Politics, Power, and the Black Panther:

A Commentary

Much has been said about the recent blockbuster film, Black Panther. As of this writing— and the film has yet to play a full week—it has already grossed nearly $1 billion, and global box office previews suggest that the film may end up being the money-maker by which all money-makers are measured.  More impressive than its economic clout is its cultural currency. Black Panther is, according to Ta-Nehisi Coates, “an allegory,” a story that encapsulates a people’s history (“Still Processing,” NYT podcast, Feb. 16, 2018). “Still Processing” co-host and New York Times journalist Jenna Wortham further suggests that the movie offers a sort of cultural refuge. The film is important because “blackness has never been more under assault on screen, and I am not just talking about movie screens, but our phone screens.”  In this sense, the film is a metaphysical Wakanda, a place where the oppressed can feel, if only allusively, that another reality is possible.

Much of this is to say that the movie is not being judged as a movie—i.e., on the merits of its plot, acting, direction, score, etc. — but, instead, as a necessary and celebratory rejoinder to Trump’s “shithole countries” comment, and his appalling belief that America’s black communities are places where “you buy a loaf of bread and end up getting shot.” The movie is, thus, timely—good, in so far as it speaks to the age; bad, in so far as that message is sadly necessary. But this good/bad timing is not the same as lucky timing. While racial discrimination festers in our society, Black Panther‘s success is, according to Darnell Hunt, dean of social sciences at UCLA, apolitical and inevitable: “Hollywood, if it wants to remain viable, will need to produce what the audience wants, and the audience is becoming more diverse by the day.” To unpack Darnell Hunt’s argument:  black culture drives media ratings; furthermore, it dominates virtually every aspect of contemporary American art—painting, fiction, essay, fashion, poetry, modern dance, music (no need to hyperlink!), and now, increasingly and inevitably, film.

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That the film is aware of its own cultural value, and its investment in its own cultural moment, is obvious. At the film’s end, T’Challa, addressing the nations of the world, promises that his country’s wealth will be shared. But what sort of wealth?  Given that the entire movie was about protecting and secreting Wakanda’s weaponry, we can assume that T’Challa is not going to arm, as his rival attempted, various oppressed communities. If Wakanda does aid in a class struggle, it will be Gandhi-like, peaceful. Ok, what about Wakanda’s amazing medical technology?  Well, it’s all powered by vibranium, and it’s inevitable that a rogue nation will harness or repurpose that peaceful tech for military application. So, that’s off the table too.

Does T’Challa suggest that his country will become a donor nation, offering low-interest loans or free money to impoverished nations?  This is possible, though unlikely. Such programs already exist via the World Bank., and their efficacy is problematic. Usually, the aid comes with many strings attached, and the result is (commonly) a skyrocketing of debt.

So, what’s left?  Logically speaking, T’Challa likely means that Wakandian culture can be a model, a beacon for other nations.  That theme is underscored by the King’s willingness to build an exchange in a poor, black American community. In one of the many admirable inversions in the film, it is an African nation that will now lend a helping hand to an American community. That exchange, however, seems to be more inspirational than practical. Because T’Challa’s nation has been at peace for thousands of years, it is literally generations ahead. While Europe plunged into a “Dark Age,” Wakanda continued to build on its legacy. The result is that while the West (and the rest of the world) has gone through various teardowns and rebuilds, Wakanda’s stability has resulted in exponential and uninterrupted advancements. Even if the West were somehow capable of understanding Wakandian tech, again, for reasons outlined above, there is no way that T’Challa will allow the export of vibranium to America or anywhere else. The world is just too primitive to handle this stuff.

But this is merely to reiterate the question. The King has promised to share, but not everything. So what is he actually offering, besides afterschool programs in poor communities?  Please note,  I am not undervaluing that very worthy effort; but, is there anything in that offer that is pointedly different than, say, efforts by Bill Gates or Warren Buffett or innumerable charities?  If T’Challa argues that his nation has something new to share, it must be in form or in kind unique — i.e.,  Wakandian. So, let’s explore some options.

