Black Panther is so much more than just another Marvel blockbuster. Not only because it’s the first that’s based on a black African superhero, but because the film builds on this concept in a very deep and authentic way. From start to finish, the movie strives to represent Africa as the culturally rich place it is, adopting its history, mythology and folklore, and showcasing not only its raw minerals but other outstanding attributes and heroic elements in a way that’s both empowering and entertaining.
As students and lovers of African culture, we’ve put together this spoiler-free A-Z guide of nuggets abundantly scattered around the movie that create a tapestry of an authentic African world rooted in true culture and history. Don’t watch the movie without it!
Table of Contents
A IS FOR: AFROFUTURISM
While Black Panther breaks new ground in Hollywood, the movie owes its vision to Afrofuturism. Afrofuturism is a cultural movement featuring futuristic or science fiction themes which incorporate elements of black history and culture. It imagines a radical utopian future of prosperity and progress, incorporating African and Diasporan peoples as one. Afrofuturism rose into prominence as early as the 1950s, a reaction to the injustices being faced by African Americans during that era, appearing everywhere from literature (read Octavia Butler’s sci-fi books), art and music (think George Clinton and the jazz musician Sun Ra), and have continued to be adopted by artists like Erykah Badu, Solange Knowles and Janelle Monae. Afrofuturism has predominantly been in the US, but African artists are increasingly visible, carving their own unique interpretations.
B IS FOR: BASOTHO
Although Wakanda is a fictional place, director Ryan Coogler, his costume designer Ruth E. Carter, production designer Hannah Beachler and their teams ensured that everything else about it is very firmly rooted in real African cultures, peoples, ideals and practices. The Wakandan Border Tribe for example borrows heavily from the BaSotho people of the Kingdom of Lesotho. One of the first African countries that Coogler visited was Lesotho, and what he saw there has lent itself to elements of Black Panther. Basotho have lived in southern Africa since the 5th century. The BaSotho were principally herdspeople, and to this day using horses to navigate the mountainous terrain and wearing the distinctive wool Basotho Blankets (the Seanamarena, which means ‘to swear by the Chiefs’ in Sotho language) against the harsh climate.
C IS FOR: COMBAT COSTUME DESIGN
Black Panther’s Virbanium-infused combat gear and the all-female Dora Milaje royal guards’ uniforms are the epitome of Afrofuturism. Carter has crafted these Oscar-worthy costumes using traditional African geometric shapes, and created pieces that combine technology, aesthetics, practicality and authenticity that are a exciting and inspiring.
D IS FOR: DANCE
It’s no secret that dance is an integral part of many aspects African and Diasporan life. The Black Panther movie deftly weaves dance into the main rituals that occur throughout the story. Look out for infusions of styles of dancing from West, Southern and East Africa when the Wakandans come together for key events.
E IS FOR: ELDERS COUNCIL
The elders of the five tribes of Wakanda are seen in council session several times during the movie. From ancient times, in traditional African societies elders have always played an important role in decision-making, maintaining peace and order and fostering reconciliation in the community. The council of elders is not about autocratic rule but about consensus – making Black Panther’s collective wisdom unique among the Marvel superheroes. Look out for the special touch: in the midst of an ultra-modern setting, the council meeting area’s cracked clay flooring is reminiscent of the traditional setting of councils, often in a large open hut or under a tree in the community’s square.
F IS FOR: FACE MARKINGS, SCARIFICATION & TATTOOS
Facial markings are an important part of many African cultures, signifying social status, commemorating events, attracting or repelling spiritual forces. The movie is abundantly adorned with many glorious examples influenced by different cultures, from Forest Whitaker’s red clay markings that echo those of the Karo people of Ethiopia, to Daniel Kaluuya’s and Eric Killmonger’s scarifications like those from West and Eastern Africa and the Congo Basin, to Danai Gurira’s shaven head tattoos, a practice seen in Central Africa and the Sahara region among others, and the ceremonial chalk markings of Lupita Nyong’o’s Nikai’s River Tribe which are applied across the continent.
G IS FOR: (TYPICALLY AFRICAN) GESTURES
Watch out for typically African gestures like the formal salute of Wakanda, the familiar and affectionate handshake between T’Challa and his younger sister Shuri, and the high-fiving hand-shake that’s often exchanged among people sharing a joke. It is little nuances like these that we all take for granted that’ll trigger your nostalgia and make you smile.
H IS FOR: HAIR STYLES AND HEAD GEAR
Whether it’s the awesome Zulu-inspired hats of Angela Bassett’s Ramonda, the Wakandan Merchant Tribe’s thick hair locs treated with oxidised red clay and shea butter borrowed from the Namibian Himba people, the modern plaits worn in various styles by Leticia Wright’s Shuri, the sub-Saharan turbans, the simple and practical headscarves or Lupita Nyong’o’s natural curly tresses, you will appreciate the diverse modern and ancient hairstyles worn all over Africa and abroad for centuries.
