An Anthropological Look at Black Panther’s Wakanda
Written by Andrew McGowan
Illustration by Zac Wilson
Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, the latest superhero film in Disney’s highly successful Marvel franchise, is undoubtedly a progressive film. A black protagonist, a group of empowered women warriors, and a slew of African themes are not only original aspects in the superhero genre, but very forward-thinking elements for any Hollywood blockbuster. One of the more conspicuous narrative and visual elements of Black Panther is the setting: a fictional African nation called Wakanda. While the rest of the world sees Wakanda as one of the poorest countries on the map, Wakanda’s citizens only uphold this façade to shield their actual advanced utopian society. Considering this setting through an anthropological lens adds complicated and compelling layers to how viewers can interpret Black Panther and appreciate the progressive representations it offers on the silver screen.
Likely in an attempt to keep the film simple and accessible, Black Panther does not thoroughly explain the inner-workings of Wakanda’s economy or culture, but from what the audience can discern, the disguising nation relies on egalitarianism and sustains itself on a hunter-gatherer economy. From a typical Western perspective, a society that embraces such practices might appear primitive, always on the brink of survival, and in constant need of colonial assistance. However, anthropological evidence tells us that such Western notions of tribal societies are not only short-sighted, but fundamentally incorrect.
In 1972, anthropologist Marshall Sahlins published a groundbreaking essay titled “The Original Affluent Society.” Using evidence from field studies on the Kalahari Desert’s !Kung tribe, Sahlins discovered that people in societies that lived off of the earth’s bounty actually worked fewer hours per day, had longer life expectancies, and lived comfortably without stressing over their resources running scarce. Even though these civilizations did not have industrial or institutional signs of “Western” progress, they were very affluent. They had everything they needed at their fingertips and their modest culture ensured that everyone got their fare share. Applying Sahlin’s work to Black Panther raises two possible interpretations of Wakanda: one more positive and insightful, and the other more problematic in its depiction of tribal African nations.
The positive interpretation invites viewers to see Wakanda as a symbol of Sahlins’ findings which challenges Western assumptions of developing nations. As aforementioned, the Western nations in Black Panther fallaciously understand Wakanda as desperately impoverished. This is allegorical to the colonialist perspective of most non-Western cultures; just because these civilizations do not fare well in a global economic sense, or their social practices appear primal, Westerners often assume that these cultures carry some sort of unsophisticated despair.
Sahlins, however, proves this interpretation erroneous by revealing these nations as places of plenty. Wakanda’s utopia, which is hidden from the rest of the world, physically manifests Sahlins’ argument. Wakanda is rich in vibranium (a fictional precious metal that helps power the entire nation), but they keep their abundance discreet and remain isolationist. Hence, the rest of the world deems the nation impoverished and resource deficient. Western countries are blind to Wakanda’s actual wealth in the movie, just as our literal developed world often accepts superficial vantage points when looking at less industrialized societies around the globe. Wakanda can therefore serve as a critique of Western perspectives and a representation of the latent abundance that tribal nations hold.
On the other hand, the possibility for a viewer’s problematic interpretation of Wakanda comes from its traditional Western representation of wealth in the film. The society that Wakanda’s citizens keep secret from the world is a futuristic metropolis with advanced technology, towering skyscrapers, and revolutionary efficiency. The wide shots capturing the country’s landscape are remarkable works of cinematography and CGI that depict the society as one that has industrially excelled beyond the rest of the world. However, it is this very emphasis on technological progress that warrants concerns about the film’s portrayal of tribal African nations. Ultimately, the film intends for Wakanda to embody the qualities of a near-perfect society, but their portrayal of such contradicts one of the key takeaways from Sahlins’ research. The !Kung tribe in Sahlins’ work exemplifies how hunter-gatherer societies do not need modern materialism to be affluent and that associating progress with prosperity is a distinctly Western ideology. Thus, illustrating Wakanda with so many signs of material wealth paradoxically buys into a narrow-minded Western perception of the developing world.
In the end, perhaps viewers can make a compromise between these two theories that produces a positive, yet rational explanation for why the film takes the direction that it does with Wakanda. Because Black Panther is an American-made movie with a primarily Western audience, its viewers may have had a hard time recognizing Wakanda as an ideal society without the Western signifiers of fortune and development. Thus, the filmmakers (and the comic book writers from whom Wakanda originated) must have knowingly bought into the Western image of utopia in order to make Wakanda’s success apparent. Simply defining Wakanda as a hunter-gatherer society and explaining its real-world benefits would be far less compelling for viewers and thus, the film would likely fail to get its progressive message across.
Each viewer will have his or her own interpretation of Black Panther, but the concept of Wakanda encourages audiences to broaden their minds and consider new ideologies unprecedented in the superhero genre. Black Panther is a pioneering movie, and using anthropological frameworks to analyze the story only widens the scope through which audiences can watch and learn from it. Hopefully, Hollywood will produce more films that raise discussions like these, so that such cultural phenomenon will become more noticeably prevalent in the movie-going public’s consciousness.