Op-Ed
Photo illustration by Aaron Leaf.

We've Seen a Glimpse of Wakanda in Real Life—The Haitian Revolution

An essay on how the world's first black republic is as close to Marvel's fictional kingdom as we get.

As Marvel Studios prepares for the debut of Black Panther next February, the fandom of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has grown increasingly, where newfound fans are eager to dive into both the storyline and world of the Wakandan king and warrior.

Wakanda, an isolated kingdom in Africa, plays a large role in both the awe and mystery of the Black Panther franchise, which made its debut in 1977 as a project of the famous comic author and artist, Jack Kirby. Wakanda and its people are identified as a mysterious and very isolated culture. From the outside, Wakanda is a perfect blend of Africa's diverse culture, yet is only a backdrop for a people so technologically advanced, they'd prefer isolation than to invite the rest of the world in.


Wakanda and its overall depiction can fit into the mold of a wide range of representations in itself, both historically and figuratively. It is the home to Marvel's fictional metal, vibranium, a highly-sought and durable metal that is the base of the Wakandan science and the mythical Black Panther's existence.

In vibranium, we see a sacred natural resource that clothes T'Challa in his warrior form. Vibranium may very well represent the ancestral token of history, legacy, and tradition that has its origin in the motherland that has spread so far across the globe, that it soon becomes the base of Captain America's shield. While it is a base for a good theory, Black Panther coming to life on the big screen has already proven to be a guaranteed box office success, as well as a great start to cultural theories on what it would take for a real world Wakanda to come into existence.

Now more than ever, Black Panther is easily one of the most talked about characters in comic-to-movie adaptations. Among internet users, Wakanda is pointed as the reimagined Greenwood neighborhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma, commonly known as "Black Wall Street," which was destroyed by a mob of white residents in 1921. Especially for millennials today, Black Wall Street stands as the widely popular example of that economically independent and resourceful Black community that is almost utopian in theory. If ever established again, such a city or town would be a modern-day, real life Wakanda.

But history may arguably point to Haiti as that example of successful establishment, and a history of fiercely rising to represent Blackness. Haiti accomplished the first and only successful slave revolt in the history of the world. Of all his great empires in Europe and the Mediterranean, Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte's Army was defeated with precision by an island full of resilient slaves.

For Haitian culture and for the African Diaspora, this moment should be empowering, except Haiti, much like Wakanda, is isolated in its position in the West. Most notably, Haiti is constantly referred to as the "poorest country in the Western Hemisphere." So, how would Haiti be the closest thing we've ever had to Wakanda?

Haiti achieving independence on January 1, 1804 sparked the beginning of a very rich history full of difficult choices many leaders, who might identify with T'Challa, had to make. Since Wakanda is depicted as a well-established kingdom, Haiti's early leaders pioneered the symbols and representations at a time when they had not even existed yet. What form of government would they uptake in their early fledgling form as a country? Would they return to their regionally based kingdoms of their Taino ancestors, or would they establish a government form of their own?

The decision had to be made with the looming fear of the French military forces returning, which not only added pressure, but also gave reason to fight fire with fire. If the French runs an almighty empire, then Haiti, too, will be an empire. The First Empire of Haiti ran from 1804 to 1806 and it took a historical backseat to the also newly-formed United States, who were also nervous of the return of the British Army.

It's highly important to note that the Haitian Empire under Emperor Jacques I (better known as Jean-Jacques Dessalines) established a uniformity in identity among those on the island. "Black" became the universal identifier for all Haiti's citizens, regardless of color of skin. Further, white men were not permitted to own any property. Emperor Jacques I's Haiti was, with all intents and purposes, unapologetically Afrocentric. This empire set to prepare rigid guidelines, ready for the possibility of France's return to reimpose slavery, and so conducted itself in the best interests of its Black and Brown brothers and sisters. Unfortunately, just as we'll see in Black Panther, Jacques' authority was challenged, ending in his assassination by his advisors Henry Christophe and Alexander Petione.

