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Tradition and Modernity

The clashing approaches to Wakanda are rooted in fun and likable characters, each of whom could just as easily get their own spin-off. T’Challa’s sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), a young scientific inventor, is the nation’s bright future. She cuts through Wakanda’s stern regality with her memes and pop culture references — more specifically, references she picked up from western media.

Shuri represents both technological progress and the more globalist perspective of the current, digitally connected youth. She also turns her back on tradition in the process. Whether or not she intends it, progress for Shuri means shedding cultural garb and making fun of ceremonies whose meaning she doesn’t fully understand.

Shuri’s rejection of tradition doesn’t sit well with M’Baku (Wintston Duke), leader of the mountainous Jabari, a tribe of anti-technology isolationists. Wakanda’s forgotten people feel their identity is being trampled on, and so M’Baku holds T’Challa responsible for handing the kingdom’s keys to “a child who scoffs at tradition.” Though when the time comes for M’Baku to protect his kingdom, he’s prepared to pledge his loyalty to T’Challa — not unlike Hanuman, the loyal Hindu deity worshipped by the Jabari.

M’Baku’s arc is modeled on tradition itself. In the Hindu epic Ramayana, Hanuman was the ape-like devotee of Lord Rama and his brother Lakshmana, exiled princes who enlist the help of Hanuman’s tribe to defeat an evil ruler. As the story goes, Hanuman lifts and retrieves an entire mountain full of sacred herbs to revive an injured Lakshmana. The mountain-dwelling M’Baku plays a similar role. He rescues the fallen prince T’Challa, now exiled from his kingdom, and even revives him with the mystical Heart-Shaped Herb, before helping T’Challa reclaim his throne.

M’Baku’s serious demeanor is undercut by his cheeky playfulness when dealing with outsiders. The reveal that he’s a vegetarian, rather than a cannibal, not only subverts the expectations of white American Everett Ross (Martin Freeman), but those of the audience, likely conditioned by Hollywood tropes to associate tribalism with savagery. M’Baku’s willingness to play on these expectations makes him a joy to watch. He fits right in with Wakanda’s fabric, despite living on its peripheries. The kingdom’s citizens are fleshed out beyond the usual stone-facedness that tribal characters are often saddled with in American cinema. The people of Wakanda smile. They laugh. And they exhibit complete inner lives, in ways rarely afforded to African or African-coded characters in western science fiction.

Given the similar playfulness with which Shuri interacts with T’Challa, one can’t help but imagine she and M’Baku might have been be friends, were they able to come to an understanding.

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The Women of Wakanda

Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), T’Challa’s former flame, wants to help the women of the surrounding African nations. But given Wakanda’s isolationist policies, she’s forced to fight from the shadows. A spy by profession, she slips out of Wakanda as quietly as she comes, and refuses to take up the throne alongside T’Challa if it means being unable to continue her missions

Like Shuri, Nakia also turns her back on tradition. She avoids both the throne, and the bright red garb of the Dora Milaje (the Panther’s Royal Guard), in the hopes of embodying what she believes is the right path for Wakanda. Though eventually, when T’Challa decides to incorporate Nakia’s outlook on foreign aid, she might have to stick around and see things through.

After Killmonger overthrows T’Challa, Nakia clashes with Okoye (Danai Gurira), the fearsome head of the Dora Milaje, over how best to serve Wakanda. Their debate is rooted in both Nakia’s lack of adherence to structure — a boon when she needs to act alone, a bane when called upon to defend her country — and Okoye’s loyalty to the idea of the kingdom, to the point of rigidity.

Defending Wakanda is all Okoye has ever known. However, before the throne was usurped by Killmonger, this had only ever meant defending the one family in control. Okoye has a friendly rapport with T’Challa and would defend him to the death, but her idea of loyalty is challenged when T’Challa is apparently killed in ritual battle. Okoye is then forced to wrestle with serving Wakanda’s new king (the very man responsible for T’Challa’s death) and his imperialist methods.

Nakia and Okoye butting heads brings up a pertinent question: what does loyalty mean in the context of a nation state? Loyalty to its people and their ideals? Or loyalty to the structures that bind them? It’s not unlike the challenge Thor faces in Thor: Ragnarok (“Asgard is not a place… It is a people”) only here, rather than a last-minute plot device, it’s the very fabric of the narrative.

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Opening Up to the World

T’Challa makes the tough call to save a critically wounded Everett Ross, who was shot in the spine protecting Nakia. Okoye however, opposes bringing an outsider into Wakanda. It’s here that T’Challa makes his first concrete change as a leader, choosing to save Ross’ life despite his role as CIA officer, making him the most likely person to expose Wakanda’s true nature to the world. The “Good leader” versus “Good man” tug-of-war, made absolutely urgent.

Okoye even argues with her lover W’Kabi, T’Challa’s childhood friend, over how to serve their new militaristic ruler. W’Kabi, whose parents were murdered when the foreigner Klaue (Andy Serkis) infiltrated Wakanda’s borders, is adamant about not letting in outsiders, even refugees, who “bring their problems with them.”

T’Challa has W’Kabi in one ear and Nakia in the other, debating indirectly over how best to help outsiders, if at all. The king doesn’t seem to know how to proceed — that is, until he sees the extreme effects of Wakanda’s abandonment up close.

Wakanda thus becomes a reflection of America’s current debates over a security, refugees and foreign intervention, themes that coalesce in the form of justified antagonist, Erik Killmonger.

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