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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
- Learn the history of racism and anti-racism, especially in America, to educate yourself about the complexities of the issues you’ll be confronting.
- 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.
- Find local organizations involved in anti-racism efforts – preferably led by people of color – and help uplift their voices and ideas.