There’s some beautiful world building in Marvel Studios’ Black Panther in how director Ryan Coogler and his team crafted Wakanda, a fictional Central African country where the film’s hero rules. The movie painstakingly brings Wakandan culture to life, making it feel like it could exist by weaving together a variety of African traditions. By doing so, the film challenges all sorts of Western stereotypes when it comes to African culture — and that extends to what King T’Challa (played by Chadwick Boseman) and his subjects eat.
Here’s fair warning: The following contains spoilers. Turn away now if needed.
Hollywood has long embraced the trope about dark-skinned savages living in Third World countries whose eating habits are made to be ridiculed. Famously, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom showed brown-skinned dinner guests at a banquet devouring monkey brains, live baby snakes, and other treats. Presuming the social norms of a Western audience, the scene uses these unusual foods as shorthand to make those eating it seem sinister, a practice that dates back to the earliest days of cinema: Film buffs can watch countless reels of footage depicting dark-skinned “savages” with strange eating habits — or even as cannibals.
It’s a pop culture trope with serious implications. “When disgust is recruited in its most extreme forms,” Purdue University philosophy professor Daniel Kelly told Eater in 2016, “it makes it easy to dehumanize [others]. It clouds our social cognition.” In other words, these scenes are effective ways to strip people of color of their humanity, and that impact stretches beyond the characters depicted on the silver screen.
Black Panther flips that script with a scene involving Martin Freeman’s Everett Ross, one of the only white characters in the Afro-centric production. While seeking an audience with M’Baku (played by Winston Duke), the leader of the mountainous Jabari tribe, Ross is shushed. M’Baku threatens that if Ross speaks again, “he will feed him to his children.”
The line plays out exactly how Coogler intends. M’Baku is a mountain of a man — set up to be interpreted as a brute worth fearing. Based on damaging stereotypes furthered by other Hollywood films, it makes sense that he’s savage enough to devour human flesh. Ross is scared he’ll never leave Wakanda and appear on a platter as M’Baku’s main course.
But Ross is never in any danger. Using wonderful comedic timing, M’Baku pauses and roars with laughter. It’s a joke, he tells Ross. They have no interest in cannibalism, in fact. “We’re vegetarian,” he explains.
That’s right: Wakandans show compassion to animals. They’re more humane than Ross, who’ll probably crave some In-N-Out when he returns stateside. The scene pokes fun at a pattern of old-timey filmmaking. It also challenges the perception of what a typical vegetarian looks like. To quote Quicksilver from Marvel’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, “Bet you didn’t see that coming.”