By now, I’m sure you’ve seen Black Panther. If you haven’t, then stop reading this and go see it because it’s worth your intellectual energy, and there are spoilers ahead. Black Panther, like many of the Marvel comics and movies, has rooted its premise and power in reality. In contrast, popular DC superheroes like Green Lantern, Superman, and Wonder Woman are aliens to the human race, and the DC universe as a whole functions on an intergalactic plane. The imagery of their heroism is often not grounded in our world.
But Black Panther is striking because, unlike DC movies, Marvel’s characters are contextualized by humanness and historicity. Most of the popular characters from the Marvel Universe draw their superpowers from their humanity. Luke Cage is a crime fighting Black man from Harlem whose powers come from criminal experimentation. The X-Men are marginalized mutants whose powers originate from the very earthly process of genetic mutation. Iron Man simply draws his powers from good old fashioned American ingenuity.
Marvel movies make their world seem nearly identical to our own, thus using their storylines as entry points for social, cultural, and historical representation and discourse– Black Panther is no different.
For many, Black Panther is a pop culture allegory for the black experience, covering themes of colonialism, ancestry, family, and diaspora. However, the film was certainly met with some valid rebuttals to its perceived flawlessness.
I walked out of the AMC theatre in Clifton, New Jersey with my multicultural motley friend group after seeing the movie for a second time, and we were debating the symbolism of Wakanda’s superpower.
My tall brown skinned friend Amahdi, was perplexed. “I just don’t like how Wakandka’s power hinges upon Vibranium. Like is Black Panther really that powerful? Or did Wakanda just get lucky because it was built on an invaluable natural resource?” he posited.
I resent the notion that the Black Panther is merely a hero powered by the might of a magic plant, but Amahdi’s comment touched upon an important aspect within Black Panther’s allegory that seems to be overlooked –the relationship between Black people and the natural world. Indeed Wakanda relies on Vibranium to reach marvelous societal heights, but as we’ve seen historically the mere presence of powerful resources does not inherently make a nation powerful, successful, or good. Wakanda is prolific because they render Vibranium through an anti-colonial mindset that allows them to have a nourishing relationship with the land. They use anti-colonialism as technology to develop an entirely sustainable, self-sufficient society rich with urbanity and natural space.
If we’re thinking about Black Panther allegorically (which many of us are) then this film is telling us something crucial about urbanity, sustainability, and nature; anti-colonialism is central in reimagining who engages with our environmental future and how we should do it.
You might be wondering, how can anti-colonialism be a form of technology? Let’s start with the definition of technology as told by Dictionary.com: “1. the branch of knowledge that deals with the creation and use of technical means and their interrelation with life, society, and the environment…2. the application of this knowledge for practical ends.” In short, technology is the application of scientific knowledge to social and environmental factors. Anti-colonialism can be used as technology because it simply informs the way scientific knowledge is applied. In the allegory of Black Panther, anti-colonialism is sustainable technology, because it informs the way they use natural resources to maintain a self-sufficient economic, social, and environmental system despite existing in a globalized economy.
The film makes this strikingly clear through three important characters. First, through the incredibly vibrant characterization of Princess Shuri, whose intelligence fuels their empire. Of course she’s known for her quotable lines like, “Don’t scare me like that colonizer!” and, “Ugh, yet another broken white boy for me to fix.” But let’s dive into the scene right after she heals Agent Ross, and he wakes up from a spinal cord injury only to find that he’s in a foreign tech den with an Electronica high hat bumping in the background.
“How am I healed overnight? What is this magic?”
Shuri scoffs in response, “No it’s not magic. It’s technology.”
Shuri makes it very clear that Wakandans are not mystical negroes with a magic plant. It is only through Wakandan application of Vibranium that they can achieve greatness. Her character reveals how beautiful the intersection of anti-colonialism and technology can be as we see her not only create superhero gadgets, but also public transport systems, medical remedies, and universal communication devices that catalyze urban growth. What’s more, is that her use of technology has not put Wakanda at odds with nature. While we do see imagery of high powered urban centers the film is also abundant with scenes of rolling hills, jagged mountains, and sacred plants. Even when the movie acknowledges tension between modern (Shuri) and traditional (M’Baku) forces, that conflict resolves when M’Baku saves King T’Chala’s life. While Shuri’s modern medical remedies are important M’Baku demonstrates that Wakanda also thrives upon tradition as he keeps T’Chala’s health intact by preserving his body in snow. Through Shuri and M’Baku, the film reimagines how Black people engage with the environment through traditional and modern technology.
Now let’s talk about Erik Killmonger, arguably the film’s most controversial character. It’s about mid-way through the film and the camera pans to a dramatic wide shot of Erik Killmonger’s rippling back framed by a billowing field of flames while the score mirrors the scene’s intensity with deep percussion. He just eviscerated Wakanda’s sacred Vibranium herb garden. This is a significant turning point in the film when we receive a glimpse of how colonialism can cause environmental devastation. Erik Killmonger is characterized by his nuanced sense of anger. He is enraged by his experience of urbanity because as he says, “they’ve flooded the streets with guns and drugs.” Colonialism is the foundation of his relationship with his environment, and as a result his connection to the land is polluted. It is clear that not only his people, but also his spirit has been colonized, thus making him selfish and violent. Unfortunately in the end, he chooses to use the “Master’s tools” as Audre Lorde would say, to render Vibranium as weaponry.
I recognize the problems with Killmonger as a character. Why does his rage have to be villainized, when it’s justified? Why does the African American character have to carry so much selfishness and anger? Does this mean that African Americans have to forgo their rightful rage in order to be properly anti-colonial? As an African American myself, these are questions I certainly asked, but if we’re viewing Black Panther as allegory Shuri and Killmonger are merely discursive tools to help us collectively reimagine the power of Blackness when we center anti-colonialism. This means not only opposing colonial forces, but also relinquishing colonial systems, structures, and forms of engaging with the world. But what does it mean to actually center anti-colonialism in environmentalism?
Anti-colonialism when applied to sustainable technology, development, and the environment means that we eliminate the Western world as the only ideal for “progress” and “development.” It means that we consider the global colonial impacts of outsourcing biofuel farming to southeast Asian countries so that Americans can maintain their glutinous lifestyles. It means that water filtration technology isn’t a privilege, it’s a right. It means that public transportation isn’t only abundant, quick, and clean in rich white neighborhoods. It means that sustainable technology can be modern, but it can also be traditional and culturally wise.
On a globe that has been invariably altered by colonialism Black Panther is giving us blueprints for sustainably rebuilding our physical, emotional, natural, and societal systems with anti-colonialism as the technological force.