Black Panther delivered one of the best moments of cinema I have ever seen. Shuri (Letitia Wright), the titular character’s younger sister, Wakandan princess and chief engineer, is busy with something in her lab when CIA agent Everett Ross – who received advanced medical treatment at her facility – stumbles from his hospital bed. “Don’t frighten me, coloniser!” is Shuri’s quip when startled. For me, a person of colour in South Africa, this was a watershed moment. The audience of journalists and influencers fell silent for a few seconds, processing this loaded statement. Then came the rapturous laughter and applause. It was a mirror to the deepest, darkest humour on black Twitter. It was the boldest piece of cinema and it was a throwaway moment in the context of the film.
This movie challenges the viewer to imagine a world where an African nation could rise in isolation from the world. With nothing but raw material to start with and zero technical knowledge, the tribes of Wakanda unlocked the immense potential of Vibranium and deployed it in ways far superior to what Tony Stark could be capable of. And that Shuri, a teenager with a love for Babes Wodumo bops, could lead the charge of technological innovation, is also a brave “new” idea.
The most striking thing is that the five tribes live quite peacefully with occasional clashes of ideas and minor cultural differences. It’s a fantasy land with deep roots in real life Africa. There’s a strong sense of ubuntu throughout the movie. Everyone plays a role and has access to the same world-leading technology to harness for whatever job they see fit. It’s almost like before the continent was colonised and its people forced to adapt unfit equipment and ideas to the harsh African landscape.
Cape Town’s media screening was hosted at the V&A Waterfront which only exists because of the locally-developed Dovos breakwater. My afternoon was spent in Stellenbosch at the launch of an innovative greywater management solution called WaterLoo, of which the premise is to provide a convenient method of filling your toilet cistern with the bucket from your shower. Unfortunately this is similar technology to what the late Nkosinathi Nkomo used in his design for a greywater recycling system. Many are bemoaning the fact that Premier Helen Zille and Popular Mechanics didn’t give similar coverage to Nkomo’s invention as was given to WaterLoo, but I will argue that it comes down to marketing. I never received an invitation to that launch and there was little push from the product team to make content available to this publication. There is also the added friction of rerouting shower and basin plumbing to make Nkomo’s design viable. WaterLoo requires very little technical skill to get going and quite literally fits in on top of your cistern.
I’m certain that, given time, Nkomo would have refined his product, but unfortunately his talent was taken from this earth in early December. It’s a massive loss to the local engineering fraternity and underlines the point that good ideas can come from anywhere, but should be shared effectively.
And that’s the central conceit of the Wakanda story as it plays out in Black Panther. Does the country maintain its silence and continue to stand by and watch the world slide down the water closet, or does it share its technological wealth? The central villain Killmonger actually claims the throne to then export Wakandan weapons to oppressed black people around the globe. His reverse colonisation plans make complete sense in our profit-driven world, but are met with significant rebellion from those who were formerly in control of the wealth. Opposition to this “Western” idea of power was refreshing as one would expect any dominant nation to seek to expand its empire.
I take this as a lesson for all of us. Technology is a tool that can enrich all our lives when wielded with integrity and compassion. If we use it to gain an upper hand over our imagined rivals, then we have failed in our mission to uplift ourselves. Us Africans are fortunate enough to grow up on a continent that offers zero favours. This has steeled our ingenuity and forced an us to engineer ways to improve our lives. Black Panther is an unapologetic celebration of African excellence and every scatterling of this mighty land should make an effort to see it.