Wakanda isn’t exactly a utopia. It’s a fictional nation whose politics are fractured and fascinating. In Black Panther, the isolationist city-state lies cloaked and hidden deep within central Africa.
Following the deaths of several Wakandan emissaries in Captain America: Civil War, which lead right into Black Panther, Wakanda stands at the brink of globalization, with a growing number of people, and potential hostile adversaries, becoming hip to its coordinates.
In the spirit of the revolutionary disagreement that King T’Challa and the impostor Erik Killmonger animate in Black Panther, Ringer staff writers Micah Peters and Justin Charity have locked themselves into a relatively well-mannered argument about the politics of Wakanda.
Before they begin, imagine them greeting one another, all smiles, with a cool Wakandan salute. This isn’t a coup or a slugfest. This is diplomacy.
Wakanda has been hiding away and keeping to itself for centuries. How’s that been working out for the country?
Charity: Wakanda is an incomparably advanced nation sitting on infinite reserves of the world’s most precious resource, vibranium, a powerful component that the nation’s rulers use to design the most dangerous military in the world. And yet, Wakanda sits in peaceful obscurity under an invisibility cloak. Micah, what do you think about the founding principle of Wakanda—isolationism?
Peters: Isolationism is fine in theory but historically unsustainable and bad in practice, the obvious examples being China during the Ming dynasty eventually getting lapped by the rest of the world or the U.S. Senate keeping the country out of the League of Nations after the First World War, which kind of paved the way for the second.
Charity: Let it never be said that Micah Peters slept through history class.
Peters: Shut up. Anyway, first, if you’re a superpower—or have superpowers—then how long can you mind your business?
Charity: If you’re the U.S., your answer reads, “After we’ve prosecuted a few too many wars in a few too many corners of the world, toward abstracted, dubious ends.”
Peters: AND SECOND, if you’re a superpower, how long can you remain one while curbing exchange with the outside world?
Charity: What’s Wakanda’s interest in being a global superpower, though?
Peters: Whether or not the country has any interest in being one, it is one, is the point.
So it makes sense that T’Challa wouldn’t have been the first king of Wakanda to tug against its tradition of isolationism—if you remember, Civil War was kick-started by the deaths of a team of Wakandans on a “humanitarian outreach mission,” presumably at the behest of King T’Chaka. It also makes sense that the first Black Panther movie would ask some questions about global soft power and foreign policy.
Charity: To me, it just seems like Wakanda picked a hilariously late point in globalization to stumble into transparency. Think of all that’s gone wrong in central African politics, and in African politics broadly, by this point in Wakanda’s history. I can’t help but imagine the Africa that might have been if a massively destabilizing superpower had emerged from the continent a century or three earlier!
Peters: It’s still a superhero drama produced by Disney, for teens, which is something everyone, including you, seems to be forgetting.
Charity: Teens learn history, too! Also—we don’t work in the same office, so, pardon me—aren’t you a teen?
Peters: All you need to know is I drove myself to the megaplex and saw the movie without parental supervision. And that living memory matters to Black Panther in a way it hasn’t in previous Marvel movies, but the world depicted here, while close, still isn’t our world.
Why does the nation of hidden pacifists seem to produce only weapons and aircraft (and also medicine)?
Charity: Wakanda seems to stockpile weapons as if it were the United States. This, despite Wakanda’s extreme isolation and passive interest in global affairs. At the very least, Wakanda means to keep pace with—or rather, stay ahead of—the war-making capabilities of its biggest potential rivals abroad, as a matter of defense. But otherwise, what’s the point of Wakanda’s weapons tech, which the country produces in overabundance? Who is Shuri finna harm with those panther-print Mega Man arms?
Peters: They’re ideally defensive, I’d say. IF YOU DON’T KEEP A POLE HOW YOU READY WHEN IT’S BEEF, CHARITY?
Charity: Wakanda is an isolationist nation of pacifists whose core commercial innovations, outside of medicine, are in warfare and air travel. HOW, SWAY?
Peters: If your country is literally built on mounds of the world’s most powerful and valuable resource, wouldn’t you be prepared to defend it from anyone who would try to take it? What happens when the mad Titan shows up and starts eating anti-tank missiles like graham crackers? I’d bet you’d want those Mega Man arms then.
White people: What do they want, and how do we stop them?
Charity: Wakanda’s status quo begins to disintegrate once two white interlopers barge into the mix, both men seeking vibranium. The intrusion of the arms dealer Ulysses Klaue and the CIA agent Everett Ross suggests that Wakanda’s global opening is only a matter of time. Once T’Challa welcomes Ross to Wakanda to receive life-saving medical treatment for a bullet wound, Wakanda very suddenly resembles 19th-century Japan. Ross is Commodore Perry. Knock, knock.