Such challenges of leadership and authority is seen in plots across Hollywood's most recognized metaphors for Black culture. In X-Men, Charles Xavier and Magneto; in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, we see Caesar and Koba, and in Black Panther we see T'Challa and Erik Killmonger. For Haiti, post-Dessalines, it is Christophe and Petione—successors who would establish two sides: the Kingdom of Haiti versus the Republic of Haiti. Both sides justified in their conflicts, yet tragically unable to see eye-to-eye, they referred often to governmental structures they had come to understand from Europe. Rather than inclusion, as we see with T'Challa and Killmonger, the split nation conflicted on what kind of government to establish.

View of The Citadelle Laferrière, a castle built by King Henry Christophe in the Kingdom of Haiti, which now sits 3,000 ft above sea level overseeing the North. Photo by Remi Kaupp (2006) via Wikimedia Commons.

So, where is the utopia, then? Haiti was able to reunite and settle its internal conflicts for small periods of peace, but continued to be faced with challenges stemming specifically from isolation as the first and only. Haiti's largest conflicts, however, came from within. A chronology of how to operate, leading to often bloody coups, revolts, and self-righteous decrees of who should operate. Every time history presented a T'Challa, there was an Erik Killmonger, or M'Baku (widely recognized as Man-Ape in the comics).

So, does Haiti parallel Wakanda? The answer remains yes.

Digging deeper into Wakanda, writer Ta-Nehisi Coates created a world void of slavery, imperialism, colonists, thus making it absolutely untouched. Wakanda does not depict a world isolated simply by geography, but by Eurocentricity in economics, tradition, ideology, and practice. Haiti and every black or brown country and culture did not have such a luxury in their early history, and many are only celebrating upward to 50 years of independence.

The Jack Kirby's Black Panther and Wakanda of 1960s origin, however, was different. Instead, Black Panther was an international detective, looking to venture out and often times return artifacts to Wakanda, or help characters such as Mr. Little make sense of these items and their origins, as seen in Black Panther #16: King Solomon's Frog (Jan. 1977).

Black Panther #08 by Jack Kirby.Illustration via Flickr/Creative Commons.

Haiti has been the example for many other countries across the globe to fight for independence. In fact, is has been documented that countries such as the United States, Britain, and Spain purposely kept news of Haiti's revolt a secret, fearing that slaves in their colonies and lands would be inspired to revolt as well. In addition, Haiti remained the slave nation, a nation not worthy of commercial exchange or trade.

In George Washington's Policy Towards the Haitian Revolution, it is noted that "the successful black uprising caused a crisis in the Washington Administration because extensive commerce...and the racial stability in the South." While Haiti holds many historical superlatives, the one most widely repeated is its chronic poverty, and its place as the "poorest country in the Western Hemisphere."

So, if Wakanda were real, where would it be placed in our history books? What superlative, among many, would be widely recognized and repeated?

Much like the isolation we learn of in Marvel's kingdom, Haiti's history has been isolated as well as shrouded by its misperceptions. When there is the unknown, iconic legend and lore arise; where there is resilience and faith, discussions of magic and myth; and lastly, where there is rich history, there is doubt that should a place can exist in our Western Eurocentric society.

Marvel does a very adequate job of depicting very real world, human conflicts in its movies. The Erik Killmonger school of thought, which is upset at T'Challa's embracing of non-Black, White American outsiders would be a real world conflict in a country like Wakanda and even in Haiti. However, comparing Wakanda's well-developed tribes, technology, and economy to Haiti's is different. The future, however, looks much different.

Neg Mawon statue in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti.Photo by Kafe Soleil via Flickr/Creative Commons.

Haiti's developments in its economy following the January 2010 earthquake are significant. Reforestation has been in progress, as well as the manufacturing of Surtab, tablets and electronics made and exported from Haiti to boost the economy. Lastly, Haiti has made large scale efforts to recenter its tourism industry.

