I went to a 1 p.m. showing of Black Panther on a Monday, possibly an inconvenient time. But given all the discussions and the high media profile of the movie, I had expected to have to hunt for a good seat in a packed theatre. Not so much. At this showing I counted seven people in the theater. I damn near had a private showing.
Seeing as I am not well versed in the Marvel Universe, I deliberately sought out spoilers and discussions before I went in, but still think I was missing out on things that it was assumed I would understand from the get-go.
For instance, I was specifically told to stay until the very very end of the credits to see Easter Egg scenes and was glad to have done so for T’challa’s UN Speech when he curls his lip slightly in a tiny grin of pity and disbelief when a shiningly Caucasian fellow begins a question with the old chestnut “With all due respect” (meaning none) and ends it with “just what is it that Wakanda has to offer to us…?” Utterly perfect. (*For another view, see Further Reading link at end.) But there are lots of things I admit I do not know about this franchise, this world, and this context, and the characters who inhabit them.
I should say, before I go any further, that I did love the movie. It had everything necessary for a visual and cognitive feast. The images were strong, powerful, and impactful. For instance, the scenes at the great waterfall were amazing, complete with the serried ranks of Wakanda’s tribes perched on the ledges and their imaginative garb so gloriously full of African glamor and symbolism; the scenes in the world of the ancestors were heartrendingly beautiful, with the iconic acacia trees silhouetted against an improbable glowing sky. I have ALWAYS been carried by powerful drums and they use them well in the soundtrack.
But before I get into the sweep of the film itself, here are the thoughts I did come away with about the backstory.
The actual location of Wakanda on a map that belongs to our own universe is a little… iffy. I’ve seen several representations. The consensus has it somewhere in Equatorial Africa, but the details are fuzzy. Some have the country just north of Tanzania; others have it wedged much further west, and others much further east; some have it very specifically located, such as “in the middle of the African nations of Narobia, Uganda, Kenya, Somalia, and Ethiopia (a nice mix of real and handwavium there); some – specifically the Marvel Atlas #2 – show it at the north end of Lake Turkana, in between South Sudan, Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia.
That gives me a pretty good general idea of the geographic and cultural roots that such a place – in such a location – might boast. Influences might percolate from the north (the Somali, Ethiopian, Egyptian, Arabian sphere), the east (the Kenya and Uganda and neighboring territories sphere), the west (Nigeria and the rest of the West African nations) and the south (the Congo, and perhaps as far down as Zimbabwe).
Some of those influences are central to the story – the whole Bast storyline, for instance, underlying the Black Panther legend itself, Bast being an Egyptian goddess (and while we’re on that, just a minor question but one that did bounce me out of the storyline a little – the Jabari, whose article of faith is the White Ape (interesting ramifications there) are suddenly said to worship “Hanuman” – who, although he is certainly a monkey deity, is squarely attached to Hinduism and an entirely different continent for me. Odd.) But even given that such influences could have percolated past Wakanda’s impermeable outer defenses… we have the somewhat vexed question of language.
The protagonists speak in English so that the rest of us can understand them, of course – but they have their own language. That language (in our own world) maps onto Xhosa, one of the official languages of South Africa and spoken by nearly 8 million people. But that language – and the area in which it is spoken – is very very far away from Wakanda, no matter which preferred geographical locale you pick for it..
That general area is in fact surrounded by languages spoken by very many more millions of people (Igbo – 24 million or so; Yoruba, which is very widely spread because of the Atlantic slave trade and the diaspora and spoken in places as far afield as Brazil and on various Caribbean islands – 30 million plus; Hausa, used as a regional lingua franca as a first or second language in Western and Central Africa – more than 50 million people. And nobody even knows how many millions of people (it is estimated in excess of 100 million) use KiSwahili, as a first, second or third language).
It would make a great deal of sense to me for the Wakandan language to be more closely related to any one of these huge regional language groups which surround it, rather than a relatively small language spoken far away on the southern tip of the continent – and if a language that far south is to be considered, then I would have put greater weight on something like isiZulu..
But it would appear that John Kani, the veteran South African actor who plays T’chaka (T’Challa’s father) speaks Xhosa. He spoke it to his screen son. And thus it became the language of Wakanda, by default. I’ve seen squeals of utter pleasure by people who are utterly delighted that a recognizable indigenous language was used at all and are more than happy just to hear it uttered out loud by protagonists of a major movie on big screens across the world.
