‘Black Panther’ and the Politics of Afrofuturism
Marvel’s latest blockbuster, Black Panther, opened in theaters last week and is already being called the most radical superhero movie yet. The movie explores the character of T’challa, the Black Panther, King of the fictional East-African country of Wakanda, the most technologically advanced nation in the Marvel universe. The movie is a shift away from traditional depictions of the continent of Africa which focus almost exclusively on poverty and war, exploring rather a perspective in which Africa is on the other side of the development paradigm – so advanced it sees globalization as a threat.
The movie is heavily linked to the theory of Afrofuturism, which is a theory that challenges traditional representations of the future world, setting it in conjunction with African and black culture. The term “Afrofuturism” was first used in the 1994 Mark Dery essay “Black to the Future,” where he defines it as the possible future of communities whose pasts have been deliberately rubbed out and “whose energies have subsequently been consumed by the search of legible traces of its history.” In many ways, Black Panther creates a credible alternative to colonialism, exploring an afrofuturistic narrative of a country that had never been colonized and oppressed.
Unlike other African countries, Wakanda was able to fully explore the concept of self-determination, the process by which a country determines its own statehood, allegiance and government. This is visible on two different levels: isolationist economics and an untouched culture.
In the movie, the media portrays the Kingdom of Wakanda like any developing African country: subsistence agriculture, extreme poverty, and traditional tribal clothes. However, the media notes that Wakanda is unique in its reluctance to accept international aid and globalization. While the media doesn’t know what to make of this, viewers are aware that this is because the actual Kingdom uses special technology to make it invisible to the outside world. Wakanda is economically self-sufficient, and isolates itself from the rest of the world to avoid exposure to international trade instabilities. One can see the legitimacy of Wakandan fears of market dependency in the real word case of the Zambian copper crisis. The legacy of extractive colonialism, made Zambia’s economy inextricably linked to the international market, and when world copper prices in 2015 plummeted, Zambia experienced an economic crisis.
Moreover, Wakanda has full ownership of its natural resource, Vibranium, which it uses for its own technological advancement. A recurrent theme in the movies is T’Challa’s reluctance to open its border in fear that access to Vibranium in the market will cause political unrest in his country. This is a clear reference to the vested interest of neocolonial forces that looms over many African countries: with 80 percent of France’s energy depending on African Uranium, the true goals behind French military presence in Niger is questionable. Furthermore, the Democratic Republic of the Congo is the largest producer of Cobalt in the world, a mineral used for telephone technologies. Cobalt played a role in the political unrest in the Katanga region, as militias were constantly fighting over the ownership of Cobalt mines. The Kingdom of Wakanda’s strengths does not only lie in the fact that it has cut itself off from the outside world; but rather in that they have escaped the plague of colonisation that isolated and insulated the continent of Africa during the most dynamic period in world history. It is important to understand that the current biased globalization is an exploitative offspring of colonisation.
Afrofuturism is also associated with aesthetics and culture, which helps us wrap our heads around how an African country that had never been colonized could look like and function. In the movie, alternatives to patriarchal societies are emphasized, particularly in the all women military leadership of Wakanda: the Dora Milaje. These structures where women hold positions of power are reminiscent of specific instances in African history, such as the revolution led by Queen Mother Yaa Asantewaa during the Anglo-Ashanti War (modern day Ghana) in 1901 or the Amazons of King of Dahomey, an all women military regiment that operated in the 19th century in what is now Benin. The Kingdom of Wakanda participate in seeing an evolution of African tradition into the future by exploring a culture that has not been corrupted by western values.
Afrofuturism can also be linguistic, specifically as it pertains to the reappropriation of specific languages. In an interview, Chadwick Boseman, the actor who played the Black Panther, discusses how he created his accent, emphasizing that he did not want a British accent or a western sounding accent because it would be “conveying a white supremacist idea of what being educated is.” While French or English became the national language of many African countries after the departure of their colonizer, demoting English to a second language in the movie emphasizes Wakandan idiosyncrasy.
Although the fictional country of Wakanda and struggles of African countries contrast in many ways, highlighting the extent of the consequences of neo-colonial forces, fiction meets reality in relation to political assassination. In the Avenger series, we witness the assassination of T’Chakka, the father of the Black Panther, because he refused to open access to Wakanda Vibranium resources. This is reminiscent to the U.S. and Belgian assassination of Patrice Lumumba in 1961, first elected prime minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or the 1987 assassination of Thomas Sankara, the well-liked leader of Burkina Faso. In both cases, anti-colonial and communist tendencies drove their assassinations.
Furthermore, if it wasn’t for the assassinations of progressive Pan-African leaders, many African countries would be at a different place today. Thomas Sankara, for example, was a strong proponent of self-sufficiency and female empowerment. He argued against international aid, “He who feeds you, controls you,” and within four years Burkina Faso was able to achieve food surplus by producing twice as much more wheat per hectares than neighboring countries. The African liberalization struggles have been defined and contained by neo-colonial forces to promote their Western agenda. T’Chakka’s assassination in Avengers, Civil War is aligned with this historical western practice of annihilating political opposition.
The Kingdom of Wakanda provides an alternative to the fatalistic mediatized depiction of African countries. Colonial pasts and neocolonialist forces still impede the advancement of many African countries, whether it’s the company Total acquiring ownership of offshore oil plants in Senegal, or extensive European military bases all over the continent. Despite, these colonial actions, we are starting to see a breakthrough with many African cities becoming major technological hubs similar to Wakanda’s advancement: Nairobi, Kenya has been compared to Silicon Valley with its surge in tech investment, or Nigeria’s initiative with Google to allow access to social media using less internet data. In terms of gender equality, women hold 42.7% of parliament positions in Senegal and 61.3% in Rwanda. When considering these developments, maybe we can posit that the Kingdom of Wakanda is on the path to exist, however on a much smaller and more sporadic scale across different African cities.