Black Panther, apart from its spectacular reconstruction of an “Afro-future, also encapsulates the reality of indigenous societies of North East India succinctly. I don’t think there is any other popular movie in recent times than Black Panther that has engaged with the questions of modernity and oppression. It may have its problems (after all it is a movie) but the message of Black Panther needs reflection. The Revenant, released few years ago, for all its grandeur usurped the reality of Indigenous people to play into the saviour complex of romantic white hero. So here are my Naga reflections on BP.
The movie has presented racism in which Black/indigenous people face through remarks like ‘savages’, ‘cannibalism’ reference and ‘third world country’- the ‘third world’ reference is an embodiment of dominant culture’s saviour complex in its quest for colonising, and ‘savages’ and ‘cannibalism’ in asserting the civilised notion of white people.
Wakanda of Black Panther has a striking resemblance to ‘imagined communities’ of Benedict Anderson wherein Wakanda thrives in full glory among five tribal communities by isolating itself from the colonisers. People of Wakanda are aware about the political economy of war, and aid, and oppression against the minority in the developed and developing nations. Their stance tells that they take a firm position to not step into these forms of domination and exploiting others through war and aid. They live in isolation by making sense of their approach to life from within. All of these depictions in the movie can be read into the history of Naga people and their struggle to make sense of changes they face and in reclaiming past glory. The genesis of Naga movement is on the ground that they were not ruled by anyone and they want to continue living in full freedom without any interference from outsider.
The “vibranium” which enriches Wakanda and its advancement is a metaphor to natural resources residing in the nations of indigenous people. In the movie, the King justified the reason for not utilising its resource in ruling other nation is to not become the entity they are in antithesis with. This position is a familiar territory where resistances across the world often leave no choice in the context of ethnic tension between various ethnic communities where they become of what they oppose in its quest for survival. In close to that, indigenous knowledge and its practice has done more wonders to existence of Wakanda. Likewise, the character of Killmonger shows how a person who have experienced and seen racism and oppression in other country came back home (Wakanda) to overthrow colonisers by reaching out to the oppressed communities of the world. The urgency in his revolution to redistribute Wakanda resources to oppressed people of the world in waging a war against the colonisers is a powerful act. His main aim is in liberating oppressed people through empowerment from the resources of Wakanda.
Another striking feature of the movie is the Jabari tribe of Wakanda who lives in separation from other powerful tribes of Wakanda. Jabari tribe in the movie, continued to practice its culture, tradition and customs in the purest form passed down from its ancestors unlike other tribes of Wakanda who in their worldview derived progressiveness with the advancement of technology by making use of vibranium. The advancement of technology here caricatured the introduction of power relation among the tribes of Wakanda. The relationship between Jabari and other tribes takes us to the situation of othering. Jabari tribe were scoffed at for retaining ancestral cultures and way of life in relation to advancement reaped by other tribes and the notion of progressiveness. This aspect shows that Wakanda is far from being a Utopia. The aspect of this part in the movie can be traced into the friction between Christian followers and ancestral religion followers within Naga tribes. To be specific, the contestation among different religions followers in Rongmei Naga tribe where followers of Christianity placed themselves to be more advanced and civilised than the ancestral religion followers.
The tension between ‘collectivism’ and ‘individualism’ where individual pursuits drawn from clan lineage and personal choice and liberty are shown in the light of the introduction of external forces into their societies. The significance of collectivism is highlighted in its true form, and how it makes the interface with individualism. This conundrum has become a reality even in Naga society where personal liberty and choice are at loggerheads with customary law and collectivism. And then the ‘contentious’ feminist challenge of Shuri and her ownership of technology and its manoeuvring may have something to say about the contemporary Naga women’s challenge to the so-called ‘tradition’.
All in all, Black Panther is far from perfect yet it can be interpreted as the celebration of indigenous people and present to the world that the world view of indigenous people has its own epistemology far from the scholarship of western countries and dominant societies. It is not a movie to draw a lesson for indigenous people for they already have the values that define them, and the immediacy for now is to protect and preserve these values and in expressing them freely.
The reality of Naga and its identity politics as located in this movie, are almost similar to the realities of inter-tribal relationships depicted in the movie. The contemporary situation in northeast region of India have become an inverse of the supposed Utopian Wakanda and their consciousness of the outside world, and the notion of collectivism. Black Panther’s attempts to offer a glimpse of unfulfilled dreams of indigenous people and how these can be reflected in the contemporary experiences of racism, exploitation and marginalisation. The advocacy of not waging war in the movie is an important message in the times of institutionalised post-colonial violence while looking for a renewed politics of identity to hold on to a desperate hope.