Challenge Ritual

Wakanda is a monarchy of sorts. Though rulership is passed down like a regular monarchy, the authority of the monarch can be overthrown by combat. We see this ritual twice in Black Panther. The first is when T’Challa is called to take the throne after his father T’Chaka’s death at the hands of the mind-controlled Winter Solider. The second is when Killmonger challenges T’Challa’s legitimacy.

Though this blog often focuses on interaction with technology, in this case we’ll be looking at one minor interaction with technology (the spillways) but moreover the ritual interaction as a group.

The accession ritual

For this major cultural event, many Wakandans from different tribes travel to the arena by barge on a river. En route they are dancing, playing music, and laughing. When they approach the waterfall, the Dora Milaje and other warriors pound the butt of their spears on their barge’s deck. This creates a physical wave that travels through the water to sensors. These sensors cause mechanical spillways to open, routing water through rock, revealing the combat arena that normally sits under the waterfall.

Citizens disembark on the shores and walk to the arena. They take positions on small ledges surrounding the arena, with highest-ranking members of each tribe getting “front row seats.”

T’Challa arrives in the Talon, stepping out onto the arena. An officiant named Zuri addresses the crowd, explaining what is happening. He explains he is giving T’Challa a draught that will drain him of his Black Panther superpowers. Then he calls on each of four tribes, asking if they wish to challenge T’Challa’s accession. Each in turn declines. But then the Jibari tribe arrives and does challenge. T’Challa dons a panther mask, M’Baku dons a gorilla mask, and they fight. During the fight, members of each tribe’s military keep a tight ring around the combatants, holding spears inward toward them. It’s a tough battle, but T’Challa defeats M’Baku. M’Baku, it is important to note, taps out rather than fight to the death.

For winning, Zuri bestows a panther-tooth necklace onto T’Challa. Having been confirmed as king, T’Challa is taken to a ritual cave where his Black Panther powers are restored by imbibing a draught of the Heart-Shaped Herb. He is then buried in loose sand as he visits the ancestral plane to talk with ancestors and his father. When he awakes, he sits up, throwing the sand off of him, and the ritual is complete.

Killmonger’s challenge

Erik Killmonger arrives in the kingdom and invokes his blood right (as T’Chaka’s nephew) to challenge T’Challa’s legitimacy. T’Challa accepts the challenge. For this ritual, only a handful of others are present. As before, Zuni strips T’Challa of his powers.

Before battling T’Challa, Killmonger stabs and kills Zuni, after which the ritual combat just…continues(?). (Seriously, shouldn’t the Dora Milaje arrested him at just this moment? They had the numbers.) Killmonger wins the fight and throws T’Challa over the waterfall. He claims victory and he becomes the new tyrant-in-chief.

The designed ritual

Ritual can be a laden and woo-woo concept. But we don’t need to leave our careful, skeptical worldview behind to understand and critique it. We just need to think of it like any system, which we optimize for the set of effects we want. (Though if you’re really into the idea of ritual design, there are a few groups focused on it.)

In the case of Black Panther, the ritual serves several purposes.

  • It gathers the community together to witness the accession. (“What do you mean you challenge the monarch’s authority? You were there. We all saw you.”)
  • It ensures members of the society are accountable. (“You had the chance to challenge, and either didn’t or lost.”)
  • It tests the successor’s fighting ability.
  • At the end it confirms the transfer of power and reifies the new social structure.

An important feature of communal rituals is the demarcation of the ritual space, that increases the sense of meaning of the actions. In Black Panther, this is done by the communal journey to the waterfall and activating the spillways that reveal the arena. Travel and the revealed arena are great choices for reinforcing the specialness of the occasion. We only come here for this.

The use of sound as an activation signal means every hearing person is aware of the transition, even if they cannot see the Dora Milaje from where they are on their barge.

