Like so many other movie-goers, I went to Black Panther expecting to fall in love with writer-director Ryan Coogler’s beautiful vision of Wakanda. The symbolic importance of this fantastical African nation, untouched by slavery or colonization and filled with Black images of grandeur, cannot be overstated. Our romanticized vision of what Africa could have been had the continent not been brutalized for capitalist gain – or what Black people could be in a world free from White Supremacy – is the Wakandan Dream.
But instead of allowing us to revel in the Wakandan Dream, Coogler exposes its naiveté by revealing Wakanda to be tainted with elitist, selfish, isolationist notions that make it, at best, uninterested in any connection with the African diaspora, and at worst, complicit in the oppression of Black people worldwide.
What he builds in its place could be called a New Wakanda: a vision for Black excellence where our achievement, in the absence of uplift, is not enough and may even be problematic. This is not the Wakanda we were expecting, but I think it might be the Wakanda we need as we contemplate our place in the struggle for justice in the twenty-first Century.
I saw Ryan Coogler give a lecture at the University of Chicago in 2016. At some point during his talk on his journey as a filmmaker he asked if there were any African American Studies majors in the crowd. When Black students responded by saying African American Studies wasn’t offered as a major at the school, Coogler raised his eyebrows and said, “Y’all are doing something about that, right?”
It was this question, even more so than his impressive film resume and intellectual acuity, that made me confident he was going to give us something special with Black Panther. Making it, whether in Hollywood or at an elite University, isn’t enough; the next step was to create change for themselves and those that come after. Coming from Coogler, a thirty-one-year old Black man from Oakland who still talks like a thirty-one-year old Black man from Oakland—in other words, not like Hollywood, this exhortation felt natural and inspiring. This is the lesson we are meant to take from the New Wakanda.
I’ve been watching Black people and people of color react to the Black Panther film and hype on social media for some time. A few years back, the hashtag #BlackPantherSoLit celebrated the number and quality of Black actors that were being cast. And some weeks before the movie came out the hashtag #WhatBlackPantherMeansToMe offered love notes to the filmmakers, expressing how powerful its images were for us personally, and as a people, even before we were able to see it in theaters.
One video posted on Twitter showed a group of Black folks hugging a Black Panther movie poster, marveling that Whites were able to experience the satisfaction of being empowered by representation in movies on a regular basis. One man in the video says, “This what y’all feel like all the time? I would love this country too.”
Much of the conversation around why Black Panther was so powerful, apart from the idea of on-screen representation, was the setting. The movie takes place in Wakanda: beautiful, powerful, un-colonized, and technologically superior to the West. Wakanda flips the narrative that characterizes Africans as unsophisticated and offers an alternative to the racial power dynamics that structure our everyday interactions.
My favorite scene is when the CIA’s Agent Ross, the only White man shown in Wakanda, starts to “mansplain” in front of Lord M’Baku, the ruler of the Jabari Tribe. M’Baku responds by barking at him in an aggressive manner, shutting him up. His soldiers join in the jeering, and the result is terrifying. You can almost see Agent Ross, portrayed by The Hobbit’s Martin Freeman, transform back into the undersized Bilbo Baggins. “You cannot talk,” M’Baku tells him. We are used to Hollywood giving us movies where White men are the saviors (think The Last Samurai or The Last of the Mohicans), not movies where they are stripped of their unearned privileges.
The Wakandan Dream is disrupted, however, not because of White intervention, but because Coogler pushes us to reflect on what the country means for Black people.
He forces us to ask the question, if Wakanda is the most technologically advanced country on the planet, and has been for over a millennium, what must their internal dynamics, foreign policy, and attitudes towards outsiders have been over the past 500 years as they watched—from near and afar and without compunction—the brutal oppression of Black people all over the globe?
Where was Wakanda when Europeans invaded the African continent, murdering and enslaving millions, stealing natural resources and destroying histories and cultures? Where was Wakanda when Europeans created the concept of race in order to justify their brutal oppression of Black people who they characterized as less than human?
