Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther clearly encompasses the essence of Afrofuturism and upon first glance his interpretation of Wakanda can be seen as a film that challenges perceptions of Africa, but that does not mean it comes without controversy. Ruth Carter actively uses the costumes as a way to tell their own story. The images costumes create in this film allow the viewers to the use of gender as a way of constructing the characters identity and we can use these themes and characterization to examine the influence costumes have on Black storytelling. This essay will examine the use and incorporation of Yoruba body modifications and Ndebele clothing (beadwork and rings) in Black Panther. I shall engage with the text to determine whether or not each element was used appropriately and sensitively.
The over arching theme within Black Panther is Afrofuturism. One of the many definitions of Afrofuturism include imagining a world/future where Black bodies are present and integrated with technology. This ideology may serve as a means of escapism, from the traumas of the West, such as slavery, Jim Crow and displacement within the diaspora. Ryan Coogler’s vision for Wakanda as a nation untouched by colonialism is one that is ambitious but good at giving the audience a glimpse of what future without ties to Europe would look like that demonstrates their appreciation for technology and modernity and the juxtaposition of spirituality. The inclusion of Black women with more than a supporting role within the film allows us to see a future, not only for Black men but Black women as well. Two important women within the film are Wakanda’s Chief Technology Officer Shuri and King T’Challa’s general Okoye. Both women are presented as intelligent and confident and maintain a positive image throughout the film. On first glance, one may not realize that costuming plays such an important role in how a character is portrayed but upon further examination viewers can see the characters motif through the costume.
The idea and presentation of a female warrior is not a new concept but there has been increased interest in strong Black female characters with the release of Black Panther. In the film King T’Challa had his own group of female bodyguards known as the Dora Milaje, who were inspired by the Dahomey Amazons, which was a female military regiment. Edna Bay’s chapter ” The Military of the Late Eighteenth Century,” discusses the role of women in the Dahomean military. She states that it is established by at least two European accounts that women participated in offensive warfare. These sources also assert the establishment of female warriors within the palace organization, who were armed and trained for fighting (Bay 1998, 138 ). The costumes worn by the Dora Milaje consist of beading and rings worn around their arms and neck. As general, Okoye’s costume, consist of Gold armor on her shoulders and gold neck and arm rings. The use of the rings as well as the beading patterns and shapes are similar to those of the Ndebele. Many of the women if not all were even wed to the king, which is similar to the Black Panther comic books because Dora Milaje while bodyguards were also seen as ceremonial wives in training. And even though it isn’t discussed in the film, it is still an important piece of information that pays homage to an already iconic group of women. The use of Ndebele neck rings (Isigolwani) serves as a subtle nod to the comic book because these rings act as a symbol of marriage for the wearer. Another nod to the Ndebele comes in the form of beadwork, worn in their uniforms, particularly in the beaded “loin” covers the Dora wear. The Ndebele call this the lighabi; it is typically worn by young girls and is replaced as the girl goes through puberty ( Powell 1995,126 ). We can see the deliberate intention to keep the Dora Milaje costumes feminine by using designs that were already feminine and are tied to marriage. This is may have been a subconscious choice but an important one because Black women are often placed in peculiar situation that leaves them hypersexualised or completely masculinized. It is also interesting that Coogler chose to model their costumes after the Ndebele seem to be independent and creative in their own right.
The ability to blend tradition and spirituality with technology, is one thing that the film was really able to achieve. I would consider the idea of the Dora Milaje is an Afrofuturistic one because it reimagines a world where the idea of a strong Black woman is non-threathening to men and taken seriously amongst their peers. The usage of Ndebele beadwork and Isigolwani is use in the correct context is a better way articulating the beauty and importance of the item rather than perverting the item and creating an entirely new meaning.
