Since the release of its first film in 2018, Marvel’s very own “Black Panther” franchise has had an incommensurable cultural and social impact on a global scale. Not only did “Black Panther” gross approximately $1.4 billion worldwide, greatly surpassing Marvel’s initial projections, but it also spurred an avalanche of popular and academic discourses throughout every corner of Africa and her diaspora. The “Black Panther” franchise does not solely owe its success to its fidelity to the original Marvel comic, its stellar cast, or storyline, but also to its ability to carve a space for Blackness in all its multiplicities to reside amid the speculative-fiction genre, which for a long time was exclusionary of the African and diasporic experience.
As a point of convergence for Africa and her Diaspora
Created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1966, around the same year the Black Power Movement emerged, the Black Panther character was never expected to exist outside of a set cultural and socio-political sphere. In fact, although T’challa was written as a self-sufficient African superhero who did not need external interventions (read white saviors), the name of the franchise was reportedly changed to Black Leopard, to dissociate from the Black Panther movement. As Jamil Smith, an essayist for the Los Angeles Times, recalls in the 2022 ABC 20/20 Black Panther: In search of Wakanda Interview documentary: “They changed the name of the comic to Black Leopard for a brief time, before reverting, so I think they may have been initially some reticence with being associated with the Black Panther and the concept of Black Power, but ultimately that is what the comic is about.”
Consequently, in what felt like an intentional decision to use the franchise as a means for Black empowerment, and a bridge for diasporic discourse and connection, Oakland-native director Ryan Coogler chose to honor the historical context in which T’challa rose by partially setting the first movie in Oakland, home of the Black Panther movement, and Wakanda, the fictional, Vibranium rich East African country; a primary example of speculative fiction used as a means to revisit and re-engage with history. Now, in considering the new depths the franchise explores in “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” it remains imperative to ponder on the meaning and use of sci-fi as a cinematic genre.
Perpetually guided by the “What if?”, sci-fi has long served as an opportunity to reflect on the potentialities of the future. As Nnedi Okorafor, author of the renowned sci-fi novel “Akata Witch,” puts it: “So much of sci-fi speculates about tech, social issues, what’s beyond our planet, what’s within. Science fiction is one of the most effective forms of political writing” (From Okorafor’s Ted Talk “Sci-fi stories that imagine a future Africa”).
However, it is important to highlight that Marvel sci-fi holds a very specific point of view, precisely rooted in Hollywood modes of storytelling, concerned with the ability to reflect on the past, inform the present, and ideate around the possibilities of the future. Still, this effort has often prioritized the experience of white men and often manifests itself as a military and technology-heavy universe, primarily concerned with the discovery, colonization, and invasion and/or othering of aliens. To get a full grasp of Coogler’s “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” one cannot, therefore, separate it from the audience and studio-specific standards of the Marvel Cinematic Universe it belongs to.
Science fiction also serves to many as a tool to contend with specific human experiences and realities. As Okorafor puts it: “I wrote sci-fi in response to family / cultural conflicts and the need to see an African girl leaving her planet on her own terms” (From Okorafor’s Ted Talk “Sci-fi stories that imagine a future Africa”). In Coogler’s case, tackling topics rooted in his interpersonal experiences and affiliations to Africa and her Diaspora seem central to this film.
For a continent and people used to being alienated from the predominant sci-fi culture, the further immersion into Wakanda and her people in this new sequel comes across as Coogler and team’s commitment to redefining the genre, and rendering it tangible and accessible to the various iterations of Blackness existing across the Atlantic, showcasing Blackness in its multiplicity.
Through futuristic endeavors, “Wakanda Forever” continues to serve as a point of convergence for Africa and her Diaspora — from the conception of Wakanda, its culture, and people, to set the story in various parts of the Diaspora, notably Haiti, Mali, the U.S, etc.
As the award-winning costume designer Ruth Carter states in the ABC special “20/20 Presents Black Panther: In Search of Wakanda”: “We [asked ourselves], how can we move the African Diaspora into the future, with technology, with science, with culture, with art.”
