I can understand why, among African-Americans and other African or African-diasporic communities, the movie “Black Panther” has been loved, lauded, and repeatedly watched. When Africans (and Black people generally) are consistently and continuously portrayed as criminal, poor, miserable, violent, angry, and quite worthless, a portrayal of Africans, in their natural, beautiful African environment, as strong, powerful, educated, technologically advanced, with a healthy dose of respect for women and with women playing crucial roles as everything from scientists to fighters… Well, that seems like a combination that all Africans should be immensely and immediately proud of. Or should we?
The much-praised Marvel Comics movie (which has made tons of money for its creators) has its main characters using isiXhosa as their native language, but the inhabitants of Wakanda seem not to know about a very important axiom among the amaXhosa (which has versions among in most African languages): “Umuntu ngumutu ngabantu” – a person is a person through (other) people.
Until the very end of the movie, just before (and just after) the credits begin, the raison d’etre of the Wakandans seems to be to ensure that the miraculous technology they possess will belong to, and be used, by them alone. They will shape it, develop it, adapt it, create miracles from it… but all for themselves. It will not be shared, not be written or spoken about outside of Wakanda, not be used for anyone else’s benefit. For Wakandans, there is no sharing and no caring – even in the face of the brutal and oppressive ill-treatment of Africans in other parts of the world.
In fact, we are not sure whether that life-saving and wonderful technology is even shared broadly among Wakandans. What we mostly see of the people of this nation are its elites, in the main, its political, economic and warrior elites. Do the ordinary people of Wakanda get to share in the benefits of vibranium? Is there a Wakandan working class? (There must be; someone must be doing all that hard work.) Do they also bask in the glories of vibranium? We don’t know; they are invisible.
And so it is for Wakanda. Protect what we have; don’t let anyone know about it; let people believe we are poverty-stricken and ignorant – so that we do not have to share the stuff that cures illnesses, eases daily life, and, generally, allows human beings to soar.
For Wakanda, solidarity is a dangerous idea; ubuntu is threatening and must be discouraged and shunned.
Early in the movie one – briefly – gets a different impression, when Wakanda’s “Black Panther” rescues a group of girls kidnapped by, seemingly, Boko Haram. (As an aside: while I do not think that incident was Islamophobic as some have suggested, it is curious that while in the Marvel universe specific existing religions or ethnicities are not identified, in this case the group of baddies is clearly Muslim.) But even this incident is not about solidarity or ubuntu. It is only about extracting a Wakandan spy (and T’Challa’s ex-lover Nakia) from Boko Haram’s clutches so she can return home for her king’s burial (and her boyfriend’s coronation).
What is it, I wonder, that causes us, then, to praise this movie as a kind of epitome of African excellence and African values? What is meant by these people crossing their arms and saying “Wakanda forever” as if this mythical place is some kind of ideal for Africans (and the world)? Is our utopia, which we should strive to, one that is steeped in xenophobia and loathing for those less fortunate? Sounding much like Donald Trump or Binyamin Netanyahu, a statement by W’Kabi, T’Challa’s advisor and second-in-command, was telling, and discomforting. “You let the refugees in,” he said, “they bring their problems with them and then Wakanda is like everywhere else.”
Counterposed to the heroic Wakandans is the extremely flawed (aren’t we all) and extremely brutal Killmonger, who murdered scores of Afghans, Iraqis and Africans, and cares nothing about causing pain to innocent people. But… but… it is the murderous Killmonger who actually cares for other people. It is he who insists that Wakanda’s technology must be put at the service of oppressed (especially Black) people around the globe. Wakanda’s technology should be used for the benefit of marginalised Black people, he argues, to give them a fighting chance against their tormentors. (I could see Killmonger – flawed and so easy to hate – deciding to deliver weapons to Palestinians in Gaza, or to Yemenis or Syrians or…)
“Two billion people all over the world who look like us whose lives are much harder, and Wakanda has the tools to liberate them all,” Killmonger tells the Wakandan court.
And in his last words he makes it clear that his life is meaningless as long as the lives of others remain meaningless. He sees himself not as part of an elite group of Wakandans, but as part of generations of oppressed, enslaved Africans. “Just bury me in the ocean, where my ancestors had jumped from the ships. ’Cos they knew death was better than bondage.” He identifies with Africa and with Africans (and, particularly, African slaves), and cannot accept an identity that is restricted to a national one that belongs to a selfish nation. (None of this is to deny that he was also power-hungry and wanted to transform Wakanda into his own dictatorship.)
It is only at the end of the movie that an attempt is made to redeem the Wakandans, to allow them to be willing to share and express solidarity – thanks to the efforts of Killmonger and Nakia, which seem to have convinced T’Challa. Except that even in that somewhat-beautiful moment, the process is ugly. Clearly Wakandans do not care about democratic practice. That is why T’Challa can make such a drastic decision that will have far-reaching consequences for his people without bothering to consult those people – or even the elite among them. Because he decides it is time to open Wakandan technology up to the world, then it is time. Is authoritarianism really an ideal that we should strive for?
If Wakanda is what we saw before the last ten minutes of the movie…
I would rather say: Wakanda never; Ubuntu forever!