The arena itself will win neither OSHA nor accessibility awards. Those are thin wet shelves that people are standing on, facing a far drop where they would fall onto others, making them fall…and no railing. Also where are the stairs? It seems pretty ableist to require climbing and standing for the duration. But it’s dramatic for sure.

The arrival of the crown prince is a bit lopsided. Everyone else comes from the river and climbs down rocks, but he gets to fly up in a royal spaceship and walk out like a rock star. It asserts that the crown is really his, and potential challengers riff-raff upstarts. This might be the intent, but it seems at odds with the notion of a fair call to challengers. So inconsistent messaging both about the point of the ritual and the Wakandan brand promise.

Removing the power of the heart-shaped herb before any challengers are declared is a good, subtle design feature. If it only happened after a challenger was declared, it would seem like it was about that challenger. As if they were causing the hero to be diminished. But stripping him of the power first signals, ritually, that it’s not about any particular challenger, but about a fair chance to challenge.

Having warriors ring the combatants adds some dramatic pressure, but it would actually hide the combat from many observers (especially the most important observers on the front row). And with cliffs on one side and a waterfall on the other, there are natural boundaries to ensure neither combatant can withdraw far. But it also ensures that any cheating can be seen by first-hand witnesses in close proximity, so maybe the audience sightlines are less important than that. Yes, Wakanda is the MCU’s most technologically advanced nation, so there would be ways around it, but this ritual feels like it has roots that extend into the past long before the technology.

Might Makes Right?

The other thing that I cannot let go of (and here we must, as we often do, journey afield of technology) is that this ritual is built on might makes right. In what way does a person’s fighting skill prove they have the chops to be a good and wise ruler? I mean, yes, in feudalist times, crowning a proven warrior might cow potential usurpers and result in greater governmental stability, but given all the rest of Wakanda’s progressive utopia, this seems troubling. Might-makes-right is one of the things that representative democracy and democratic republics are meant to correct. Who should have authority over the people? Not the fighter, nor the spoiled child of the prior leader, nor the unctuous priest, nor the game-fixing moneybags, nor the elders. Democracy is the daring notion that all people should have a fundamental say in how they are governed.

Admittedly, it is narratively simpler to be able to point to a person and say, “That one’s the monarch because they fought best.” And that illustrates a problem.

Narratively simple (and that’s the problem)

Narrative simplicity fits humans. We like simple stories and dislike what is hard to understand. Combat is narratively simple. Panther-man beat gorilla-man, so he’s now boss. (Even if its rituals are, as in this case, strikingly beautiful.)

Turning back again to democracy and representative democracy for comparison, they are broad abstractions. Its tenets are hard to understand. Consider: Self-determination and consent of the governed rather than a monarch. The balance of power across three co-equal branches of government. Carefully-crafted and critical limits to power. How to encourage democracy while reining in the tyranny of the majority. A core structuring document that is imperfect and slowly, slowly malleable. The failings of the first-past-the-post system. Deliberate deliberativeness. What the two party system tends towards.

Even if our elections are panther-person vs gorilla-person, we don’t put candidates in a ring and let them duke it out with fists. We valorize a combat of ideas, of competing notions about what would do more good for civilization and arguably the planet. Ideally, the best ideas about governance win this combat.

Familiarity and comfort with democratic abstractions do not come naturally. It takes liberal education (“liberal” here as in “broadly serving work, citizenship, and life” rather than “not conservative”), a pervasive sense of civic duty, and nurturance of civic virtue. The last several decades of politics, and our ongoing fight against American strong fascism seems to me to be partly about discomfort and unfamiliarity with these abstractions. Simply put, we lost them, not the least of which reason is they’re hard to think about. Fascism and might-makes-right are so much easier to understand. They are more cinegenic. But we should be very wary of this lure. I want to encourage everyone to be wary of this aspect of Black Panther. It is to me the most troubling thing about a speculative culture that is otherwise just phenomenal.

