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Cultural Representation in the Black Panther Universe

Updated: Nov 23, 2022

by Kyndal Gladney

When the first Black Panther movie came out it was a cultural reset. Seeing a Black superhero introduced into such a major cinematic universe meant a great deal to many people in the Black Community. With the release of the Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, I would like to take some time to talk about the culture depicted in the movie. The Black Panther Franchise is an expression of Afrofuturism and Mesoamerican culture. Afrofuturism is an idea that combines African mythology with technology and science fiction to rebuke conventional depictions of black oppression and create a future where Black people are in power. The practice is often linked to “Sankofa,” an African word from the Akan tribe in Ghana that roughly translates to “it is not taboo to fetch what is at risk of being left.” The idea that African knowledge and contributions to science and culture have been erased and must be recovered is central to Afrofuturism. The term, which originated in 1994, describes a cultural movement that pulls elements from science fiction, magical realism, and African history.

The first Black Panther celebrated a variety of African cultures. The film showed these cultures in a beautiful and sophisticated way. The costume designer and production designer for Black Panther, Ruth Carter and Hannah Beachler, took time to research traditional culture and clothing which they drew from across various parts of the continent. Carter told The Atlantic that she was inspired by the wool collection of South African designer Laduma Ngxokolo’s Maxhosa range, the tailoring of Ghanaian-British designer Ozwald Boateng and the silhouettes and prints of US-based Nigerian couturier Duro Olowu. In the first movie a tribe of warriors disguised as farmers protected the borders of Wakanda. Their most distinctive feature is their cloak. These cloaks are the traditional gear of Basotho people. The gold rings worn around the necks of the Dora Milaje come from the Ndebele tribe of South Africa. Known as indzila, only married Ndebele women may wear the rings, even though they have become something of a fashion trend in South Africa. Angela Basset as Queen Mother Ramonda makes an entrance with a large disc head dress. In most of her scenes she wears a smaller version of the hat, which Carter borrowed from Zulu culture. Carter took inspiration from many other cultures, but these are just to name a few.

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever also introduced another culture on the big screen through the new antagonists of the story, Namor and the Talokans. The film celebrates a society that scholarship has long been noted for its achievements in architecture, mathematics, astronomy, and language. Originally in the comics, Namor and Atlantis take their cue from Greek mythology.

Wakanda Forever draws on a different source of inspiration: Mesoamerica. Mesoamerican Indigenous groups include the Maya, the Olmec, the Aztecs (or Mexica), and the Toltec. Mesoamerica is a historic region that spans modern-day Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Belize, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. Talokan most likely got its name from Tlālōcān, an Aztec paradise overseen by the rain god Tlāloc. Carter, the costume designer, told Men’s Health that “...they painted to depict figures in headdresses and all kinds of clothing that I used to inspire the clothing of the Talokan.” Carter and her colleagues added jade, kelp, and other aquatic elements to the headdresses to channel underwater creatures like lionfish and sharks. There was so much effort put into researching these and that can be seen when watching the movie. The costumes and overall production were fantastic. I hope to see projects like this continue in the future.

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