CinemaTech is Eric Emin Wood’s periodic look at how pop culture depicts the world of tech.
There are many elements to love about Black Panther, the latest action extravaganza from Marvel Studios – a stacked cast that includes a tech guru who puts James Bond’s Q to shame and the toughest screen general since Gladiator’s Maximus; the Afrofuturist production design; a memorable Kendrick Lamar-produced soundtrack – but I think my personal favourite is its villain, who has a legitimate bone to pick with the movie’s heroes – and I would write that even if I didn’t cover the tech industry for a living.
Warning: Spoilers follow after the break.
We first meet Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) not as the muscular, heavily scarred U.S. mercenary who challenges protagonist T’Challa, king of the fictional African nation of Wakanda, for the throne, but as a child playing basketball in Black Panther co-writer/director Ryan Coogler’s hometown of Oakland, Calif., where he witnesses the outline of a Wakandan ship leaving his apartment after his uncle (and T’Challa’s father) kills Erik’s father, N’Jobu (Sterling K. Brown), for smuggling Wakandan resources out of the country.
Never mind that the kill was in self-defense; Erik didn’t know that. Instead, he probably grew up experiencing the type of systemic racism that would lead him to believe, like 52 per cent of black Americans, that too often the American Dream is little more than a myth, perpetuated by a majority-white upper class that stacks the deck of the world economy in its favour.
Erik also grew up knowing that in the shadows, an African upper class in the form of Wakanda, which presents itself to the world as the poster child of a malnourished developing nation, was hiding underneath shields as advanced as anything seen in Star Wars (or, since this is Marvel, Guardians of the Galaxy), refusing to use its space-age technology to reshuffle that deck in favour of the other side.
So when the adult Killmonger challenges T’Challa for Wakanda’s throne, he’s not seeking power for its own sake, but to right an historic wrong, by demanding that Wakanda use its technology to level the playing field for his African brethren across the globe.
If Killmonger’s dispute with Wakanda sounds familiar, it should: too often, while showcasing the most eye-catching, game-changing, and just plain head-scratching technology developers are now offering the world, and preaching the need for businesses to embrace digital transformation, the tech-savvy writers of ITWC forget (and I’m more than guilty of this myself) the most obvious barrier to its adoption: Most of this stuff is freakin’ expensive.
And so we shouldn’t be surprised when it’s revealed that fewer than 25 per cent of Canadian companies will invest in AI between now and 2020, or that more than half of Canada’s private businesses are essentially burying their heads in the sand by assuming emerging technologies won’t affect their businesses, despite plenty of research indicating that digital transformation is both an inescapable reality and pays off.
One might conclude, in fact, that if the service providers who preach its gospel are so eager for more companies to ride on the digital transformation train, they could contribute by making it easier to buy a ticket.
The typical response to this criticism, and it’s one that T’Challa’s late father, T’Chaka (John Kani) articulates in Black Panther, is that by sharing your technology, or money, or power with those who don’t possess it, the overly generous innovators and Wakandan kings of the world ultimately lose the advantages they earned in the first place, and are left crying for support.
That response, of course, also sounds like a certain reality television star’s zero-sum approach to U.S. trade, and while Coogler hasn’t explicitly called Black Panther a political film, he knew he was breaking ground by directing the first film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe without a white lead, and has acknowledged the movie’s central conflict as an allegory for, if not the U.S., at least the despots who (often with American support) frequently control Africa’s rich mineral resources, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s supply of coltan.
(Just as coltan is essential to the manufacturing of smartphones, Wakanda’s technology is powered by its supply of a fictional superconductor known as vibranium).
And so Black Panther preaches a different approach, one halfway between T’Chaka’s strict isolationism and Killmonger’s forced militarism.
While Killmonger ultimately loses – we’ve already seen Black Panther in the trailer for Avengers: Infinity War, after all – he controls Wakanda for long enough to convert a significant portion of its military to his cause, and to leave T’Challa with no doubt in his mind that, while using Wakandan weaponry to attack New York City, London, and Hong Kong isn’t likely to lead to a more equitable world (he might be the hero of his own story, but Killmonger is still the villain of a Marvel movie), isolating Wakanda isn’t the answer either. And so in the first of the film’s two end credit sequences, T’Challa pledges to share his country’s technology with the world.
The film is admittedly fuzzy on T’Challa’s exact plans – perhaps he could take the Salesforce approach, allowing non-profits to use its products at a steep discount? – and future sequels could easily see Wakanda pay a heavy price for defending Earth from the likes of Infinity War’s Thanos.
But I think the tech sector can take Black Panther’s lesson at face value and, unlike Donald Trump, assume that real life is not a zero-sum game.