Is T’Challa suggesting that other nations or communities use Wakanda as a blueprint for political empowerment?  Let’s hope not!  The country is at best a constitutional monarchy— for example, we see Forrest Whittaker’s character, Zuri, point out that a challenge by royal blood must be acknowledged, resulting in physical combat. This winner-take-all system, a neo-Darwinian survival of the fittest, is not only a dangerously unstable form of government, it also carries within it the imminent threat of mass arrests, executions, and political corruption. When Erik Killmonger displaces T’Challa as ruler, the royal family skedaddles to the mountains, where it foments a counterrevolution. M’Baku agrees to harbor the exiled ruler and his family, but that decision runs counter to his noble adherence to tradition. While initially refusing to provide an army, M’Baku and his tribe  ride in, cavalry-like, to save the day, and, more importantly, to reap the rewards. In short, when push comes to shove, 10,000 years of tradition is upended. M’Baku’s new station in the court suggests a quid pro quo of political expediency and (possibly) graft. And this, I stress, is the best case reading of Wakanda’s political structure.

Now let’s explore the worst case—not a constitutional monarchy but an absolute monarchy. When Killmonger takes power, he orders the destruction of the Black Panther flower, the execution of the rebellious T’Challa, and the arming of insurgents across the globe. Virtually everyone follows his orders. He’s the king and must be obeyed absolutely. That is not kingship, but tyranny. I am working from memory here, but the head of his honor guard, Okoye, says something to the effect, “You lack the heart to rule as king.”  This suggests that ruling has more to do with justice than with brawn, but, given that Wakandians select their leaders literally by violent overthrow, Erik Killmonger or a ruler like him— absolute, autocratic, ruthless— is unavoidable.

(above) Forrest Whittaker’s character, Zuri; (below) a fight for the crown: T’Challa versus Erik.

And let’s not overlook the Wakandian love of surveillance. Not only does the country have a global network of spies, these people spy so much that they have spies spying on their spies. We might here compare Wakanda’s spy agency to the Stasi, the secret police of East Germany, which regularly paid or coerced people to spy on co-workers, neighbors, friends, and family. This policy resulted in widespread paranoia. No one was entirely sure who was in the Stasi’s pay. As a consequence, the possibility was very real that a single family might have multiple agents, each secretly reporting on the other. If the Romans asked, “Who will guard the guards?” the Wakandian revision might read as “Who will spy on the spies?” and the answer is, more spies. Oh, and when not spying, the Wakandians also follow the lead of Israel’s notorious Shin Bet by assassinating foreign nationals. I’m not saying that the murderous (and dentally-challenged) Ulysses Klaue doesn’t have it coming, just that he should have been arrested and tried by the rules of international law.

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That aforementioned Black Panther flower has another benefit:  It acts as the de facto constitution of the society. A constitution is a set of sacred principles that are adhered to inter-generationally— in the case of the Wakandians, the flower serves that function. It mystically connects the present ruler to a spiritual senate or council of elders. The destruction of the flower means that access to that guiding force is lost. With no council and no rival, Erik Killmonger’s power is seemingly unassailable.

T-Challa visits the ancestral plane.

Note, however, that this act of destruction is implicitly virtuous, since it means that, without further challenges, Killmonger can offer the kingdom decades of stability. Killmonger fails because his subjects disobey him; they save one last flower for T’Challa. But, umm, doesn’t this mean that Killmonger was right to order the flower’s destruction?  The fate of the flower has some serious consequences. If it is lost, then no one can challenge T’Challa; in which case, his usurping cousin did him and the nation a solid. If, on the other hand, the flower is again cultivated, then T’Challa can resume his conferences with the council of kings. But there will be a new addition to the council: Erik Killmonger— and won’t those meetings be interesting?!

And one more thing about this spiritual council of former rulers. They’re all dudes.  Sure, the women serve as the king’s guard; the scientists are all female to boot, and we even see a woman among the tribal leaders; nonetheless, the ultimate prize is reserved for men.  So, if a king’s consort gives birth to a daughter, she is presumably passed over until a son is conceived.  That might seem medieval to most people, and certainly no system you’d want to export to the modern world. As my former student (and budding fiction author) Francesca Terzano put it, “when I was watching the film, and they needed to beat Erik, I was like ‘and his sister can’t eat the plant because?’”

The Dora Milaje; an all-female warrior class, servile, nonetheless, to the patriarchy.

