Rahawa Haile | Longreads | February 2018 | 12 minutes (3,078 words)
(Spoiler alert! This essay contains numerous spoilers about the film Black Panther.)
By the time I sat down to watch Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, a film about a thriving, fictional African country that has never been colonized, 12 hours had passed since the prime minister of Ethiopia resigned following years of protest and civil unrest. It would be another 12 hours before the country declared a state of emergency and enforced martial law, as the battle for succession began. Ethiopia has appeared in many conversations about Black Panther since the film’s release, despite an obvious emphasis on Wakanda, the Black Panther’s kingdom, being free of outside influences — and finances.
While interviews with Coogler reveal he based Wakanda on Lesotho, a small country surrounded on all sides by South Africa, it has become clear that most discussions about the film share a similar geography; its borders are dimensional rather than physical, existing in two universes at once. How does one simultaneously argue the joys of recognizing the Pan-African signifiers within Wakanda, as experienced by Africans watching the film, and the limits of Pan-Africanism in practice, as experienced by a diaspora longing for Africa? The beauty and tragedy of Wakanda, as well as our discourse, is that it exists in an intertidal zone: not always submerged in the fictional, as it owes much of its aesthetic to the Africa we know, but not entirely real either, as no such country exists on the African continent. The porosity and width of that border complicates an already complicated task, shedding light on the infinite points of reference possible for this film that go beyond subjective readings.