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Black Panther is a film based on the Marvel Comic of the same name (Xavier, January 25, 2019). The movie is about the fictional African country of Wakanda, its enormous amount of vibranium, and two men who are in conflict about what to do with it. T’Challa, son of the former King/Black Panther wants to keep the vibranium in Wakanda and focus his efforts on protecting his people first. Killmonger, T’Challa’s American cousin, wishes to redistribute the vibranium in the form of weapons around the world, so that black people may rise out of oppression and conquer all those who have wronged them (Coogler, 2018). Black Panther references a number of elements of African cosmology. In this essay, I will discuss how the harmony and balance of Wakanda’s modern technological innovations with their traditional spirituality contradict James Frazer’s theory of animism, as well as the role ancestors play in intertwining society and religion.

One of the essential elements of African cosmology is the idea of harmony and balance (Pierce 2018). In Wakanda, this manifests in the form of technology versus natural resources. Vibranium is a natural resource that Wakanda has sufficient access to, and this helps power their technological innovation, creating a balance between them. Wakanda also manages to achieve harmony between technological modernization, and traditional spirituality. An example of this is the use of vibranium. Vibranium is used throughout the movie in weapons, the Black Panther suit, in the beads that save Everett Ross, etc. proving that it is a very powerful part of Wakanda’s tech industry. Vibranium has also permeated into the plants in Wakanda, giving the Heart-Shaped Herb (and the Black Panther) its powers. Wakanda’s ability to achieve this harmony and balance between what is scientific and what is spiritual contradicts James Frazer’s theory of animism.

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Frazer argued that cultures that believed that the world was “animated by spiritual personalities” were “primitive” (Klassen 9). Frazer believed that as culture developed and became more evolved, religion would follow, moving towards monotheism and eventually science, as humans would gain knowledge that allowed them to answer all their previous mysteries (Klassen 9). In Wakanda, they can balance both science and belief in the Panther Spirit and of the Earth around them, proving that Wakanda is not a “primitive” place, but instead a place of rich culture and innovation. This is an important message in the movie, as there is a long racial history of the characterization of African people as “primitive” and “savage” (words which Klaw uses to refer to the T’Challa, Nakia, and Okoye, perhaps the director’s way of referencing this characterization). These characterizations date all the way back to the slave trade (and before) when European colonizers believed that black people were inferior, and less than human, just based on the color of their skin, and because they did not understand their culture, religion, etc. Black Panther’s display of science and spirituality living in harmony rejects notions of African spirituality being equated to primitiveness. This is a step forward in the anti-racism movement, as it shuts down these racist ideas.

Another important element of African cosmology presented in Black Panther is the prominent role ancestors and family play in daily life (Pierce 2018). In traditional cosmology, ancestors are a present and active part of a person’s life, seen as sources of wisdom, and as such, must be treated with respect. This idea of social relationships carrying on even after death is an important one. In the film, we see T’Challa communicate with his father on the ancestral plan, asking for advice, and receiving support from his ancestors before being reborn to fight Killmonger (Coogler, 2018). Émile Durkheim believed that religion and social cohesion were “irrevocable” joined together (Klassen 10). I believe that his theory of religion intertwines with the African cosmology of the role of ancestors. In this case, religion and society mesh because the social relationships that people have on earth with their family members live on and become a part of their beliefs. People believe that their ancestors are there to guide and help them throughout their lives and that when they die, they will go join their ancestors, and help guide and direct the next generation of their family. While T’Challa is shown to be connected with his ancestors, so is Killmonger. Killmonger throughout the film, is on a mission to right the wrongs committed against his ancestors dating all the way back to the Atlantic slave trade. Before his death, Killmonger tells T’Challa: “Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors that jumped from ships because they knew death was better than bondage” (Coogler, 2018).

Killmonger’s commitment to his ancestors in this way is in itself almost a religious act, in that he shows a great deal of devotion to the history of his ancestors and believes it is his mission to honor them and bring justice to his “people”. This connection that both T’Challa and Killmonger share with their ancestors demonstrates the innate interconnectedness of society and social relationships with religion. Throughout this essay, I have looked at how religion appears in the Black Panther and the importance of the messages the film displays. The film embraces Afrofuturism and has given black communities something to be excited about and rally around. The film’s popularity is evident, breaking box office records and even being played in Saudi Arabia (Xavier, January 25, 2019). Black Panther gives young black children someone to look up to, a superhero that finally looks like them. The ‘Wakanda Forever’ arm gesture has become a symbol of the impact of the movie and a celebration of black culture. The appearance of traditional African cosmology in the film allows people to be proud of their heritage and curious about their culture.

Bibliography:

    1. Coogler, Ryan, et al. Black Panther. 2018.
    2. Klassen, Chris, Religion and Popular Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.
    3. Pierce, Yolanda. “African Cosmologies: Spiritual Reflections on the ‘Black Panther’ Movie” in Religion News Service. December 30, 2018.
    4. Xavier, Shobhana. “Religion and Film: Black Panther”. January 25, 2019.
    5. Walter Light Auditorium. 

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