How Black Panther rethinks the city in science fiction film.Film Cities
The following is an article adapted from the author’s master’s dissertation of the same title. To read the complete document, click here.
For decades, science fiction has provided a medium for designers, innovators and pioneers to prognosticate, speculate and envision the future. Quentin Meillassoux describes science fiction as "a matter of imagining a fictional future of science that modifies, and often expands, its possibilities."1
In its most radical sense, sci-fi film envisions the dissolution of fundamental structures of existence by exposing viewers to a fictional place which behaves differently to its real-life counterpart.2 As a result, science fiction films are capable of challenging modern-day realities and can be effective in portraying future ideologies.3
However, in the twentieth century, sci-fi films began pushing homogeneous western themes due to financial success. Consequently, the "genre has often been the means by which Hollywood studios produce, and reproduce, successful products,"4 and has rarely speculated future Black narratives.
Jonathon Dotse — a science fiction writer from Ghana — writes, "when I first started writing science fiction, I wanted my stories to be about Africans, but I found it extremely difficult to imagine a future setting of Africa, simply because my perceptions were dominated by the implicit assumptions built in to the predominant Eurocentric narratives of the future."5
The lack of African narratives in science fiction, reinforced by the Black identity movements of the 1960s and 1970s, resulted in the birth of Afrofuturism.
Originally coined by Mark Dery in his essay "Black to the Future" (1993), Afrofuturism was a reaction to the ghettoisation and encoding of African-American aspirations by white societies.
For Mark Kamau — an Afrocentric designer from Kenya — Afrofuturism is "a cultural movement that combines African culture and identity with technology and science fiction." It frees Africa from tropes associated with poverty and famine and reimagines the continent in a scientific and technologically advanced manner.
Using the African diaspora to speculate the future, Afrofuturism has been expressed through various mediums in the past. These include music, art, fashion, literature, architecture and film.
The befuddling paintings of Jean-Michel Basquiat, cosmic soundscapes of jazz composer Sun Ra, and avant-garde architecture of Oscar-winning blockbuster, Black Panther (2018) all embody intrinsic themes of Afrofuturism.
In regard to architecture, Afrofuturism, encapsulates ideas that take from African tradition as much as from the existing conditions. As a result, it challenges western post-colonial design and presents new depictions of African cities. This can be seen in Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther (2018).
First imagined by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in the pages of the Fantastic Four comics series in 1966, Marvel’s Black Panther takes place in the fictional, and reclusive nation of Wakanda.
The success of this secluded East African country stems from a mysterious extra-terrestrial material named Vibranium. This remarkably rare metal stores vast amounts of energy subsequently driving the economy of Wakanda. The film explains that a meteor of Vibranuim crashed in the nation a millennium ago and is now the country’s source of technological success.
Placing Black Panther in conversation with Metropolis and Blade Runner
During the 1920s, European and American cities in science fiction film were characterized as being "overcrowded, claustrophobic, dark and violent."6 This directly contrasts the well populated and tranquil Golden City of Black Panther.
Having visited the United States in 1924, Fritz Lang embodied the dominating skyline of New York within the city in his film Metropolis.7 Metropolis is a picturesque "city of soaring skyscrapers and high-level bridges towering over cavernous, restless traffic arteries,"8 where the lower class are dehumanised and only seen as tools for production. Throughout the film we see a city which illustrates strong authoritarian control systems governed by strict structures of oppression.
Based on Philip K Dick’s novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Blade Runner (1982) focuses on the menacing Tyrell Corporation which is situated on the fringe of the ungodly city. Founded by Eldon Tyrell, the high-tech company creates synthetic humanoids named "replicants." In the film, Blade Runners are tasked with murdering these artificial humans as they stealthily hide across the denaturalised townscape.
As the main protagonist, Rick Deckard, searches frantically for these androids, neon advertisements expose the dreary, forgotten streets where new structures intermingle with the old ruins. Los Angeles boasts a population of over 90 million inhabitants as a result of mass migration, making the city a diverse manifestation of nationality, ethnicity and culture. Japanese sushi bars are juxtaposed with Western strip clubs, bright billboards scale multi-storey buildings as darkness shrouds the crime infested streets.
Due to Blade Runner's success, sci-fi films released after it emulated its vision of the city.9 Panoramas of sprawling vertical architecture clustered with densely situated towers in tyrannical cities soon became hallmarks of the genre.
