The purpose of this article isn’t to educate you on the socio-political importance of Marvel’s Black Panther character. This article already did a good job of that. The purpose of this article isn’t to rant about what Marvel’s writers and artists have not gotten right in portraying the character. Quite the opposite. We’re happy Marvel has hired competent black creators to handle the Black Panther, and we’re honestly impressed with what they’ve done so far.
The new black panther comic is written by journalist and activist Ta-Nehisi Paul Coates, whose father was a Vietnam War veteran, former Black Panther, publisher and librarian, and a mother who was a teacher. Great choice for a Black Panther writer. The comic is drawn by another black American, Brian Steelfreeze, and the first issue of this new Black Panther comic is the best selling comic in 2016 so far. The black panther movie will be directed by Ryan Coogler of Creed fame, and T’Challa, the titular hero, is being played by Chadwick Boseman, who is an actual fan of the comics. He’s read all the iterations, right from the 1960s outings of the character he is playing. Nobody can say that Black Panther wasn’t one of the best parts of Captain America 3: Civil War. So you can put your torches down, this isn’t a rant article.
Ta-Nehisi Coates (Top), Brain Stelfreeze (bottom) and the best selling comic in 2016 (right)
That said, both the comic and movie teams are composed mainly of black Americans. They are passionate about what they’re doing, but if they’re going to portray an African civilization, they will need to consult actual Africans, or people who have spent a lot of time in Africa. As far as I can tell, Ryan Coogler had no part to play in T’Challa’s portrayal in Captain America 3: Civil War. When I saw T’Challa speaking with a South African accent, I cringed, because the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) clearly shows us that their version of Wakanda is located in East Africa, between Uganda and Kenya, encroaching into Sudan and Ethiopa. He also spoke Xhosa, a South African language. We have seen glimpses of what Wakanda looks like in Avengers 2 and Captain America 3, and we already spotted a few things that could be done better. Here’s an article showing futuristic African cities that could be good inspiration for the MCU depiction of Wakanda.
This is a screenshot taken from Captain America 3: Civil War, showing the location of Wakanda
Before I go any further, let me give a basis for every suggestion I will make here. In the comics, Wakanda is a hidden nation that doesn’t like to relate with other nations. Depending on which comic you read, they were either always like that, or they became like that after a meteor brought the precious metal vibranium into their land, and they knew they would have to be very protective of it. If they were always secretive, at the very least, they would still have a small population of immigrants from the countries they share a border with, and before each country was formed, they would have all shared common ancestors, and hence, a similar culture. Also, depending on which comic you read, they might or might not be in East Africa, but the MCU version is in East Africa. So I would suggest that the MCU version of Wakanda should be heavily inspired by east African nations. Don’t mention the Orishas. Those are from Nigeria in West Africa. Don’t include any pyramids. Those are from Egypt, at the extreme North of the continent. You can’t tell me they’re a reclusive nation and yet tell me that they alone have absorbed culture from all over the continent in the same breathe.
Let’s talk about one of the most important parts of any culture, dressing. Look closely at these three pictures. Each of them is slightly different. Do you see anything wrong with any of them?
Image 1. Dude wearing a Niger-Delta attire
Image 2. Dude wearing a Niger-Delta attire
Image 3. Dude wearing a Niger-Delta attire
In the first picture, the model is wearing an attire from the Niger-Delta region of Nigeria. In the second picture, he’s wearing the same attire with a laced shoe. We do not wear socks or laced shoes with our native attires. It’s almost as ridiculous as wearing Reeboks or Timberland boots with them. Brain Stelfreeze’s design for Wakandan soldiers has foot wear that looks too out of place in any African attire. In the third picture, he’s wearing a Fìlá, which is a Yoruba cap. No one would ever wear that with a non-Yoruba attire, so this third image is also culturally ridiculous. In Nigerian culture, an Igbo man can decide to wear Yoruba attire to work if he wanted, or an Awka Ibom woman go out dressed like a Hausa woman, but we do not mix and match. You pick one, and you look it thoroughly. The same probably applies in East African nations.
Creative license is a beautiful thing. I’ve seen some great ideas in the comics and movies that I would probably not have thought of as an African, because my thought process might stay in the box. The beads worn by Wakandans in the current Black Panther comics are basically as ubiquitous as our smart phones are in real life. They act as holographic projectors, communication devices and so on. Here are some images posted publicly on Brain Stelfreeze’s twitter. The last image was used in a promotional video for Issue 4 by Ta-Nehisi and Kweku Collins.
