The Myth of Wakanda: How Hollywood Distorts the Legacy of Colonialism
The film Black Panther is one of the most profitable films in recent years, earning revenue in excess of $1.3 billion at the box office. Further, some expect the sequel to do even better. Throughout the world, audiences were captivated by the glamor of Wakanda, a sophisticated African state untouched by colonialism. Symbolically, Wakanda has immense appeal to black people. To many, Wakanda is an embodiment of black achievement in the absence of Western influence. By demonstrating the success of a black country untainted by Europeans, the film affirms the narrative that Western interference daunted the prospects of Africa. Adam Serwer, writing in the Atlantic illustrates the popularity of this presumption: “Black Panther is a love letter to people of African descent…Its actors, its costume design, its music, and countless other facets of the film are drawn from all over the continent and its diaspora, in a science-fiction celebration of the imaginary country of Wakanda, a high-tech utopia that is a fictive manifestation of African potential unfettered by slavery and colonialism.” On an emotional level, it offers people of African descent an opportunity to reimagine their place in the world. The only problem with this is that Black Panther is a dubious counterfactual.
Movies are rarely historically correct; however, Black Panther was created to challenge inaccuracies about black people. Therefore, this film and subsequent adaptations must aim to present a realistic interpretation of history. If we were still living in an era where movies were just seen as entertainment, then there would be no need to discuss the fallacies of Black Panther. Yet unfortunately, several commentators think that we ought to be learning from films based on unreliable assumptions. According to the storyline of Black Panther, Wakanda is an isolated nation whose wealth is due to an extremely powerful metal known as vibranium. To protect its resources from foreign invasions, Wakanda established a cloaking technology to hide the nation from the outside world. But Wakanda is an anomaly as described by Mariama Soy and Amadou Sy in a recent piece: “Because of its self-isolation, Wakanda appears to have an economic model where it does not trade its natural resource with the rest of the world: It lives in autarky and invests heavily in technology.” In real life, Wakanda would be Liberia, not Singapore, because isolated nations are often poor and backward. As one landmark study notes: “Growth can be achieved by all or virtually all countries that follow a reasonable set of political and economic policies, including civil peace, basic adherence to political and civil rights, and an open economy, through the absence of trade quotas, export monopolies, or incontrovertible currencies. All countries that followed such a pattern achieved per capita growth between 1970 and 1989 of two percent per year of greater.”
Contrary to the message of Black Panther, powerful African empires were never isolationist. Aksum, a great African empire in antiquity, for example, was a major trading power. Africans have always entertained contacts with foreigners. To imply that interactions with outsiders may result in the subjugation of Africans is quite insulting. In fact, isolation increases the vulnerability of states if they are attacked, since insular cultures are unlikely to be intellectual superpowers. Economist Thomas Sowell bemoans this reality in a riveting essay: “Small isolated islands in the sea have seldom been sources of new scientific advances or technological breakthroughs – regardless of where such islands were located and regardless of the race of the people on these islands.” Though lauded for portraying a positive image of Africa, Black Panther succeeded in confirming a stereotypical representation of Africans. Despite the technological prowess of Wakanda, the subtext of the film is that irrespective of their achievements, African civilizations are still no match for the West. After all, if Wakanda is the most technologically sophisticated nation in the world, then its leaders should have no reason to fear an invasion.
Another regrettable insinuation perpetuated by the film is the erroneous assertion that poverty in Africa is largely due to the slave trade. This is a much-exaggerated opinion. Scholars have uncovered a negative link between development and the slave trade. Nathan Nunn has written that there is a “robust negative relationship between the number of slaves taken from a country and its subsequent economic development.” Reasonable people accept the implications of the slave trade; however, underdevelopment in Africa is more fundamental than its history of slavery. Countering Nunn, Javier Birchenall recounts the following: “Using Nunn’s estimates we argued that the many slave trades experienced by Africa have large absolute effects on income….In relative terms, however, slavery is still unable to account for most of Africa’s poverty.” Likewise, Margherita Bottero and Björn Wallace also dispute Nunn’s thesis in their 2013 research:
Slavery was until recently widespread across the globe, and today many formerly slave exporting regions are comparatively rich. Thus, there does not seem to exist a deterministic long-run relationship between slave exports and economic performance. We believe that any paper which argues that the slave trade had negative long-run effects on economic performance needs to address these facts, and look beyond Africa.
Similarly, colonialism is frequently adduced as a prominent explanation for poverty in Africa. Evan Narcisse, coauthor of the miniseries Rise of the Black Panther, depicts Wakanda as the manifestation of an “unbroken chain of achievement of black excellence that never got interrupted by colonialism.” His view is quite compatible with leftist thought. Numerous scholars fervently argue that underdevelopment in Africa either stems from extractive institutions imposed by Europeans or from the institutionalization of ethnic discrimination. Such positions do contain a kernel a truth, but as usual, the matter is far more complicated. Newer research is giving great primacy to the role of precolonial institutions in determining Africa’s fortunes. Stelios Michalopoulos and Elias Papaioannou in their 2013 paper “Pre-colonial Ethnic Institutions and Contemporary African Development” enumerate the significance of precolonial arrangements: “Exploiting within-country variation, we show that regional development is significantly higher in the historical homelands of ethnicities with centralized, hierarchical, pre-colonial political institutions.” Moreover, studies further indicate that pre-colonial institutions also influence the quality of governance. Note the observation of Nicola Gennaioli and Ilia Rainer in the aptly titled article “Precolonial Centralization and Institutional Quality in Africa” (2005):
We find that the centralized precolonial political institutions of African ethnic groups reduced corruption and fostered the rule of law in colonial and postcolonial Africa. These results complement our earlier findings that precolonial centralization improved public goods provision in colonial and postcolonial Africa. The data support the view that precolonial institutions are crucial to understanding governmental quality in Africa and former colonies more generally.
On the other hand, equally important is the prominence of geography in impacting Africa’s development. Leading economist Paul Collier in his commanding style explains how geography shapes the prospects of Africa relative to the non- African developing world:
The most striking difference between Africa and other developing regions is in the proportion of the population in landlocked, resource-scarce countries….In the developing world other than Africa some 88% of the population lives in the coastal, resource-scarce countries, around 11% in the resource-rich countries, and a mere 1% in the landlocked, resource-scarce countries. In Africa the population is approximately evenly spread between the three groups. Thus, the African population is heavily skewed towards the globally slow-growing category of landlocked, resource-scarce, and away from the globally fast-growing category of coastal, resource scarce.
Additionally, after quantifying obstacles to growth, Jeffrey Sachs and David Bloom submit that:
Perhaps our most important finding is economic policy and governance, which receive the largest share of economists’ attention, are perhaps not the dominant factors impeding economic growth in Africa. Rather, we find that various aspects of tropical geography, demography, and public health are vitally important….Our statistical estimates…actually give about two-thirds of the weight of Africa’s growth to such “noneconomic” conditions and only one-third to economic policy and institutions.
Black Panther without a doubt is an amazing work of art. However, this film is no substitute for actual history. If the point of producing it was to contest racist narratives about Africans or non-Westerners, then the film failed. The evidence suggests that African countries are successful when they enable trade and collaborate with foreign partners. Therefore, the glorification of isolationism is counter to its supposedly uplifting message of black empowerment. In addition, though films may provide compelling counterfactuals, the analysis of history furnished by Black Panther is astoundingly inept and unbalanced. There are more foundational variables to be examined when seeking to assess the relative poverty of Africa than the slave trade and colonialism. Black Panther is an interesting film, but do not treat it like history or an alternative hypothesis.