In the first movie Wakanda collectively learned the costs of isolationism. Maybe in the sequel they’ll learn about the limits of might-makes-right.


Anti-Racism Resources

Each post in the Black Panther review is followed by actions that you can take to support black lives. Today I’m sharing anti-racism resources. Because it’s not enough to believe black lives matter. We must fight racism.

The first is, of course, Ibram Kendi’s New York Times #1 bestseller book that is all about the topic, How to be an Anti-Racist. His site also has a discussion guide and links to the book in multiple languages.

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If you’re the reading sort (and you’re on my word-heavy blog, after all) Kayti Christian has compiled this list of 21 books about anti racism.

The second is the Smithsonian Institution’s page about anti-racism. It lays out the core issues, and addresses both the personal and interpersonal things to do, as well as thought exercises and recommended actions. Something to read while your book is en route.

Implicit Bias and Structural Racism
“Implicit Bias and Structural Racialization,” By Kathleen Osta & Hugh Vasquez, National Equity Project.

The third is less polished than these other resources, but I love Carlisa Johnson’s stages of white identity development, which moves people through greater and greater engagement, including activities and next steps for each phase.

Contact → Disintegration → Reintegration → Pseudo-independence → Immersion → Autonomy.

The last is the NPR science podcast Shortwave episode about anti-racism in science education, where hosts Emily Kwong, Madeline K. Sofia, and Rebecca Ramirez interview anti-racist educators Letimicia Fears, Gretchen Kraig-Turner, and Viji Sathy. I’ve recently become enamored of this podcast and was glad to come across this episode while working on this post.

And while we’re in NPR’s territory, here are four tips from Eric Deggans, Putting In The Work To Be Anti-Racist. Here are the four headers to pique your interest to read (or listen) to more.

  1. Accept that we’ve all been raised in a society that elevates white culture over others. Being anti-racist will mean first challenging those notions inside yourself.
  2. Learn the history of racism and anti-racism, especially in America, to educate yourself about the complexities of the issues you’ll be confronting.
  3. Seek out films and TV shows which will challenge your notions of race and culture and dive in deeply, learning to see anti-racism in new ways.
  4. Find local organizations involved in anti-racism efforts – preferably led by people of color – and help uplift their voices and ideas.

Life Day Orbs

The last interface in The Star Wars Holiday Special is one of the handful of ritual interfaces we see in the scifiinterfaces survey. After Saun Dann leaves, the Wookiee family solemnly proceeds to a shelf in the living room. One by one they retrieve hand-sized transparent orbs with a few lights glowing inside of each. They gather together in the center of the living room, and a watery light floods them from stage right while the rest of the house lights dim. They hold the orbs up, with heads tilted reverently. Then they go blurry before refocusing again, and now they’re wearing blood red robes and floating in a sea of stars.

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Then we cut to a long procession of Wookiees walking single file across an invisible space bridge into a glowing ball of space light, which explodes in sparkles at no particular time, and to which no one in the procession reacts in any way.

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Break for commercial.

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Lights up, and dozens of blood robed Wookiees are gathered in a dark space at the foot of a great, uplit tree called The Tree of Life. Stars occasionally, but not consistently, appear behind the tree. Fog hugs the floor and covers randomly distributed strings of fairy lights. Everyone carries the glowing orbs. They greet newcomers arriving from the star bridge with moans and bows (n.b. sloppy seiritsu form). Then C3PO and R2D2 appear from behind the Tree and walk out onto an elevated platform to greet Chewbacca (who seems to be some sort of spiritual leader in addition to being a Rebel Leader) with a “Happy Life Day!” An unholy chorus of Wookiee howls emerges from the gathered crowd. C3PO turns to the audience and says, “Happy Life Day, everyone!” C3PO expresses his and R2’s Pinnochio Syndrome to the crowd, though no one asked. Then Leia, Luke, and Han arrive.