The first thing one notices when watching “Wakanda Forever” is the array of traditional and contemporary African cultural practices placed in a constant state of co-existence. From a hint of Asante culture here or Zulu regalia there to architectural designs echoing those of contemporary Burkinabe architect Diébédo Francis Kéré, the film presents a roster with no apparent confoundment; a cultural configuration that strongly echoes that of contemporary African countries, where many ethnic groups coexist under the umbrella of a sovereign state. Such intentionality in the conceptualization of Wakanda necessitated extensive research on African countries, cultures, and various ethnic groups, involving a team of researchers and cultural workers focusing on Afrofuturism and Africana studies.
Cameos including the legendary Fulani-Senegalese icon Baaba Maal and the renowned Senegalese talking drum expert Massamba Diop, also stand as tokens of Coogler and team’s commitment to accurately represent Africa in this marvel universe.
With such attention to detail, it is as if Wakanda aims to stand as a materialization of the psycho-geographic location Africa represents for its people and Diaspora. The fictional country indeed seems to have taken inspiration from the real-life conception of Africa, not as a physical space, but as an ideology — a set of ways, cultural codes, and emotions streaming through the veins of all who originate from her.
As a Rare Hollywood-Produced instance of Africanfuturism
Although “Wakanda Forever” is a science fiction film that honors genre conventions, it is imperative to recognize the sequel’s use of the genre as a means to explicitly explore the possibilities of an African focus future via a different articulation of speculative fiction — that of Afrofuturism.
Coined by the American culture critic Mark Déry, Afrofuturism was first defined as “Speculative fiction that treats African-American themes and addresses African-American concerns in the context of twentieth-century technoculture — and, more generally, African-American signification that appropriates images of technology and a prosthetically enhanced future” (“Black to the Future,” Mark Dery, 1994). To include other diasporic experiences, the term has now evolved into a catch-all defined as “a wide-ranging social, political and artistic movement that dares to imagine a world where African-descended peoples and their cultures play a central role in the creation of that world.” (UCLA mag Sept 2020)
However, with “Wakanda Forever” situated in continental Africa, engaging with global geopolitics from that standpoint, one may identify the sequel as an instance of Africanfuturism.
Coined by author Nnedi Okarofor, Africanfuturism is described as “Similar to ‘Afrofuturism’ in the way that Blacks on the continent and in the Black Diaspora are all connected by blood, spirit, history, and future. The difference is that Africanfuturism is specifically and more directly rooted in African culture, history, mythology, and point-of-view as it then branches into the Black Diaspora, and it does not privilege or center the West (Africanfuturism Defined, Okorafor 2019). In the same article, Nnedi proposes an example that, interestingly enough, speaks directly to the Black Panther franchise: “Afrofuturism: Wakanda builds its first outpost in Oakland, CA, USA” versus “Africanfuturism: Wakanda builds its first outpost in a neighboring African country.”
One could therefore argue that even with Coogler being African American, and “Wakanda Forever” financed and produced by Marvel Studios (a subsidiary of American media giant Disney), the story’s situational setup, and character conception make it an instance of Africanfuturism, as “Wakanda Forever” does not center the West.
One distinguishable trait of Africanfuturism to conventional science fiction is that it is not interested in subjugating or colonizing others. For instance, throughout the franchise, Wakanda continues to be regarded as a threat by western countries like the U.S and France, for its access to Vibranium, a metal it uses for healing and technological advancement, while simultaneously being courted by said countries for military purposes. Staging global politics in this manner alludes to the fact that indeed, Wakanda is not about subjugating the rest of the world, even though it may be powerful enough to do so. Other African sci-fi films have religiously followed this trope, thus aiming to distance themselves from the western sci-fi approach to treating the other/the unknown.
“Afronauts,” a 2014 short film directed by the Ghanaian filmmaker Nuotama Bodomo is exemplary of this phenomenon. In the film, Matha, a young Zambian exile, prepares for a trip to the moon before the American Apollo mission of the late 1960s. Before Matha leaves, Nkoloso whispers to her repeatedly, until it is time for Matha to leave: “Do not impose Christianity on them, Matha; do not impose the nation-state.”
Bodomo speaks to the often dismal colonial connotations attached to “space missions” set in the world of sci-fi. Like Shuri and the Wakandans, Matha and her people do not show any interest in subjugating others. This parallel is important to draw as it establishes a direct link between two rare manifestations of Africanfuturism in sci-fi.
