In 1966, Jack Kirby and Stan Lee created Black Panther — the first superhero of African descent. 50 years and countless Marvel movies later, the studio looked into adapting the character into a movie. The result was director Ryan Coogler’s cinematic masterpiece that has attained the status of a legend among superheroes. Black Panther is Marvel’s highest-grossing movie in the United States and is the first superhero movie ever to be nominated for the Oscars. In the days post its release, the movie spawned the hashtag, #WhatBlackPanthermeanstome, with people from all walks of life sharing, the significance the representation of African culture in the movie holds for them. However, to simplify Black Panther’s genius as merely a matter of representation is to take a lot away from the use of Afrofuturistic techniques that make this representation a qualitative factor as opposed to a quantitative one. Sociologist Alondra Nelson, who pioneered work on the theory in the late 20th and early 21st century expounded on the task of Afrofuturism as an exploration of “futurist themes in black cultural production and the ways in which technological innovation is changing the face of black art and culture”. Through the course of this paper, I shall analyse the use of Afrofuturism in the creation of Wakanda. The paper shall particularly focus on the use of the native African elements in the construction of a narrative of the celebration of Black culture.
Coined by Mark Deary in 1994, Afrofuturism is a technique of Black speculative fiction that uses science fiction and futuristic imagery to imagine a future for Black people rooted in the African diaspora. In his essay anthology Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture, Dery talks about how “the sub-legitimate status of science fiction as a pulp genre mirrors the subaltern position to which blacks have been relegated throughout American history.” Therefore, in a canon that has historically suppressed Black narratives, it does not come as a surprise that Black artists took to the genre to tell their stories. However, the understanding of Afrofuturism should not be limited to viewing it as a subgenre of science fiction. Afrofuturism is not a Black response or a coloured engagement with science fiction. It is the creation of Afro-diasporic realities that negotiate with inequitable distribution of technology and are therefore fictional in their existent social contexts.
Black Panther borrows heavily from authentic African tradition to create the wonderful amalgamation of African culture–that is the country of Wakanda. It is a reimagining of a history that never really panned out. It is the story of a nation untouched with colonialism and slavery which therefore has been successful in preserving its cultural practices. For centuries, the idea of Africa had been distorted to fit into White narratives that justified its slavery. Western literature and media constructed the idea of the horrific “dark continent” that requires a civilised white man. In his article ‘Black Panther and the Invention of Africa’, Jelani Cobb from The New Yorker writes, “Africa — or, rather, “Africa” — is a creation of a white world and the literary, academic, cinematic, and political mechanisms that it used to give mythology the credibility of truth. No such nation as Wakanda exists on the map of the continent, but that is entirely beside the point. Wakanda is no more or less imaginary than the Africa conjured by Hume or Trevor-Roper, or the one canonized in such Hollywood offerings as “Tarzan.” ” The shield that obstructs the common eye from viewing the true nature of Wakanda is symbolic of the colonisers’ gaze that has always been the lens of viewing Africa. Black Panther redefines this shield, and gives to the community, a future beyond it. Thus, Afrofuturism is a redemptive reclamation of history by the new generation of Black artists, an idea that is exemplified by Black Panther in its majority Black cast and crew.
Furthermore, Afrofuturism emanates from a point of loss of identity and regional history that has shadowed the lives of African Americans. As descendants of former slaves, they have continued to grapple with their regional identity, never having belonged to America and not being African enough. In an interview, Chadwick Boseman, who plays the titular character in the movie spoke about the lack of an oral tradition, never having known which part of Africa he exactly belonged to. Black Panther’s Afrofuturism attempts to locate this history through speculative fiction, and the answer that emerges is the nation of Wakanda.
The aforementioned idea of oral tradition, which is particularly important in African culture is evoked in the very first scene of the movie. The movie opens with a voiceover that tells the story of the five tribes that form Wakanda and its history with Vibranium. The narrator is later revealed to be N’ Jobu, the father of Erik Killmonger, who is narrating to his son, the history of their home. However, the voiceover goes beyond serving a narrative function. The narration by N’Jobu, who is living in United States as a War Dog (the central intelligence agency of Wakanda), seeks to complete that sense of loss that has accompanied African Americans, that was articulated by Chadwick Boseman in his interview It seeks to give a metaphorical oral tradition to those who have never had any. When we speak of Afrofuturism envisioning a Black future, in the Black Panther the creation of such a space begins from reverting to history. Almost every designer and composer that worked on the set of Black Panther spoke about their extensive visits to Africa in order to understand and experience the traditions to ensure their authentic representation in the movie.
The Black Panther artistic process can perhaps best be understood by referencing makeup designer Joel Harlow’s interview with The Verge. Harlow, who did the African body markings for the movie, said, “Because they (Wakanda) have technological advancements that we don’t have in 2018, maybe there’s a technique of applying makeup that’s outside our realm of comprehension…So we’d reference actual African tribes, and consider their facial-painting technique, and ask,“…How would we logically extrapolate that using modern tools and modern techniques, and then hyper-modern techniques?””
