Wakanda Forever has a lot to say about colonialism

Angela Bassett as Ramonda in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever from Marvel Studios.  Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios.  © 2022 MARVEL.

It’s still hard to imagine today that Marvel would greenlight a film in which black and brown heroes fight and defeat white villains as the central conflict. But director Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther franchise seems inevitably bringing us closer to such an epic, anti-colonial spectacle.

In Wakanda Forever, we get pretty close to delving into that narrative. At the beginning of the film, Angela Bassett, who plays Queen Ramonda, attends a UN meeting. The white west, represented here by the US and France, are trying to get them to share Wakanda’s precious vibranium, the material that powers the previously hidden and technologically advanced African nation. But Queen Ramonda is not to be trifled with. She rejects the notion that Vibranium is dangerous, stating that the real dangers lie ahead in the nation-states. Her character embodies everything from moral justice, anger, beauty, and power, and her theories have proven correct both historically and in the context of the film.

This critique of white power is central to the Black Panther films in many ways. But none of the films seem to be able to push their anti-colonial ideas as far as they want. dr Todd Steven Burroughs, adjunct professor at Seton Hall University and author of Marvel’s Black Panther: A Comic Book Biography, From Stan Lee to Ta-Nehisi Coates, told POPSUGAR, “There’s always been a creative tension between African American product and the American structure, because the African American artist is always in tension… if we speak and act completely decolonized, we will not be able to function in society.

This tension is clearly evident in the central conflict of “Wakanda Forever”, in which the never-colonized African Wakanda fights against the also long-hidden and Vibranian-powered Maya Talokan. Shouldn’t these two be natural allies? Why would the centuries-old Namor, who has kept his country hidden for so long, threaten his country’s only natural ally? And don’t say it’s because of the technological advances of African-American prodigy scientist Riri Williams, played by Dominique Thorne. Because for someone Namor’s age, a scientific breakthrough, no matter how brilliant, is not far from its imitators.

No, the conflict between Talokan and Wakanda is only inevitable because the two exist within the confines of mainstream Hollywood (and comics before it). And (spoilers coming), the two eventually end up as troubled allies. It only took two hours and forty minutes to get us there.

Tenoch Huerta Mejía as Namor in BLACK PANTHER: WAKANDA FOREVER from Marvel Studios.  Photo by Eli Adé.  © 2022 MARVEL.

The very creation and celebration of Namor is an achievement that must be celebrated. Tenoch Huerta is powerful, lawful, and sexy. Like Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger before him, Namor is forged in the colonial battle that’s the classic Latin backstory until it’s not. Spaniards are invading his homeland and his mother, who is pregnant with him, and her people are looking for escape routes. They find a magical plant (grown from vibranium-rich soil) that turns them into fish-men, able to live underwater undisturbed by geopolitical forces and the smallpox that fuel them.

When young Namor plans to bury his mother in her homeland, he encounters the Spaniards who have driven his mother and her people to such extremes. Meanwhile, the colonizers have enslaved the native people and rule with cruelty. Namor decides to burn the whole thing down before escaping under the sea. With this sequence, “Wakanda Forever” makes it clear that Namor’s anger is righteous, and if he can’t be the hero, he can at least be an antihero, the kind of villain we cheer for even as we recognize his flaws (the fight against the Spaniards are not included).

Namor’s backstory is also a clear indictment of the colonialism that has shaped the last few centuries of Latin American history, much as it has shaped the history of Africa on the continent and in the diaspora. In the comics, Namor is the king of Atlantis. The decision to move this European construct to Latin America is rooted in the film’s interest in confronting colonialism. Talokan Mayan allows the film to explore the similarities and need for alliances in the Global South.

Here I would have wished that “Wakanda Forever” had done more. dr Miguel Rojas Sotelo, associate professor at Duke University and director of the North Carolina Latin American Film Festival, is a Marvel skeptic. But he still credits the first “Black Panther” with shaking up the superhero visuals. He says “[‘Black Panthers’ filmmakers] celebrate the beauty of the black body in an incredible way that defies western canon. . . [It’s] very strong to mate [a] Black heroes with all their white heroes and they also recognize the power of the female presence.”

And “Wakanda Forever” doubles down on that, showing us more black women wielding their power as queens, warriors and scientists. Nobody here fights for a man or even deals with sexism. Instead, Wakanda women are busy processing grief and ruling the world. Their conflicts revolve around how best to accomplish these two weighty tasks. And by celebrating and showing her power, beauty and vulnerability, Wakanda Forever builds on the legacy of the first film, and that’s before we even get to the men.

(LR): Alex Livinalli as Attuma and Mabel Cadena as Namora in Marvel Studios' Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.  Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios.  © 2022 MARVEL.

But the franchise doesn’t quite extend that grace to Talokan. The film certainly delights in Namor’s nativeness, lovingly reflecting his tan, semi-naked body, accent and culture. But the rest of Talokan’s citizens don’t get the same treatment. Their kingdom is beautiful, yes, but their tan bodies are hidden behind blue paint and air masks. Part of the joy of watching Black Panther is seeing the full diversity of celebrated black people. But in Wakanda Forever, only Namor is human. We celebrate his body, but his countrymen are more foreign than indigenous. It’s an odd choice (and it’s a choice, comics notwithstanding) for a film that has been so clever and so poignant at celebrating and elevating an anti-colonial definition of beauty and agency when it comes to its black characters.

However, “Wakanda Forever” improves on its predecessor in a few important respects. About the “Black Panther” of 2018 says Dr. Burroughs: “Hollywood is so sophisticated. However, “Wakanda Forever” is more explicit about the CIA, presenting Martin Freeman’s Everett K. Ross as an outlier in the famously repressive government agency known for toppling Latin American and African governments alike.

Still, there may be a problem with looking in art for meaningful resistance to oppression. “Art has always been associated with power…through markets I can find someone to represent me and I buy myself status. [And] then art, entertainment and capital are connected,” says Dr. Rojas Sotelo. Still, we need to tell different stories to get a different political structure, and the portrayal of indigenous people in Wakanda Forever demonstrates, and hopefully advances, a meaning evolution. It is helpful to watch the film as part of our ongoing cultural reckoning with US history. Like Dr. . . and slavery.”

Seen through that lens, “Wakanda Forever” had an opportunity to be so revolutionary. And it has burned into its premise a strong anti-colonial critique. But still it fluctuates, whether it’s because of major studio restrictions or our larger culture. Because in the end, the only freedom the film can show us blacks and browns is an imaginary one – the lost and hidden lands of Wakanda and Talokan. Those of us forged in the world’s true colonial past are unenlightened villains in Black Panther, unable to overcome the trauma inflicted on our communities. Vengeful like Killmonger and Namor, we still define ourselves against the colonizer and we should define ourselves more for ourselves. Hopefully that comes in Black Panther 3.

Image Credit: Marvel Studios


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