Racism did not happen by accident. It is an invention of capitalism, intentionally weaponized in order to create and maintain renewable and exploitable resources and workers around the globe. As the most advanced civilization on the planet, Wakanda could potentially have not only stopped colonization and slavery, but also the development of the ideology of racism in the first place.
Instead, Wakanda allowed the myth of race to become codified and ingrained in institutions, policies, governments, hearts and minds across the globe, all while hiding its technological marvels behind a stereotypical curtain of villages and third-world living conditions that match the inaccurate portrayals of Africa that dominate the media.
We saw Wakanda as a Black Garden of Eden unblemished by the sin of White Supremacy. But Coogler showed us that just because Wakanda was uncolonized, that does not mean it escaped the horrors of colonization.
Coogler uses three key moments in Black Panther to break down the Wakandan Dream before replacing it with the New Wakanda. The first blemish on the Wakandan Dream is revealed as we learn about the contemporary motivations and manifestations of the nation’s isolationist international policies. T’Challa, ruler of Wakanda and the titular hero, talks with his friend W’Kabi about whether Wakanda should be doing more to help the world through aid or refugee programs. W’Kabi responds by saying, “If you let the refugees in, they bring their problems, and then Wakanda is like everywhere else.”
This sentiment sounds eerily similar to the views held by y’all’s President. How do we make sense of this Alt-Right-style understanding of the perils of open borders, or the way Wakandans seem to think so little of their African neighbors? At first, I rationalized this as being just one voice among many. W’Kabi could be an outlier whose perspective was being used to drive conflict in a movie about Wakandan’s internal politics, right?
Not quite. W’Kabi’s attitude actually exemplifies the mentality that has guided Wakandan international and immigrant policy for hundreds of years. Wakandan borders were closed to outsiders as they chose to hide their technology and resources in order to stay safe. Trump wants his wall, and Wakanda has its vibranium-powered hologram.
W’Kabi’s position is in contrast with that of Nakia, T’Challa’s ex-lover, who insists that Wakanda has a duty to the world and is better equipped to help than any other nation, a fact that T’Challa takes an entire movie to learn. This inaction is not enough to mar the Wakandan Dream, but does get us to start questioning it.
The second strike against the Dream is more damning: we learn the way Wakandan leaders have actively used lies and murder to hide the truth about issues affecting the country.
We see King T’Chaka, T’Challa’s late father and the former Black Panther, travel to Oakland, CA to confront his brother, Prince N’Jobu. We are told that N’Jobu had been radicalized while working in Oakland as a War Dog and had helped an outsider set off a bomb and steal vibranium, Wakanda’s most precious natural resource and the catalyst for their technological advancement.
But being radicalized can have a different meaning for Black folks in Oakland, the birthplace of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. Prince N’Jobu explains his need for the vibranium by referencing the Black struggle in America, saying, “Their leaders have been assassinated, communities flooded with drugs and weapons, they are overly policed and incarcerated.” Because T’Chaka and Wakanda were unwilling to help, Prince N’Jobu took it upon himself to take and use vibranium to empower Black folks to be able to achieve freedom and self-determination.
We don’t get a chance to react to the idea that with Wakanda’s help Black people could be free because after N’Jobu pulled a gun on Zuri, who he had just learned was not his friend but a Wakandan sent to spy on him, he was killed by his brother T’Chaka.
Not only did this act of fratricide save T’Chaka the embarrassment of the rest of Wakanda knowing that a member of the royal family had been behind the worst attack on the country in recent history, but it also ensured that the Wakandan people would never hear N’Jobo’s impassioned articulation of the brutalities facing Blacks around the globe or his radical and convincing argument for how Wakanda could be central to their freedom.
