Ryan Coogler’s film adaptations of Marvel’s Black Panther are “for the culture” in some ways and harmful in many others. All respect to the beautiful and talented Black people involved with this franchise—it’s from a place of love that I’m calling bullshit. The original 2018 film Black Panther and its 2022 sequel Black Panther: Wakanda Forever pander heavily to Black and Indigenous communities, and present themselves as revolutionary media, yet underneath the aesthetics, the films reek of colonialism. I’m questioning what this Black film franchise is saying about Black people. Afrofuturism is a wide-ranging socio-political and artistic movement that imagines a world where the African diaspora plays a central role in the future. The philosophical worldbuilding of Wakanda paints a concerning political reality for a Black nationalist superpower.
Coogler politicized the lore of Wakanda by interweaving its fictional narrative with Black politics. The “Wakanda Forever” X gesture, both arms across the chest, represents the intersection where all oppressed people meet in solidarity. The origin of the fictitious symbol has roots in pan-Africanism, the idea that peoples of African descent have common interests and should be unified. It is a proclamation of Black unity, but the philosophical world-building of Wakanda makes the Black Panther’s signature calling card a virtue signal. Wakanda is characterized as a jewel hidden within the Third World, which reduces a diverse continent within a Western metric system. Wakanda must stay secret because it is dangerous for a small Black country to publicize they are in possession of a rich magical resource, vibranium. Secrecy is the cost of maintenance for a self-determining Black state because if the white supremacist world discovers Wakanda’s power, they will inevitably steal everything that makes Wakanda above its peers.
In the original Black Panther movie, T’Chaka (T’Challa’s father) sends his brother N’Jobu (Killmonger’s father) as a spy to infiltrate the African American revolution in the U.S. However, instead of destabilizing the movement, N’Jobu becomes a sympathizer and defects from his post. N’Jobu is snitched on by his homie, then murdered, leaving behind a son unbeknownst to the Wakandan government. This abandoned child will be radicalized and traumatized on the streets of Oakland, California, home of the Black Panther Party. Killmonger is beefing with Wakanda because he believes if they are an empowered Black nation, they are morally obligated to care for other Black people across the diaspora. Killmonger approaches statehood from a pan-Africanist perspective. If Wakanda is so Afrofuturistic, why couldn’t they help their people out?
Killmonger’s pan-Africanist politics are incongruently delegitimized in the film due to his obsession with power. Passivity is framed as mature and lucrative, and being an adversary as violently irrational. The central conflict in Coogler’s first film was a ghetto Black supremacist bucking heads with a regal African fighting anti-Black demons. Both of them are dead wrong. I call this propaganda phenomena the MLK vs. Malcolm X vortex. In white history books, Black liberation is framed as the respectable reformist in conflict with the violent nationalist. This narrative persists despite both men politically maturing to become explicitly pan-Africanist and implicitly Marxist. They did not die as rivals but as comrades. When the highest-grossing Black franchise in popular media makes allusions to African history, we must then hold it accountable for the perpetuation of white supremacist narratives.
The first film ends with T’Challa killing Killmonger in combat, then the Wakandan government going public at the United Nations and pledging to open international social programming centers. The second film begins with Queen Ramonda telling the UN there will be no international trade of vibranium. Soon after, vibranium is discovered in the ocean by the U.S. government, and we are introduced to Talokan, a magical Meso-American society living at the bottom of the ocean, dependent upon vibranium. Namor, the leader of this hidden powerful Indigenous state, visits Wakanda to tell them they are both endangered, so they should become allies before the white power structure slaughters their collective progress. Namor’s solution is to kill the scientist who built the vibranium detection machine instead of the commissioners of the machine, the U.S. government.
The Wakandans’ solution is to go to the U.S. and kidnap Riri, a Black girl from Chicago. They track this college student by asking their “favorite colonizer,” a CIA officer, to track her. After Shuri and Riri are kidnapped by Namar’s people, his backstory is told. Namar was named “a child without love” by Spanish slavers as he killed them. Namar gives Shuri an ultimatum: they can wage war on the western world or he will destroy Wakanda to protect his state. Meanwhile CIA leadership is joking about destabilizing Wakanda. Shuri and Riri escape and Namar retaliates for the murder of one of his people by attacking Wakanda and killing Queen Ramonda. In the ancestral plane trying to become Black Panther, Shuri sees her cousin Killmonger. He addresses her retributive rage toward Namar, asking, “Are you gonna be noble or take care of business?” This advice contextualizes her decision to not kill Namar during the final battle. She tells him “vengeance has consumed us, yield.” Namar yields and the movie ends with Shuri, a solitary and strong queen, teasing conflict with the ever-looming white world. I left the theater taken aback by the flippant end to Angela Bassett’s amazing performance as queen mother. Also, Shuri’s legacy as a ruler is defined now by grief and tragedy. It felt reminiscent of the strong Black woman stereotype. It’s sad that Shuri’s kingship was unable to be supported by a loving and present family. Coogler’s Black Panther portrays empowering Black and Indigenous populations as synonymous with burning the world down. Black Panther: Wakanda Forever presents Afrofuturism as Black and Indigenous superpowers fighting each other, and that narrative is inherently anti-Black. A Black and Indigenous liberation is not defined by the violent means to obtain it, but the equity and love ethic it is fighting to defend.