Waking Wakanda: From Movie Magic to Reality
By Anne Price, President
Some are calling the new pro-Black Marvel comic-book adaptation film, Black Panther, a watershed in the cultural history of Black people, and, indeed, this groundbreaking film offers a powerful vision and metaphor to explore Black identity and lived experience.
An afro-futuristic film featuring a mostly dark-complexioned cast, Black Panther highlights strong, trusted Black female warriors and provides a reimagining of an African country untouched by European colonialism. Wakanda, a fictional African nation, is resource rich. Its economy, fueled by its exclusive control over the highly valuable mineral — vibranium — makes it the most technologically advanced and powerful society in the world.
In providing an alternate vision of freedom and community prosperity, Black Panther allows us space to challenge and reconsider the narratives that weave economic, racial, and gender justice together to help us reimagine economic policies to transform lives.
Black Panther is deeply rooted in the realities of a Black American identity and struggle that are multidimensional and complex. The motivation of the film’s antagonist, Erik Killmonger, is largely shaped by the racial injustice, economic inequality, and oppression that he experienced growing up in Oakland, California. Killmonger’s life speaks to the largely ignored hidden truths about the lived economic experiences in communities of color. These realities must begin to influence our solutions to economic exclusion and marginalization, and help build political and public will for transformative economic policies.
Black Panther ties the past to the present, bringing to the surface the lasting impact of a painful history of slavery and colonialism as shaping conditions that surround Wakanda. Historian N.D.B Connelly writes that Black Panther “taps into 500 years of history of African-descended people imagining freedom, land and national autonomy. Wakanda conjures this past, even as it professes to stand outside it. It’s a land, [again] like Haiti and much of actual Africa, where everyone has a notion, even if they’ve never been there. Worlds must be dreamed, after all, before they can be made.”
Our ability to reimagine economic policies is predicated on how well we address the historical policies that policymakers and other power holders created that continue to shape class and racial wealth differences today. Black Panther allows us to interrogate the American ethos of rugged individualism to bring to view the strategies to advance community prosperity with new imagination.
Anti-blackness, the devaluing and de-humanizing of people who are Black, is deeply rooted in our culture and economic policies. Black Panther tackles anti-blackness and colorism head-on by showing us a world where dark-skinned women and men are intelligent, powerful, and beautiful. Wakanda is a place where skin color does not affect your life outcomes.
This is a drastic shift from mainstream beliefs that link standards of beauty and intelligence to whiteness. Research shows us that lighter skinned people of color have privilege, as skin color directly impacts employment, housing, and educational outcomes. This is a worldwide phenomenon stemming from white supremacy and colonialism. In Wakanda, we get a glimpse of what might be possible if we flipped that script and created a society that regarded Black people, particularly darker-skinned Black people, as equal and deserving.
Finally, Black Panther provides a narrative of self-realization and actualization, critical to advancing transformative policies. Lupita Nyong’o, a Kenyan-Mexican actor who plays the trusted spy Nakia, a warrior who works to use Wakanda’s advanced technology to help free oppressed people around the globe, highlights the importance of self-actualization. She states that “Wakanda offers us a glimpse into the world as it could be — self-determined and developed on their own terms without the interruption of colonialism.[It] has figured out how to make the most of all its citizens. Women are allowed to realize their full potential.”
In our own, all-too-flawed reality, we are witnessing states impose work requirements on “able-bodied” Medicaid recipients, and debating whether people receiving SNAP (food stamps) should lose much of their ability to choose the food they can buy with their benefits. In these times and conditions, we must be willing to propose a more holistic vision of a new social contract that allows us all to thrive by investing in shifting narratives that reinvigorate our imagination and disrupt the balance of power.
As researcher Edward Ademolu notes, films like Black Panther help us “transcend the limitations of the ‘here and now’ towards the ‘what ifs’ and ‘could bes.’” A vision like Wakanda can become real if we are willing to dream and plan outside our current bounds and narratives.