Wakanda is the true star of Black Panther. The afro-futuristic country comprised of five tribes lead by the titular warrior king provides a rich tapestry that does more than contextualize the film, but stands at the forefront of what makes this film such a unique and interesting blockbuster. It is a film rooted in the ideas of how the land shapes a people.
In the most literal image, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is buried in the earth after taking the nectar that will give him the supernatural power of the Black Panther, sending him to the spirit realm where he speaks with his father. The dirt tells the story of the ancestors and tradition runs deep in the veins of Wakanda’s people.
Wakanda hides another treasure: vibranium, a valuable metal that came from space that launched the country forward decades ahead in technology, allowing them to disappear from the rest of the world and develop the most advanced society on earth. And while this might sound like the foundation for a utopia, there is an internal power struggle among the five tribes for who will rule the nation.
That alone might have been enough to make Black Panther an interesting film, but the film stretches for more ambitious political messaging as it expands the scale of both politics and religion outwards into a gripping piece of sci-fi. With echoes of Frank Herbert’s Dune, the film slowly peels back layer by layer of the socio-political implications of a tribalistic society that controls the most powerful technology on the planet.
This is where antagonist Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) elevates the film by challenging Wakanda’s society. Here is a man marginalized by Western civilization that has spent years in a world oppressing the black man and here he finds his African brothers have the means of easy liberation. Surely a king who allows his brothers to suffer, who fails to send aid, is a bad king. And if the tribe is led by a warrior king, isn’t the better warrior the better king? And why shouldn’t a warrior king conquer?
Black Panther doesn’t shy away from dark questions of generational violence and oppression and the great injustices left upon the land. The people proclaim “Wakanda forever” even as they stand upon a land watered in the blood of its own tribes and own people. Nations are messy and uneasy affairs and the people that rule them often find the balance teeters on a knife edge.
What does it mean then to be a place and a people? Should the people be ashamed for all the darkness and evil done in order to keep a nation together or is there a reason for Wakandans to hold onto their national pride. Is tradition and order simply controlled, contained violence or is there a rich and vibrant story to be told, one that may not always be clean and easy, but one that tells the story of a people?
In an era where blockbusters are sleek, palatable affairs, the confrontational message mixed with one of the more intricate explorations of culture in a recent blockbuster makes Black Panther an intriguing watch. It’s a journey into an altogether different kind of superhero film and the world is better for it.
© James Blake Ewing 2018