I heard the hype about Black Panther before I saw movie. I tried to avoid reviews, but my social media feeds made Black Panther inescapable. I hoped that first and foremost it would be a good story; mediocrity is not worth $20 at Regal Cinemas.
When I finally made it out to see the movie, I was pleasantly surprised. T’Challa (played by Chad Boswick) was a believable young ruler, Wakanda expressed the beauty of an oral culture with distinctive traditions radically different from Europe or America, and the powerful female warriors recalled images of Masai strength. I found myself enveloped in an “Africa that could have been,” a vision of powerful African men and women who stood shoulder to shoulder with their global counterparts.
Like all successful fantasies, Black Panther taps into something true — it shows the real desire for an independent and noble Africa, one led by honest men dedicated to preserving their own traditions. How it achieved this vision caused me to step back and think more critically about one aspect of the film. In his essay “On Fairy Stories,” Tolkien explains that one of the markers of a good “secondary world” involves striking the reader (or viewer) as having the “inner consistency of reality.” Black Panther lacks that inner consistency, and shows the necessity of a complex vision of African success for the future. The problematic area was the Wakandan superiority of science and technology.
The film presents Wakanda as having both the technological capacity to hide itself from the surrounding world and the medical capability to heal wounds the West cannot. The source of this technology lies in the limitless supply of vibranium, explained as the “strongest metal in the world.” Vibranium was the source of all life, and access to it becomes the plot device to explain Wakandan superiority in both science and technology. Such a vision implies that Africa, if it had been left alone by Western imperial colonizers, could have developed a parallel or superior scientific knowledge. Through their scientific imperialism, Black Panther implies, the West prevented a uniquely African knowledge from developing.
Such a view of science and technology ignores the necessary foundations of knowledge. The European Scientific Revolution occurred in a unique set of circumstances, and was itself contingent upon the free exchange of ideas and goods. As the community of scholarship developed, scientists could build on each other’s ideas. Copernicus, Galileo, Newton — each lived in a different context, yet each contributed to the development of a scientific consensus which birthed modern physics. As the physical understanding of the world grew more accurate, technological development flowed out of its application. Such a tectonic shift in knowledge was an organic, collaborative process.
Scientific knowledge has come from collaboration, not isolation.
Black Panther posits that availability of a natural resource (vibranium) automatically results in both the ability to access it and apply it. Instead, human history is rife with examples of people discovering how to use the hidden wealth nature conceals; until the development of the automobile, petroleum had limited utility. The past three hundred years have seen the rise of global networks of economic interdependence resulting greater ability to steward natural resources and talent.
Alongside the development of knowledge comes the exchange of goods across national boundaries. The modern world has prospered economically in large part because of the growth of free market economics. Through modern macroeconomic systems (which are difficult to describe yet visible everywhere), products can be assembled in one location though the constituent parts are created around the world. Modern science, technology and trade combine to create the effect of globalized wealth that sustains contemporary prosperity.
While there is plenty to be said about the harms of globalization, the fact remains that globalization allows for the comfortable modern lifestyle with nearly universal access to education, capital investment and political freedoms. Without global networks of trade, the economic infrastructure would not exist to support a technological society.
Black Panther envisions a superiority of knowledge and technology developed in isolation; both Scripture and human history remind us that such a vision does not hold the “inner consistency of reality.” Israel was always surrounded by other nations; the gospel is intended to go forth to “all the nations;” Jesus was born in the heart of the Roman imperialist era. No single group of humanity contains within it the diversity of the imago Dei which best glorifies God; the conclusion of biblical history shows all the nations gathered together around the throne worshipping the Lamb Who Was Slain. Ultimate flourishing is not found in isolation, but coming together to magnify the creator through complementary differences.
Black Panther is commendable on many levels. It tells a good story, and it adds a new dimension to the Marvel Cinematic Universe while celebrating a positive vision of black power. When it comes to political reality and the intricacies of trade, technology and science, Black Panther strays from reality. Developing a positive vision of Africa in future years cannot begin in the hopes of isolation. Instead, such a vision must aim for a future which recognizes past interactions and seeks future collaboration.
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Image Credit: Copyright 2018, Walt Disney Studios