This line of thought is particularly evident in the set design of Wakanda. It is easy to identify the futuristic imagery used in designing the country. One cannot help but notice the hovercrafts or the facts that spinal bullet wounds heal in a day. However, at the same time what cannot be missed is that this futuristic reality is grounded in African culture. Speaking about her design process, set designer Hannah Beachler spoke about how she wanted Wakanda to come across as “very voluptuous, very curvy, (with) no hard edges and the spaces (to) feel both very large and intimate at the same time”, a design that is in keeping with the political terrain of the African continent. This is most noticeable in wide-angle shots of Wakanda that immediately cut to scenes of small, intimate markets spaces, where T’Challa and Nakia are taking a walk. Beachler’s set design is inspired from the work of Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid, which she then combined with African architectural designs which often make use of big bold designs and bright colours to give the feeling of intimacy. Similarly, circles are used throughout the Wakandan set and in the weapons used by the Dora Milaje. The shape is representative of African spirituality and the idea of the cycle of tradition that is central to the story of Black Panther and his powers.
Black Panther combines costumes rooted in ethnic African patterns with modern Vibranium weaponry to create the modern, or rather, futuristic African warrior. The fabric of the suit worn by T’Challa as the Black Panther contains triangular patterns that costume designer Ruth Carter refers to as the “Okavango pattern”. In an interview with NPF she says, “I felt that it made his suit have this character that would, in the wide shots, make him this superhero but in the close-up, you see this beautiful pattern that is consistent with a lot of the art of Africa and would turn him into this African king”. The most effective and apparent symbol in this regard is Black Panther’s necklace, which pays homage to Bast, the Egyptian Panther goddess, who is the primary deity of Wakanda. The necklace when activated transforms into the Black Panther suit, becoming the primary motif of Black Panther’s Afrofuturism.
Perhaps, the most striking scene in the movie is the ritual combat between T’Challa and M’Baku. The scene begins with the former’s entry into the field of combat to the chants of his name, where he is surrounded by the various tribes of Wakanda to resolve any challenge to his hereditary claim to the throne. However, it is not the anticipation of the fight that has the viewer holding their breath. Rather, it is the glorious view of the various tribes attired in futuristic versions of traditional African costumes that immediately catches the eye. This is accompanied with visuals of T’Challa’s competitors, set to modern production of the fusion of the beats of Senegalese sabar drums, kora– an African harp and vuvuzela– an African horn.
Furthermore, the blankets worn by the Border Tribe contain Vibranium infused technology that transforms them into shields, and are modelled along the lines of the Basotho blankets worn in South Africa. Similarly, the lip plates worn by the River Tribe are a part of the African tradition of ceremonial body modification (as are the body markings), and are prominently worn by the Mursi and Surma tribes of Ethiopia. Queen Ramonda’s headdress as worn during the ritual combat scene is modelled after the Zulu headdress worn by married women during ceremonial events. In the scene where T’Challa, Nakia and Okoye visit an underground casino in South Korea, they are seen wearing the colours black, green and red respectively, which are also the colours of the pan-African flag. Moreover, the fabric and accessories used in the designing of these costumes were either sourced from Ghana and South Africa or were 3D printed by Carter herself.
This attention to detail does not stop at the costume and set design. The hairstyling in the movie also pays homage to African culture. In the movie, all characters wore their hair in natural African style, with styling done by African-American hairstylist Camille Friend. The styling is inspired from the collection Before They Pass Away by Jimmy Nelson, a compilation of images of tribal culture and black hairstyles shot by Nigerian photographer J. D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere, amongst other sources. For instance, the hairstyles of the Jabari Tribe has been inspired by the hair of Senegalese warriors. Similarly, Ramonda, T’Challa’s mother wears her hair in gorgeous grey dreadlock, while Nakia sports a natural Kenyan Afro and a look that Friend specially designed for the movie called the “Wakandan knot”. Speaking about her process of conceptualisation of the Black Panther hairstyles, Friend says, “There was not a pressing comb or relaxer on set. That wasn’t happening. We’re in a moment when people are feeling empowered about being black. And that’s one thing you see when you watch ‘Black Panther.’ The hair helps communicate that.”
Correspondingly, the makers also developed a Wakandan language to lend authenticity to the idea of the nation. The language of Wakanda is based on the Xhosa, a language of South Africa, that makes use of clicks, which is believed to be one of the oldest forms of communication. Furthermore, stretching the idea of Wakanda as a pan African nation, the language is idiolect. The film’s dialect coach Beth McGuire spoke about how each character developed their own style of speaking on the basis of their own roots. Therefore, Nakia’s/ Lupita Nyong’o’s accent carries a Kenyan flair, while M’Baku/ Winston Duke’s is a Nigerian inspired accent. Similarly, there exists a difference in the accents of Shuri/ Letitia Wright and W’Kabi/ Daniel Kaluuya due to their Guyanese and Ugandan roots. Particularly interesting is the accent of Chadwick Boseman a.k.a T’Challa. In an interview with Trevor Noah, Boseman spoke about how his accent carries a touch of a young Nelson Mandela, which was purposefully incorporated into the movie. This inclusion is a part of the construction of Boseman’s character as the new African leader, an idea that runs in tandem with his exploration of his politics in the movie.
