WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD
In 2018, Black Panther hit theaters and became a phenomenon unlike anything Marvel had released before. As the first Black-led superhero film, it was a cultural reset. Black audiences were flocking to theaters in droves, Black celebrities were renting out movie theaters for Black children’s organizations and schools, and discussions of Afrofuturism, technology, and colonialism were becoming more necessary than ever before. It was amazing to see the strides the MCU was making for marginalized communities, the history being made right before my eyes. Not to mention the casting of actress Lupita Nyong’o, who is of Kenyan descent and was born in Mexico.
Four years later, I rushed to the movie theater over the weekend to see the next installment, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, not just because I’m a Marvel fan, but also because of the Latinx and Indigenous actors and characters. And while I’d loved the first film, I wasn’t prepared for just how much I would fall in love with its sequel not just because of the representation, but for the homages to Mesoamerican culture, and most of all, the dream it offered us all: a liberated Indigenous future steeped in community and free of the shackles of slavery and colonization.
In Wakanda Forever, the people of Wakanda are reeling from the sudden death of King T’Challa, (the late Chadwick Boseman) especially his mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett) and sister Shuri (Letitia Wright). Taking advantage of their seeming weakness now that they are without their Black Panther and king, other countries put pressure on Wakanda to share their vibranium and even go out of their way to find it themselves. Unfortunately, a third party, the people of Talokan, an isolated underwater city off the coast of Yucatán, Mexico, becomes endangered by their efforts since they also use vibranium and could become exposed to the world if it was found outside of Wakanda.
From their first appearance on-screen, they are portrayed as fierce and powerful, with the ability to breathe underwater, sing siren songs to lead people to their deaths, and recover from fatal wounds at lightning speed. It was amazing to see just how much their characters were inspired and influenced by real-life Mesoamerican culture, speaking Yucatán Mayan to each other, wearing elaborate beaded and feathered clothes, and using a Talokan salute not too different from those found in Aztec cultures. Even their leader Namor (Tenoch Huerta), otherwise called K’uk’ulkan (feathered serpent king), was someone I admired rather than feared. They are not helpless or “savage” or a thing of the past, as stereotypes would suggest and want us to believe; instead, they are given agency and power in a world that has historically deprived Indigenous peoples of both. Yet it never felt unnatural or done with disrespect. Guatemalan actress María Mercedes Coroy, of Mayan Kaqchikel descent, (Ixcanul, La Llorona), and Mexican actress Mabel Cadena (Señorita 89, Monarca) also shone brightly as supporting characters.
Throughout the movie, we also learn their fascinating backstory, inspired by the reality of colonization, and how this particular group of Maya formed their own civilization beneath the sea to escape slavery and colonization by Spanish conquistadors. At one point, after a pre-teen Namor first accepts his place on the throne, he returns to his mother’s old home to bury her per her wishes, only to recognize little about the land and see his people in the shackles of a Spanish mission. There, he’s almost killed by the owners and priests before he burns the mission completely to the ground (as he should). And I remember sitting in the theater, watching his people being whipped and made to work, and thinking I’d never before seen that part of history so up close, so fearlessly obvious, and in a mainstream film with a worldwide audience. We are still feeling the effects of colonization today but how many of us can say that we understood what it meant and looked like beyond the pages of a history book?
And yet, the reason I say Talokan is untouched by colonization (despite being the catalyst and reason for the city’s existence) is because of what we find when Namor shows Shuri what he is so desperate to protect throughout the movie. In many ways, Talokan is not unlike Wakanda. We see Indigenous women and children coming up to greet Shuri with curiosity and enthusiasm, whole groups of people traveling and swimming together, technological advancements, a whole city built by love. We see joyful communities, liberated and wholly untouched by the colonization that ravaged entire continents above the surface. We see what Mexico and the rest of Latin America could’ve been had Europeans and later, the Americans not conquered us, what we could be if only given the freedom and the chance to have such a future. It was both heartwarming and heartwrenching for me to see.
At first, I was scared that the Talokan people would be seen as the villains of the story. I know that some people will walk out of the theater believing it because they missed the point of the entire film. Because of course, Namor and his people aren’t blameless for attacking Wakanda and ending the lives of hundreds of Wakandans. But when I thought about what Namor has seen over the past five hundred years of his life and what could very well happen to Talokan if discovered, it became that much easier to sympathize with him because of what is at stake for his people. Even in the modern world, the freedom of his people is a delicate thing to protect and to some extent, I also wouldn’t extend that same empathy to the descendants of colonizers who often perpetuate the behavior of their ancestors before them. The people of Talokan are powerful and fearless because they are called to be–not as aggressors but as protectors of the home that could be conquered at any moment.
If anything, it’s the American government who, while barely seen in the movie, are the true villains of this story for threatening the destabilization of Wakanda and essentially pitting two would-be colonized groups of people against each other. Especially when you consider the complicated history between the U.S. and Latin America, the U.S.-backed coups, the puppet leaders, the igniting of civil wars, and the oppression of Latinx people for the sake of U.S. interests, it’s unsettlingly true to life.
On a more general note, I also appreciated the nods to wider Mexican culture and the visibility of darker-skinned and Indigenous Mexicans like the use of Mayan music on the movie’s soundtrack. And we finally get Lupita speaking Spanish in a movie! But for me, it was definitely Huerta who stole the show, with the balance of sensuality, power, and intensity he brought to the role. Paired with Wright and Bassett, he was the essential third to their trio powerhouse that kept me invested and sympathetic to everyone’s viewpoints, and carried the movie in ways that exceeded every one of my expectations.
Already, I’m looking forward to the next Black Panther film and seeing Namor and the people of Talokan return to the franchise and continue their unfinished business. For now, I’m grateful for what this film has done and the conversations it’s further inspiring on colonization in Africa and Latin America, colorism and racism, and what a liberated future could look like for the descendants of colonized people everywhere. And most of all, for culturally uniting Black and Brown audiences at the box office like never before. For saying our communities matter, the way we’ve always known.