In my view, Black Panther might very well be the best Marvel film ever—a stance the majority of moviegoers seem to agree with, given its astounding critical and commercial success. The movie’s strengths are many. It’s a compelling story about two black men on opposite sides who both want what’s best for their people. Its diverse range of characters and its lush environments work to portray its setting as a living, breathing, and evolving entity. Black Panther celebrates black identity while pointing to the injustices of history and the daunting challenge of fighting to change things. But one point that sticks out to me in particular is the way it holds a mirror up to reflect our ugly assumptions on the effects of colonialism in the world.
These days, I think the majority of people have been taught that colonialism was responsible for a lot of harm in the world. Whether it was the slave trade, the subjugation of subordination of entire peoples, or just the exploitation of resources, European nations forcing other cultures to conform to their “superior” standards left scars around the world. At the same time, the general narrative states that, while these were certainly problems, there were ultimately many positives to the whole endeavor. Technology progressed, especially with the industrial revolution. Cultural exchange became commonplace (albeit in a lopsided manner). Europe, i.e. white people, gave the world much, and we’re supposed to believe that it was for the best.
Black Panther calls out that notion of Europe being the birthplace of modern technology somehow justifying its conquering ways. The film is set primarily in Wakanda, an old African nation founded on a near-endless supplies of the miracle metal known as “vibranium.” Because of this advantage, Wakanda developed isolated from the rest of the world while also advancing science and technology to the point of surpassing every other country on Earth. In other words, Wakanda is an African nation entirely without white influence. The image of the “native” or the poor African villager who wears donated t-shirts and jeans does not exist here, as that is founded on the persistent idea that European influence removed the “savagery” of Africa, that African cultural markers are backwards and embraced merely out of inertia or personal history.
Instead, Wakanda is a place where technology and tradition walk hand in hand. So when characters are dressed in non-Western clothing surrounded by soaring skyscrapers unlike any other, it is not presented as some kind of incongruous image. When T’Challa the Black Panther engages in ritual combat for the throne the day after he got off his cloaked airship, it feels completely natural. Moreover, because Wakanda has never tried to conquer or control other nations, this means its growth and development did not come from pillaging other cultures. Black Panther and its portrayal of Wakanda run counter to the narrative that what colonialism did was perhaps necessary for us to get to a better world. While not without its own problems (and in fact its isolationist policies are a major plot point in the film), it gives people of all races and histories the opportunity to look an alternative world and to imagine a better tomorrow.
Wakanda, vibranium, and the Black Panther might all be fictional, but they have the power to inspire thought and action. Could we ever reach a place where the world progresses without the seeming need to exploit others? The only way to find out is to try and make it happen.