“How many people in Ohio have even heard of Xhosa?” demands a South African artist who cannot conceal her squee – and the answer to that is probably close to statistically zero. And it’s great that they learn of its existence out there in Ohio. But it isn’t just people from Ohio who are important here – I’m a story teller, and exactly the same question might have been logically asked if “Xhosa” had been replaced by any of those other languages I mention above, and it would have been far more satisfying to my craving for internal consistency.
There is of course the inescapable connection that one of Xhosa’s most famous native speakers was none other than Nelson Mandela, which leads one article I’ve read to say, “That means now one of Africa’s most beloved make-believe leaders will forever communicate in the language of one of its most historic real-life ones.” I wonder how deliberate that was.
Most of the characters speak English with the accent I heard during my own formative years in Africa. It’s an accent which speaks of it not being a native tongue, and it’s great to hear that being acknowledged. Hearing Kilmonger swagger on with his distinctive and unrepented American English (would you believe “Wassup?” in one instance?) – as the enemy – may be a little lost on an American audience. But although “colonizer” covers a lot of ground here, it’s the Americans – as represented by the militarized, brutalized, cold-hearted, mercenary Kilmonger – who come off as the antagonist and the foe here. The Americans, who are ready to make arms deals. The Americans, who are waiting in the wings with cold hard cash to sweep up all the tech that might be up for grabs here.
And while we’re on the accents, let’s not skate past what I’ve seen referred to as the “Tolkien white men” – Andy Serkis (who played Gollum) and Martin Freeman (who played Bilbo the Hobbit). It’s a little disconcerting to hear the hard “SarfAfrican” coming from Serkis – but having American English come out when Martin Freeman opens his mouth is positively weird. He plays a perfectly good American agent, looks wise – but oh, he does not talk that way. I kept on feeling an itch between my shoulder blades when he spoke. It was just… oddly… wrong…
Wakanda is noteworthy in that it has been hidden, and never colonized by outsiders (the epithet “colonizer”, used as a somewhat derogatory put-down word by Shuri when accosted by the intruding presence of the American CIA agent wandering around her demesne, is inspired). But this hidden, walled off demesne has somehow managed to take in by osmosis a great deal of cultural background that is identifiable from elsewhere in Africa. If people are justifiably irked when outsiders reduce the continent of Africa to the equivalent of a single country or bristle at the uneducated, “oh, you’re from Egypt? You must know my cousin, she lives in Cape Town!” – it seems to me that Wakanda itself has somehow defined itself as Africa. A country, as a continent.
For instance, let’s take a look at the Wakanda tribes.
The Panther Tribe (the Royal family) which includes our main protagonists King T’Challa and his sister Princess Shuri, the “black panther” tribe, is under the influence and protection of the (Egyptian) goddess Bast. The Border Tribe – which lives, as described, on Wakanda’s borders and is partly charged with protecting the perimeter of the nation, may look at a cursory glance like simple tribal cattle herders – but their (Lesotho) blankets are woven with vibranium and function as pretty good shields in battle, and oh, the cattle they raise…? Are battle rhinos. More about those later. The Mining Tribe (responsible, as in their nomen, for mining Wakanda’s treasure of vibranium) look rather like the Himba people from Namibia. And the River Tribe, with dominion and responsibility over the nation’s waterways, bear the markings and the cultural identifiers (such as lip rings, inserted into the lower lip) as practised by indigenous tribes in the central and southern part of Africa, particularly the well-documented women from the Mursi tribe in southwestern Ethiopia.
As mentioned before, there’s also the Jabari Tribe, the Hanuman worshippers, which has retreated into the mountains to live according to the old non-technological ways. All of these people have a couple of clans of warriors and protectors. There are the so-called War Dogs (the Wakandan equivalent of a secret police, who are confined (in the original comic canon) to Wakanda itself and only leave it when absolutely necessary but in the movie version they appear to be rather more widely spread and function as operatives, agents and spies in the outside world (T’Challa’s girlfriend is one of them – and we meet her involved in what looks a lot like the foiling of a Boko Haram heist of girls from Nigerian villages; So, it seems, was the King’s brother, at least nominally – because the War Dogs are identified by a tattoo in Wakandan script inside their lower lip, one borne by both the traitorous brother and by Eric Kilmonger who uses it to gain credibility and access in Wakanda when he makes his play for the throne). And the Royal family itself has the Dora Milaje (the “Adored Ones”), at least partially based on the historical Dahomey Amazons, a female bodyguard army which answers to and protects the Black Panther himself – according to what I’ve read of them culled from the daughters of the tribes, both as protectors and as potential wives for the King. They are identified by their shaved heads, the distinctive armor, and the neck rings as distinctively worn by certain Ndebele tribes.