The most memorable form of West African body modification seen in Black Panther would be the scarification used on Killmonger’s body. Killmonger is presented as a masculine antagonist figure. Killmonger has a series of self-inflicted scars on the upper half of his body as a symbol of all the people he has killed. Michael B. Jordan’s portrayal as Erik Killmonger is one that is aggressive, hyper-masculine, intelligent, and angry. He represents the sentiments of African Americans and yet seems to be very attached to Wakandan culture from the tattoo on the inner lip to the self-inflicted scars. In Schildkrout’s “Inscribing the Body”, he briefly touches upon the history of scarification within a North American Context from the “country marks” to the branding of the owners name and states
“These advertisements broadly define the universe of body marking and the essential ambivalence so often found in association with corporeal inscriptions. On the one hand, these advertisements point us toward the understanding of the body as a site of where human beings become canvas for the inscription of political power; on the other hand, they raise the question of the agency of the individual in constructing a relationship between body and society (Schildkrout 2004, 323)”
This quote accurately describes a way to analyze Erik Killmonger’s self-inflicted scars by allowing the to examine whether or not Killmonger could have used these scars as a form of resistance as a way of gaining control in a society that actively reinforces the oppression of Black bodies. However, the original wearers of these scars may be surprising. As Henry John Drewal’s discusses Yoruba body art, he specifically talks about the use of scarification on women. He states that one artist said people praise women that are covered in Kolo marks and ridicule women who chose not to have markings as a way to delineate between who possessed strength and who was a coward. These marks are seen as a badge of honor because individuals who chose to do this are seen as strong for enduring this pain only for societies admiration (Drewal 1988, 83). The characterization behind the Kolo marks as it relates to Erik Killmonger fits the context because viewers would consider him strong and not cowardice. This meaning although meant for women perpetuates the further masculinization of Killmonger’s character.
Another reason why these markings were a poor choice for Killmonger is simply the fact that these scars are supposed to be erotic. They are textured so that the wearer of the scars can be touched. As stated in “Beauty and Being”: Aesthetics and Ontology in Yoruba Body Art,
” A woman with marks all over her body is very fine…when we see a girl with marks and she is (naked), we boys can easily approach her and begin to play and rub her body, with our hands…(Drewal 1988, 90). The sexualization of this art form allows for these marks adopt new meanings. The placement of these marks on Black women would have been in poor taste due to the history of sexual violence and fetishization with Africa and throughout the diaspora, but it also poses a problem for Black men who also get sexualized and in the case of Killmonger demonized. Kolo marks are scars that have and convey meaning and serve as a rite of passage for young Yoruba women and in some ways one can relate this to Erik Killmonger’s character development. It can be surmised that perhaps Killmonger scarred himself as a rite of passage in his transition into manhood and to help his plan come into fruition by being able to blend in with his own people. But, it can also be argued that without the scarification, he might not be able to convey as much anger or at least have something to show for it. Drewal’s description of Kolo Marks and Ruth Carter’s interpretation have some similarities both look at personhood, individuality, and strength. But, Carter’s interpretation is one that could’ve been fleshed out in a more productive way. The symbolism of the marks attached to the act of murder takes away the true meaning and beauty of the actual Yoruba marks. And while the intention is not to be offensive, the perversion of this practice can have adverse effects on how viewers interpret these markings in real life.
One way to remedy this is by sticking to the original comic books, where Killmonger did not possess any scars. Another way would be to place Kolo marks on the women in the movie perhaps Queen Ramonda and even Nakia who shows enough skin throughout the movie to include a subtle nod to the women of Yoruba. If Carter wanted to use scarification on Killmonger she could’ve opted for one that was traditionally masculine and the meaning could’ve been different. Instead of saying that every scar represented someone he killed, they could’ve fleshed out his relationship with his father since he was the one who taught him about Wakanda, he probably would’ve taught him a few rituals before his passing which would have been more symbolic and seem less like a fetishization of a particular style of body modification.
Futhermore, the precedent set by Ryan Coogler and Ruth Carter is one that will stand the test of time and further push the boundaries of Afrofuturistic representation outside of literature, music, and fine art. The inclusion of so many geographically diverse African countries and groups of people garnered exposure, which allows people to generate interest in these topics. The ability to reanimate strong black female characters such as Shuri and the Dora Milaje allows for more mainstream representation throughout the diaspora. The perversion of Erik Killmongers scars may be one of the few setbacks but we must admit the effort was at least somewhat there. All in all, I am interested to see the direction Black Panther 2 takes us. This movie also gives me hope in how DC Comics West African character Vixen will be portrayed if they do decide to include her in the franchise.