Whereas the Black Panther sits in the Kingdom of Wakanda, to serve as a reminder of the nameless hero who serves its people from generation to generation, the Neg Mawon statue sits in the Square of Haiti's capital, Port-Au-Prince. It is the reminder of the nameless heroes who represent that freedom as well as the legacy of its people.

When Black Panther premieres in February 2018, there will be an impact felt in nearly all Black communities across the world. Socially, the desire to establish and be a part of Wakanda will grow exponentially. Yet, it may be far too early to determine if the movie's release and plot will have any political impacts. The film is directed by Ryan Coogler, with its superstar cast of Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Oscar-nominated heavy hitters Angela Bassett, Lupita Nyong'o, Forrest Whittaker, Sterling K. Brown, Andy Serkis (Planet of the Apes trilogy), and Martin Freeman. Of the entire cast, Serkis and Freeman are the only non-Black actors. Representation matters.

Alex "Mistah Marvel" Auguste is the owner of a Tampa-based entertainment company, GoodKnocking Entertainment Group, which specializes in both online and local entertainment projects. A second Generation Haitian-American from Miami, Florida, Auguste is a long-time Marvel Comics fan, and has used his internet radio programming and writing platforms for raising awareness of social and historical topics through informative entertainment. Keep up with Alex via his website, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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Photo courtesy of Sam Soko.

Interview: Sam Soko is the Kenyan Director Behind Sundance Hit, 'Softie'

We meet filmmaker Sam Soko who has made a stirring documentary about the Kenyan protest leader Boniface Mwangi

Filmmaker Sam Soko didn't intend on making a documentary about Kenyan photojournalist-turned-politician Boniface Mwangi.

The original idea he had was to make a manual of sorts, a short video guide, on how to protest, the do's and don't's. Soko, himself an activist artist who cut his teeth convincing friends to let him create political music videos for their apolitical songs, knew Mwangi's experience on the streets both photographing protests and staging them meant he had a lot to share with others.

But then came the blood. A thousand litres of it, to be precise. And the pigs. Dozens of them, with words like MPigs written on them. Like the graphic photos Mwangi had become known for taking—it was a sight you couldn't look away from. It was a protest Mwangi organized, in 2013, to decry corrupt members of the Kenyan parliament who had decided to increase their salaries, 2 months after taking office. And at his side, through the thick red liquid of it all, was Mwangi's wife, Njere, ready to be arrested with him.

"Once I was witness to his relationship, I started seeing him as a family man," Soko tells OkayAfrica. "Because he's planning a protest and all, but when you look at the footage, you start seeing the kids and you start seeing Njere. That's when it started hitting me, in the sense, that she was with him in such a crazy space."

Soko formed a creative and activist hub, called PAWA 254, with Mwangi, as they became part of the groundswell demanding democratic reforms in a country still left scarred from the division sewed between Kikuyu and Luo people by British colonizers. "We had a new Constitution at the time, and there was this hope that we finally could picket without being tear-gassed or being beaten, Like, our civil liberties could be held up." Instead, the government strengthened its police force into a notorious organization condemned by human rights activists. "That's very salient in the film," says Soko. "If you see how the police dress, for instance, at the beginning, it's very different; they become more militant towards the end."

Soko's debut feature-length documentary, Softie, which became the first Kenyan film to ever premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, earlier this year, is at once a love story between Mwangi and his wife and their three children, but also between Mwangi and his beloved Kenya, under president Uhuru Kenyatta. Central to the film is the tussle between how these different loves bump up against each other: what comes first — love of country or love of family?

We spoke to the Nairobi-based director about making the film, which opens in virtual cinemas, starting this Friday, September 18th.

Boniface Mwangi with his wife Photo courtesy of Sam Soko


OA: Early on in the film, we learn how steadfast Boniface Mwangi is — he talks about being willing to die for the ideals he believes in, which made me think of Nelson Mandela and his Rivonia Treason Trial speech. Boniface is someone in the present day who still shares this belief?