So the isolated, defended, insular, never-colonized country of Wakanda already has identifiable influences which come from the length and breadth of the continent of Africa – and it has also been pointed out (by the director himself in a video I watched) that the juxtaposition of the colors worn in the Korean casino by T’challa and his two female companions are black, red and green, which are the colors of the Pan African Flag. Wakanda… IS Africa.
That is partly why so many people out there are cheering and identifying with it – because there are aspects that are borrowed and woven in from everywhere and people are recognizing it. It is hard to believe, then, that it is so isolated – and indeed, cultural references drop at the end of the movie when Shuri complains that when her brother said he’d take her to California she thought he meant “Disneyland, or Coachella” rather than the projects and the backyard basketball court where she finds herself (it’s a little disheartening that the first response of the kids in that backyard basketball court, upon seeing the unique and one-of-a-kind Wakandan “spaceship” land in the street, is “we can cut it up and sell it for parts”. Just what did they imagine the market for those parts might be?
It gets a little better with the next snatch of dialogue – “It’s from Wakanda” – “What’s a wakanda?” – there’s at least HOPE…). Wakanda may not have been “colonized”, but they have certainly been “infected” by outside ideas. Which is why it is a little odd that everybody is so utterly surprised by Kilmonger’s agenda.
Am I being picky and didactic?
As I said at the beginning, I loved the movie and it had everything – powerful images full of African glamor and symbolism; heartrendingly beautiful world of the ancestors scenes, the improbable glowing sky, the powerful drums.
And I have a soft spot for humor used well, and they do a wonderful job here with that. For a start, was that Stan Lee gathering up the winnings in the Korean casino??? Shuri’s interactions with the interloping visiting American idiot (“Don’t touch anything”, she tells him peremptorily, like a dowager would a sticky-fingered toddler; and then, at his awed, “is this Wakanda?” she comes back with a snarky, “No, Kansas.”) are priceless.
The Jabari king’s laconic “Are you done?, cutting through the sediment of sentimentality threatening to pile on deep on the floor of his reception chamber, is a tonic. The obligatory car chase through the back streets of a Korean town is priceless, really, when leavened with touches such as a car disintegrating completely and leaving the driver skidding to a stop with only the seat she’s sitting on and the steering wheel she’s still clutching.
And, um, remember those rhinos I mentioned earlier? Who knew they could defy the laws of physics by stopping on a dime (have you ever seen a rhino run? Even an ordinary one, never mind the Godzilla variety depicted here complete with vibranium armor all over them?) and then deliver sloppy kisses with an oversized tongue to what is supposed to be an enemy in the midst of a battlefield?
There are some achingly memorable good lines. “It’s hard for a good man to be King,” spirit-T’chaka tells his son in the land of the ancestors. The interactions with Kilmonger are almost always rewarding – he’s described as “a monster of our own making”, he is told that he has “become the enemy”, and of course his passionate demand to be buried in the ocean with those of his people who jumped from the slave ships being taken from Africa, “because death was better than bondage”…
Which leads me neatly into some of the deeper aspects of the storyline, and there are two that I would like to unpack just a little.
The first is the familiar theme that with great power comes great responsibility, and it is something that T’challa wrestles with throughout the movie. He has the power; what is his responsibility? Is it to be the kind of King like his father was – who tells him “I chose my people, I chose Wakanda”? Is doing something different a betrayal of that legacy? There is a devastating inability to give a good answer when Kilmonger demands, in the face of death and suffering and oppression of people like themselves out there in the real world, where Wakanda was when all this was taking place. Yes, Wakanda has accumulated a great number of gifts in its careful cultivated isolation. But at what price? And it is that price that is at heart of the movie.
And if you want to look at it that way… in the end, Kilmonger’s ideas actually win. Yes, leavened by T’challa’s own personal convictions – but he ends Wakanda’s isolation. Against all law and tradition. That’s why that Easter Egg speech scene at the end of the movie is so important. To wit, this speech:
“Wakanda will no longer watch from the shadows. We can not. We must not. We will work to be an example of how we, as brothers and sisters on this earth, should treat each other. Now, more than ever, the illusions of division threaten our very existence. We all know the truth: More connects us than separates us. But in times of crisis, the wise build bridges while the foolish build barriers. We must find a way to look after one another, as if we were one single tribe.”
The land that has never been a part of the world is now stepping up to a potential leadership position in it – because, with its technological advances which it is now apparently ready to share with the rest of the world, it is already a leader, since it has so much more by way of knowledge and (let’s face it) raw material than anything else. And the king knows this.