So, not on offer: weapons, medical tech, money, political stability, or gender equality. At the film’s close, T’Challa never answers the question posed by the world powers —”What can you offer?” But, to be fair, T’Challa may not have an answer. And he doesn’t have to answer. No one expects much from him; so, if he can’t solve the world’s problems, it’s not an epic fail.

Maybe all he has to offer is hope: hope of tolerance and acceptance.  Perhaps T’Challa sees social issues on a human scale; i.e., before nations can meet as equals, people need to meet as equals. But exchange does not run one way. If Wakanda opens itself to the world, it must be willing to accept new ideas, even those that challenge its values. Erik’s father, N’Jobu, is a case in point. He was quite happy to play by Wakandian rules, but once he saw how other people live, there was no going back. Putting more Wakandians in other countries will likely lead to similar questionings of national identity and loyalty.

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Let’s circle back to this issue of exporting hope, i.e., an uplifting sense of self, the mythos that Ta-Nehisi Coates champions. Part of my issue is here that cultural expressions rubberstamped by governments are, well, governmental.  I.e., any art that Wakanda’s government exports is propaganda. Yet, when I think of black American art, it isn’t governmentally-sanctioned stuff that comes to mind. And that’s all to the good. Governmentally-sanctioned art often isn’t Art. Consider, for example, state-sponsored art from the old Soviet Union or present-day North Korea.

Stalinist-era Soviet art (top) and state-sponsored art from North Korea (bottom)

While both of these images endorse revolution, their alignment with state power renders them artistically inert.

Now, let’s compare those images to Wadsworth Jarrell’s stunning “Three Queens,” which uses African imagery, urban graffiti, and a kaleidoscopic, mosaic-like tiling to rethink, if not defy, typical notions of beauty and where it can be located, or Kristine Mays’s provocative sculpture, “The Entanglement of Black Men in America.”

Wadsworth Jarrell’s “Three Queens.”

Kristine Mays’s provocative sculpture, “The Entanglement of Black Men in America.” Inspired by the murder of Trayvon Martin, this hoody outline suggests blackness by its absence.

I am arguing here that there is something inherently defiant, even revolutionary, in any truly great art; this dovetails with Jeffrey C. Stewart’s recent biography of America’s first African-American Rhodes scholar, Alain Locke. Refusing to see black empowerment solely in political terms, Locke reconceived “the function of literature, art, the theater and so on” as an “agent of a cultural and social revolution in America.”

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T’Challa’s politically-inspired offering—first made to career diplomats— suggests that he’d like to see himself as a political champion of black nationhood. That makes sense. Marvel’s Black Panther was named after a political movement: the Black Panther Party. T’Challa’s promised cultural center for the urban poor fits part of the Black Panther Party’s profile: its social programs included free breakfasts for children and health clinics for the poor.

The Black Panther Party’s School Lunch Program.

But it is Erik (and his father) who believes that redressing social inequality is by its very nature a political and, if necessary, armed struggle. It is Erik Killmonger who self-identifies with the legacy of American slavery: “Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from ships, ’cause they knew death was better than bondage.”   And it is Erik, not T’Challa, who embodies the political credo of the original Black Panther Party, a far-left, anti-fascist, anti-imperialist political movement. This from an early Black Panther manifesto:

Compare Erik’s firsthand experience of living in America to T’Challa’s silver-spooned privilege. What does this prince of power know of police brutality or systematic racial profiling, substandard housing, and living conditions that have led to shorter life expectancies than found in Algeria, Nicaragua, or Bangladesh?

The world’s (all-too-white) diplomats react to Wakanda’s offer with skepticism. It is a skepticism that we should all share. Wakanda’s technological advantage (vibranium) is accidental; and its social order is inherently fragile. What is right with Wakanda (i.e., its traditions, wealth, and knowledge), is indelibly linked to its intractable flaws (a disregard for the rule of international law; military coups; sexual and political inequalities; a surveillance state sustained by spies and assassins). But that’s only part of the problem. The King of Wakanda wants to use his government to empower America’s inner cities, but, in keeping with Alain Locke’s suspicion of politics and policy, what T’Challa offers is alien, not because it is African, but because its authority resides in the state, not the community.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jeffrey Kahan is a is a well-established Shakespeare scholar with about two dozen books and editions to his name. He is also the co-author of Caped Crusaders 101 (MacFarland, 2nd ed., 2010), and is a co-editor of The Dark Man, a journal dedicated to the works of Robert E. Howard, and an associate editor of The New Ray Bradbury Review. He teaches a class on superhero comics and has twice appeared as a speaker at Comic-Con, as well as at New York’s Big Apple and other comic conventions. His newest book, Shakespeare and Superheroes, will be published in 2018 by ARC Press. He works in California but lives in his own world.

