa keep some form of its kinship bonds (as seen by the presence of tribes within Wakanda), it makes me wonder if this is also a form of nostalgia that codes African identity in specific ways, implying that African culture cannot undergo drastic change as Asian and European (and other) cultures have. In this sense, one could see how concepts of the “noble savage” (the representation of tribal culture without the nuances present today) or a subtle positioning of African culture as backward could be read within this film’s Wakanda.
On the other hand, the traditional image of “the noble savage” is complicated in this film due to Wakanda’s immense immersion and development within the technological sphere. Wakanda can be seen as being positioned to support Western ideals about progress.
Progress, within the West, is linked to technology and innovation. Progress also implies an increase in human integrity, awareness of social obligation to the community (local or global), health, longevity, and intelligence. Wakanda appears to be pursuing these ideals quite successfully – and therein lies the problem: the African self congratulates itself on attaining equal level to “white” culture, thereby legitimizing the white position right off the bat. I am not suggesting that African people (and/or African-Americans) cannot or do not want what European and American culture has brought us: trains, telephones, and computer technology; yet, it makes me wonder why Wakanda ends up with a society based on technology, protectionist policies, and a masculinist biopolitics (present in the kingship duels, excluding the incredibly strong females somehow).
In some ways, Black Panther applauds Africa (and African-Americans) in their struggle to be rise to (and surpass) the standards of European/American culture without questioning whether that initial standard is beyond questioning to start with.
So when Wakanda’s wall was revealed towards the beginning of the film, I was immediately struck by the signifier of its presence: both as a protection of the African ideal AND “the African dream” and as an obstacle of division to be overcome, like Trump’s Mexican wall. In the end, the wall, metaphorically and physically, comes down as a triumphant statement – to share wealth and knowledge to the rest of the world [see Note 1].
HEART-SHAPED HERBS AND VIBRANIUM
There are many other questions raised within Black Panther, but I will end with the question: given the context of production (American-based Disney and Marvel), what can Wakanda represent? I would argue that Wakanda’s representation of a mainly Edenic Africa is troubling, and we need look no further than the metaphor of its secret resources: the heart-shaped herb and vibranium.
Representing the “original spirit and traditions of Africa”, the heart-shaped herb gives power to the few allowed to ingest it, allowing the T’Challa (and Killmonger) to visit the ancestral plane. In the film, it is interesting to note that Killmonger orders the flowers to be burnt, when he decides to pursue war and an exploitative use of vibranium. Perhaps here we see a warning against the complete erasure of African tradition and spirituality in the face of progress.
Also, there is vibranium, representing the ideals and power of “civilization and technology”, which makes Wakanda a unique African nation, powers the country’s progress, and places Wakanda on the world stage in a dominant manner by the end of the film. Alongside Everett K. Ross, we are encouraged to view “a whole new world” of splendid invention and progress, without questioning why that kind of life might be pursued in the first place.
These two seemingly contradictory visuals touch on a specific vision for Africans, especially African-Americans: a new way – an African path – to civilization. African-Americans, given their past within the colonial context, may find within Wakanda a source of inspiration – a can-do-it spirit. However, the erasure of Africa in the pursuit of progress and the Disneyfied representation of the ancestral plane ought to raise question marks around the target audience of Black Panther (is this film really about Africa?) and what Wakanda really represents (must progress be defined by European standards?).
Black Panther‘s Wakanda is, therefore, a fair beginning at visualizing Afro-futurism, but is not a wholly perfect picture of what the African dream could entail. I would have preferred to see a Wakandan version of technology that would lie beyond the scope of European invention. This organic form of progress would better support an African tribal system of governance which would be more communal, allowing space for African women’s voices and offering a more nuanced picture of African intelligence, politics, and culture [Note 2].
[Note 1] With a statement at the UN, Wakanda announces its desire to share its knowledge and wealth, with the implicit expectation that their offer will be accepted… which then leads to another scene at the end of the film showing T’Challa and his sister landing in a basketball court (further stereotyping and identifying African-America) to spread their knowledge, wealth, and culture. The way these two scenes were cut were incredibly disjointed, not really allowing for any of the countries to respond except in a positive manner, making Wakanda seem rather presumptuous, if well-meaning, and perhaps more easily linked to colonial processes.
[Note 2] As a writer, I would have mined the history of ancient African cultures, such as Timbuktu (Mali) or Alexandria/Cairo (Egypt) to create a deep African culture of scholarship and progress with more organic forms of technology with which to confound the foreign gaze and set standards for the globe. Such technology would be unrecognizable to an outsider, reversing sources of fundamental knowledge and offering another kind of plot besides the usual “rise to power” origin story.
Biakolo, Kovie. “Black Panther” Forces Africans And Black Americans To Reconcile The Past. [link]
Bundei, Ani. What Is The Heart-Shaped Herb In ‘Black Panther’? Here’s What We Know About The Powerful Plant. [link]
Chutel, Lynsey. Black Panther has some impressive superpowers—solving cultural appropriation isn’t one of them. [link]
Marvel Database. Heart-Shaped Herb. [link]
Mtshali, Khanya Khondlo. Black Panther is great. But let’s not treat it as an act of resistance [link]
Rattansi, Shihab. Is Black Panther co-opting African struggles against oppression? [link}
Rickford, Russell. I have a problem with Black Panther. [link]