Wakanda Chic

Black Panther has turned Twitter and Instagram into an Afrofuturistic visual feast.

Twitter bird in African patterns.
Photo illustration by Slate. Images by Thinkstock and Twitter.

Black Panther looks like almost no other Hollywood film, and not just because of its primarily black cast. Director Ryan Coogler’s inspired and heavily researched Afrofuturistic aesthetic furnishes his blockbuster with a visual vocabulary we seldom see in mass entertainment, encompassing costume design, hair design, body art, gadgets, architecture, rituals, customs, even sunsets (apparently the most beautiful in the world). Sometimes the superhero movie’s unique beauty feels like a rebuke: This is the kind of Afrocentric palette we could’ve experienced all along if black artists were given the creative leeway and giant budgets to realize their vision. (Black Panther’s reported $200 million production budget is the second biggest allotted to a black American filmmaker, after the one for F. Gary Gray’s The Fate of the Furious.) No wonder, then, that Black Panther’s record-breaking box office has been accompanied by a flood of tributes to the fictional culture of Wakanda on social media.

Black Panther became an internet phenomenon at least eight months before its release. But the film’s opening weekend, when fans had a chance to actually see the movie, unleashed a torrent of online appreciation that served to normalize the Afrofuturist glam on screen. Movies and TV shows often serve as mimesis machines, of course, fostering desires within viewers to replicate in their own lives what they see characters do and feel. Social media has made that process more transparent, visible, and prompt while providing ordinary users the space and the social matrices to champion traditionally devalued cultures. And if the internet is often accused of shortening people’s memories, it’s also become clear that social media elongates the tail of impactful cultural products’ influence. (This is why we’ll probably talk about ’90s Disney princesses until every last millennial is in the ground.)

African and African-inspired fashion has been the most conspicuous salute to Wakanda on Twitter and Instagram. Many black moviegoers, in groups small and large, have mounted what Racked called a “celebration of African fashion.” There remains some controversy over whether black Americans donning African tribal clothing and accessories (and then posting it to Twitter) counts as intra-black cultural appropriation. But a month after President Donald Trump reportedly denigrated African nations as “shithole countries,” it feels potent, if not critical, to see celebrities and everyday folks alike display pride in and admiration for sub-Saharan cultural achievements. While African chic has been available in many different iterations for decades, a global blockbuster superpowered by adoration and goodwill gives those styles a different and more accessible kind of cachet, for better or for worse. The dissemination of that African chic via social media amplifies its allure and adaptability further beyond Black Panther fans. Don’t be surprised if Black Panther sparks a larger fashion movement in Western countries in the way Mad Men launched a craze for midcentury furniture far beyond the prestige drama’s relatively tiny viewership.

The other visual from the movie already taking off is the Wakanda Forever crossing of arms, which seems to largely take the place of hugs and goodbye waves in Black Panther’s hidden technopolis. Like the black-power raised fist (also seen among Black Panther audiences this past weekend), the X arms allowed fans (even Will Smith!) to salute the film’s visual ingenuity and perhaps its show of black solidarity, without going so far as painting their faces as a gesture of fandom—although there’s been a lot of that, too.

Because millennials are still with us, social media continues to be awash in contestations about who Disney princesses are and what they can look like. The informal induction of Shuri (played by newcomer Letitia Wright) into the Disney princess pantheon has been predictably fast and zealous. As a charming scene-stealer—and the rare black female scientist with a substantial role (remember that Hidden Figures is only one movie)—it was inevitable that Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr would claim Shuri in the absence of other characters like her. The proliferation of stills and fan art featuring Black Panther’s other significant female characters, like Lupita Nyong’o’s spy Nakia and Danai Gurira’s general Okoye, shows that the film’s partial mission to showcase black beauty outside the white standards of light skin and straight hair is working. I for one look forward to a lot more GIFs of wigs being torn off fed-up women.

Since copycat-ism seems to be Hollywood’s raison d’être these days, fingers are probably crossed across the nation that the film industry will finally wake up to the fact that audiences do indeed want black and Afrocentric stories. (And female, LGBTQ, Latino, and Asian American movies too, because it’s a big and varied world out there.) But Black Panther—and the yearslong influence it seems destined to have—might well reverberate into a stronger interest in and respect for African history, fashion, and arts across the globe. Based on the enthusiasm on social media, university departments, museum curators, and tourism industries would be remiss in not taking advantage of this opportunity to laud the splendor and diversity of African cultures.

Unfortunately, we’re probably protected in something like the pre-Killmonger Wakanda this week, before the anguished and/or tin-eared think pieces about whether it’s OK to dress up as Black Panther characters for Halloween or Comic-Con—or some other issue that’s much stupider—start dividing fans. So let’s enjoy this celebration of the visual repast that Coogler has provided while we can. And if anyone wants to point me in the direction of armored rhino memes, I am here for all of them.

Read more in Slate about Black Panther.

Inkoo Kang writes about technology and culture for Slate.