With the release of the Black Panther movie swiftly approaching, it’s a guarantee that after this film debuts you’ll be hearing and seeing the word “Afrofuturism” a lot.
To put it extremely simply, Afrofuturism is the melding of science fiction and black culture.
The Black Panther is the king and protector of an isolated African nation whose deposits of the extremely rare metal vibranium have led to the country being extremely technologically advanced, wealthy, and without disease or poverty. Since the fictional country of Wakanda is so isolated, it has never been invaded or colonized by Europeans; its civilization was able to flourish without interference from the outside world. Wakanda is meant to be the strictest expression of black progress and undiluted African culture. This is reflected in the country’s aesthetic where futuristic technology is also undeniably Afrocentric.
In Wakanda, there are airships that look and move more like the spaceships seen in the cosmic corners of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The Black Panther’s suit is lightweight, bulletproof, can absorb kinetic energy, and literally materializes out of thin air. Cars are able to be driven remotely from hundreds of miles away with holographic interfaces. The king’s bodyguards, the Dora Milaje, have spears, neck rings and wrist cuffs that are made of vibranium, hi-tech versions of traditional weapons and jewelry. This revision of a present day African nation is so modern that it reads as futuristic. However, the filmmakers have gone to great lengths to ground Wakanda in real-life African customs and cultures.
Wakanda itself is a reflection of how Africa is not a monolith; it is made up of many subregions and ethnicities. Wakanda’s people are of many tribes which are distinguished by their own colors and sigils. For example, T’Challa himself comes from the Panther Tribe which is signified by black and royal purple colors. Lupita Nyongo’s character Nakia comes from the River Tribe and thus, wears a lot of greens, shells and has an alligator on her Dora Milaje tabard. The Jabari, who reject Wakanda’s advancements in favor of ancient customs, are adorned with animal fur and wooden armor.
The costumes for Black Panther were designed by two-time Oscar nominee Ruth E. Carter, who is also known for her work on “Malcom X”, “Amistad”, “Selma” and “Marshall”. She cites Afrofuturism as an influence but points to many African tribes such as the Masai, the Suri tribe, the Northern African Tuareg, the Ndebele, the Dogon people of Mali, ancient Nigeria, and the Zulu as direct inspiration.
Afrofuturism is not just the film’s aesthetic, it has become the selling point of “Black Panther”. Its blackness is unheard of in a film genre dominated by white actors named Chris and despite it being set in the present day, its technology is leagues ahead of anything James Bond’s Q or Tony Stark could ever come up with. “Black Panther” is a monumental shift in the pop culture paradigm by showing that a bright future can also be a black one.