Leia speaks (in English) explaining to the Wookiee gathered there the meaning of their own, dearest holiday. She then sings the Life Day Carol. (Again, in English.) No Wookiee has the biological morphology to participate, so they just watch. As a public service, I have transcribed these lyrics. Posthumus props to Carrie Fisher for delivering this with complete earnestness.

Life Day Carol

Sung by Princess Leia

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We celebrate a day of peace
A day of har-moh-neeeee
A day of joy we all can share
Together joyously [thx to scifihugh for this line]
A day that takes us through the darkness
A day that leads into light
A day that makes us want to celebrate
The light

[Horn section gets exuberant]

A day that brings the promise
That one day we’ll be free
To live
To laugh
To dream
To grow
To trust
To know
To be

Once the song is done, the Wookiees gather to file up a ramp and past the humans, greeting them each in turn with nods and exit back over the star bridge.

Then Chewbacca has a sudden dissociative fugue episode, where he relives moments from his recent past. (I’m going to sidestep the troubling but wholly possible implication that he has PTSD from his experiences with the Rebellion.) When he finally recovers, his family is back in their living room, staring at their glowing orbs, which sit in a basket in the center of the dining room table. The robes are gone. They are gathered for a family meal of fruit. (Since Mala’s actual cooking would probably not go down well.) They gather hands and bow their heads reverently in a deeply disturbing, ethnocentric gesture. Fade to black.

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Analysis

The design of ritual is a fascination of mine. So if there’s ever a sci-fi movie showing of The Star Wars Holiday Special, that should be one topic for the hangout afterward. What does it purport to mean? Why do non-Wookiees get the starring role? Why the robes? What’s with the unsettling self-centeredness of having essentially North-American Christian rites?

But in this house we talk interface, and that means those orbs.

Physical Interface

The orbs’ physical interface is fit to task. Because they’re spherical, they can’t be easily set on a surface and put “out of mind.” (Kind of like a drinking horn, but no one gets inebriated in the Star Wars diegesis.) The orbs must be held and cared for, which is a nice way to get participants into a reverent mood. It also means that at least one hand is dedicated to holding it throughout the ceremony, which might put participants into a bit of active meditation, to free the body so the mind can focus and contemplate: Life and Days.

Visual design

The transparency and little lights within are also nice. Like the fairy lights common to many winter celebrations, they engage a sense of wonder and spectacle. Like holding fireflies, or stars in the palm of your hand. They speak a bit to the Pareto Principle, related to the notion that life is rare, precious, and valuable. The transparency also brings the color and motion of the surrounding environment into attention as well, speaking of the connectedness of all things.

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Turning them on

I presume this is automatic, i.e. the lights illuminate just ahead the datetime of the ritual. They either have a calendar or some technology in the home automatically broadcasts the signal to come on. They could even slowly warm up as the ritual approached to help with a sense of anticipation. This automation would make them seem more natural, like a blossoming flower or budding fruit. You know, life.

Activation: Go there

If part of the celebration of Life Day is about togetherness, well then having the activation require literally gathering the family together with the spheres in hand is pretty on point. There’s even feedback for the family that they’re close enough together when the orbs signal the family’s Hue lights to dim and turn on the watery-reflection projection.

Note it also has to have some pretty sophisticated contextual awareness. Note that it only started once all four Wookiees were close together. Recall that Chewie almost didn’t make it home for Life Day. Would they have just been unable to participate without him? Doubtful. More likely they somehow know, like a Nest Thermostat, who’s home and waits for all of them to be in proximity to kick things off.

Note also that it did not start when they were in their storage basket, but only when they’re held up in the living room. So it also has some precise location awareness, to.

Sidenote: Where is there?

Where is the Tree of Life and how does the orb help them get there?

Literal

The Tree of Life is real, on Kazook/Kashyyyk and the orbs provide a trippy means of teleportation to this site. This would mean the Wookiees have access to teleportation tech that they don’t use in any other way—like, say, in their struggle against the Empire. So, this seems unlikely.