The third and final strike at the Wakandan Dream comes from Killmonger, the son of Prince N’Jobu who grew up in Oakland but aspires to rule Wakanda. In the opening scene of the movie, Prince N’Jobu tells a young Killmonger the history of Wakanda, the unique power of vibranium, and the way Wakanda hid itself from the world and the world’s problems in order to protect itself. But Killmonger, a Prince who was orphaned by a King and abandoned in enemy territory, had his sweet Wakandan Dream turn to bitterness as his acute awareness of racial oppression conflicted with his knowledge of the tools that could free our bonds if only his royal family would be willing to lift a hand.
Throughout the film, Killmonger’s precise, succinct, and aggressive articulation of the way Blacks are oppressed is reminiscent of Black activists dragging racists on twitter, except his twitter fingers turn to trigger fingers without discretion.
After killing and manipulating his way into Wakanda, Killmonger stands before King T’Challa and the royal council and explains his reasons for coming, saying, “Y’all look pretty comfortable—must feel good. It’s two billion people in the world who look like us, but their lives are a lot harder. Wakanda has the tools to liberate ‘em all.”
His proposal is intriguing. After 500 years of oppression, worldwide freedom in the fullest sense has never really been on the table for Black folks, even in fiction. In the US, our demands are typically less ambitious. We want the police to stop killing us, equal shots at jobs, access to healthcare, and our kids to go to schools that work.
In this universe, however, the richest and most technologically advanced nation in the world is Black. We have seen that Wakandan technology borders on magic; wounds that would be life threatening anywhere in the world are healed overnight in Wakanda. Killmonger, therefore, asks a reasonable question—why haven’t these resources been used to free our people?
Later on, after defeating T’Challa in one-on-one combat and taking the throne, Killmonger tells the council the details of his plan. He wants to arm Black folks around the world so that they can kill their oppressors, including, he notes, “their children, and anyone else who takes their side.”
This line reveals the biggest problem with Killmonger’s vision for Black power; it is based not on an abolitionists desire for freedom, but on a colonialist’s desire for domination. Killmonger suggests an inversion of the power structure that kills and subjugates Whites the same way Whites did—and still do—Blacks and people of color in Africa, Asia, and the Americas. This is revenge, not justice or restoration.
Killmonger could have been a revolutionary, but instead reveals himself to be what the Jeff Sessionses of the world want Black leaders to be—dangerous Black Identity Extremists. They wish we hated them as much as they hate us so that they could justify silencing our movements with murder and incarceration, and so that the brutality of oppression could be morally defensible.
This is why radical Black movements have to deal with the intentional misrepresentation of their motives. Bobby Seale, the co-founder of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, said, “The examiner made a report in last Sunday’s paper that we were anti-White . . . this is a boldface lie. We don’t hate nobody because of their color, we hate oppression. We hate murder of Black people in our communities.” In the same vein, prominent voices from the Movement for Black Lives have to consistently combat the myth that the Movement is in any way in favor of violence against Whites or the police.
In the end, the audience cannot accept Killmonger’s vision for a Wakandan empire not because we find revolution distasteful, but because his idea of Black empowerment has been infected by the tools and motives of White supremacy. Remember that the CIA-trained Killmonger says more than once, “I know how the oppressor thinks,” and aims to use their methods against them. But he also uses the colonizer’s methods to take over Wakanda, and is blind or indifferent to the damage this Western-style proclivity towards domination has on the nation and its people. During the final battle scene, T’Challa makes this point as he says to Killmonger regarding the oppressors he hates, “You have become them.”
These faults add complexity to one of the most compelling and empathetic villains we have seen in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But despite his colonialist-contaminated plan, Killmonger’s character strikes the final blow against the Wakandan Dream, which is revealed to be no Dream at all. We believed in the Wakandan Dream because we thought it was untouched by the evils of racism, slavery, colonization, and oppression. But through Killmonger T’Challa learned that far from being immune to these evils, Wakanda enabled them with its decision to isolate itself and ignore the problems of the world.
T’Challa confronts this truth when he journeys to the ancestral plane, an afterlife of sorts. He yells at his father and at all other Black Panthers past: “You were wrong! All of you were wrong!”
