Wakanda and the Mirror of History
By Alvin Cheng-Hin Lim

Wakanda and the Mirror of History

Feb. 23, 2018  |     |  0 comments

Editor’s note: This article will discuss some key themes and plot developments in the movie Black Panther. Those who want but have yet to watch the movie are advised not to read this article until they have done so.

The Marvel Studios production Black Panther has opened internationally to great acclaim, largely in part to its presentation of the fictional kingdom of Wakanda as an Afrofuturist utopia — an “African country that was never colonized and is the most advanced nation in the world.” As South African actor John Kani, who portrays the former King T’Chaka, describes the inspirational resonance of the movie for its African audiences:

“This movie will prove to the colonialists that if they had not interfered with Africa, we’d be so far advanced … Africa has great potential. Africa no longer relates to the world with a bag and bone. We’re looking for interaction and trade, not aid.”

The power of Wakanda as a literary construct derives from its function as an imaginative heterotopia. In his influential essay “Of Other Spaces,” Michel Foucault (1986) described heterotopias as real places on which “all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested and inverted” (p. 24). When we extend this concept from the real to the imaginary, we see that imaginative heterotopias “simultaneously represent, contest and invert those sites that normally populate the collective imaginations of national space” (Lim, 2013, p. 88). Through such juxtapositions, imaginative heterotopias highlight to their audiences features of the real sites which they may otherwise have ignored.

For example, Black Panther’s presentation of Wakanda highlights the problem of the resource curse in countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where the extraction of key minerals such as coltan and cobalt has brought wealth to a small elite but immiseration and slavery to the local communities, not to mention environmental degradation that has significant global effects. This resource curse is juxtaposed with the resource blessing enjoyed by the Wakandan people, whose responsible mining of the fictional metal vibranium has brought them great wealth and technological advancement.

To protect Wakanda from the threat of colonization, its ruling elite has used their advanced technology to hide Wakanda’s wealth from the rest of the world, presenting a fake image of underdevelopment and poverty to repel the rapacious gaze of the Western colonizers. This sets up the next important juxtaposition of Wakanda with the real. In Black Panther, radicals and conservatives in Wakanda’s ruling elite have a pivotal argument over their country’s responsibilities to the rest of the world, and their African neighbors in particular. While the conservatives argue that the continuation of the disguise of poverty remains essential to protect Wakanda from foreign powers, the radicals believe that Wakanda is strong and wealthy enough both to protect itself and help its African kin. These radicals believe that not doing so amounts to selfishness. Indeed, extremists among these radicals seek to use Wakanda’s wealth and technology to help the world’s oppressed peoples defeat their oppressors, thereby creating a just international system ruled by a benevolent Wakandan Empire. While the idea of a Wakandan Empire might recall past African empires like those of Mali or Songhai, the empire that most closely echoes the Wakandan Empire is that of Japan.

Early in Black Panther, an idealistic character argued that Wakanda should accept refugees as it had the capacity to do far more for refugees than other countries. However, a conservative warned that accepting refugees would mean bringing their foreign problems into Wakanda.

While Wakanda was motivated by its fear of foreign powers to disguise its wealth and strength, it was the fear of colonization that prompted the 19th century Japanese to pursue modernization, especially in the military sphere. Within a few decades, Japan’s technological progress had enabled it to achieve its dream of empire, manifest during the Second World War as the Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere. While the Wakandan extremists envisioned the Wakandan Empire as leading the oppressed peoples of the world to achieve liberation, the Japanese Empire was characterized by subjugation, violence, and war crimes. Even today, unresolved issues dating from Japan’s imperial period, such as compensation for its enslavement of “comfort women” (forced prostitutes), continue to shadow Japan’s bilateral relations with its former imperial possessions.

Following its defeat in the Second World War, Japan’s relations with the rest of the world became more benign. Instead of empire, Japan became the world’s second-largest aid donor, disbursing almost USD 200 billion in development assistance to Asian and African recipient countries over 3 decades. Likewise, by the end of the climactic events of Black Panther, Wakanda’s radicals and conservatives have arrived at a compromise. They have decided that Wakanda will abandon its pretence of weakness and poverty, but instead of leading revolutions around the world, Wakanda will instead launch an overseas development assistance program through which it will share its advanced technologies with the rest of the world.


While Japan is generous with its foreign aid, it has a very strict refugee policy. In 2017, the Japanese government “approved only 20 out of … 19,628 applicants for refugee status,” with 45 other applicants “granted Japanese residency for humanitarian reasons, although they are not recognized as refugees.” The remaining applicants were rejected and subject to deportation as the government had identified them as economic migrants who had abused the “refugee process … as a loophole for legal employment.”

This echoes a similar debate between the radicals and conservatives in Wakanda. Early in Black Panther, an idealistic character argued that Wakanda should accept refugees as it had the capacity to do far more for refugees than other countries. However, a conservative warned that accepting refugees would mean bringing their foreign problems into Wakanda. While it remained an open question at the end of the movie whether Wakanda’s overseas development assistance program had been accompanied with a liberal refugee policy, the problem of abuse identified by the Japanese government could also conceivably affect Wakanda, especially once the truth of its wealth became public knowledge. In this aspect too, Wakanda’s function as a heterotopia highlights an urgent problem afflicting today’s world.


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