So sang Zero Mostel in Fiddler on the Roof, and his cry also echoes across the plains of Wakanda in Black Panther, a movie so rich with complex themes that pulling out one or two of them for discussion is daunting and feels like a disservice to the whole. But the tension between tradition and modernity is one of the driving forces behind the film, and in the space between these two forces is where director Ryan Coogler finds a way to the future.
I have always loved the character of Black Panther, aka King T’Challa of the reclusive and technologically advanced African nation of Wakanda. Created by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee back in the glory days of Fantastic Four, T’Challa wasn’t like the black heroes who would follow him. They would usually be streetwise characters springing from the tough side of town. No, T’Challa had more in common with Namor, a haughty and headstrong ruler of men who owned every panel he was in. Other characters like the Falcon, a social worker turned superhero, and Power Man, a criminal turned mercenary superhero, represented a desire for black Americans to transcend centuries of oppression. Black Panther, on the other hand, was the representation not only of what was lost when colonization and the slave trade came to Africa, but also what could come again. “When we were kings?,” the character seems to ask. “No, we still are kings.” Pretty cool coming from a couple of poor Jewish kids from New York City.
But of course the experiences of oppressed people can be similar – almost depressingly so. And as Tevye contends with changing times so does Wakanda in Black Panther. Just as it was in the original comics, Wakanda is a hyper-advanced nation that has kept itself hidden from the rest of the world for centuries. The source of Wakanda’s almost-magical futuristic technology? A huge mound of vibranium, the rarest metal in the world, and one with an almost unlimited array of astonishing abilities. The Wakandans, first hidden by treacherous terrain and eventually by their own cloaking tech, have watched the world as it has become seized over the centuries by turmoil and unrest. They have spies in every country, always watching, but never taking action. As the rest of the world bubbles over with war and death the Wakandans live peacefully and quietly. That is their tradition.
But out in the world lives Erik Stevens, aka Killmonger. An orphan of a Wakandan spy – and cousin to the king – Killmonger has grown up in America, experiencing first hand the personal and institutional racism that every black person in this country knows too well. While those experiences – and the circumstances of his orphaning – have hardened him, he has always looked to his father’s tales of Wakanda as a source of hope. For Killmonger the Wakandans are essentially cowards, sitting on stockpiles of advanced weaponry that could be used to liberate their fellow Africans all across the globe. He wants to smash the traditions of Wakanda and explode from behind the cloak, subjugating the white colonial world as it has subjugated his own people.
Killmonger shows up just as Wakanda experiences a change in leadership. King T’Chaka was killed in Captain America: Civil War, and so Prince T’Challa has to step up and wear the crown. For T’Challa, who has been outside of Wakanda and seen the strife that impacts the wider world, there is doubt – on the one hand the problems he has seen make him believe that Wakanda’s non-interventionist strategy is for the best. But on the other hand he knows the wonders his nation has at its disposal, and he knows how it could transform the world beyond Wakanda’s borders.
While many of T’Challa’s advisors argue that Wakanda must stay hidden (and especially not accept refugees), his ex-lover Nakia believes that their duty is to be of service to the world. She lives outside of Wakanda, engaging in covert ops to help those in need – we meet her as she is freeing enslaved women in Nigeria. Also pushing towards modernity is T’Challa’s little sister, Shuri. She’s the genius behind much of Wakanda’s advanced tech, but she also has little patience for the old ways – during ritual combat at T’Challa’s coronation she complains about how uncomfortable the traditional clothes are, to the laughs and eye rolls of those assembled.
For Killmonger tradition is a burden. He sees Wakanda not as a paradise but as an armory; when he ascends to the throne he not only tosses aside the nation’s long-held non-intervention policy, he flouts his modernity at every move. His language, his dress, just the very way he moves cuts through the traditional Wakandan culture. He represents modernity not just as crass and graceless, but also as a creation of the colonizing powers of the West. He is a product of the thing he hates, and he doesn’t understand that it makes him the thing he hates. Western powers didn’t just colonize his land, they colonized his mind. He thinks like them (after all, it’s only white Everett Ross with the CIA who understands his strategy).
The unwise reaction to Killmonger would be to reject all modernity, to clothe Wakanda forever in the wrap of ancient tradition. But T’Challa is too smart for that. Even still, he has to learn the hard way. He has to discover that his father, seeking to protect the nation and maintain the status quo, killed his own brother and then abandoned his nephew. This knowledge shakes T’Challa to his very core, forcing him to re-examine not just everything he knew about his father but everything he knew about his country and his people. All of a sudden the noble tradition of non-interference starts to feel like selfishness, an excuse to cover Wakanda’s ass at the expense of all other people.
