February 23rd, 2018

Wakanda

A week ago, C and I went to see The Black Panther, as a belated conclusion to celebrating Saint Valentine's Day. We really enjoyed it; we're looking to go back for another showing. I thought it was one of the best MCU films I've seen, with an almost operatic quality not only in the elements of spectacle and music, but in the plot and characterization.

But I wanted to comment on something else that struck me.

The powers of the Black Panther are tied to a religious belief system: The worship of Bast, a cat goddess. And of the five tribes of Wakanda, one tribe, the Jibari, who are resistant to the Black Panther mythos, are worshippers of Hanuman, a monkey and ape god.

But neither of these is a black African deity! Yes, Bast comes from ancient Egypt, and Egypt is on the same continent, but its language was Afro-Asiatic, whereas the Wakandans were shown speaking Xhosa, a Niger-Congo language; the two cultures are no more closely related than the Persians and the Tamil (both "Asian"). And Hanuman comes from India, where he's an important character in the Ramayana; he was never part of any culture on the continent of Africa.

What we're seeing in the movie is what could be called "the generic exotic": A representation of people from a different culture as foreign by giving them customs that the audience will identify as "foreign," without careful investigation of what customs would be plausible for the specific foreign culture being portrayed—without, for example, using any of the indigenous black African deities who got adopted into Voodoo as loas.

To be sure, that goes back to the source material; Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and their successors were telling stories, not writing theses on comparative religion. And I thought this movie's story was really good. I just couldn't help noticing how much of Wakandan tradition was borrowed from more familiar sources.