How racism shapes the way international politics ?
Director Ryan Coogler uses an imaginary African country — Wakanda — that secretly possesses highly advanced technology as a vehicle for exploring issues surrounding racism, the ethical response to oppression, and the global African diaspora.
Smart commentators like the New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb and the Atlantic’s Adam Serwerhave unpacked these metaphors at length, in the process showing how much thematic subtlety Coogler managed to pack into a film that has to adhere to Marvel’s house style.
But it’s also worthwhile, and honestly pretty fun, to ask a more literal question of Black Panther’s story: What if Wakanda were real?
How would we think through Wakanda’s history and politics if it were a real East African country? What does the emergence of Erik Killmonger, political radical and the film’s putative villain, mean for world politics? What would it mean for the United States if the strongest country in the world was an African country whose leaders use “colonizer” as an insulting term for white Americans? What would that world be like?
To try to answer these questions, I looked to science — political science, specifically.
The subfield of international relations has spent decades accumulating knowledge about how countries decide on policies of isolationism versus interventionism, why revolutionaries like Killmonger succeed and fail, and how racism shapes the way international politics operate. A lot of this work applies just as well to a world where Wakanda is real as to our own, more mundane reality.
What follows is an attempt to do just that: apply insights from international relations to understand the story of Black Panther, and what it might mean for the world.
The failure of Wakandan realism
The Wakandan throne is, as far as we can tell from the film, a classic hereditary monarchy with a few comic book twists: Certain citizens can challenge the king to single combat and potentially win the throne.