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5 Comments

  1. There is a lot to unpack here and I’m just going to say, right off the bat, that I’m not going to be able to do all of it myself.

    I too was wondering what Wakanda will offer the world. I was thinking that they would offer medical technology and advances, in certain increments, or an exchange of people to train in certain matters of a similar kind. Perhaps, as such, they would work with people of various Black cultures from different places, encouraging them to be cultural ambassadors of a sort. It’s true that this technology, particularly Vibranium, can be misused and repurposed for violent ends, but I wonder if *all* of their advances were the result of Vibranium and its after-effects or if it just helped them figure out principles that can be reverse-engineered with other materials.

    Another interesting note about Vibranium that I just found out today was that Klaue wasn’t the first outsider to find Vibranium: at least in the Cinematic Universe with which this iteration of Wakanda is situated. As it turns out, in the 1940s a small deposit was found which was utilized by Howard Stark and possibly the SSR, which would become SHIELD. That is how Captain America, literally, got his mighty shield. So there are elements that know about this material and might even have some left in some form or another.

    But that aside, I do agree with you with regards to the governmental structure of Wakanda as displayed in the Black Panther film, except I would go as far as to amend your classification of its government as a *meritocratic* constitutional monarchy. The Council of Elders, presumably from the four of the five tribes — though its possible after the Counter-Revolution that now *all* tribes are represented thanks to M’Baku’s intervention — council the King and may even keep him in check: or so went the idea until what we saw happen with Erik Killmonger, son of Prince N’Jobu. The meritocratic element seems to be in this ancient trial of combat: which is a haphazard and terrible way to choose a ruler. I’ve heard it said, somewhere, and I wish I could find the article that if there had been other trials — of mind or spirit or conviction — to supplement trial by combat or physical prowess — the potential to defend from violence with force — there might have been a suitable alternative to what occurred in this depiction of Wakandan society. A Black Panther, never mind a King or a ruler, needs to be able to reason, and think, to possess empathy and understanding, in addition to being to defend themselves. I can’t help but wonder if this was the result of trying to display how the Counter Revolution we got in the film occurred.

    I too was also astounded by the fact that the Wakandan people, with their advancements, their different cultures, and relative freedom, so readily accepted a man — an outsider — who struck down their beloved King whom they’d known for his entire life, who had done nothing but good for them, and before that *killed* Zuri, an old man and sacred priest of one of the primary cultures and the royalty. They let a murderer and a man who then began burning the sacred Heart-Shaped Herbs — the link of the royalty to the ancestral line — basically destroying a major part of their culture to keep himself in power become King and *no one* challenged him. It’s like letting someone who you just found out about come in and burn all your holy texts after killing your priest, and deposing someone who you know and trusted, just because he was good at fighting and killing.

    Of course, it’s more insidious than that. There is another reason Erik — also known as N’Jadaka — was able to accomplish all of this. He had help. Wakanda had a basic official non-interference policy with the rest of the world that kept them from going after Klaue after he stole Vibranium in the 1990s, which cost the lives of many citizens including that of W’Kabi’s family. And there were obviously Wakandans that were greatly displeased with that state of affairs. When Erik brought Klaue’s body back to Wakanda — and bear in mind, T’Challa and company wanted to bring *bring Klaue back for trial, which was their stated purpose in tracking in South Korea and failed to do so* — he swayed W’Kabi, as a Council member to support him. Then there was the man who was already on the council with the bowl-lip piercing and his green business suit that asked for the identity of Erik when no one else would acknowledge him. Between earning W’Kabi’s allegiance and the personal interests of other tribes on the Council, Erik was able to get his in and actually get away with changing aspects of the State. It also didn’t help that that trial by combat can be activated at any time, apparently, by members of the royal line: even though technically Erik was illegitimate and the child of a second born Prince … though that last doesn’t seem to be an issue with at least this particular cultural paradigm in Wakanda.