I IS FOR: INDIGO
Indigo is a very important element of West African textile and creativity, first imported from South Asia and now deriving from locally grown plants and adapted over time to suit its many uses. This movie would have been remiss to exclude it in its fabulous regal costumes. Here we see Forest Whitaker’s spiritual leader Zuri and his tribe adorned with brilliant indigo robes and caftans that reminded us of the nomadic peoples of subSaharan Africa. Look out for lots more beautiful examples in the movie.
J IS FOR: JEWELLERY & ADORNMENTS
As with facial markings, jewellery and body adornments are a crucial part of African life and again we applaud Carter and her team for cutting no corners in creating beautiful pieces that are authentically and gloriously African. Dora Milaje jewellery was designed to be both adornment and protection, shielding the neck, shoulders, torso and limbs, making the all-female army look both formidable and stunningly glorious. Also wonderful to see the gorgeous Fulani and Tuareg gold and silver jewellery – some of the most beautiful in Africa, make its appearance among the Merchant and other tribes.
K IS FOR: KIONDO BASKETS
In the 80’s and 90’s everybody who’d been anywhere near East Africa seemed to own a Kiondo bag – the sisal woven bags with a leather strap that could carry everything from school books to overnight luggage. Somebody in the design department really loves Kiondos – see if you can spot them in the street market scenes and tell us if, like us, you think their revival is long overdue.
L IS FOR: LIP PLATES
Isaach De Bankole’s Elder of the River Tribe wears a lip clay plate which are a body modification practiced from as early as 8700 BC among the Sara people and Lobi of Chad, the Makonde of Tanzania and Mozambique and the Suri and Mursi people of Ethiopia. We like how this rather brutal look that we associate with an ancient or rural version of Africa is balanced in the movie with modern, stylish Sapeur-like clothing of Congo.
M IS FOR: MUSIC
Ludwig Göransson, Black Panther’s Music Supervisor has crafted a musical backdrop that reflects the variety of African and Diaspora traditional and modern sounds. The beautifully melodious voice of Senegalese singer Baaba Maal greets us on our first entrance into Wakanda, we tap our toes to the ultra-cool SA House music playing in the kingdom’s scientific facility, we nod our heads to the ubiquitous African drum beating during ceremonial moments, and we shake our bodies to the hip hop beats pounding the cinema during the fight scenes.
N IS FOR: NDEBELE WALL ART
Don’t miss the bold, colourful wall art peppered all over Wakanda’s interior spaces and market streets that’s inspired by the unique Ndebele and Malian traditions.
O IS FOR: OMO RIVER VALLEY
The little-known Omo Valley/ Lake Turkana area of southern Ethiopia/northern Kenya is rich with distinct cultural practices and traditions untouched by the outside world that lend heavily into Black Panther movie design. Think face paints, lip plates, metal jewellery, shaven and plaited hairstyles, floral headpieces. The tribes of the Omo Valley live happy and harmonious lives with many of them oblivious to the existence of the outside world until relatively recently. We are still learning about them and their fascinating traditions.
P IS FOR: PEOPLES & TRIBES OF AFRICA
We lost count of the number of distinct African tribes, cultures and peoples represented in some way in Black Panther. The decision to blend their attributes and practices together rather than focus on just a handful was a master stroke, in our view, and makes the movie burst with life, giving viewers a colourful melting pot of stimulation to savour. Look out for influences from the Yoruba, Igbo and Akan poeples of West Africa, the Bambara, Maasai, Himba, Tuareg, Songhai and Fulani. And tell us if you spot any we haven’t mentioned in this blog.
Q IS FOR: QUEENS
We salute the regal Queen Ramonda, mother of Black Panther. But let’s also take a moment to salute the queens with a small ‘q’ that are very much a feature of this movie. According to Coogler, Black Panther was an opportunity to illustrate the importance of women, and a chance to show different forms of feminine beauty and strength that we don’t see in most mainstream media. After watching Black Panther, we want to enlist in the all-female Dora Milaje army, go on spying missions with the fearless Nikai, innovate in the tech lab like Shuri, and just be a queen in Wakanda for a day or two.
R IS FOR: REMEDIES
Many believe that, without the insertion of colonialism and Christianity (which often branded traditional medicine as unGodly and uncivilised) into Africa’s history, African traditional herbal medicine would have flourished beyond recognition. In Wakanda, modern and traditional science work side-by-side to cure injuries, connect the living with the ancestors’ spirit world and enhance the performance and wellbeing of its people. This is an ideal we’d like to see more of in reality around Africa.
S IS FOR: SYMBOLS
You can’t ignore the unique iconography and symbols inscribed into the furniture, walls, street signage and costumes of Wakanda. Although we’re not yet sure whether these are from one single language, one can see clear links to ancient African languages and symbols including the Nsibidi, Punic, Adinkra, Hieroglyph and Mudcloth inscriptions.
