From Coltan to Vibranium: How Marvel's Black Panther Mirrors Real-Life Issues in Africa Today
Director Ryan Coogler made a powerful statement on the film's themes.
Marvel films have a tradition of tackling some pretty heavy real-world issues. For example, anyone familiar with NSA scandals over the last decade or so will easily recognize the themes and concepts of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which used fiction to shine a light on contemporary political controversies. If the latest comments on next year's Black Panther are anything to go by, this film is set to stand firmly in that tradition too.
Attendees of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s Annual Legislative Conference were treated to a panel on the upcoming Marvel movie, and director Ryan Coogler made a powerful statement on the film's themes. He explained that the movie would treat vibranium as an analogy for the real-world mineral coltan, which has driven conflict in the Congo.
The Conflict Mineral
Coltan is a dull metallic ore found in the Congo. When refined, it becomes a metal called tantalum, a heat-resistant powder that can hold a high electric charge. It's a vital component in modern capacitors, and is used in almost all laptops, cell phones, and pagers.
Unfortunately, as any academic will tell you, there's a strong correlation between valuable resources and civil wars. In the Congo, controversial U.N. reports have suggested that neighboring countries have been involved in smuggling coltan from the Congo, using the revenues to fund the war. By one estimate, the Rwandan army made at least $250 million over a period of 18 months through the sale of coltan, even though no coltan is mined in Rwanda.
While Coogler has drawn a deliberate parallel between the fictional vibranium and the real-world coltan, he's taken a subtly different approach. In regards to coltan, foreign powers learned of the vital minerals, and the Congolese conflict became far worse. With vibranium however, the Wakandans discovered the mineral themselves. The movie imagines an African nation where the tribe who run the area had discovered the mineral, capitalized on it, and then rejected the rest of the world, using it to their advantage. Instead of plunging the area into civil war, the discovery of vibranium was used by the Wakandans to create a strong, peaceful nation. As Coogler noted:
"We asked ourselves, did the Vibranium make Wakandans special, or were Wakandans already something special and made something of vibranium? We decided it was the Wakandans."
Avengers: Age of Ultron revealed that vibranium smuggling has already become a career choice for dangerous men like Ulysses Klaue. Historically, Andy Serkis's character even enslaved Wakandans to man illegal mines, but was discovered and defeated by the Black Panther. Unfortunately for Wakanda, Age of Ultron then demonstrated to the world just how powerful and useful a mineral like vibranium could be. Meanwhile, governments are no doubt shovelling money into research projects to create planetary defenses after the Chitauri invasion of New York. Vibranium would be very useful indeed.
We already know that Black Panther will involve an international conspiracy working to unseat T'Challa, aiming to help Killmonger take the throne. Killmonger may think he's trying to restore Wakanda's isolationist ways, but the world powers will have only one objective; to destabilize Wakanda in order to acquire the nation's vibranium mines. There are definite real-world parallels here, although the context is different; the Congo was already in a state of unrest when the world realized how valuable coltan could be.
Ryan Coogler's hope is that Black Panther will be a film that leaves a strong impact. The panelists were united in their desire that the movie would spark debate, and that it would inspire a renewed interest in science and technology. They even held out hope that it could transform the tourist industry of the African continent, encouraging African Americans to visit after seeing a respectful glimpse of a heritage that's never been shown properly on the big screen before. With all those hopes, it's particularly impressive that Coogler has chosen to pay equal attention to the darker issues of Africa as well.