People have already been calling BLACK PANTHER Marvel’s best film. It’s an absolute tour de force.  BLACK PANTHER brings us compelling stories from every side, beautiful scenery, and beautiful costuming. On top of that, BLACK PANTHER is a celebration of the depth of black culture in many ways. One of the things that stood out to me most was the importance of tradition, religion, and mysticism.

For a very long time (and continuing even today) there has been a narrative that science and magic cannot coexist. This idea of science “overcoming” religion has a long colonialist to it. The interpretation of tradition, magic, and religion being “savage” is one that fueled destruction of many indigenous cultures. BLACK PANTHER presents Wakanda as the most technologically advanced society in the world…and as a society that still values its traditions and magic. This, in and of itself, is revolutionary.

BLACK PANTHER tradition
Even Wakanda’s advanced, sprawling architecture reflects a deep love and respect for traditional African architecture.

Imperialism’s Influence

Our current society typically views the traditions of people of color as strange or savage. Even worse, society sees many traditions as things that no longer exist, perpetuating the idea that the cultures of PoC have died out. These ideas don’t pop out of anywhere. Ideas decrying tradition as a sign of a backward society, ideas of science being the inherently superior opposite of magic, and ideas of advancement and knowledge outmoding tradition are all ideas that serve colonialist ideals.

The history of stripping tradition from people of color as a whole runs deep. Colonialists have outlawed the religions of Native Americans or forcibly converted them away from them. African people had much the same done to them. Even when enslaved in America (as well as other countries) they were further disallowed from forming new cultures or sharing the cultures they came from.

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These issues haven’t gone away. People of color still struggle with reconnecting with their cultures and finding pride in tradition. Instead of being able to celebrate their religions, they’re told that religion means a denial of science. The narrative has been stripped down to an either-or situation. Ignoring that many religions encourage the constant pursuit of knowledge. Ignoring that participating in the traditions of your people doesn’t denote some implicit inferiority.

These false binaries — tradition vs. growth, science vs. magic—set up a world in which one must be inferior. In reality, things aren’t exact opposites. A society can advance while embracing tradition and religion. There’s plenty of historical examples. Acknowledging magic isn’t the nullification of science, and vice-versa. In fact, for many people, the two amplify the meaning of the other.

Celebrating Tradition

Acknowledging this, the way BLACK PANTHER brings the traditions and magic of Wakanda to the forefront is even more important. Not only has Ruth E. Carter, the costume designer for the film, incorporated plenty of real-life African traditions into the regalia of Wakanda, but the film brings us a strong sense of Wakanda itself and its own traditions as well.

The leader of the Water Tribe has a lip plate, a body modification common in tribes in Ethiopia.

The movie starts with storytelling — oral tradition is one that’s existed in many cultures, especially the culture of people of color. Oral tradition relates heavily to the preservation of language (something else clearly important to Wakanda), which is something many cultures hold in high regard. Oral tradition puts clear value in human interaction and the ability to share stories throughout a culture.

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The loss of language is something constantly suffered due to forced assimilation or laws against specific languages. To have BLACK PANTHER open with storytelling and have Wakanda constantly put its native language at the forefront of its traditions is beautiful to see. It serves as more than just exposition—although the storytelling about the formation of the country was amazing as a writing decision as well—it serves as our first glimpse into what Wakanda values.

Ceremony in BLACK PANTHER

The ancestral plane specifically really stuck with me. The way BLACK PANTHER presents the ceremony surrounding their king going to the ancestral plane, and the magic and mysticism surrounding the idea of connecting with the spirits of ancestors.

Firstly, the ceremony surrounding the current Wakandan king entering the ancestral plane is beautiful. The simplicity of things — the intake of the heart-shaped herb and then being buried — was a fantastic decision for many reasons. Firstly, it reflects symbolism that many cultures end up sharing…cycles of life and death, connection to the earth, and an incredibly valuable relationship with their ancestors.

Priest Zuri is a prominent figure in the film, and an integral player in Wakanda’s traditions and ceremonies.

Secondly, the simplicity means the creative team can tweak different scenes in interesting ways. BLACK PANTHER shows us the first ceremony after T’Challa becomes king. Zuri, the king’s spiritual advisor, heads the ceremony. The building where the ceremony takes place is a beautiful portrait of blues and purples, with eye-catching panther sculptures keeping watch over the garden of heart-shaped herb.