When we were working on the edit, and kind of crafting and thinking about what the story was going to be, something that we found that was really, really interesting is, with a lot of the stories, like the story of Nelson Mandela, you'd never see the other side. That's something we see later, up ahead, as a retrospective. We'd hear about Martin Luther King and then we'd read about Coretta Scott in, I think, 1990, like, 'Oh, this his was her struggle.' That sort of thing. But for me, Boniface and Njere represented a present day reality struggle that showcases what Mandela was going through, what Martin Luther was going through. That was kind of like unravelling the curtain; when you see Martin Luther marching, Coretta's at home, trying to help their kids do their homework. And this is the reality.

OA: And the film poses that question of love for your country versus love for your family, and which one should come first?

Exactly. They see it in different ways. Boniface sees it that if you improve the country, you improve the lives of those who you love. Njere's like, you have to have your family's back first. And that means everything else comes second. And she's right; she's not wrong. And he's not wrong.

OA: The film really is privy to some really private moments in Mwangi's life — how did you gain his trust?

When we started filming the short video, he was really involved with the protests, and we started doing the protests with him. So we were—quote, unquote—in the trenches with him in the protests, and somehow that's how he kind of welcomed us to his home. When you've been with someone in the streets, and you're tear-gassed together more than once, you already have a common bond. But then I started developing a relationship with him that was beyond the streets. Just checking up on him and asking, what's going on, what's taking place? That sort of thing. I think it took a while. And I think even from Njere, we kind of developed a kind of camaraderie that was separate from my relationship with Boniface, because I would actually be like, 'Hey, he said that, how does that make you feel?' And not necessarily on camera. But over time, he kind of accepted us to be there with a camera. At some point, I kind of felt like they were talking to me, and not necessarily the camera; like, the camera is kind of this thing that's there, but not there. That kind of trust, again, was built on a respect that I have for them and their values and what they're doing. I think that's something they saw. It made them trust me with their story and trust me with their family.

You're the director of the film, but you're also producer, writer and cinematographer. Did Boniface's own style as a photojournalist influence you in any way?

The film has three cinematographers, and a lot of my cinematography is within the intimate moments, because that's when they would only engage with someone they trust. But him being a photographer actually, to a point, made the work a bit hard because he's constantly looking at how you're doing it. He's in your face about the angle. He's like, 'Hey, why are you standing there, you should be there.' But in some places he did help 'cause he's been filming in the streets and filming protests for a very long time. So when you're there filming, he'll easily tell you, 'Dude, don't stand there. They're about to start tear-gassing. Go to the other side.' And it's weird, when you're on the other side and you're filming, and all of a sudden you see tear gas, you wonder, 'How the hell did he know?' You do that 234 times and you start knowing yourself, 'Oh, this is how,' and he was really helpful in that sense.

I can imagine that filming during the protests must have been one of the big challenges of making this film but what else did you struggle with? There were death threats for Mwangi, did that happen to you as well?

It's so funny, when you're filming and when you're in the protests, it's adrenaline talking. So you're not really thinking about whether you're going to be okay. This one time, I got arrested because the cop said I was a spy for the protesters. [We had everything] from cameras breaking to sound equipment messing up, but when it became a more political story, with death threats, it became scary even for editing the film. Because you don't know who's watching you. This one time, I was with him in the car, filming, and we were being followed. So we kind of had to be very careful who we are telling about the story. It was a very deep secret that we were making this film and there are people who are watching it now asking, 'How could you keep this from us from all these years?' Because we had to do that. Especially when the family was in the US. We had to do that for the sake of safety for him, Boniface, for his family but also the film team. I remember doing the pitches with different names. But then we were also lucky that we had our co-producing partner in Canada, Eye Steel Film, so they were able to house the edit there. I went to Canada to edit and that kind of also gives you a kind of freedom to think and work and create. That was the reality, and now I think we have PTSD from the film. I can't film another protest. I'm sorry. I'm out. Like, it tapped me out.

