To the Ancestral Plane: African Spiritism in Ryan Coogler's Black Panther (Marvel Studios, 2018) and the Desensitization to Spiritualism in Hollywood

By Morris, Lleuella | Journal of Pan African Studies, August 2018 | Go to article overview

To the Ancestral Plane: African Spiritism in Ryan Coogler's Black Panther (Marvel Studios, 2018) and the Desensitization to Spiritualism in Hollywood


Morris, Lleuella, Journal of Pan African Studies


To the conservative Christians, Black Panther's display of African spiritism is blatant and jarring against the backdrop of grassroot Black empowerment. Just like the vibranium interwoven into the soil and life force of Wakanda, the Black Panther movie is infused with rich Black power, authenticity, and inspiration, and this infuses the viewer. Coogler and Cole serve up food for the Black soul, and it can only be hoped that we can imbibe it in a way that powers and sustains us individually and as a people much like their innovative shrewdness sustains the Wakandans.

I was shocked to learn that the name "Wakanda" may not be African at all but rather Native American and it refers to god (1) or the worship of nature. This is symbolic of what we may expect as we peel back the layers of the film. Spiritism is rife in the plot through conjuring, embodying, crossing over, and rite of initiation.

As a dark skinned Guyanese woman and a child of the hapless Trans-Atlantic diaspora, I am proud of my rich Africanness. For instance, Danai Gurira's Okoye, General of the Dora Milaje, is meant, I suppose, as an ode to me, to activate dark skinned Black women like myself; and it was an honour that two of my fellow Afro-Guyanese had roles in the film, one of whom played the technological genius and smart-mouthed Shuri, sister and handler of King T'Challa, to critical acclaim.

Notwithstanding, I am also a devout Christian with traditional Christian values. This provides the lens through which I filter the world. Black Panther is no exception. I do not embrace spiritualism and I am painfully aware that the world is going into the direction of mainstreaming spiritualism. While many people claim that they are not religious, ironically, they practice spirituality religiously. An editor at Religious Link blog noted that "many Americans--especially young people--who shun traditional expressions of faith are attracted to religious messages and symbols, most often in popular culture... perhaps most overt in the superhero figures who are migrating from comic books to movies and television." (2)

In the movie, spiritualism first appears in the flashback, when King T'Chaka appears in California to his unprepared brother N'Jobu who he confronts as a traitor. Two Dora Milaje officers appear in N'Jobu's apartment and once he confirms his identity, conjure the king with a synchronised tap of their spears. Conjuring powerful beings is a major part of Pan-African religious practice. It was a norm to invoke powerful forces for "the prediction of the future, the explanation of the unknown, and the control of nature, persons, and events... African priests and practitioners were specially trained and empowered to access the supernatural by engaging in ritual discourse with divinities and ancestors and by receiving revelation" according to Yvonne Chireau. (3) In her exploration of religious elements in nineteenth-century African American magic, Chireau recounted the story of one of the most "scholarly and noted" African American clergy who had become utterly discouraged after several failed attempts to attract new worshippers to his congregation. Unexpectedly one day, while praying in his study, a little conjurer came in and whispered to him that he needed a "hand," and that the conjurer could fix him something which would ensure his success. He accepted the "hand" which was a "small, homemade talisman" charm, and found to his surprise that his church was full the very next week and was overflowing every Sunday for the next four years. (4)

The second instance of spiritualism is at the ritual battle at the waterfalls for the rulership of Wakanda. "During the Warrior Falls scene, we see Nakia dancing and her father praising what might possibly be a water deity." (5) Moreover, it becomes apparent that T'Challa is actually possessed with the spirit of the Black Panther after he drinks the potion that Zuri administers which ritually strips him of his powers. …

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