Erik’s ceremony is in stark contrast—while the gorgeous expanse of Wakandan architecture and sculpture still sets the scene, Zuri’s absence and the fear of the people around Erik are clear. Finally, BLACK PANTHER shows us T’Challa entering the ancestral plane while in Jabari territory, the people closest to him covering him in snow, a scene that is both desperate and beautiful.

The Ancestral Plane

The ancestral plane itself is beautiful. The contrast between T’Challa’s experience of the ancestral plane and Erik Killmonger’s experience of it speak volumes. These two men experience a connection with their ancestors in their own ways. This acknowledges how the cultures we grow up in influence the ways we reconnect with our own heritage. It’s also representative of how people always have different internal worlds.

Erik’s vision of the ancestral plane stood out to me. The movie subtly shows that it is the same space that T’Challa saw—the multi-colored sky seen through the apartment windows — paired with the stark difference of Erik coming to the place that was his home: his father’s apartment.

T’Challa’s visit to the ancestral plane is characterized by lush plains and bright colors, a celebration of his home of Wakanda.

A connection to the past and connection to ancestors is valuable to multiple cultures. Staying in touch with the spirits of those who have come before us is especially important to people who have suffered colonialism and the displacement of their people. To have scenes that spoke so heavily on reconnecting with the past, and have the acknowledgment of how the society’s we’ve grown in change these things, was amazing to see.

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Erik Killmonger’s time in America has permanently influenced his connection to his ancestors. The connection and separation he feels with Wakanda manifests in his vision of the ancestral plane. Wakanda is spread out like an unreachable portrait outside of the walls of the apartment his father raised him in. This scene relates so deeply to reasons people of color seek out their religions and traditions today. The use of mysticism and tradition relating to these scenes is poignant in a way words can barely express.

Magic and Marvel

To take a turn into the nerdy: this is important for Marvel, too. BLACK PANTHER being unquestioning about the existence of magic is refreshing. Even with DOCTOR STRANGE already existing in MCU canon, the MCU seems surprisingly dismissive of the existence of magic. Perhaps this is due to the focus on Tony Stark—a character who would clearly get into an argument about how all magic is simply science that people don’t understand.

I’ve never understood the MCU’s misgivings about magic. These are movies based on comic books—we’re not showing up to a film about people who fight aliens to revel in the realism of it all. Magic is very much real in Marvel’s comics. Marvel even has realms like Hell and Heaven (complete with demons and angels) in its comic canon. The movies seeming so hesitant about magic in comparison feels odd.

No, really — demons are a super common problem in the comics universe. Like, SUPER common.

BLACK PANTHER blew all of that out of the water. The writing didn’t get caught up in having the main scientist (who is without a doubt much smarter than Tony Stark, even at 16) talk about magic not being real. There’s no attempting to pseudo-scientifically explain the ancestral plane. BLACK PANTHER trusts us to believe in a world where magic and science are both very real.

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Part of why BLACK PANTHER is one of the best Marvel movies is because it amplifies why people love comics. BLACK PANTHER brings us a beautifully crafted origin story for T’Challa, gives us a complex villain with Killmonger, and gives us a world that feels like it’s from comic books. It gives us a world of science that we currently dream of having. BLACK PANTHER gives us a world of magic.

Continuing the Magic

BLACK PANTHER denotes a large shift in the MCU and Marvel’s usual way of doing things. So many things about the film scream innovation. BLACK PANTHER strives to subvert the stereotypes in our society that surround black people and Africa and succeeds. While the blend of magic and science is one that was notable to me—as a strong believer in both of those things—there’s plenty of other ways that BLACK PANTHER worked to break down ideas that harm people of color.

This was a turning point—and a much-needed one for fans of color, and especially black fans. BLACK PANTHER also serves as a general turning point for storytelling in the MCU. The pacing, the story, the unquestioned presentation of both magic and advanced technology — it feels like BLACK PANTHER has elevated the MCU to a new level.

I love the idea that magic can freely exist now. I think it’s important that the writing took a nation of innovation and technology like Wakanda and grounded it in tradition and magic. Wakanda stands as a sign of change in the MCU. BLACK PANTHER stands as a beacon of encouragement for black people and other people of color.

One Comment

  1. Maia

    March 6, 2018 at 3:13 am

    I am genderqueer and an atheist. I live in Israel and I feel threatened and excluded by my society’s traditions, as a person of Jewish ancestry, because of jewish religion’s/culture’s anti LGBT stances and sexism/misogyny. Sometimes cultures do have oppressive and damaging beliefs and customs. I’m NOT saying that western culture is superior, but I AM saying that for some people in some places and cultures, sometimes SOME traditions ARE bad.

    Reply

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