There are similarities to the Black Lives Matter protests here in the US, against police brutality and violence but the slogan takes on a different resonance in places like Kenya, where the police force is particularly heavy-handed. How do you see these protests as being similar but also different?

There are two things that you learn with the film. One, our voices can never be silenced. They will try, but I think humanity is like a pressure cooker. The more you boil us, the more you put that heat, the more explosive we become. And through people like Boniface's life, you see that there are human beings who exist, who do extraordinary things.

The other thing is the idea of activism doesn't necessarily just speak to the person who's on the street. It doesn't necessarily speak to the person who's holding the placard. An activist is someone like Njere and her life, and her family. And Khadija [Mohamed, Mwangi's campaign manager]. She's such a strong and powerful activist in her own right. She was Boniface's campaign manager for free. The work they did was so powerful. And you have these other people in the background who are doing such incredible things. The sum total of what they've done is [to] instigate… We have an election next year, but I am so sure that we are going to have so many candidates who are going to be like, 'We want you to donate to our campaign. We have these values and beliefs; this is what we want to do.' That is how we need to go about change or add on to the conversations of change.

The same thing that's happening with the Black Lives Matters movement. Yes, there are people going to the street and we should keep going to the street. But we need to push people to engage in policy and make sure these policy changes are made.

We need to stand for what we believe in, as filmmakers in spaces where we feel oppression exists. Like the rules that have come out with the Academy Awards, these are rules that should be celebrated because they add on to that conversation of diversity and representation. All these things—that sum total—is what makes the difference. It's going beyond the streets and going beyond our Tweets, going beyond our Facebook messages, making films and sharing films. We just need to keep pumping up the volume, keeping the heat up, keep pushing. It's gonna take a while, but we'll get there.


Photojournalist-turned-politician Boniface Mwangi during a protest in Nairobi, Kenya Photo courtesy of Sam Soko


That's where you as a filmmaker come in—this film was the first Kenyan film to get into Sundance, where it won a special editing prize.

There's another film I'm producing and, and, yes, I had my film at Sundance, that's great. But there's this other filmmaker who's making another film, and it's so cool, and this is the thing—we need to keep bouncing off this energy and this light and this vibe, and just keep pushing and making sure that the wheels keep turning. That's what we're all about.

How do you renew your strength, as a filmmaker but also as a Kenyan and as an African?

Being a Kenyan is hard. I think being an African is hard. Like, it's hard. There's a line I heard Boniface say once: 'I love my country, but I am afraid of my government.' But the way in which, personally, I find energy is when I meet new filmmakers, or you know, people who are like starting out and they want to make films that sound totally crazy. And they believe that they can do it. And I'm like, 'yes, yes, keep going!' We are planning to do a premiere. We have not confirmed the date yet but we're thinking it's around going to be early October in Kenya, because Kenyans haven't watched it. The government gave us an adult rating. They're putting us on the same level as porn.

This is the same government that banned Wanuri Kahiu's Rafiki because of its homosexual theme…

Exactly, that's what we're getting but the lemonade that we've made out of all this is, 'Guess what? This is cinema!' We're going to take it to a cinema. People are going to come to watch it in a cinema or watch it at home or watch it in the best way possible. And the people who've watched it have appreciated it as a film and a story, and their story. They've seen a reflection of themselves. That gives me so much joy because the Kenyans who've watched it, when they give you feedback, they say, this is truth; this is our truth. And they don't see just an activist. They see a couple struggling with love. They see our history in the last 10 years. And they're like, 'What the hell, we lived this?' and they see the things that are unresolved — and many things are unresolved. Seeing that reaction gives me so much strength and hope. But it's hard. It's very hard. Because, you know, you have to wake up and see the policeman getting a bribe. And you're like, 'Homie??'


"SOFTIE" Movie Poster



Watch the trailer for Softie here.

Softie | Official Trailer | A film by Sam Soko www.youtube.com

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