The narrative of Wakanda isn’t limited to its Vibranium fuelled futuristic technology and representation of African culture. The strength of the movie lies as much in the individuals that make up Wakanda as it does in Wakanda itself. It goes much deeper to create individuals who are a manifestation of the reimagined space that Afrofuturism explores. In fact, the marker of quality science fiction is its ability to explore how the alternative reality illustrates itself on the population. The possibilities of empowerment in Black Panther are not restricted to technological advancement. Coogler goes a step further and develops characters that are representations of the African society of Wakanda and make the country come alive. In the aforementioned Boseman interview, the actor spoke about how everyone in the movie is a hero–an idea that is best exemplified by the female characters of the movie.
One of the most disheartening aspects of Black representation in Western media has been the stereotyping of Black women, a precarious demographic that exists at the very bottom of the American food chain. Stereotypes have existed on a spectrum that ranges from hypersexualised young women to mammy figures–all to suit the rationale of the oppressor. Leading the bevy of strong female characters in the movie, Nakia, Shuri, and Okoye-the general of Dora Milaje, become the subversions of this representation.
Arguably the most fascinating characters of the movie are the Dora Milaje, an elite group of highly trained female warriors of Wakanda that are tasked with protecting the king and the nation. The characters are based on the Dahomey Amazons or Mino (meaning “our mothers”), who were the all-female military regiment of the Kingdom of Dahomey and were of Fon ethnicity. Designer Ruth E. Carter took special care to ensure that no two Dora Milaje costumes look the same, with the body armour of each warrior being derived from their own personality traits. The costumes of the Dora Milaje, in addition to being inspired by African designs, contained elements specifically handcrafted by African craftsmen. For instance, the tabard, a belt worn vertically across the chest by the Dora Milaje contains beadwork found in the Maasai Tribe and the Ethiopian Suri Tribe across Africa. In order to create the female Wakandan warrior, Carter incorporated “elements that were there for function, like the two way stretch of the leotard, and elements that were there for the culture, like the pattern work that evokes the sacred geometry of the line work that you see across the continent, and infused all of that together.”
Amongst the many interesting scenes of the movie is Okoye’s renunciation of her love for her husband for the greater good of Wakanda. Historically, different interpretations of similar ideas apply to men and women. For instance, honour, for women, resides in their chastity while for men, it resides in their ability to sacrifice themselves to a greater purpose. In Okoye’s renunciation, Coogler transposes traditionally masculine ideas of nationalism and honour on her, and gives her agency as the actor, as opposed to her traditional role of the site from which a man can derive his honour.
One of the most well-received characters of the movie has been Shuri, the 16-year-old sister of T’Challa. The Russo brothers, (who directed Infinity Wa)r, confirmed that Shuri is the smartest person in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, surpassing the intellect of the all American man, Tony Stark. In a society where women in STEM are considered anomalies, to see an African princess as the smartest individual in the world is historic. Shuri deals with multiple issues of feminism that have plagued women across races. Her overt confidence in her abilities challenges the modesty constantly expected from women. The fact that her success does not come at the cost of sacrificing her femininity and her African roots make her the Disney princess which the world needed. Shuri’s character is reflected in the designs on her lab walls, which appear to be an intersection of African culture and technological advancement, two ideas that have historically been represented as binaries in western culture. The space is adorned with brightly coloured artwork of thick-lipped women that exists in tandem with her technology that is far ahead of what even Bruce Banner could conceive.
In fact, particularly interesting is the use of the colour purple in the movie. Purple is the colour that is largely associated with the energy of Black Panther. The colour is present in T’Challa’s suit. The ancestral plane of the Black Panther and the heart-shaped herb that grants the king superhero abilities is also purple in colour. Readers of Black literature cannot help but reminisce about Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, a book that has emerged as the frontier text in Black feminism. The color in the novel is a metaphor for a space for Black women in a society where their identity is attacked on multiple levels. It echoes with the central idea of Afrofuturism, i.e. creation of a space that exists for the self.
Writing for The Atlantic, Adam Serwer called the movie a “love letter to people of African descent all over the world” and rightly so. The importance of the superhero movie lies in the idea of hope and possibility. Superheroes represent an evolved, positive sense of self. A scrawny teenager getting bitten by a radioactive spider gives millions of white boys hope that they are not restricted by teenage social constructions. In depriving women and persons of colour of similar representation, we deny them the opportunity to dream of an empowered future and restrict them to the oppression that they exist in. Coogler’s pensive fabrication of Wakanda, gives to the multitudes of Black people, a room of their own. Black Panther not only gives them quantitative representation of seeing people of colour on screen, but also as work of Afrofuturism, it gives them representation that engenders empowerment by incorporating their history in imagining their future.
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