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Wakanda Is Not Your Genius Bar

by Tracy Townsend

When LSQ offered me a seat at their blog’s table and let me choose any theme for my recurring column, “A Place Where It Rains” came to mind immediately. It’s a reference to Italo Calvino and his assertion that “Fantasy is a place where it rains,” a gloriously simple way of saying speculative worlds must have the small details drawn in that make them real and lived-in.

I’ve always loved world-building. It’s one of my favorite things about storytelling, both from a writer’s and reader’s perspective. Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther is exactly the kind of film this column was intended to talk about. As much as I delighted in the writing, the acting, the drama, and the depth of its conflict, one of Black Panther’s most stunning achievements is its elegant refutation of blandly homogeneous “futuristic” environments. Simply put: for all its technological marvels, Wakanda is not your Genius Bar.

Image copywrite Marvel Entertainment

Sci-fi world-building often relies on visual shorthand, especially in film. If a creator wishes to reinforce the presence of advanced technology and scientific research, they reach for a familiar array of stock images. Glowing arrays of buttons; stainless steel surfaces; tight jumpsuits; HUD displays; sterile, seamless environments defined by their surgically precise commitment to sleek modernism. These sci-fi backdrops are the sparse, clean spaces of an IKEA showroom passed through the Apple corporation’s marketing department. In the Marvel cinematic universe, the only discernible differences between one of Tony Stark’s private labs and a S.H.I.E.L.D. facility is the conveniently placed wet bar in the former and the overt militaristic touches in the latter.

With rare exceptions, this sci-fi shorthand has taught viewers to see natural spaces, organic lines, and bursts of physical color as primitive. Indeed, “tech-washing” is as real as whitewashing in sci-fi storytelling. When deployed within narratives meant to represent a minority perspective and experience, it can be similarly damaging.

And Black Panther is having none of it.

Let’s start with Wakanda itself. Nestled between mountains and astride a fertile valley, its tallest buildings sport rounded walls, rows of windows, and verandas facing a river whose banks are still green. The spaces between its busy urban blocks sport climbing greenery and clusters of sturdy stone buildings and bustling open-air marketplaces.

Image copyright Marvel Entertainment

There is no rush to prove Wakanda’s wealth or technological prowess through a canvassing shot displaying neon signs and skyscrapers from a tidied-up version of Blade Runner, or a sense-of-wonder Tomorrowland. Wakanda is urban, but only in part, and even that part has not rejected its surrounding space. It has grass. Dirt. Color on the walls of its buildings and in the weave of its people’s clothing (no featureless, sleek jumpsuits here — even T’Challa’s Black Panther armor, which bears the marks of its cultural origins, patterns of weaving and raised seams evocative of African artists’ traditional use of the sacred triangle).

Princess Shuri’s lab, poised at the mouth of the vibranium mines, would be the obvious place for Coogler and his design crew to have given in to the shorthand of the sci-fi Genius Bar. It has its share of sleek, silvered metal surfaces and glowing heads-up displays. Far more importantly, it has its own nuance, grounded in the literal geology of Wakana itself. Meters of raw stone frame many shots, sharing the backdrop with the familiar steel walls. As the camera pans, we see the stringers of staircases glossed with colorful tribal art, high-concept cultural graffiti claiming the space as decidedly Wakandan.

Image copywrite Marvel Entertainment

Even the sci-fi throwaway of the hologram display is re-imagined into a physical form: Shuri’s “sand table,” which models three dimensional objects of all sizes and descriptions, and which interacts with the Kimoyo beads used to communicate with others, provide medical aid, and interface with other technology. The physicality of the sand table — sleekly effective and entirely natural — is a reminder of how much Wakanda is a nation in touch with its dirt.

Sci-fi’s standard “futurism shorthand,” the Genius Bar homogenization we’re so (over-)used to seeing, is allergic to dirt. It is polished to a mirror sheen, a palace to practice or live in science while at the same time being divided from the natural world science shapes. But Wakanda doesn’t need polished steel to prove itself. It does not exist to confirm our shallow cliches. Instead, it exists for itself and its people (something the characters are made to grapple with, too, by virtue of thoughtful screenwriting). Dirt is not a marker of shame, of “less-than” status, any more than the sheep pastures dotting the city’s margins are regarded as an eyesore. The King of Wakanda spends time in the fields leaning against a split-rail pen as surely as he spends time in his throne room. Both spaces belong to his people. Both spaces are home.

Image copyright Marvel Entertainment

Dirt is beauty. Dirt is life. The Wakandans who thrive on technology modeled through the sand table and powered by vibranium are painted, pierced, and plated, physically and visually connected to their home’s literal land and its fusion of multiple tribal cultures. The Necropolis cavern where the newly-crowned king makes his meeting with his ancestors is a place of rough stone, uneven cobbles, slabs grown soft with moss, and a pit of rich, red earth meant to bury the king and welcome him back to the world reborn. M’Baku’s throne room, all polished glass and beveled slate, is framed in wire-hung birch rods, half a brutal club armory, half an art installation.

Image copyright Marvel Entertainment

Technology exalts culture in Black Panther, and vice-versa. It’s that balance which asserts the film’s place not only in the MCU, but in Afrofuturism itself. Sci-fi visuals that marry cultural identity with technical fabulata make Black Panther a compositional feast. It is a film made by storytellers who clearly know that any sci-fi world which confuses sterility for “the future” — any world that puts a stainless steel shelter up against the rain — has missed the point of building a world meant for people to live in.

A bit about the columnist:

Tracy Townsend teaches creative writing and sf/f literature at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, a public boarding school for gifted students. She has two dogs and two children, but only one husband. If she's not teaching or writing, she's probably on Twitter (@TracyATownsend) being opinionated about books, comics, movies, and soup. Visit author page