Another occurrence of similar iterations of Africanfuturism lies in the work of the Kenyan filmmaker Wanhuri Kahiu’s 2009 short film “Pumzi.” Parallels between “Wakanda Forever” and ‘Pumzi” become obvious as the former’s plot unfolds. Asha, like Shuri and her mother, is concerned with the protection of her community. Through science and research, she immerses herself in the journey of uncovering the mysteries of a drought-ridden future, while remaining confined to a recluded Kikuyu community, 35 years after World War III: Water War.
Neither Asha nor Shuri are concerned with the annexation of another country/territory. Both Shuri and Asha have a deep connection with the earth and its resources. However, the major differentiator between “Pumzi” and “Wakanda Forever” is that Pumzi’s futuristic setup does not include MCU markers predicated on access to a significantly higher budget.
As a Womanist Text
Nonetheless, all three films (“Afronauts,” “Pumzi,” and “Wakanda Forever”) center on the perspective of Black women, an Africanfuturism particularity that is also ever present in the 2005 sci-fi horror film “Les Saignantes” (“The Bloodettes”), by Camerounian director Jean-Pierre Bekolo, a film about two young femmes fatales who set out to rid a futuristic Cameroon of its corrupt and sex-obsessed powerful men.
Arguably, Africanfuturism is seldom dissociable from African Womanism. Where Womanism is recognized as the favoring of women’s culture and its emotional flexibility, with a focus on Black women’s experiences, characters who exist in the Africanfuturism realm often seem to also share an affinity for justice, and particular occurrences of strength, audacity, temerity, emotional complexity, and nonlinearity.
Like Chouchou, and Majolie in “Les Saignantes,” Shuri and the women of Wakanda are depicted as fearful, but also audacious, courageous, and willful — core tenets of Alice Walker’s Womanist definition as delineated in “In Search Of Our Mothers’ Gardens – Womanist Prose” (1983). These similarities point to Coogler’s obvious creative decision to capture Shuri from the lens of this theory. However, the particular iterations of Womanism displayed in “Black Panther” also allude to Coogler and team’s obvious research work on other African instances of Womanism in film. It is almost as if Shuri and the women of Wakanda, though carrying their own character specificities, are cut of the same cloth as Majolie and Chouchou in “Les Saignantes,” Matha in “Afronauts,” and Asha in “Pumzi.”
Similarities of femme articulations in non-science fiction African Womanist features can also be drawn from “Wakanda Forever.”
For example, in Sembene Ousmane’s 2000 feature “Faat Kiné,” a film about a single mother who, after being abandoned and mistreated by her ex-partners and family, becomes successful; and in Idrissa Ouedraogo’s 1999 TV series “Kadi Jolie,” which follows the life of a young, sharp tomboy-ish woman city dweller in Ouagadougou. Both women face life with determinism and sensibility. Like Shuri, they feel pain, and sadness and have a strong sense of humor rooted in their experiences as African women. They fight like themselves and refuse to extract their cultural context from their ways — a badassery that manifests itself through their personal politics, as well as their positioning as femme advocators, their fashion, and their determinism to face patriarchy, both African and Western.
Coogler and team attempted to make what feels like an African Womanist film while refraining from sensationalizing/glorifying itself for doing so. And from all angles, Shuri’s character presents as Womanist and Africanfuturist, a conclusion reached with great confidence.
“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” comes across as a project invested in exploring the various ways of articulating Blackness. In addition, Coogler’s decision to introduce Namor: The Feathered Serpent God as a Meso-American, Mayan superhero, demonstrates a full commitment to normalizing the practice of representing cultures in their truest form, instead of remaining content with simply written narratives.
And it is thanks in large part to the filmmaker’s commitment that “Wakanda Forever” achieved what many thought a Marvel movie was incapable of doing. Resisting the temptation of telling a derivative, monolithic Africa-themed Marvel story, it provides range in its depiction of Africa and its Diaspora, with poise and subtlety, while remaining confined to the expectations and standards of the studio.
Farima is a culture writer, curator, and independent researcher who primarily focuses on the concept of identity reconstruction within a post-colonial west African context, with a particular interest in gender studies, Islamic studies, fashion, and cinema studies. Farima is currently a project manager at Akoroko LLC., and a curator and office manager at the African Film Festival, Inc.