The conflict that T’Challa must navigate is one that I think we also navigate in the real world. Tradition, for many of us, is a dirty word. We live in a culture that fetishizes the new and the young, and that embraces change for the sake of change. Disruption is the watchword for our tech companies, and we talk about ‘traditional values’ with distaste. To us those traditional values mean hate and homophobia and racism and sexism. There are a lot of reasons why Killmonger is an attractive villain – his political stance is hard to argue with, for instance – but perhaps his disinterest in the traditions of Wakanda are most familiar to us as modern Americans. We understand Killmonger’s eye-rolling at the old ways.
But we misunderstand tradition, just as Killmonger does. As do T’Challa’s advisors, by the way. Tradition is a foundation, a thing upon which we build. It should not be an inflexible and constricting set of dogmatic rules but rather a common starting point. Tradition is a language we can share, but like all language is should be able to evolve and grow and change and react to the realities of the world. We do not serve tradition – tradition should serve us.
We see that in action in Black Panther, specifically in the interactions between T’Challa and M’baku. As leader of the self-exiled Jabari Tribe, M’Baku technically has no place at the coronation – tradition could be used to keep him out of the battle at Warrior Falls. But T’Challa understands that tradition here should yield, and so he accepts the challenge. This is a display of immense respect, and M’Baku understands it as such – and so when he is defeated by T’Challa he is not only able to leave in admiration, he is later able to help the fallen king. The tradition creates a shared language that the two men can speak, even if their tribes have not been in contact for years.
Traditions surrounding ceremonial combat come back into play when Killmonger arrives. Again, T’Challa respects the tradition and fights the new enemy, but things go badly for him. Killmonger flouts tradition in his battle – he straight up tosses T’Challa off the falls, a move that shocks all gathered – and he later disrespects it completely, ignoring the fact that T’Challa has not died and that the combat is not technically over. Here tradition becomes the bedrock upon which T’Challa stands – his claim to the throne remains legitimate, and Killmonger is now behaving like an usurper. These are the decisions that Killmonger makes that tarnish not only his claim to the throne but also his claims to moral superiority.
(It’s worth noting in passing that this stuff isn’t just in the world of the movies. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s is full of moments of conflict between tradition and modernity, and the definitions of tradition changed over the course of that decade – from black churches to Afrocentric black power. That, however, is fodder for another piece that’s more historically oriented.)
In Black Panther Ryan Coogler and co-writer Joe Cole acknowledge the difficulty of walking a line between tradition and modernity – we see characters make mistakes in both directions. To their credit they go out of their way to establish that (besides Klaue) there are no real villains here; every character is doing what they think is best. But many of them, like W’Kabi, driven by a desire to avenge his parents and get revenge on the outside world that took them from him, are suffering under delusions. T’Challa’s most kingly quality is his wisdom, and his ability to show compassion for his enemies (a lesson he learned in Civil War, by the way. That’s the kind of continuity that I like).
As the film ends we see how T’Challa has changed the traditions of Wakanda – by going public, like Tony Stark at the end of Iron Man. What’s interesting is that his choice grows from something Killmonger told him; when his cousin first comes to the throne room, he reminds T’Challa that Africa is the cradle of humanity – all people are descended from the same people who live in Wakanda today. Killmonger applies this to the two billion people on Earth who look like him, but T’Challa takes it to the next level, recognizing that all humans come from a common ancestor, and as such are, as he says at the UN, of one tribe. This allows him to open Wakanda’s borders without technically throwing away the tradition of protecting his own people – he has simply expanded the definition of who his people are.
So here we see the ways that tradition and modernity come together to create something better. By aligning himself with traditional Wakandan values but also acknowledging the way the world has changed and the way borders and divisions have begun to melt, T’Challa is able to carry out his duties as regent while standing upon the foundation of traditions that got him where he is but also while looking to a future that is inclusive and hopeful and positive.
This is one of the (many) lessons I hope we can take away from Black Panther. Tradition is not a millstone keeping us down, it can be a foundation stone upon which we build each other up. Coming out of the countercuture of the 60s we have ceded the concepts of tradition and the values that tradition brings, and we have allowed right wing hate groups to own them. But we must take them back, and we must realign the concept of ‘traditional values,’ we must understand that traditional human values are about helping one another and being in community, that our traditional values are actually about compassion and inclusion. Every great spiritual thinker in history agrees on this, and we have allowed people who are diametrically opposed to their teachings somehow take ownership of those teachings. We live in Killmonger’s world – do we have the strength and courage to create T’Challa’s world?