Chasing Wakanda: What artists and activists can learn from the world of Black Panther
Amazingly, Black Panther managed to live up to the loftiest of expectations
Alright, if you went into last weekend expecting to like Black Panther, you probably left a movie theatre loving Black Panther.
That was my experience, anyways.
When I left for the theatre on Friday night, it was after two years of building excitement.
I get to visit several locations within Africa fairly often. Each visit is like a graduate education of what people are capable of, for better or worse. I’ve seen how much hardship poverty creates, how dehumanizing colonialism was, and how it still continues to affect people generations after.
So many of these complex themes, real-world issues, and meaningful statements could be addressed by a film set in Wakanda.
Friday came, and I pulled up to the theatre to the best sight of all. The line going out the door was full of crowns and head wraps and dashikis and wax prints. A few drums, even. And so many smiles. For people long underrepresented in movies, this moment was long overdue.
Wakanda captured an image of African potential.
The story did everything a good story should. It gave us a believable villain with a cause of his own. It gave us plot lines that spoke to broader themes like colonialism, flawed fathers, and helping others beyond our borders. And it did something else.
It captured our imagination of the way things could be.
The one that stood out to me more than any other were the ones set in, um, Downtown Wakanda… or whatever that urban center is called. Scenes depicting an outdoor marketplace next to a high speed rail offered a glimpse of what everyday Wakandan life must look like.
What I loved about these scenes was that they made it clear that Wakanda is a developed country, but it definitely isn’t a Western country. Part of its development included forging its own path.
The Africa represented by Wakanda boasts printed fabrics inspired by the Basotho tribes, neck rings inspired by South Africa’s Ndebele, and spears and shields inspired by Masai warriors. It boasts a skyline that isn’t too unlike Kigali, Rwanda, and features brightly colored murals like you would find in parts of Johannesburg, Lagos, or Cape Town.
What you don’t see are the images many have come to immediately associate Africa with. Swollen bellies. Rebel groups. Child soldiers.
In the one scene that does allude to Africa’s real world problems features a military group kidnapping girls being immediately disrupted by Wakandan fighters. The resemblance to Boko Haram was unmistakable and intentional, and it made me wish even more that the real world was a little more like this one.
Creative storytellers can remind us of the world we're striving for.
I’m not trying to say that Africa's problems don’t also deserve our attention. They’re very real, and they stand in the way of people flourishing. But identifying Africa only by problems is a problem itself. Doing so paints a one-dimensional picture that usually leaves us feeling hopeless.
That’s what’s really important about stories like Black Panther. They remind us that we’re not just fighting against injustice, poverty, and oppression. We’re also fighting for a time and place where Africa’s young people can grow to be kings, queens, inventors, artists, farmers and everything in between.
There’s something in Black Panther for all creatives, activists, and global citizens to take note of: the world is energized when you remind it of the way things could be.
Black Panther actually helps me realize that I’ve seen glimpses of Wakanda. I’ve seen it in the South African teenagers I’ve been able to mentor and to spend time with. I took notes from the other people I saw invest in their lives. They saw the potential there too. The genius waiting to be developed.
I've also seen organizations motivated by this vision. Organizations like Plant With Purpose remove barriers. Groups like More Than Me or The Supply invest in future generations. These Numbers Have Faces makes sure no potential is wasted.
For activists, reformers, and problem-solvers, its necessary to engage our imaginations regularly. To remind ourselves of the better world we’re all pursuing. Wakanda forever.