'Black Panther' Displays a Utopia Seeking to Close the Polarization Gap

Wakanda is the closest thing the Marvel Cinematic Universe has had to a tangible, magical country on Earth.

Film Review


Black Panther film still_IMDB
Film still from 'Black Panther'. Image credit, IMDb


When filmgoers were introduced to the vibrance and efficiency of Wakanda on the big screen, it sparked the imagination and became an immediate icon. The hidden realm portrayed in Black Panther  (2018) was the closest thing the Marvel Cinematic Universe has had to a tangible, magical country on planet Earth.


Between its rich cultural heritage and the revolutionary technology at its disposal, Wakanda marks a society unique not just to the African continent, but to the world. Focusing on its cultural, political, and diplomatic dimensions, we begin to see a prototype of positive change.



Championing Courtesy and Unity


T'Challa, as portrayed by the late Chadwick Boseman who brought to the character all the verve of his own personality, was long exposed to the diplomatic energies of his father T'Chaka. Following the death of T'Chaka at the United Nations meeting in Captain America: Civil War  (2016), T'Challa took up his father's torch and donned the identity of the new Black Panther. Obliged to take the throne and the responsibility attached to it, T'Challa had always been aware of the significance of healthy relations with the surrounding tribes as well as the outside world. Courtesy in such matters became an inherent part of who T'Challa is.


At first enraged by the loss of the king, Boseman's Black Panther begins to evolve as a person. He rises above the desire of vengeance and clearly addresses the futility of further bloodshed. He is an advocate for peace – a trait of T'Challa's that turns up repeatedly. He witnesses the disorder and discord within the Avengers, and he sees how it has damaged their friendship as well as their ability to clearly assess a situation. It is the extremity of two opposing sets of  objectives that leads to the titular “civil war.” They become ideologically polarized.


As T'Challa observes, “Vengeance...is consuming them.” He chooses, therefore, to let justice within the bounds of legal order decide the fate of his father's killer – as opposed to bringing the man's life to an unceremonious and unlawful end. This is a turning point in his character, and forever afterward, he looks first for the path of peace and unification. At the same time, as perfectly exemplified in the Black Panther  film, he makes progress toward using resources to aid and advance the wellbeing of those beyond his borders, bringing Wakanda's blessings to those in need.



The Polarization of Civil War Versus the “Utopian” Peace of Wakanda


Stepping back and removing ourselves momentarily from the fantastical Marvel Cinematic Universe, we see that the problem facing the Avengers in Captain America: Civil War  is one shared within the sphere of modern politics. Rising numbers of extremists have grown out of increasing political polarization.


Right now, this is particularly evident in the United States polis. In its analysis of the phenomenon, the Pew Research Center states, “Political polarization – the vast and growing gap between liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats – is a defining feature of American politics today.”


Since the early 1990s, the two national parties have been drifting farther apart from one another — Republicans and Democrats distancing themselves and leaving a terrific ideological moat in between. There is precious little common ground that can serve as a playing field for both sides.


Pew Research Center
Source: "Political Polarization." Pew Research Center, Washington D.C.


A document from Facing History and Ourselves offers a chart comparing the shared political values of liberals and conservatives – contrasting a diagram from 1994 with one from 2017. The zone of overlapping or shared values (designated in purple) has noticeably shrunk in the past few decades. Polarization in Congress and at other policymaking levels stifles the efficiency and agreeability between opposing politicians.


This isn't limited to America either. Rather, it has been witnessed on an international scale over recent years. The United Kingdom, for instance, has shown signs that the majority of the public does not align with the perspectives offered by politicians from either side of the aisle. There the political opponents' agendas are polarized, which has led to an alienated public.


In their book Democracies Divided  (2019), editors Thomas Carothers and Andrew O'Donohue spearhead the examination of eight foreign nations (in addition to the U.S.) currently suffering from polarization. Among these were Columbia, India, Kenya, Poland, and Turkey. It is clear that this is a dilemma we face both at home and in distant countries, with a plethora of examples of extremist groups.


The fictional, Afrofuturistic country of Wakanda is by no means without administrational flaws – or without crime within the community and on the outskirts of its borders. But in the areas of political and social development, it offers a path away from polarization.


The cultural fabric of Wakanda is a weaving together of sacred tradition and the utility of science toward progress. Religious tradition serves as a foundation for their culture, yet simultaneously it's the people's advances in science that build up this civilization. To the Wakandans, the panther goddess Bast is just as authentic and significant as the vibranium being harnessed to produce the country's advanced drive in technology. In Black Panther's introductory sequence, the blessings of Bast are just as real as the horrors of ancestral slavery.