Since vibranium is Wakanda’s resource to control any tech powered by it or using it invariably comes under Wakanda’s control. They can ask any price. There is a power there that’s headspinning; it will take a strong man to handle it. T’challa might. But he’d better train any successor extremely well, because it would be so easy for that successor to slip into hegemony and into greed.
Wakanda has stepped into a minefield of an existence – and that’s the second theme, the balance between isolationism and outreach. Quite aside from the very human and insatiable curiosity about a place which is possibly the last “new” thing on this world, now everyone’s eyes are on the newly opened up country. It might never have been colonized but now it might well be overrun. And how is the exposure to the outside world on a greater scale going to affect the laws and traditions of Wakanda itself? What if the outside world declares accession by combat at the Warrior Falls to be a “barbaric custom”? Yes, they can defend it. Yes, they can continue it. But there will always be a sense of hot shame in some that they are not “progressive” enough for the rest of the world, a feeling that the world is laughing at them for being archaic and hidebound and unwilling to enter the “modern” world, despite the tech advances granted by vibranium?
How does the delicate balance of a traditional society with the high tech at its heart endure in the face of the pitiless and all too often ignorant and judgmental glare of the rest of the world? What is to stop some foreign power (probably America) starting a mining operation outside Wakanda’s borders – but then starting to dig sideways in an attempt to get at the vibranium deposits from the outer perimeter? Would such an operation intrinsically destabilize what is going on in the heart of the deposit, in Wakanda? What happens if vibranium outside Wakandan control gets distribution outside the country – who gets it, what does it get used for, what price is paid for it? And about those foreign mining operations themselves – what if those inexperienced miners end up blowing themselves up (and possibly damaging the vibranium at it)? What happens if – mindful of their inexperience – those operators start out by bribing or kidnapping a Wakandan to direct the work? At what point does Wakanda consider this an act of war, and what do they do about it?
At the end of this movie, I felt not as though I had come to the conclusion of a story, but that I was at the beginning of one – and one with no guaranteed happy endings, either.
Yes, Wakanda Forever! But the world is not kind. And when the shine of the new wears off… well, that tale might yet be told. Kilmonger is handed the old cliché and he actually utters it – “The sun will never set on the Wakandan empire”. But that has been said of too many empires that have come and gone. And it does not do to give in to hubris. The fall always comes. And the higher the rise, the more devastating the fall. I find myself holding my breath for Wakanda, when I think about any of this a little more deeply.
Kilmonger is an incredibly layered antagonist – one we aren’t meant to root for but who utters several things that it is entirely easy to identify with. One finds oneself agreeing with his ends, if not his means. Or at the very least with some of his ideas. And it is hard to say that he didn’t simply come to take back what he saw as having been stolen from him. And when the royal women declare passionately that an “outsider” sits on the throne of Wakanda, that may be true in the sense that he was not raised in the culture and there are ways in which he comprehensively fails to comprehend or to value it – but the fact remains that he is as royal as his cousin when it comes to heritage,
Witness the fact that he is able to become the Black Panther himself. But in the end one has to choose a side – and even though I have to say that the Good Panther/Bad Panther fight in the vibranium shafts goes on just a titch too long, what comes after it – the conclusion of the movie – is luminous.
The great killer, the cold-souled mercenary, has been brought up on stories of the beauty of the sunsets of Wakanda – something he had never been given the chance to see, something that was his heritage as well as T’challa’s, something that was at least part of the prize that he grasped when he took the throne. He had come back, he had finally come home to the land that had ejected and abandoned him, he had come back to claim those sunsets of the fairy tales of his childhood. And yet it is with a vibranium blade in his vitals that he crouches on the ledge between the carved panther paws of Bast, his face to that sunset. His triumph; his last sunset on this earth. And the poignancy of that, the power of that, is throat-closing.
Because, you see, I understand.
I was ten years old when I first stepped out of an airplane onto the tarmac of an airport in Lusaka, Zambia, and looked up at the African sky… and fell in love. I have had many African sunsets – not Wakandan, but the sun painted a sky just as African as that, and you know what, Kilmonger’s mourning yearning exiled father was completely right. He had told his son that the sunset in Wakanda was the most beautiful thing he could ever hope to see.
And in the end… in the tangled web of all the other stories that led us here… that in itself is treasure enough. In some ways all the vibranium in the world, all the thrones in the world, all the power and the influence in the world, is not enough to pay the price of a single African sunset, when that sunset paints the skies of your soul.
Wakanda Forever. May the sun set on the empire every night, in glory… and in the morning, rise again.
* Further Reading HERE