In true heroic form, T’Challa returns to the land of the living to not only defeat the antagonist Killmonger in battle, but also to introduce the world to the New Wakanda, which will no longer prioritize secrecy over justice, nor be complicit in the continued oppression of the African Diaspora.
One of the final scenes of the film shows T’Challa’s New Wakanda at work. He and his tech genius sister Shuri travel to Oakland where T’Challa reveals his plan for the first International Wakandan Outreach Center. We don’t know enough about this center to critique it as an intervention model, but we know it represents a shift in Wakandan policy. T’Challa ends Wakanda’s decision to hide its technology when he takes his airplane off invisibility-mode and Shuri begins to talk to children in the community about the futuristic jet they can only describe as a “Bugatti spaceship.”
This marriage of policy and community work is reminiscent of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, who despite being primarily remembered for its Police Watch and powerful demonstrations, spent more time serving people in the community than protesting. The legacy of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense includes its free breakfast and community health care services that became models for national education and public health programs. In this tradition, T’Challa’s first step in Oakland indicates that the political decision to no longer stand by as the world falls apart will be accompanied with action.
The Wakandan Dream is enticing because we have never been given such a beautiful picture of Black excellence in a mainstream film and because the American Dream has been out of reach for most of us for the past four hundred years. But being both powerful and uncolonized in a fictional world where colonization did indeed take place is nothing to be proud of; it is something to be ashamed of. It only could have happened if those Blacks with the power and resources chose to stand by as an entire continent was brutalized.
Ryan Coogler killed the Wakandan Dream because it was a Dream that was contingent on Black suffering. In contrast, the New Wakanda he erects in its place serves as an example of what Black achievement can be. Nakia articulated a vision for the New Wakanda in the first few minutes of the movie, saying, “Wakanda is strong enough to help others and protect ourselves at the same time.”
Black advancement in token quantities has often been used by conservatives as evidence that racism is dead—If Dr. so-and-so made it out of the inner-city, why can’t they all make it? If we buy into this myth, which is especially tempting when it positions us as being more talented or hard working than others, we are complicit in legitimizing an unequal system.
We don’t have the gift, vibranium, but we do have other gifts. And it is up to us to decide whether we use them to make ourselves the successful exception to the rules of racial oppression (the Wakanda hiding in the midst of a colonized land) or rule changers (the Wakanda that uses its strengths to weaken oppression everywhere). Black excellence, from this point of view, is more than just Blacks doing well despite a world that wants them to fail. It’s Blacks challenging the system that was designed to entrap them.
As I wrote this last paragraph, my 5-year old son walked down the stairs wearing a Black Panther mask and claws. I got down on one knee and asked, in my best Wakandan accent, what I could do to serve the King. Like millions of other parents, I marvel at the images of Black excellence that our children are being exposed to in this film and love to see their impact on young people. They give us joy, for good reason. But, images are just the first stage of the New Wakandan vision for Black excellence.
The next stage is action. Some of us are successful despite the racism that limits our opportunities, and those in power hope this will appease us. But our communities are still plagued with unequal access to healthcare and education. We are still jailed at disproportionate rates and given longer sentences for the same crimes. And, it is clear from the police violence epidemic that after 150 years of freedom, the state still does not value Black lives.
Coogler is raising his eyebrows at us again. “Y’all are doing something about that, right?”
Robert D. Eschmann is a professor at Boston University where he teaches classes on racial justice. His research examines the intersections between race, education, and social media. Dr. Eschmann received his PhD from the University of Chicago in 2017, and he has also been a part of several projects that explore the relationship between social media and gang violence, with an emphasis on technology-based intervention methods. Dr. Eschmann is also an avid reader and re-reader of fantasy fiction who uses his children as a justification for his continued interest in young-adult fiction, weekly trips to the comic book store, and video game budget. He is a hip-hop connoisseur who taught kids to rap, and think critically about rap in Chicago Public Schools.