Comment: A fantasy film with more truth than Thanksgiving myth

Where our Thanksgiving myth obscures the history of colonialism, ‘Wakanda Forever’ explores its legacy.

By A. S. Dillingham / Special To The Washington Post

Spoiler alert: This essay contains references to new characters and plot lines in “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.”

In 1609, the Spanish crown sent a colonial expedition force to put down a rebel community looting caravans along the camino real, the royal trade route, in what was then the colony of New Spain. The community had probably formed in the late 1500s and was led by Gaspar Yanga, an escaped enslaved person. Over the next few decades, the group settled in the mountains near Orizaba, Veracruz, creating a home for people of African descent who had freed themselves and local Indigenous people.

When Spanish forces arrived, Yanga, as the town would come to be called, defended its freedom fiercely. Outgunned, they relied on guerrilla tactics to resist the forces of colonialism, retreating into the mountains before engaging Spanish forces again. Led by an Angolan, Francisco de la Matosa, and with little more than a handful of firearms, bows and arrows and stones, Yanga fought colonial forces to a standstill. The Spanish ultimately agreed to respect Yanga’s autonomy. And for decades, Yanga existed as a liberated space of Black and Indigenous freedom.

These inspiring and dramatic events are not fantasy, they are part of the historical record. And while Marvel’s new film, “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” is very much a fantasy, it teaches us much about the real history of European conquest of the Americas and consequences of colonialism.

Indeed, “Wakanda Forever” educates us more about that history than our Thanksgiving myth. That story involves a shared meal between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoags in 1621 and emphasizes peaceful coexistence rather than the reality of colonial violence. “Wakanda Forever” foregrounds European conquest of the continent. And through fantasy, the film gestures to the very real historical experiences of Black and Indigenous resistance to colonialism.

In “Wakanda Forever,” we are introduced to a new character, Namor or Ku’ku’lkán, an anti-hero who leads an underwater civilization, Talokan. That civilization’s origins are in the early days of Spanish colonialism, in which Mayan societies suffered war, disease and slavery at the hands of conquistadors. Ku’ku’lkán emerges from this moment. And while he is a villain, he is also a powerful, charismatic figure whose backstory reveals the violence and destruction of European colonialism. Indeed, the underwater society he builds, a beautiful, complex and proud civilization, considers itself at war with the dominant powers above ground. Ku’ku’lkán is played by Mexican actor Tenoch Huerta Mejía, who has been an advocate for dark-skinned people in Mexico, often termed “prietos.”

That question of representation, of who is included or excluded from Hollywood, is central to “Wakanda Forever” and its significance. The franchise has been powered by a community of Black professionals, including the director, Ryan Coogler, and writer, Joe Roberts Cole. Collectively they have created an immersive, Black world.

In “Wakanda Forever,” they leverage that world to give visibility to Indigenous peoples, who far too often have been marginalized in Hollywood as token sidekicks to white protagonists. “Wakanda Forever” portrays a resilient, sophisticated Indigenous civilization. The film, which consulted with multiple Mayan scholars, includes sustained dialogue in Mayan, a language family of upward of 6 million speakers spread across Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and elsewhere.

Yucatec Mayan is featured prominently in the film, not just in the dialogue but also in the soundtrack. The playlist includes music from Black and Indigenous artists, from Mexican corridos to rap. There are standout tracks from Indigenous artists, including Vivir Quintana’s haunting “Árboles bajo el mar,” which features Zapotec rapper Mare Advertencia Lirika. This representation matters, as it centers, in a big-budget Hollywood film, languages and cultures that have survived more than 500 years of colonization.

But, the combination of Black and Indigenous worlds also speaks to a potential “anti-imperialist alliance,” and this is where the fiction captures a historical reality.

European conquest of the western hemisphere (including North America, the Caribbean and Latin America) and Indigenous civilizations went hand in hand with the transatlantic slave trade. We know as many as 12.5 million people from the African continent were brought to the Americas in chains. European powers, from the Dutch and the English to the Spanish, Portuguese and French, all engaged in this trade. Dispossessed Indigenous lands were turned over to plantation economies in which enslaved Africans labored and often perished. This meant Native peoples and African descended peoples both confronted a colonial project bent on their destruction and subjugation.

And yet, during this time, there were moments of collaboration and community building, such as that of Yanga. But there were also fraught relations between those who were pitted against each other by colonial powers. Native peoples might provide refuge for those fleeing slavery, but they could also be found adopting similar systems of chattel slavery, particularly in what would become the U.S. southeast. It is a long, complicated, intertwined history not yet fully understood. But it was crucial to the development of our modern world.

And so, by building two Black and Indigenous civilizations, Wakanda and Talokan, “Wakanda Forever” imagines alternative responses to a world dominated by western imperial powers.

In the film, these two civilizations navigate a global context bent on their destruction, but they do not find common cause in that struggle. Indeed, watching scenes of violence between Ku’ku’lkán and the leaders of Wakanda can be hard, triggering even, for those who have lived through conflicts among Black and Indigenous communities.

But the film also shows the potential of solidarity, revealed in a failed alliance between Wakanda and Talokan.

It is in this sense, that “Wakanda Forever” speaks to this shared history in the Americas. It does not depict (at least not yet) an alliance of oppressed peoples, but it identifies a central truth of our continent and our present world: the oppression and exploitation of Black and Indigenous peoples and their complex but constant efforts to resist colonialism.

Fictional stories can either obscure or clarify history. As historian Phillip Deloria has pointed out, our national holiday, Thanksgiving, centers a myth more than historical fact. A meal was shared in 1621 but that is about all that the national mythology gets right. Instead, it obscures the grim reality of conquest. It obscures how conquest was a hemispheric process, in which different European nations sought the land, labor and resources of the Americas. The national myth also obscures the reality; that this country, but also the hemisphere more broadly, was founded on the dispossession of Native land and the enslavement of African labor.

Our Thanksgiving myth serves to obscure historical reality whereas fantasy, in “Wakanda Forever,” allows us to reckon with historical trauma and imagine alternative futures. The Black and Indigenous rebels of Yanga are worth us remembering precisely because they allow us to imagine a future in which solidarity overcomes divisions imposed by colonialism.

A. S. Dillingham is a tribal member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and teaches history at Arizona State University. He is the author of “Oaxaca Resurgent: Indigeneity, Development, and Inequality in Twentieth-Century Mexico.

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