The highly anticipated debut of the film Black Panther busted box office records over the weekend. And it’s fueled a larger conversation about what a city designed by black residents for black residents could be.
No fictional city has inspired quite as much real-world urbanist dialogue in recent memory since the future Los Angeles depicted in Her—which, it should be noted, was called out for its lack of residents of color. Indeed, the Afrofuturism of Wakanda is starkly different from the mostly white future society of Her.
Fact. The urban part of Wakanda looked nothing like the Tokyo version of futuristic cities I keep seeing, and I loved that about it. https://t.co/tuEMnJXmgd— Paola Mata (@PaolaNotPaolo) February 19, 2018
In fact, Wakanda’s capital of Birnin Zana, is like no other city of the future depicted on screen: It’s lush, textural, and tactical, with a rich variety of architectural styles, building densities, and transportation systems, envisioned by production designer Hannah Beachler.
— Aaron Foley (@aaronkfoley) February 18, 2018
The kingdom of Wakanda depicted in the film is, according to the movie’s director, Ryan Coogler, actually based on a real place: The African empire of Mutapa, which was a powerful trade center encompassing the present-day countries of Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and Zambia from the 1400s to late 1700s.
“A future that Tony Stark never could have dreamed of.” https://t.co/yvPEfOhbch— Broderick Greer (@BroderickGreer) February 17, 2018
So Wakanda not only has buildings that are heavily inspired by traditional African architecture—“Timbuktu scaffolding and Mali pyramids”—it also features incredibly sophisticated urban technology. Wakanda’s economy is fueled by the mining of a valuable mineral, vibranium, and therefore is the most tech-savvy society in the world.
But instead of the typical tropes seen in cinematic cities of the future—sleek glass towers of uniform height—Wakanda shows not a master-planned, top-down metropolis but a type of grassroots urbanism where the residents have customized their structures and their communities to fit their needs.
As an urbanist, I loved how Black Panther world-builders subverted Anglo urban planning norms, featuring 'informal' aesthetics of self-built housing and market-places as advanced, peaceful, prosperous rather than backward and lacking.— Tucker Landesman (@yosoytucker) February 18, 2018
There was also great praise for human-scale streets, walkable urbanism, and a rapid transit system that closely resembles a hyperloop—or maybe a mag-lev train.
I don’t really understand how the trains work in terms of where they stop, etc, but the pedestrian streets and building density in Wakanda are fantastic!— Yonah Freemark (@yfreemark) February 19, 2018
The story itself is told through a black cultural framework—including a plot point that hinges on how to preserve the majority-black city. As Brentin Mock writes at CityLab, Wakanda brings to life the aspirations of the “Chocolate City,” a concept that gained popularity alongside the Afrofuturist movement:
If you’ve ever wondered what kind of innovation and wealth black people could produce had they never been subjected to the decimating forces of colonialism, slavery, lynching, Jim Crow, mass incarceration, second-class citizenship, and racial segregation, Wakanda is it.
The film has also renewed calls to use Afrofuturism as a tool for urban planning, with people encouraging viewers to explore other black worlds in science fiction with the goal of bringing their ideals to reality.
Anyone looking to expand their Afrofuturism knowledge and jump back into a sci fi African filled world after experiencing the world of Wakanda, should definitely look into Nnedi Okorafor books on this exact subject matter. You won't be disappointed. #Wakanda #BlackPanther pic.twitter.com/MOHf3j6dbI— James (@JadesJa) February 18, 2018
The depiction of a black utopia has spawned its own hashtag #InWakanda, where people cast elements of real-life cities in this Wakandan future. Some are funny, while some contain powerful ideas.
MLK is always the nicest road in town #InWakanda— #LilDaddyInTheRomper (@GoHomeRyanJ) February 12, 2018
While the film represents a defining moment for Black America, as Carvell Wallace writes in a beautiful piece for the New York Times Magazine, Black Panther is also meant to offer a vision for an urban future that for many city-builders is just imagination. “It isn’t just the idea that black people will exist in the future, will use technology and science, will travel deep into space,” he writes. “It is the idea that we will have won the future.”