When Marvel Studios’ Black Panther was released in 2018, it earned $75.8 million on its opening day. Since then, the movie has earned a total of $1.347 billion worldwide, is on record as the ninth-highest grossing film of all time, and is the highest grossing film by a black director. An engrossing blockbuster, it is an incredible sign that an Africa-themed narrative can garner worldwide attention.
At the centre of the story – in fact, the world in which the drama is set – is the African kingdom of Wakanda. Interestingly, Wakanda is more than a literary setting, it is the cinematic vision of modern Africa, a longing for people of African descent.
Writing in the New York Times magazine, Carvell Wallace observes:
“Black Panther” is a Hollywood movie, and Wakanda is a fictional nation. But coming when they do, from a director like Coogler, they must also function as a place for multiple generations of black Americans to store some of our most deeply held aspirations. 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.
So, what is Wakanda? Here is a snapshot*:
- Wakanda is a fictional African kingdom created by Marvel Comics. Like many African nations, it has a rich history with a vibrant culture.
- Its capital is Birnin Zana, which is also the largest city in the nation.
- With Wakandan, Yoruba and Hausa as official languages, the people are fluent in several African and European languages. This is a result of its advanced educational system.
- The Black Panther rules the kingdom, and while the position is hereditary, he is not an absolute monarch. There is an advisory council which includes leaders from the other tribes within Wakanda. Furthermore, a citizen of the kingdom can challenge the king in a ceremonial combat for a right to the throne.
- Wakanda is a world where tradition and technology blend harmoniously. Local crafts are fused with sophisticated technological innovation to give rise to a unique culture. We see tradition in the process of selecting a new king, we see it in the clothing, in the language, as well as in the close interchange between the worlds of the living and the dead.
- Technological innovation is evident in their communication devices, advanced medical techniques, transportation systems, and even vibranium-enabled weaponry.
- Although it is the most technologically advanced nation on earth, this has been achieved with an equal consideration for the environment. It does not use fossil fuels, but has developed highly efficient power systems based on eco-friendly energy sources like solar and hydrogen.
- Like modern African nations, Wakanda is steeped in religion. Aside from being the leader of the nation, the Black Panther is head of the Panther Cult. This is one of the numerous religious groupings in the kingdom. From the White Gorilla cult to the Panther cult, there is a deep connection between the physical and the supernatural. This is a clear reflection of the African worldview.
- The kingdom has been isolated for ages. Recently, however, it has begun seeking to be more active in world affairs. Through its great deposits of resources (especially vibranium) and the technological sophistication it has cultivated over the centuries (largely unknown to the wider world), it is opening up to help needy areas and people around the globe. It has become a member of the United Nations and is launching outreach projects in several parts of the world.
In many ways, this is the vision of modern Africa. A world that is true to its culture and is at the forefront of technological innovation. Africa dreams of a continent that is peaceful, stable, and respected in the global space. While we still have power-hungry despots here and there, most nations have been embracing democratic systems which provide term limits for elected leaders and stipulate that such officials are duly selected via open electoral processes. And the systems are designed to prevent concentration of power in the hands of a single individual or arm of government.
Like in Wakanda, the traditional worldview has not been diminished by the continent’s embrace of technology. In fact, they have gone hand in hand. Africa is thus a good example of the falsehood of the secularization thesis which was championed decades ago among Western scholars. As Africa modernizes, it takes religion along.
Unfortunately, this modern African dream places a false hope in technology. Europe has already travelled that path. The global leader for centuries, its scientific and technological prowess could not restrain the avalanche of hate, racism, and pride which were let loose in the Holocaust and the two World Wars.
Racism, sexual abuse, corruption, pollution, injustice, oppression of minority groups, and terrorism are among the key global issues today. Yet these are not problems caused by a lack of technology; some have even been caused or fuelled by the irresponsible use of it. They are largely fruits of systems that have not been built on the dignity of the human individual. And many of these, when carefully considered, persist because we do not care enough to love our neighbour as ourselves.
As Elrond in J.R.R.Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (a very different world from Wakanda), observed, human nature is weak and men are easily corruptible. Thus, while technology is a blessing, it surely cannot save us.
But what about the gods of Wakanda? Can they help us? Sadly, even here there is no help. If the problem is with human nature, we must look elsewhere. If there is one thing common to all traditional African beliefs and religions, it is that they do not promise a change of heart. They are religions that propose to help us get by in a world of suffering, evil, and uncertainty. They offer no promise of redemption or renewal.
Furthermore, these religions have no way to teach us what is most essential in reforming our societies, i.e., love. They are religions of fear, systems by which we try to gain some measure of security in a world that can be hostile and unpredictable. While these African religions do believe in a Supreme Being, he does not come into a relationship with his creatures. Like the cults of Wakanda, adherents are devotees of orishas and deities whom we worship but cannot love. Our interaction with them is largely transactional. We go to them for what we need, and offer them their dues in return.
But what if there is a better way? What if there is a different view of life and a different vision for Africa which embraces all that is true, good and beautiful in Wakanda, without the false hopes and the false gods?
The Christian worldview is that better story. It is a different story, one that is true to our nature as humans.
A personal God freely creates human beings who are just as personal. And this is not a distant, non-relational being, but one who desires a loving relationship with his creatures.
The humans can create technology because they were created in the image of a God who is himself a brilliant creator. They are to exercise stewardship over the universe, which includes its flora and fauna, vibranium and all. Unfortunately, society gets broken on account of human rebellion. Human nature itself is corrupted. War, famine, sexual abuse, oppression, and corruption are some of the results. But the solution will not come from technology or anything else that humanity can invent.
The answer will come from outside the universe – from God himself.
And the answer is God himself.
He took on human nature as a Jew, and died to bear our guilt and put away our sins. Through his work of atonement and redemption, he gives a new heart to all who come to him. And he forms them into a new global community of people of all genders, races, and classes. Through them, he is building a new humanity in which there will ultimately be no more disease, sorrow, or pain.
Reflecting on this new community, Greg Morse notes:
In God’s word, I learned that his Wakanda has borders that expand beyond cultural similarity. All nations, all tribes, all tongues share a common citizenship, an everlasting fellowship that unites irrevocably. And this reality has already begun.
In that world, Africa would take its place not as a liberator, but as a collection of societies who worship the true God alongside all others. Indeed, it would have sophisticated technology, but perhaps no guns or spears. These would have been converted into electronic plowshares. Perhaps we would have the white rhinos, more magnificent than they look on screen. And its people would knit out the most amazing fabrics and clothing, along with a thousand other artifacts and devices. It would be a glorious realm, glorious because it is founded on truth and sustained by grace.
But would the Black Panther still be there? Certainly. Nevertheless, he would be a king who worships the true God, and not Bast. And he would be subject to the true King of Wakanda – Jesus Christ.
*Summary of Wakanda is derived from the Marvel Database