Black Panther: A Futuristic Wakanda Inspired by African Cultures, Tackling Responsibility

This was a great movie that paired Marvel’s style of adventure and humor with a fresh feeling. The setting and costumes were absolutely gorgeous, blending a futuristic/sci-fi feel and inspiration from numerous African cultures for its aesthetic–from the Maasai people in East Africa, to the Zulu people in Southern Africa, to the Akan people of West Africa. (Waris @diasporicblues details several in a Twitter thread; Lynsey Chutel and Yomi Kazeem wrote Marvel’s ‘Black Panther’ is a broad mix of African cultures—here are some of them for Quartz Africa, which I was super excited to see mention Dahomey’s historical female warriors.) Black Panther is quite feminist as well, including black women as both major characters and a substantial chunk of the background characters.

And then there’s the main cast, though whom we experience the story. (Spoilers incoming.)

T’Challa has come from a long line of kings who’ve dedicated themselves to guarding Wakandan secrecy. His expectation, when he ascends to the throne, is that he must live up to their example. But as the plot develops and his assumptions are shaken, T’Challa’s ancestors are knocked down off that pedestal he’s put them on.

Suddenly, he doesn’t believe they have all the answers anymore. He’s willing to question their actions in a way he’d never have dared to, before.

His character journey encompasses questions that many of us have to ask ourselves at some point: Do we guard what we have, and refuse to reach out beyond that? Do we follow the precedents set before us? Or do we take a chance on the hope that we could make things better?

T’Challa starts out on the safe path. He’s got it pretty good, at the top of a nigh completely independent kingdom with advanced technology and resources that almost no one is competing for–because no one else knows they exist. But that means not using any of his extensive resources to alleviate the suffering in the world, even though he has the power to do that.

His views are challenged by the antagonist and what he learns of his own ancestors, enough to shake him out of that complacency. Black Panther is the story of T’Challa deciding what kind of leader he’s going to be, and what he’ll stand for. It’s how he deals with having his territory encroached upon for the first time, and how he responds to people he’d never considered his responsibility before. T’Challa’s personal journey is poised to change the entire outlook of Wakanda–from an isolationist policy to becoming a world leader–and the rest of the world, as an extremely advanced nation introduces its values and challenges prior assumptions.

While T’Challa is growing into his sense of responsibility, Nakia is already there. She starts the movie believing that Wakanda can do more for the world, and it’s her vision that T’Challa ultimately grows towards. From the beginning, she knows who she is. She knows what she stands for, and where her priorities lie.

She and T’Challa are in love, but they aren’t together until he becomes a partner in her goals. He has to work his way up to her level. She’ll support him, she’ll fight for him, but she won’t sacrifice who she is for him. Instead, he spends the movie moving into a place where he’s able to support her, too.

And of course, she’s absolutely instrumental to victory. Not just in the physical fighting that she participates in. It’s her quick-thinking and resourcefulness which makes the return of T’Challa as Black Panther possible, after our antagonist moves to prevent any challenge to himself. (Jazelle Hunt wrote a fascinating piece for The Mary Sue on how Nakia serves as the hero of the movie and how black women are represented–providing a totally different perspective. This serves as a great reminder on why it’s important to pay attention to what many individual black women and men are saying about Black Panther.)

Shuri is T’Challa’s hilarious younger sister. The cheer and wit she displays make her powerfully charismatic. Her willingness to mess with her brother and bring him down a peg is amusing, the wholeheartedness with which she throws herself into her actions is endearing–she adds a huge amount of character to the story.

Killmonger is a lost prince of Wakanda, abandoned by his people as a child. He’s a great antagonist, because his own experience with injustice is the motivation behind his actions. His grievances are genuine. He points out a real problem to the protagonist of the movie, and forces him to take that problem seriously. Nakia might very well be the most moral character in the series, but she and Killmonger are driven by the same type of problems that they see in the world. The two main differences are 1) that Killmonger has personally suffered from those problems, and 2) that the two of them propose completely different solutions.

His character has also prompted a lot of interesting discussion (much of which is for me to listen to, rather than participate in.)

I do find it curious–and I wonder if this was designed intentionally–that Killmonger never once so much as hears a single word about Nakia’s type of solution. I mean, yeah, we can imagine that he’d probably scoff at it. He’s been disappointed before–T’Challa’s own father killed his, and cut him off from his homeland in the process–and he’s been trained as a black-ops agent to use violence as a solution. He’s already killed even his own ally in pursuit of his vision (that essentially amounts to drafting black people across the world into his own army so he could conquer and rule the world–which by the way, comes with plenty of logistical issues. Like, how would he prevent smaller enclaves from forming their own government instead of declaring fealty to him? But I suppose that’s par for the course in movies, which don’t have room to explain a more complex plan.)

Wakanda becoming a world leader and pushing humanitarian issues could make a real difference, but it’s also a much slower solution, and one that would still have to overcome entrenched racism–it’s easy to imagine Killmonger dismissing it as too little, the kind of thing that wouldn’t be immediate enough to help someone like himself. Nor is it particularly self-deterministic, relying on a foreign nation to prompt changes.

But I still have to wonder. From start to finish, Killmonger believed he was fighting against Wakanda’s seclusion from the world. He died thinking, as far as we know, that nothing had changed for T’Challa. That T’Challa would do as all of his ancestors had done. Perhaps it doesn’t really matter, and it would have been pointless for T’Challa and Killmonger to have that conversation. But I find it so interesting that Killmonger died thinking his and T’Challa’s fight had always remained about doing something, versus doing nothing.

And it has to be said. His last line in the movie was incredibly powerful, evocative of what drives him as a character: “Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors that jumped from the ships. Because they knew death was better than bondage.”

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