Black Panther

“Wakanda is strong enough to help others and help ourselves.”

Black Panther is the film adaptation of the Marvel comic book character and series Black Panther. The story is set in the present-day fictional African kingdom of Wakanda. Wakanda is the most technologically advanced civilization in the world because it sits on deposits of vibranium brought to Earth by an ancient meteorite. Vibranium is an unbreakable metal with magical properties, including imbuing the heart-shaped herb with supernatural strength for those who consume it. The movie starts with T’Challa winning a ritual combat and becoming Black Panther, or the King of Wakanda, after his father’s death.  Wakanda has kept vibranium and their advancements hidden from the world by pretending to be a place with little economic or technological development. Now, this policy is challenged by Wakandan American Erik “Killmonger” Stevens, T’Challa’s cousin, who infiltrates the country and makes a play for the throne. Erik defeats T’Challa in a ritual combat and becomes the new Black Panther. With the power of the Wakandan nation behind him, Erik begins mobilizing to arm black liberation forces around the world. T’Challa is found, however, and returns to retake the throne. Erik and his loyalists are defeated. Rather than be imprisoned, Erik says “Just bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from ships ‘cause they knew death was better than bondage.” The movie ends with T’Challa committing Wakanda to non-violent ways to improve conditions for the Black diaspora all over the world, including an outreach center in Oakland, California. 

Black Panther is a solarpunk, afrofuturist superhero film that helps spark discussions about three aspects of climate literacy: access to natural resources, especially rare earth metals like the fictional vibranium; the interconnectedness of racial justice and climate justice, including one’s responsibilities to other people and nations across the globe; and the role of green technology, including urban design, to create a sustainable, just, and ecological civilization.

Theme 1: the importance of natural resources. The film’s use of vibranium as the most precious and guarded natural resource can be used to introduce the responsibilities and burdens that come with using such resources, including the idea of the resource curse. The scene in which the villain Klau is interrogated and lays out how Wakanda has been able to hide and develop free from colonial interests can serve as an entry point into the topic of responsibility to use vibranium for the larger good (54-58). Likewise, the museum scene (15- 19 *includes scenes of gun violence) in which Erik is taking vibranium out of the British Museum can open the topic of Imperialism and the “Scramble for Africa” for a social studies class. Eric tells the museum staff “How do you think your ancestors got these? Did they pay a fair price? Or did they take them, just like they took everything else?” Besides confronting colonialist extractivism from the past, these episodes can serve as a springboard for discussions about the human and other costs of rare metal extraction in the present, such as cobalt (for EV batteries) in the DRC, lithium extraction in Thacker Pass, and others. 

Theme 2: the interconnectedness of racial and climate justice. The main conflict in Black Panther is between Wakanda’s traditional isolationist policy, which held Wakanda back from disrupting the rise of colonialism and slavery, and Erik’s vision of Wakanda as a world leader that ensures Black liberation everywhere. The climate equivalent of this conflict is whether our responsibility is to only one country, one ecosystem, and one group of people, or whether the responsibility extends further to the world at large. Scenes that highlight this tension include a conversation between T’Challa and Nakia (33-35), and a confrontation when Erik challenges T’Challa: “Y’all sittin’ up here comfortable. Must feel good. Meanwhile, about two billion people all over the world that look like us, their lives are a lot harder” (1:13-15). Although Erik’s plan to start a global uprising against the postcolonial, racist, and ecocidal system fails, the film ends by affirming everyone’s shared responsibility for racial and climate justice. “We will work to be an example of how we, as brothers and sisters on this Earth, should treat each other,” T’Chala declares in a speech to the UN. “Now, more than ever, the illusions of division threaten our very existence. We all know the truth: more connects us than separates us. But in times of crises, the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers. We must find a way to look after one another as if we were one, single tribe.” This speech can be a good opening to conversations about climate reparations, land back initiatives, reparations for slavery, and other forms of violence that enriched certain groups at the cost of others. Understanding how racial and climate justice intersect is important given the success of the fossil fuel industry’s PR push for the concept of energy poverty and their attempts to frame fossil fuel extraction as a solution to energy poverty and economic development. Many organizations have recognized this tactic and have outlined faults in the logic and the data

Theme 3: the benefits of ecocentric, green design. Wakanda’s unique appeal is the afrofuturist, ecotopian, solarpunk world-building that can be studied separately from the fight scenes and car chases. Clips and stills can be analyzed for how the film imagines regenerative land use and ecocentric urban design (net zero cities, carbon architecture, electrified transportation). Black Panther features vivid examples of how an ecological society may develop urban design principles (13-14) and forgo things like personal vehicles and suburbs (33-35). This discussion can be combined with reading the short essay Wakanda Doesn’t Have Suburbs by Kendra Pierre-Louis, which highlights how the movie and its design push back against the narrative that human progress goes hand in hand with the degradation of the natural world (for contrast, see Wall-E). As an afrofuturist, solarpunk story, Black Panther refuses to submit to the more prominent narratives of dystopian futures. Cities in Wakanda are dense, filled with people who enjoy recreation as well as purposeful labor, and lushly populated by various canopies of plants. The film paints a vibrant picture of what an ecological society could look like. 

Linked to green design, students may be invited to personal reflection or data analysis exercises to find examples of how some of these ideas play out in the real world. How does designing for sustainable transportation impact emissions, safety, or emotional experience? How does the amount of green space affect electricity use and health hazards? Advanced design and planning students can broaden their analysis and place it in the context of other solarpunk and afrofuturist aesthetics to learn about how the genre has inspired real-world impact through building designs or even a comparison between solarpunk art and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. In my classroom in Minnesota, when discussing local solutions to climate change that students can impact, we present policy and design ideas to our local municipality. Black Panther’s imagining of an ecological society serves to inspire student vision, while the Greenstep Cities best practices helps students develop more concrete proposals for enhancing the sustainability of their city. Often, young people feel powerless as holders of little financial and political power. These discussions with city personnel have proven invigorating for city staff as well as empowering for students as their visions and ideas are heard and often supported by adults around them.

©2023 ClimateLit (Luke Gliddon)

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Publisher: Marvel Entertainment, 2018

Pages: 134 min

ISBN: n/a

Audience: Rebels (14-older)

Format: Films

Topics: Carbon Architecture, Climate Justice, Climate Literacy, Climate Science Literacy, Ecocentric Urban Design, Ecofiction, Ecological Civilization, Ecotopia, Electrified Transportation, Environmental Awareness, Environmentalism, Natural Resources, Net Zero Cities, Racial Justice, Racism, Rare Earth Metal, Renewable Energy, Solarpunk, Sustainable Development