Virtual

Since it’s not literal, and I can’t imagine the whole thing being some sort of metaphor, the other possibility is that the tree is virtual. This would help explain why there are only a few dozen Wookiees around this single sacred tree on its high holy day: It’s not bound by actual physical constraints. This raises a whole host of other questions, such as how does it project the perceptual data into the Wookiee’s senses that they’re robed, and walking the star bridge, and at the tree?

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So…pretty nice

All told, the orbs design helps reinforce the themes of Life Day, cheesy and creepy as they are.

You know, when The Star Wars Holiday Special came out, this “technology” was pure fancy. But that now we have cheap, ultrabright LEDs, tiny processors, WIFI chips, identity servers, all sorts of sensors, and Hue lights. If anyone wanted to build working models of these as an homage to an obscure sci-fi interface, it’s entirely possible now.

Carrousel [sic]

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The hedonistic and carefree lifestyle in Dome City comes with a price. When a citizen’s lifeclock begins to blink, it means he or she is now too old, and due to attend a public ritual called Carrousel and die in a public spectacle. As this is a major event in the lives of citizens, most of the public attends these events.

Description

Lastdays are outfitted in special clothes and masks. After filing wearing these costumes and encircling a huge lifeclock, lastdays expose their palms to show the blinking lifeclock to confirm their status.

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Then they look up to a crystal at the ceiling that begins to spin. The lastdays become weightless, and they struggle to reach the top, for the opportunity to reach renewal. Continue reading

The ritual interfaces

We know in the film that Control has been working behind the scenes long before the event takes place. The Chem department, for example, has somehow gotten Jules to bleach her hair, and the hair dye “works its way into the blood” as a way to slow her cognition, and make her conform more the Whore archetype. Additionally, they have been lacing Marty’s marijuana to keep him dazed & confused. (Though, key to the plot, they missed his secret stash.) There’s even an actor placed en route to the eponymous cabin who unsettles the victims with his aggression and direct violent insults to Jules, setting the stage for their suffering. Though these things occur “off stage” of the actual cabin (and the Chem team works off screen), they help tell the story about how deeply embedded Control is in the world, and set the stage for the surveillance interfaces on stage.

Marking the deaths: on screen & ritually

The goal of the scenario is the suffering and death of the victims, in the right order. To provide a visual marker on the monitoring screens, a transparent red overlay is placed over victims who are believed to have been killed.

The choice of red has a natural association with the violence, but red has a number of problems. Visually, it vibrates against blue (according to opponent process of color theory, the red and blue receptors in our retinas are in the same place and can’t perceive both at the same time). It’s also typically used to grab attention, which in this case is the exact wrong signal. Jules is no longer in the picture, and so specifically no attention is needed for her. Better would be to dim her section on the monitor, or remove her altogether, if marking progress is unimportant.

Hadley orders Thorazine

In addition to marking the deaths in the digital interfaces, the deaths must be marked ritually for the system to work. To this end, Sitterson and Hadley act as the human interface that transfers the information from the electronic systems to the Bronze-Age mechanical systems behind him. Though this could be accomplished mechanically, there are ritual words that must be spoken and an amulet that must be kissed by a supplicant.

Sitterson, the senior of the two, recites, “This we offer in humility and fear / For the blessed peace of your eternal slumber / As it ever was.”

After these ritual actions, Hadley raises a roll top wooden panel to reveal a simple switch. Pulling it down initiates a chain of mechanics that ultimately break a vial of blood into a funnel, which channels the blood into grooves carved into a sacrificial slab.

Sitterson and Hadley mark the first sacrifice

The roll top door acts as a physical barrier against accidental activation, and the mechanical switch requires a manageable, but deliberate, amount of force. Both of these features in the interface ensure that it is only done when intended, and the careful mechanical construction ensures that it is done right.