Brian Stelfreeze’s design for the beads worn by Wakandans
A screenshot from the comics. This right here is pure genius.
I suspect that Ryan Coogler and his design team will take more inspiration from the current comic run than from the previous ones. If they do, I hope they include these high tech beads, and I hope they avoid the soldier’s uniforms. The vibranium cloth mesh the soldiers wear protects them from conventional weapons, but its design sticks to incorrect stereotypes. African native attires do not leave the wearers half naked. Only certain village attires and ceremonial attires do that. The soldiers uniforms are like capes that they wrap around their chests. Once they spread their arms apart, you can see their naked chests and thighs. And those boots are Western. I already explained how you can’t mix and match two different native attires, talk less Western and Wakandan in the same uniform. They don’t have to pressure themselves to design native-looking law enforcement uniforms anyway. They can if they want to, but I’m not aware of any African nation whose law enforcement wear some form of native attire.
Wakandan Soldier Design by Brain Stelfreeze, as posted on his twitter
Screenshot from the comics showing Wakandan soldier. Those boots
Like I said earlier, the MCU has shown T’Challa and his father speaking Xhosa, a language unique to South Africans, and they also speak English in the South African accent. One of the worst things that could happen would be if I had to watch a full length movie depicting a whole nation of East Africans, all speaking with a South African accent and switching to Xhosa occasionally. The team could hire linguists to create a completely fictional language, like the indie game Shiness did, but they don’t even have to go that far. Here is a map showing all the countries in which Swahili is spoken. Notice any similarities between this map and the map we posted earlier showing the location of Wakanda?
Countries that speak Swahili. Source: swahililanguage.stanford.edu
Many African nations have over 20 indigenous languages. Some of us have over a 100 languages. Then there’s the discrepancy between the command of the English language possessed by the lower class of society, and the upper and middle classes. The common denominator that allows West Africans communicate regardless of all this is pidgin English, a creole form of English that varies slightly from country to country. I think the most popular one as far as international pop culture goes would be Jamaica’s patois. If you’ve ever heard Jamaican reggae songs, you’ve probably heard patois. In East Africa though, they don’t speak pidgin English. Swahili is the unifying langauge. If Wakanda has a lot of different languages, then Swahili being the major language is a must. They could skip the whole thing by showing us only English and Swahili/some made up language. Wakanda has never been colonized, so there were never slaves who were forced to learn English and other slaves languages, which is the origin of most forms of Creole English in real life. Even if they stick to just those two languages, they could add a nice African touch by having lines of dialogue where people speak a part of the sentence in English and another part in Swahili. Most multilingual people do that.
Please, those songs with jungle drums and the backup singers making tribal cries do not characterize the music of the entire continent. Most of the Western World’s perception of what African music should sound like comes from the soundtrack of jungle scenes in movies and cartoons like the Lion King, George of the Jungle and Tarzan. Many people of African descent in the diaspora listen to a bit of actual African music, so they have a more accurate idea. In East Africa, music in Swahili is enjoyed across multiple countries, but as a continent, Nigerian music is by far the most dominant. I used to think this was an exaggerated claim till I traveled to Ghana and visited a beach, only to hear 80% of the songs played be songs I already knew from my home country. I also asked a friend who schooled in Uganda, and he said Nigerian music dominates the airwaves there too. This is 2016 and everyone has the internet, so anyone can listen to music from other countries anyway. There’s no reason Wakandans can’t be listening to music from outside Africa as well.
I would like to sound like an extremely knowledgeable person, but I know almost nothing about African fighting styles. In the comics, T’Challa received the best tertiary education from both Wakanda and the Western world. It would make sense that the same applies to his combat skills. Then there’s the Dora Milaje, the King’s all-female elite guard. Between them and some of the villains, this movie could potentially show off some never before seen African fighting styles.
I could go on and on with suggestions here and there, but I hope the points already made here have been sufficient. Besides, I’m not properly equipped with more detailed knowledge. I’m from Nigeria in West Africa, and the MCU version of Wakanda is in East Africa. Mr. Coogler, if you ever see this article, please work hand in hand with East Africans who were bred in East Africa, particularly Kenya and Uganda, and let your Wakanda reflect some of the peculiarities of that region of Africa. We know you’ll do a good job as far as the story and action sequences in the movie are concerned. You’ve got a very good team to work with. Good luck making the most anticipated movie of 2018.