By contrast, these themes are absent in Black Panther, though there are various themes which Black Panther, Blade Runner and Metropolis all address, such as verticality, structures of power and the inclusion within the city. However, each of these films depict the cities differently.
During the 19th and 20th century, the vertical portrayal of the city completely dominated science fiction films. The soaring buildings of Metropolis and overwhelming tall architecture of Blade Runner, influenced the lofty cityscapes of sci-fi films such as Fifth Element (1997), Cloud Atlas (2012) and Dredd (2012).
When it comes to the vertiginous nature of the city, both Metropolis and Blade Runner relegate the poor to the lower levels of the city and both films show clear structures of power.
Metropolis owes its verticality to the oppressed proletariat. The workers who meticulously built the urban environment have now been relegated to the bowels of the city, dwelling in "crowded streets and cramped habitation."10
In contrast, the upper class can be found frolicking in ornate eternal gardens. These heavenly gardens allude to the biblical Garden of Eden, whereas the dwelling place of the lower-class workers is hellish and distasteful. Metropolis is a systemised city where the upper and lower class seldom mix. This dichotomy of space creates hugely segregated areas.
"This literal depiction of a class-based hierarchy has been richly portrayed in a variety of interesting science fiction texts, from J.G Ballard's High Rise, to more recent stories such as Altered Carbon, " Rich Haridy writes in an article for New Atlas.
In Blade Runner, the dense elongated architecture of Los Angeles is a result of the city unrelentingly building upwards due to mass migration. As the city struggles to host its 90 million inhabitants, the built environment has grown vertically to accommodate the population increase.
In the film, Los Angeles is an "upper city and lower city" with the streets forming the basement of the crowded urban landscape. The lower depths of Los Angeles are dark smog infested realms of pollution, where truncated structures juxtapose violent and anarchic alleyways.
In contrast, in Black Panther the verticality of Golden City fails to highlight the dwelling spaces of upper- or lower-class people. However, it can be argued that since Wakanda is a nation of equal tribes, there are no upper-or lower social classes within the city in the first place.
Nonetheless, a mix of different height buildings line the busy streets of Golden City. These structures do not give an indication of affluence or wealth and instead create visual diversity within the Afrofuturistic city. Furthermore, the high-rise architecture is not as densely arranged as the swarm of abutting buildings in both Blade Runner and Metropolis.
In Black Panther, the streets do not suggest high levels of immorality or crime, they are brightly lit zones of community activity, where vendors show citizens their wares from futuristic devices. In Blade Runner the streets are "a mixture of anthill and labyrinth; a place where good had to struggle to overcome inherent evil."11
Conversely, since Wakanda is unknown to the outside world, Golden City has never needed to harbour tens of millions of people. Therefore, it can be argued that if foreigners were able to venture to Golden City then the capital would become more dense, elevated, and vertical. However, having a relatively controlled population, due to the lack of migration, Golden City is capable of remaining dwarfed in comparison to Los Angeles and Metropolis.
During the first 15 minutes of Black Panther, we see slender, vernacular skyscrapers which share similar apexes to the rondavel roofs of Botswana and thatched roofs indistinguishable from the Zulu Kraal iQukwane homes in South Africa. Tall structures are scattered across the city, but they do not congest the skyline like the high-reaching buildings in Blade Runner and Metropolis.
Furthermore, the lack of dark monochromatic colors in Golden city suggest a level of morality and intrinsic purity which contrasts the dark and gloomy shades of Blade Runner’s Los Angeles, where immoral activities are endemic. The city is shown mostly at night, this suggests high levels of danger and corruption as the bowels of the city are dark, enigmatic and hidden.
Black Panther never suggests that villainous activities occur at the lower depths of the city. However, it is interesting that the final battle between T’Challa and the main antagonist Erik Killmonger happens underground in a dark cerulean cave rather than within the city.
Once T’Challa has defeated Killmonger, they are both seen above land in a more moral setting as the sun begins to set. This hints at a theme in sci-fi film that a city's secrets are often hidden and dealt with underground, similar to the setting of the workers' labor in Metropolis.
The lack of overall verticality in Black Panther suggests that the sci-fi city wasn’t built from segregation and exploitation of lower classes. Western sci-fi films tend to divide their intensely vertical cities into two distinct areas with the wealthy at the top and the poor relegated to the bottom, Golden City negates this and challenges the need for tall imposing architecture in the city.