    I admit, I was wondering why Wakanda hadn’t become a Republic or a Democracy at this point, or a pure ceremonial ruler who would remain a figurehead or head of council. You’d think that would be best, right? But, then again, look at the histories of most republics and democracies — especially *recent* history in the West, and you get another of resonance altogether.

    And I too wondered if there were just *Kings* of Wakanda in the past. I couldn’t see all of the Panther spirits or their humanoid forms aside from T’Chaka, T’Challa’s father. I wondered if there were points if they had Queens when there were no other male heirs. Then again, I’ve wondered if T’Challa’s line had *always* held Wakanda or if between the four tribes coalition, and the trial by combat, if there had been different Kings from different bloodlines and cultures. But aside from possibly the theme of the Wakandan monarchy being inspired by the Pride of Lions, I don’t see why there shouldn’t be a Queen or a female Black Panther: the latter of which definitely exists in the comics and in the form of T’Challa’s sister Shuri herself. With regards to Francesca Terzano, I was wondering why Shuri didn’t have a fail safe or kill switch for the suit that Erik stole: even just built in just in case someone compromised her brother’s suit on the field, or why she didn’t have a weapon that could just neutralize him or a Black Panther if they potentially went berserk. I do think the reason Shuri, as of this film, didn’t get the fruit was she didn’t have the combat skill to match Erik. If you recall, Queen Ramonda offered the last fruit to Nakia, a trained spy and warrior, and she rejected it because she knew she wasn’t up to Erik’s level of elite combat training. I will say, I believe Shuri could have outsmarted him and used her technology to neutralize him without the fruit — especially knowing what the fruit’s strengths and limitations are herself — but that is just not the kind of story that was being told. At least, not yet.

    But most fan talk aside, and I am not as familiar with Wakanda or Black Panther as most, there is the matter of Erik’s motivations that I would like to engage with. I interpreted his actions with the fruits very differently. I saw it as consolidating a dictatorship, which is corroborated later by Ross by saying these were standard elite American military and counter-insurgency tactics. He was making himself the sole arbiter and holder of this power. On one level, yes, he is eliminating the constitutional dangers of ritual combat, but he is also eliminating the constitution itself entirely. Further, as King — unless he was planning to create a democracy or republic after him — he would not be able to pass on the power to his heirs and descendants. This could be a problem if he wanted to maintain his proposed world revolution after his death. I mean, the herb probably doesn’t grant immortality or longevity: and especially not invulnerability. T’Chaka still presumably had the herb in his system and he still aged, to the point where his son had to replace him as Black Panther, and then he was even killed by Zemo’s bomb.

    And I was confused as to whether or not Erik was going to ship Wakandan weapons to Wakandan spies for his revolution, as well perhaps some of his own contacts which I assume he also had in place, or if he was sending the ships to unleash the weapons on the major heads of state and governments across the world directly: like mass genocide superweapons. It just felt like the fire he started in the Heart Shaped Fruit gardens was something he wanted to spread across the world, which he would follow up by direct military attack after the initial death tolls. There is nothing stable about Erik. His intentions may be, or may have started as pure, but the violence he lived with and had been done to him living in America and as a warrior has infected him with hatred: his legitimate anger at what happened to him and his people — his idea of all Black people being his people — souring and twisting into a lust for retribution. I certainly saw nothing virtuous about what he did in Wakanda, though I believe *he* believed that he was virtuous, or at least committing violence for the greater good.

    And then there is another aspect too. Adam Server wrote an article called ‘Black Panther’: The Tragedy of Erik Killmonger. You can find it here:

    https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2018/02/black-panther-erik-killmonger/553805/?utm_source=twb

    Essentially, Server discusses the idea of The Void: of that emptiness left by the destruction of Black identity of all the slaves that were taken from African and other nations back in the slave trade. How racial violence continues to cause these deaths and the destruction and erasure of this cultural heritage: filled only with pain, suffering, and death: “a psychic and cultural wound.” It is pretty telling, when Erik takes the herb and only sees his father — N’Jabu — sitting in their empty apartment where he was murdered, regretting everything he’s done, been done to him, and wondering just what he has left his son. There are no other ancestors there. The ancestors of Erik’s maternal line are all gone. It’s horrific. All that is there is his father, who lost even his links to the royal line because he betrayed it in his attempt to seize Vibranium for Black aid at the cost of Wakandan lives and his family ties.

