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Why Wakanda matters

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There are spoilers ahead.

In a scene close to the riveting climax of “Black Panther” — the Hollywood superhero blockbuster that smashed numerous box office records over the weekend — the titular character's tech-wizard sister refers to a CIA officer as a “colonizer.” For many, that’s a loaded word, immediately bringing to mind a legacy of abuse and exploitation and a tense history that separates nations and divides communities to this day.

“Between colonizer and colonized,” wrote Aimé Césaire, the great 20th-century Francophone poet and Afro-Caribbean political theorist, “there is room only for forced labor, intimidation, pressure, the police, taxation, theft, rape, compulsory crops, contempt, mistrust, arrogance, self-complacency, swinishness, brainless elites, degraded masses.”

But in the world of “Black Panther,” the invocation of “colonizer” drew laughs in the packed Washington theater where I sat. It was a lighthearted punchline, a word so harmless in the context of the film that it simply became a term of endearment for a token white guy.

For that, and for so much more, “Black Panther” marks a fascinating cultural moment. It’s further (although unnecessary) proof that a Hollywood movie dominated by minorities is no barrier to huge commercial success in the United States or elsewhere. And it also delivers a genuinely powerful statement: Its unapologetic Afrofuturist fantasy, centered on the cat-cowled monarch of a peerless African nation, manages to be both overtly and subtly political in ways that few films of the genre ever are, uplifting the “colonized,” while pushing the “colonizer” away.

The film’s story is based on the iconic Marvel superhero created more than a half-century ago by two Jewish New Yorkers who crafted their comic-book legends amid the turbulent civil rights struggle in the United States. Around the same time, the radical leftist Black Panther Party emerged in Oakland, Calif. — which also happens to be where the movie’s first scene takes place.

But the essential location here is Wakanda, the fictional nation where T’Challa — our hero who dons the invulnerable suit that makes him the Black Panther — is king. Wakanda, like many places in Africa, is home to a great wealth of natural resources. But unlike most places in Africa, it was able to avoid European colonization. Shielded by the powers of vibranium, the element mined beneath its surface that enabled the country to develop the world’s most advanced technology, Wakanda resisted invaders while its rulers constructed a beautiful space-age kingdom.

“Wakanda represents this unbroken chain of achievement of black excellence that never got interrupted by colonialism,” Evan Narcisse, a pop culture critic who co-writes “The Rise of the Black Panther” miniseries, told The Washington Post’s David Betancourt.

Wakanda, deliberately, is hard to place on the map. Ahead of making the film, director Ryan Coogler explored the highlands of the tiny nation of Lesotho, nestled in mountains within the landmass of South Africa. An indistinct satellite image in the movie (and a clearer drawing in the new series of books written by acclaimed African American author Ta-Nehisi Coates) places Wakanda farther north, along the shores of Lake Victoria. The country is rendered as a Pan-African pastiche; viewers of “Black Panther” can point to Ghanaian fabrics and Zulu headdresses, Ethiopian tribal body markings and a prominent Bantu tongue.

There is a logic to conjuring such geographic imprecision on a continent whose political borders were drawn largely by Europeans. “Wakanda was not colonized, so they had a chance to build a society that was free of European influence, whether British or French,” mused Kenyan journalist Larry Madowo, in conversation with my colleague Karen Attiah, after both had watched the movie. “We call ourselves Francophone Africa versus Anglophone Africa. We categorize ourselves based on who our oppressor was. I always find that a strange thing. Our identity is so deeply tied to our oppression.”

Many fans in 2018 used "Black Panther" to celebrate a shift toward a more positive, empowering portrayal of people from the continent of Africa. (Video: Ashleigh Joplin/The Washington Post)

And, as an idealized homeland, Wakanda also represents the powerful promise of black liberation dreamed by generations of African Americans. “We have for centuries sought to either find or create a promised land where we would be untroubled by the criminal horrors of our American existence,” Carvell Wallace wrote in the New York Times magazine. “From Paul Cuffee’s attempts in 1811 to repatriate blacks to Sierra Leone and Marcus Garvey’s back-to-Africa Black Star shipping line to the Afrocentric movements of the ’60s and ’70s, black people have populated the Africa of our imagination with our most yearning attempts at self-realization.”

In the film, though, the promised land is under threat, torn between two visions of how to wield its vast power. T’Challa, our hero, is moved to maintain Wakanda’s largely peaceful seclusion from the rest of the world. The nemesis who emerges, a Wakandian emigre with the not-so-subtle name of Eric Killmonger, wants Wakanda to lead an armed global revolution against the oppressors in the West. As some academics have observed, Killmonger is rather directly channeling the spirit of mid-20th-century anti-colonial thinker Frantz Fanon, who saw in armed struggle a pathway to utopia.

“T’Challa’s advocacy of internal development and neutrality in international affairs resembles ideas initially advanced by the African American clergyman Alexander Crummell in the 19th century and refined by Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah in the 20th,” noted Jonathan Gray of the City University of New York, “while Killmonger’s desire for a militaristic engagement with the world on African terms seems an interesting blend of Edward Blyden’s messianic Ethiopianism, Fanon’s embrace of armed conflict and ... Garvey’s belief that Africa was a sleeping giant with the unrealized capacity to dominate the world.”

This may seem a bit much for a big-budget blockbuster, but “Black Panther” wears its themes as lightly as T’Challa’s potent necklace. The result is a sprawling, transporting 3-D spectacle that ultimately returns viewers to the festering troubles of the real world — the United States.

“Identity is not dead, as the incredibly identitarian Trump administration has made quite clear,” wrote my colleague Christine Emba, hailing the film as a “black triumph.” “Because of, and in spite of, an increasingly divided racial climate, the representation of people of color in broader spaces matters.”

“We’re in a political moment where the president of the United States calls people from Haiti and Africa, he calls those countries ‘s---holes,’ ” Narcisse told The Post. “If you’re a young person hearing that … you need to see a superhero that’s smart, cunning and noble who also looks like you. Granted, it’s fiction, but superheroes have always had an aspirational aspect to them.”

In the end, “Black Panther” delivers a pointed message of inclusion, a call to build “bridges” — not “walls” — to move beyond a past of violence and injustice. But, in Wakanda, there’s just one global superpower, resplendent and mighty, that needs no reference but itself.

"Black Panther" brings to life Marvel's greatest black superhero. For The Post's David Betancourt, this has been a long time coming. (Video: David Betancourt, Erin Patrick O'Connor/The Washington Post)

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