Peters: I heard audible gasps in the theater while Shuri was explaining the vibranium delivery system to Agent Ross in the Panther’s lair. But they’re also primarily plot devices—Klaue a catalyst responsible for the defining moment of tragedy, and Ross something of a stand-in for the audience. Wakandans wouldn’t otherwise need to explain aloud how their technology works, someone has to know the grittier details of Erik Killmonger’s backstory, etc. Also I have a soft spot for Ross—his “Fish Out of Water” routine was one of the best things about the actual comics.
What if Africa had a superpower?
Charity: For a movie that’s built its reputation on the director Ryan Coogler’s glorification of Africa, Black Panther sure does ignore African continental politics as a factor in its global emergence. I suspect this has its roots in Captain America: Civil War, too. Why is the U.N. so important in these damn Marvel movies?
Peters: I can’t really tell you beyond there needing to be some entity identifiable as Government that watches the watchmen, so to speak. Also, having that fixed point makes it easier for people to sort out their lawful, true, and chaotic goods, neutrals, and evils. I don’t know that Wakanda’s blind eye to African continental politics was ever addressed in Civil War, but as for what it should be, obviously, it’s already a detached and impartial quasi-alien stronghold. The rest of its history yet to be written is about how it becomes the first modern African superpower.
Who was right? (You’re not allowed to answer, “Magneto.”) Who should be the ruler of Wakanda? What are their ideal qualities?
Charity: White folks aside, the film’s primary antagonist, Erik Killmonger—an Oakland-born mercenary whose Wakandan father was killed by the former king, T’Chaka—arrives in Wakanda seeking vengeance against T’Challa and a seat on the throne.
Peters: Yeah and the two big, warring ideologies are as follows: T’Challa begins the movie ready to continue Wakanda’s long and storied history of not caring about anything outside its own borders. And Killmonger wants to break the wheel of subjugation and oppression of black communities around the world, but only if he gets to have the only hands on the new wheel that inevitably replaces it. Are either of these good options?
Charity: I, personally, am more sympathetic to M’Baku’s rude ’tude, and to the political abjection of the Jabari tribe, than I am to either T’Challa’s isolationism or Killmonger’s expansionist nationalism. Black Panther—a Disney movie, after all—needs you to see T’Challa’s conservatism as quietly dignified, respectable; but in the real world, the sort of conservatism that T’Challa represents has fallen drastically out of fashion since Obama’s second term. If Wakanda is going to be a hyperpacifist stronghold that doesn’t process political disagreement in constructive, formalized ways, let me chill with M’Baku in the snowy second level of isolationist Inception. Flattering a naive king is such a disastrous waste of time.
What about you, Micah? How sympathetic are you to Killmonger’s political priorities? He’s obviously the antagonist, and the movie pulls some cheap tricks (having Killmonger fatally shoot his co-conspirator girlfriend and strangle a Wakandan priestess) to poison his political appeal. But T’Challa is such a reluctant nothingburger of a leader that I can’t help but wonder whether Killmonger might’ve been the king that Wakanda needed, if not the king that Wakanda deserved.
Peters: You missed the most effective poison to Killmonger’s political appeal: his plan was patently half-baked. Like, maybe not even partially baked—it was just hot and angry.
Twenty-some-odd years of revising and training, top honors from Annapolis and grad school at MIT were light work, but Blow Some Shit Up was the best idea he could throw at black liberation. You can understand how he’d be broken enough to arrive at that point, and why some Wakandans might find their interests reflected in his hawkish platform. (W’Kabi switches up on T’Challa because W’Kabi’s parents were killed in an attack on their homeland by Klaue, and Killmonger delivers the “justice”—close grouped bullets to the chest—that T’Challa couldn’t. Also Killmonger has cooler hair and a floor-length cardigan.) But Killmonger’s overall execution was bad and everybody knew it was bad. That’s why there was a coup after the coup.
I agree that T’Challa isn’t much better, though. Y’know, Nakia should be the ruler of Wakanda—she solved the conflict in the first 15 minutes of the movie when nobody was paying attention.
Charity: “Nakia should be the ruler of Wakanda” seems to be the audience consensus about Nakia, Wakanda, and the events of Black Panther. What’s her vision for Wakanda, and why isn’t she hitting the gym to train for the waterfall combat trial at which the reigning King T’Challa notoriously sucks?
Peters: It’s called love, Charity, and abstention is how she expresses it. And as for her vision, it is, as she said, for Wakanda to “share what we [as a diaspora] have.” That’s as good of a path forward as any.