This culture of Wakanda seems like a marriage, or at least a mean, of two (often opposing) political ideologies: conservativism and progressivism. While conservativism adheres to traditional values, progressivism often pursues scientific advancements more directly than the former contender.


In Wakanda, we see both crucial elements in harmony within a society. In modern times, the term dreamt up by Sir Thomas More – utopia – has come to represent the ideal society. In a sense of working toward a more centrist society, thereby eliminating the polarization gap as much as possible, Wakanda might be seen as just such a utopia.


Shuri, T'Challa's techno-savvy sister, is one who is accused of scoffing at tradition, which she certainly does lightheartedly during her brother's challenge and initiation. However, she is not an anomaly, nor does she cease to find significance and depth within tradition. Later, we see Shuri wearing traditional garb and face paint when combatting Killmonger. A scientist, she still notes the important role of tradition.


Within Wakanda's society is the visible coupling of research and religious rites, unobscured facts along with robust faith, and acknowledgment of science and sanctity. It is this sharing of ideas, which are too often portrayed as opposed to each other, that allows Wakanda to be as strong as it is beautiful.



Purple, Power, and the Panther


The color purple is clearly one of the predominant hues used in the aesthetic crafting of Black Panther, and I think it would be foolhardy to dismiss so subtle an element as devoid of symbolism. Color has long played a major role in cinematic tone-setting. To list two memorable examples: the black chess pieces in The Seventh Seal  (1957) signify death, and it's speculated the red hue of the monster from The Blob  (1958) may have symbolized the Communist threat perceived by Americans amid the Cold War.


Similarly, purple has its own message in Black Panther. It's hard to avoid purple as it is the natural color of vibranium and of the heart-shaped herb, and it's also the tone which fleshes out the sky in T'Challa's experience of the ancestral realm.


Yet, beyond its frequency within the film, the color purple can also serve as a key for the viewer to pick up on important aspects of the characters and their surroundings. As we shall see, it can be used to interpret the notion of power and the kind of society being furnished by Wakandan culture.


Historically, purple is linked to the concept of royalty. This stems from the fact that purple dye – and, subsequently, clothing of the same tinge – was expensive in ancient times. In antiquity, the famed Tyrian purple was a dye acquired by Phoenician divers and craftsmen who crushed the shells of sea snails, deriving the saleable substance from the creatures' mucus. Because of its outstanding price tag, it was coveted by the nobility of Rome, Persia, and other nations, and became an emblem of kingly nobility. The connotation has stuck; purple remains a sign of wealth and power. For instance, the Queen of England, Elizabeth II, has made a point to wear purple at various strategic moments in her public life.


In the case of Black Panther, it draws attention to the royal family, the powers of the king as seen in the purple heart-shaped herb (which bestows vitality to the Black Panther), and the power of vibranium itself – the element on which runs the entirety of Wakanda's extraordinary technologies.


This color also carries another connotation, one related to polity. In regards to political allegiance in the U.S., purple can be understood as representing a conflicted state in which two sides of the aisle are stringently contrasted. However, it's arguable that another political perception may be gleaned from this association.


In Black Panther, purple may not so much represent polarization as it does the common ground shared by both progressives and conservatives – as implied in the chart from Facing History and Ourselves. Here, the purple-toned area represents overlapping, commonly held ideas shared by both major parties. In a similar way, we can view the purple – so common throughout Wakandan products and civilization – as representative of unity, not division.


With this latter understanding, the color purple designates to Wakanda a twofold aesthetic of power and unification. The country's culture lends itself to unity. Nevertheless, this does not protect it from experiencing its own “civil war” within its tribal factions – initially instigated by Killmonger.


Under T'Challa's leadership, however, progress is made toward reunifying the kingdom. Beyond that, he acts to undo the prolonged seclusion Wakanda has wrapped itself in. As T'Challa pointed out in Black Panther  when chiding his deceased father, “You were wrong to turn your back on the rest of the world.” Growing more openminded to global involvement, T'Challa alters the nation's response to the outside world. In particular, he assists impoverished Black neighborhoods through educational and economic stimulus. And he advocates for peace; that's always his first inclination. He realizes diplomacy calls for connection and communication and an internalization of others' input and concerns.


By the close of Black Panther, Wakanda is a commonwealth not merely of inclusivity but of outreach. Already a land open to a combination of religious roots and empirical building blocks, Wakanda takes  new steps under King T'Challa's guide.


As a fantastic utopian depiction (and not a perfect one at that), Wakanda offers an enlightening glimpse at what centrism could look like in modern times: harmony between the beauty of tradition and technology.



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Black Panther, Film, Utopia, Fiction, War, Politics and Society, Afrofuturism