Black Panther has been widely acclaimed for its unapologetic embracement of African Culture. The movie is a sharp departure from Hollywood’s black exploitation films and from Hollywood’s habitual dismissive depictions of African religious traditions. Now that the US population is becoming increasingly more diverse, there is increasing pressure for movies to cater to this new demographic. If Black Panther’s record earning is any indication, Hollywood may have proven that it is more lucrative to be more inclusive.
The movie begins with a child asking his father to tell him a story. Storytelling is a longstanding human tradition showcased in Haiti in Krik Krak tales. The movie is itself just a modern way of telling a story that holds our attention from the opening scene through the reading of the credits. The film depicts Wakanda, a fictional African country that managed to escape colonialism to become the most technologically advanced nation in the world. Wakanda’s ritual African practices along with its scientific advancement delights moviegoers accustomed to seeing Traditional African culture trampled on.
The hero of the movie is the Panther King, T Challa, who protects Wakanda by safeguarding the kingdom’s precious mineral, vibranium, which is used to fuel the country’s development. Wakanda’s success contrasts with many societies that have failed to benefit from their own resources. For example, the Kongo was unable to secure its deposits of uranium from an international struggle to control this mineral used for the making of nuclear weapons. This led to corruption, government instability, wars, and underdevelopment of the Kongo.
In Wakanda, with the absence of colonizers, African culture is able to thrive. The King’s coronation is presided by a Ganga, a spiritual leader. Sleep is presented as a medium through which revelation is received from the Ancestors. As the Ancestors are pure, the Panther King presents to the land of the Ancestors dressed in white, the same color used in the African diaspora to honor the Ancestors. In the movie, the spiritual leader is also a consultant to the king. Prior to the 18th century, it appeared to have been common for West African leaders to have religious consultants. Around the Dahomean region, such consultants were called Fa, meaning visionaries. In Haiti, Toussaint Louverture was considered to be such a visionary and called Fatra Baton, a possible mispronunciation of Fato Bato which in the Gedevi Dahomean language means the one with the vision to create a nation.
In the movie, the people of Wakanda are able to provide religious service to their Ancestors, because their traditions were preserved, not having been eradicated by colonization. Much of those same traditions are vibrant in Haiti having disposed of colonization earlier. The people of Wakanda greet each other by crossing their arms over their chests. In the Kongo Kingdom, the cross symbolized union with the Ancestors. In Haiti, people commonly wear a Kolye Vèvè, a large necklace that is made to cross over their chests and backs to show respect for those who came before. During the past 500 years, religious service to African Ancestors has been under constant attack. The movie presents this as the outcome of colonization and speaks of colonizers as villains who helped to eradicate cultural diversity and who are responsible for much of the social economic disparity in our world today.
The African concept of a protector king celebrated in the Black Panther can also be found in Haiti where Agasou, whose name in Gedevi Dahomen means crab, was the first king of Dahomey. Due to his military wit, he is commonly described as the son of a panther or leopard. In Haiti, Agasou is said to be the guardian of Dahomean traditions. Agasou was to Dahomey what the Black Panther King is to Wakanda. As in Wakanda, in Dahomey, as new kings emerged, public policies changed. Under the reign of the Dahomean King Kadya Bosou, the royal army, called gbeto or gwètò, incorporated women among its fighting force. Today, these Dahomean women fighters are commonly called Amazon Warriors. While showing the power of Wakanda’s armed forces, the movie took liberty to show how powerful an army on rhinoceros could have been, if only this African animal could have been domesticated. In the movie, female warriors are not limited to the battlefield, but they are also present at the forefront of scientific innovations. The Black Panther’s armor suit was invented by his sister, a young woman scientist who was also responsible for maintaining Wakanda’s lead in the sciences.
The movie honors African religious philosophy by showing moral issues to be far more complex than just good versus evil. Even Killmonger, a radicalized character, has some virtuous attributes like his passion to undo the wrongs done by colonization. His final self-sacrifice references those who chose to drown themselves in the Atlantic rather than live in bondage. Throughout his life, Killmonger wanted nothing more than to return to the land of his father. This desire, shared by countless victims displaced from Africa, is captured in this Vodou songs: Si Ginen pa te lwen kon sa, lontan mwen mache chimen mwen; meaning, if West Africa were not so far, I would have long since returned. Upon Killmonger’s return, he questions how a technologically advanced society could isolate itself despite countless suffering outside its borders, particularly when it is also implicated in that suffering. Killmonger personifies the discontent in the African diaspora over the participation of some African leaders in the commerce of people as slaves and over the subsequent failure of some of these leaders to help in the quest for liberation in the Americas.
Killmonger’s anger is aimed at the leaders of Wakanda and not at African culture. On his entry to Wakanda, he partook in the required rituals. The scars on his body are reminiscent of scarification that used to be displayed by Africans in Haiti in accordance to their ethnic origins. At the same time the scars remind us of the lesions suffered by enslaved Africans. From these wounds, knowledge of the Haitian flora emerged leading to the use of herbal remedies like the use of Fèy Langlichat to aid in wound healing. Killmonger’s physical wounds were well healed, but his mental anguish from the damage caused by colonization was still being fleshed-out in conversation with the Panther King.
Although the movie embraces African culture, it is inclusive and not demeaning to other cultures. The city of Wakanda is set in the region of Tanzania so that it may be relatable to everybody as the region of origin of mankind. No matter our outward appearance, we are all from Africa with common ancestors from the around Wakanda.
The word Wakanda shares the root word kanda which means family in Kikongo. The Kikongo word kanda also appears in the name of the Haitian hero, Makandal who is believed by some historians to have been from the Kongo. Makandal fought for the dignity of our enslaved family members. The Panther King of Wakanda ultimately chooses to follow in the footsteps of liberation fighters as he decided to open Wakanda to the world and extend a helping hand particularly to those who continue to suffer the indignity and the poverty resulting from colonization.
The movie honors tradition while embracing technology because the two are perfectly compatible. In fact, the movie presents tradition as a stepping stone for technological progress because all modern knowledge rests on the contributions of those who preceded us. Much of what is known by the current generation may best be described as an ancestral gift. The movie shows respect for the ancestors, on whose shoulders our technology stands, and it presents technology as a necessity for undoing the damage caused by enslavement and by colonization. At the end of the movie, a promise is made at the United Nations to facilitate technology transfer from Wakanda to the rest of humanity. The movie was a joy to watch because it addressed issues often ignored by Hollywood and it did it well.