City of Ruins
"By the mid-twentieth century, many of our great cities were in physical decay," to quote Barbara Mennel, an associate professor of film studies at the University of Florida. As a result, various Western science fiction films began to portray decrepit urban cityscapes. Rather than illustrating dying cities through the depletion of nature, this was instead executed by presenting neglected urban cities.
By building on top of ruins, Blade Runner and Metropolis are both suggesting that previous histories have been removed. They have now been replaced by new narratives which characterize the city such as, a city where artificial humans run rampant and a place where affluent planners dwell in pleasure gardens respectively. These narratives were different in the past, but now those at the top of the social ladder dictate the history of the city.
This can be seen in Metropolis as the workers that built the urban environment are essentially erased as they are hidden underground out of sight. Black Panther suggests that the history in the city holds significant importance as new architecture is built amongst old instead of on top of it and none of the citizens are hidden out of sight.
However, if we continue to think of ruins as intangible historical, and political items as opposed to physical architectural objects, it is interesting to think that past historical ruins of Africa are non-existent in Golden City.
Although Wakanda is removed from Western atrocities, it is apparent that in the film transatlantic slavery still existed. This is shown when main antagonist Killmonger says "bury me in the ocean, with my ancestors that jumped from the ships, because they knew death was better than bondage."
It appears that Black slave history isn’t present in Golden City which begs the question of whether Wakanda needed to be directly affected by it in order to reference it within the city, seeing as its neighboring countries were hugely impacted by the slave trade.
It seems counterintuitive that science fiction is characterised as being "a boundless field of possibilities competing to be materialized,"12 yet an African sci-fi film like Black Panther was only released in 2018. Despite decades of sci-fi film production, it appears filmmakers have struggled in the past to fathom cities like Golden City.
Before Black Panther, a plethora of films akin to Metropolis and Blade Runner dominated the industry with western ideals characterising the city. Aspects such class division, verticality and hierarchical structures of power greatly informed the character of the city. Black Panther challenges each of these aspects and in turn creates a new political, social and economic framework for non-western cities in sci-fi film.
The city is an amalgamation of technological, historical and architectural aspects of the urban landscape in sci-fi film. However, many writers such as Philip K. Dick "tend to conceive the future in the same terms as the past," Amy Frearson, Editor-at-Large at Dezeen, noted in an article. This ultimately limits the scope and breadth of the design of the city within the genre.
Nevertheless, the success of this 200-million-dollar film and the depiction of the futuristic African city, has now placed Afrofuturism in the spotlight as an ever-growing force in design, architecture and fashion.
Golden City frees Africa from its colonial past and creates a new narrative for cities which challenges the western vision of the city in sci-fi film. Black Panther as a whole is a source of empowerment, hope and desire for a better future. It doesn’t only reimagine the city in sci-fi film but has now created a platform for other futuristic non-western city depictions within the genre. Black Panther can become the harbinger for a new cultural shift in sci-fi film and allow for non-Eurocentric depictions of the city to be more prevalent.
"Wakanda will no longer watch from the shadows,"13 as sci-fi film is dominated by western depictions of the city and as a result, the future Golden City’s depiction of the city in sci-fi film will be more impactful than a Vibranium meteor in Eastern Africa.
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- 1. Quentin Meillassoux, Science fiction and extro-science fiction, trans. by Alyosha Edlebi, (Minneapolis: Univocal publishing, 1967)
- 2. ibid
- 3. Keith Johnston
- 4. ibid
- 5. Lien Heidenreich and Sean O’Toole (1st ed.), African Futures : thinking about the future through word and image, (Berlin: Kerber, 2016)
- 6. John R Gold, 'Under Darkened Skies:', The City in Science-fiction Film, Vol. 86. No.4, (2001)
- 7. Anton Kaes, “Metropolis: City, Cinema, Modernity,” in Expressionist Utopias: Paradise, Metropolis, Architectural Fantasy ed. by Timothy O. Benson (Los Angeles; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1993)
- 8. John R Gold, op. cit.
- 9. Stephen Graham, 'Histories of the future in urban science fiction', in Vertical Noir(: Informa UK Limited, 2016)
- 10. A. Scott
- 11. John R. Gold
- 12. Lien Heidenreich and Sean O'Toole
- 13. Quote from T’Challa from the the final scenes of Black Panther