S IS (ALSO) FOR: SUDANO-SAHELIAN & SHONA ARCHITECTURE
If you’re familiar with the beautiful buildings found in the ancient city of Timbuktu, you’ll be thrilled to see them given the Afrofuturistic treatment in Black Panther. Sudano-Sahelian architecture refers to a range of similar indigenous architectural styles common to the peoples of the Sahel and Sudanian grassland regions of West Africa, south of the Sahara. We also got hints of the under-appreciated Shona architecture of modern-day Zimbabwe, which featured tall cylindrical towers built out of stone.
T IS FOR: TEXTILES
When asked what he knew of Wakanda, Martin Freeman’s CIA agent mentions textiles, shepherds and cool outfits. He was off the mark about the shepherds, but he wasn’t wrong about the rest. How Black Panther blends the glorious textile traditions from around the continent to adorn the Wakandans is a topic that deserves its own essay. But for now, we’re just going to list the ones we were able to spot in our first viewing of the movie: Mudcloth, Kuba, Kente, Maasai Shuka, Kitenge/ Ankara/ Wax Print/ Indigo-dyed Brocades, Aso Oke, hand-woven cottons, raffia, leathers, wools and furs.
U IS FOR: UBUNTU
Ubuntu is a Bantu word describing an African philosophical and ethical worldview that “I am because you are,” meaning that individuals need other people in order to be fulfilled. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, in his book No Future Without Forgiveness, says: “Ubuntu is very difficult to render into a Western language… It is to say, ‘My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in what is yours.’” Who needs words when the underlying tenet of Black Panther is the very concept itself?
V IS FOR: VIBRANIUM
Vibranium is a fictional rare metal appearing in the Marvel universe and found in abundance in Wakanda. Throughout their history, the Wakandans have fought to keep its existence hidden for fear of the corruption, chaos, suffering and death that might be brought about by those who seek to amass and abuse it with little respect for the land or the people. There’s subtle message and a philosophical challenge to all to draw a comparison to real-life historical events in Africa and other regions of the world that have suffered because of their mineral resources, and examine what alternative future these places could have had, had they not suffered massive and extended exploitation. It begs the question, what would have happened to Africa if its inherent strengths – its peoples, its natural resources – had been left with Africans to manage?
W IS FOR: WRESTLING, WEAPONS & WARFARE
Every Marvel movie has a fight scene or two, and Black Panther movie is no exception. Here, Coogler opted to infuse elements of African warrior technique into his battle scenes. Look out for the graceful, balletic fighting technique of the all-female Dora Milaje, which may be inspired by the Donga stick fighting tradition of the Surma warriors of Ethiopia. And catch elements of traditional wrestling by the formidable Serer wrestlers of Senegal and the Dinka Bor of South Sudan. Read also about the 18th century all-female Amazons of Dahomey, a military corps of women appointed to serve in battles under the direction of the Fon king, who ruled over a nation that included much of present-day southern Togo and southern Benin.
X IS FOR: XHOSA
Listen out for the occasional ‘Wakandan’ language which is actually isiXhosa, a South African language known for its distinctive ‘clicks’. John Kani, who plays King T’Chaka, suggested that dropping in the odd sentence would add authenticity. Coogler described the moment you hear a father and son on screen speaking a real African language in a Hollywood blockbuster as “emotionally moving.” Kani worked with Coogler to make sure the moment felt authentic, also playing the role of language consultant.
If like us, you find that ubiquitous ‘African’ hybrid accent in the movies that smashes West, East AND South African accents together a little distracting, you’ll be relieved to hear that Black Panther’s diverse cast strives to deliver one ‘Wakandan’ accent with lyrical Southern African inflections, elongated vowels and strong ‘R’s’.
Y IS FOR: YAA ASANTEWAA
Yaa Asantewaa (1840-1921) remains a much-loved figure in Asante and Ghanaian history as a whole for her role in confronting the colonialism of the British. Yaa Asantewaa was queen mother of Ejisu in the Asante Empire and chosen by a number of regional Asante kings to be the war-leader of the Asante fighting force. We couldn’t help but draw a link between this real-life African legend and Ramonda, Queen mother of Wakanda, for their shared matriarchy, love, courage and pride.
Z IS FOR: ZULU x JABARI
We’d like to think that the Warrior Tribe of the Jabari, led by the powerful and rebellious M’Baku is inspired by the awesome warrior nation of the Zulus who’s most famous general was Shaka, with some elements from Hannibal’s Carthagian army that gave the Roman army a run for their money.
In the Marvel comics, M’Baku was one of the greatest warriors of Wakanda, second only to King T’Challa. In real life, The Kingdom of Zulu was a monarchy in Southern Africa that extended along the coast of the Indian Ocean. The kingdom grew to dominate much of Southern Africa, its people scattered as far north as Central Africa, winning battles and assimilating with many tribes and notably defeating the British army at the Battle of Isandlwana.
If you hadn’t already guessed, we’re big fans of this movie and think it’s an important milestone for the rennaisance of African culture, mythology and traditions in the global world that we live in. We can’t wait to see others pick up this mantle and continue the movement.