    So, in answer to whether or not Erik will be in that pantheon or council of dead Black Panthers, I don’t know if he will even be there. He has been in the Void for too long. He has embraced its pain, and loss, and its sorrow. But instead of working through it, or building something out of it, or doing anything other than killing, he simply exported it back to Wakanda … and tried to spread it by destroying a part of their heritage through the burning of the Fruits, killing the priest, and unleashing Wakandan weapons on the world. The sad thing is, one interpretation I can see is Erik waiting in a Void with his father alone, in that apartment, for all eternity: his purgatory, his hell. The one he grew in. The one he embraced. The one he felt he could never escape.

    Of course, there is another way of looking at this too. Wakanda played its part in the Void. It sat back and did nothing, or so it seems. Perhaps they did influence others indirectly in slowly shaping policy towards Black peoples of different cultures behind the scenes, but we aren’t really told about this one way or another in the film, save that they only seem to care about their own interests. They killed his father and didn’t even take him back for trial, as they said they would, or at the very least take his body back and tell the people what he had done. And they left Erik there, on his own, in a world of racial strife and systematic discrimination: his only heritage billions of dead slaves, and many more murdered and brutalized people … along with a need for vengeance.

    Perhaps T’Challa, spiritually, can lay Erik and N’Jabu to rest: with changing the old apartment buildings into an Aid Centre, and perhaps even taking N’Jabu’s body back to Wakanda for proper burial and actual accounting of what went down. Maybe even burying Erik as well — their Prince N’Jadaka — and using him as an example of what they must fight against, and what he could have been. When I think about Erik and the Void, it reminds me of the Holocaust, and also — as you mention Israel and some of its activities — the right of what it is called The Law of Return — where people of acknowledged Jewish ancestry can go and settle in Israel no matter where they come from. However, at least from what I recall, their mother has to be Jewish or they are not considered for this status. And this is also something that occurs culturally, beyond the state. When I look at Erik, I see someone who sees themselves as Wakandan, and in his case all people of his colour as related to one another and who should be supportive as such — but wasn’t acknowledged as legitimate. In a horrible way, his return to Wakanda, in the blood that his people — who died and suffered on one side — and the others that abandoned him and killed his father to cover up their own safety on the other, is his birthright: it is his terrible return. There is a lesson in that, for Wakanda somewhere.

    I do hope that T’Challa will provide medical and scientific aid through selective training of others in a cultural exchange, but that he will also have the nation intervene if the worst abuses continue or worsen … Certainly, I also suspect Wakanda will intervene when Thanos comes, but that will be when the entire world is threatened by his quest for the power of the Infinity Gauntlet.

    There is one more point of yours that I would like to engage with as well: that of Art. I’m not sure I completely agree with your assessment that nation or government-sponsored work can’t be Art. In ancient times, many governments created Art that we study to this very day. I do think that over time the differences between government and community have become more pronounced, though I am curious as to see if you could trace those differences. I think both forms of art are different from one another, but there are cultural elements in both. The examples you present are fairly distinct from one another, but I wonder if they are the only examples — of government and, as you put it, Black arts out there. I am not as familiar, sadly.

    I think, though, that your assessment of Wakanda bringing state-sponsored aid or ideas to the world as opposed to local community or perhaps culture is a fascinating distinction altogether that bears further discussion. The irony is: while Erik may have grown up in the latter distinction, I do not think he could have brought that sensibility to the world as he focused and was shaped by the Void. T’Challa, by contrast, has been going through the world and is learning: especially by the example of his cousin and where he came from … figuratively and literally. Will T’Challa incorporate this into his reach and research and possibly intervention policies? We will just have to see … Either way, I do hope, after Infinity War, we will get the chance to visit Wakanda once again.

  2. I certainly will not go into the immense details that Matthew has gone into, but this, without a doubt, one of the best articles I’ve read on the property. Looking at this from an academic, politically familiar state of mind has made this article exceptionally investigative. I agree with much navigated here, but soon I will be posting what I consider to be an article of equal investigation: The Power Rangers. Please, take a look when it is posted. Well done.

  3. Hi Jarrett, That is immensely generous of you! I look forward to reading yr article. Be well, J.

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