Killmonger’s breath is hanging on a thread, his life bleeding out from the blade stuck to his chest, the sun is setting a golden honey glow over Wakanda and as both characters watch from the edge of the cliff romanticising over the vast beauty of their motherland, T’Challa suggests it is not too late to save his antagonist cousin’s life. With no pause and no hesitation Killmonger replies hastily with his dying breath: “Nah, bury me in the ocean with my ancestors that jumped from the ships. Because they knew death was better than bondage”
I was slapped back to reality with the weight of these lines, and realised that Wakanda, even though representing the potential of African nations, is just a fictional land. I immediately re-evaluated the whole film analysing the subtexts and putting together the message I felt director, Ryan Coogler was trying to teach us the spectators. By doing so, I was able to see the whole picture and I was struck with a message that many might have missed. Yet, I believe many did take that which they can relate to.
The political weight of this movie is beyond what I expected. Although, Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther is a political exploration of the past and present experience of black people, the themes of colonisation, oppression and exploitation is woven in such a liberal satirical fashion, around a core message that is entrenched with contemporary importance.
To begin with, we ought to dissect Wakanda as it is the foundation for the main narrative. Wakanda as you may well know from the film, is a mystical and fictional country set in Africa and cloaked from the rest of the world. An African civilization thriving from Vibranium, a metal with extra-terrestrial origins which fell from space in the form of a meteorite as shown in the animation that opened the film. Wakanda, is untouched by the evils of colonialism and prospering technologically with its own resources. While there might be tension between some of the tribes presented, through their own form of democracy they have been able to avert civil war.
This alternate vision of Africa that Coogler presents questions the viewers with: What would Africa be like if it uses its own resources for its people? And in looking to answer such question, I looked at the present condition of Africa only to find a perfect juxtaposition of Wakanda. Vibranium, advanced technology and an untouched Africa contrasted with Cobalt and an underdeveloped, exploited Africa.
Cobalt, which you may not be aware of, is a chemical element and one of the key ingredients in Lithium-Ion batteries which can be found in every smart phone and electrical vehicles. Due to the contemporary acceptance of a sustainable electric future, the demand for cobalt has become high. Though this prospect of the future is great, it is causing undesirable ethical challenges for those who dwell on the lands that cobalt is mined from.
I do not have to elucidate the effect caused by the rising demand of cobalt, we are all well aware that the wealth of the Western world was and is built on Africa’s exploitation. Crude oil, land, precious metals and so, which should be blessings for a nation has and continues to be a curse. In the same way, cobalt which is in high demand has become a curse and a burden; child labour, poor working conditions and under payment is the headline. In 2012, UNICEF estimated that in Southern DRC (Democratic Republic of the Congo) over 40,000 children work in the mines which makes up one third of the total number of workers. A staggering and disgusting figure that takes into account girls and boys ages between 5 to 14 years of age.
Head of business and human rights at Amnesty, Seema Joshi, states that as the demand for cobalt continues to rise, companies profiting from cobalt “have a responsibility to prove that they are not profiting from the misery of miners working in terrible conditions.” This statement, frankly, lacks the conviction that much is been done to put pressure on those companies profiting on cobalt to comply with international due diligence standards.
Are we the people supposed to rise against these companies? Should we boycott the things we are addicted to?
Though I shy away from being a fan boy – Apple is the first company to act. Stating in their 2017 Supplier Responsibility report that they “remain vigilant about eliminating underage labour” and that “there’s absolutely no excuse for anyone under legal working age” to be working in their supply chain. Even going the distance, Apple has decided to go straight to the source to buy cobalt from the mines making it easier to control their supply chain and eliminating third-party suppliers such as Zheijang Huayou Cobalt who are the main suppliers to the large electronic companies.
While I give cautious credit to Apple, what are companies such as Samsung and Tesla doing to ensure that the cobalt used in their Lithium-Ion batteries are mined ethically? Maybe it’s time we start a social campaign to put pressure on these companies. Let us not forget that the guilt is not just on them but on our hands too as we are those who continue to use the technologies powered by Lithium-Ion batteries that contain cobalt which might have been mined unethically.
Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, is barely a story about a black comic book superhero in super-tech latex. Coogler’s Black Panther is the story of cobalt though fictionalized to have a blockbuster impact on the viewers. You have seen the film, there’s no need to expect a review from me. What you must do now is up to you. If we do not put pressure on these companies the child labour will continue and lives will be lost.
Christopher Omale is a photographer, writer, and filmmaker and holds keen interests in culture, arts, and international relations.