Even though developed several decades apart (The Black Panther appeared in 1966, and Coming to America was released in 1988), and written by people on different spectrums of the United States’ Salad Bowl (The Black Panther was developed by Jewish Americans Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, while Coming to America was created by African American Eddie Murphy), both share similarities that make them an interesting comparison in how fictional Africa is perceived and narrated through the lens of mainstream American media, in both positive and negative ways.
Some of the differences between both products will be analyzed through the prisms below and rated as to which presents the most thorough version of fictional Africa.
Name and Origin
While there is no set location for Zamunda detailed in Coming to America, it would seem that both Zamunda and Wakanda are East African Bantu kingdoms and likely to be neighbors, also bordering the modern-day African nations of Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi, which is supported by the similarities in the countries’ names, most particularly by the use of the suffix nda, which may have suffered from a mild degree of semantic slippage in the case of Burundi, considering that Rwanda and Burundi have similar populations and speak the same language.
Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi may have diverged along regional historical tracks due to German, Belgian, and British colonization, while Wakanda and Zamunda appear to have remained free of European colonial influence. It is plausible however that all five nations may have been part of a larger, earlier kingdom, or shared cultural/linguistic roots in the past.
In this instance one may infer that the suffix nda and its dialectical variation ndi indicate a common root word for land (in the same way as stan and desh in central and sub-continental Asia), as in the lands of the Uga, Rwa, Buru, Waka, and Zamu peoples before history drew them apart.
Winner: Wakanda. The Black Panther edges over Coming to America, for being more specific as to where Wakanda is located.
Both Wakanda and Zamunda have retained traditional leadership in the form of monarchy. Zamundan monarchy appears to follow the common route of succession through bloodlines, while Wakandan succession has, in the motion comic, retained a more democratic, if brutal, means of ascending the throne, through hand-to-hand combat with the country’s ruler: the Black Panther. This also suggests that, while a kingdom in its current form, Wakanda could also easily be a queendom.
The lack of details regarding Zamundan history makes it difficult to ascertain how long the Joffer family have been in power, and the comic book version of the Black Panther traces T'Challa’s ancestry back to Bashenga, the original Black Panther, which would make Wakanda a traditional monarchy.
Of note: unlike the Joffers, T’Challa’s family name does not appear regularly, which, in an African context where bloodlines are central to the culture and one’s relation to their ancestors, is somewhat jarring. The surname “Udaku” appears in Earth-1610, but this iteration only began in 2000, thirty-four years after the original character was first introduced.
Winner: Wakanda. The Black Panther presents a more detailed explanation for the way leadership is passed down in Wakanda.
Both neighboring kingdoms seem to have diverged at some point in their religious history. Wakanda follows the cult of the Panther, whose spirit is embodied by its ruler, otherwise known as the Black Panther. There are no further indications as to how the cult is practiced or celebrated, which could mean that religious continuity resides in the king himself as the embodiment of the nation and its spiritual values.
While Zamundan religion isn’t made clear, it would appear that Zamunda is culturally influenced by Islam, as apparent in the name of their prince: Akeem, an African variation of Hakeem or Al-Hakeem (Arabic: الحكيم), one of the names of God in Islam, meaning "the All-Wise."
Nothing else indicates the prevalence of an Islamic tradition in Zamunda; however, given its presumed geographic location, it may be that Islamic influence entered the kingdom through trade with coastal, possibly Swahili, outposts.
Winner: Wakanda. Defining religion is not a major factor in Coming to America, whereas the panther cult is fundamental in The Black Panther.
Language is not overly developed in either The Black Panther or Coming to America. The Black Panther does, however, have linguistic attributes in film (Captain America: Civil War), where Coming to America does not.
The language chosen for Wakanda is Xhosa, a Southern African language easily recognizable for its unique phonetic clicks. It must be said that in an age where the Syfy Channel can afford language creators of its own, one would expect Marvel to take its job seriously and develop a proper language for one of its only African superheroes.
Winner: None. Language as it is defined in Captain America: Civil War is unfortunately purely appropriative, geographically and culturally incorrect.
Resources appear to be central in explaining cultural divergences between Wakanda and Zamunda.
Wakanda has remained a mystery and grew to immense power thanks to one resource alone, which also happens to be unique on planet Earth: vibranium. Wakanda’s abundance of vibranium would have made it the stronger party in dealings with any outside power and more resistant to cultural influences exerted over time through interaction with other African kingdoms or external parties such as Muslim tradesmen or Arab or European colonizers.
Zamunda’s affluence, or rather the Joffer’s affluence, could indicate that much like the Saudi Arabs, they benefited from the presence of highly demanded resources on their traditional tribal or familial lands, as is the case of Bashenga and vibranium in Wakanda. The hereditary nature of the Zamundan throne appears to support this hypothesis, although judging by what can be seen in Coming to America, Zamunda does not appear to suffer from extreme poverty, and, while technically dictatorships, both Wakanda and Zamunda appear to be benevolent ones, Wakanda much more clearly so.
Winner: Wakanda. Wakanda’s wealth and influence is more clearly defined than Zamunda’s, and its relevance to the Marvel Universe is well established.
While T’Challa may not have a particular preference for black panthers over other animals it is nonetheless the kingdom’s spiritual animal that he embodies upon either defeating his father T’Chaka in single combat or hereditarily in the comic book, where T’Chaka is killed by the nefarious Ulysses Klaw.
Akeem’s power animal is Babar, the mischievous baby elephant created by French children’s book author Jean de Brunhoff. Whether de Brunhoff resided as a guest in Zamunda is a matter of speculation; however, it does seem to indicate that Zamunda is indeed more open to non-African visions of the continent. Perhaps Babar was simply read as a child to young Akeem, who, coming of age, decided to honor the fictional, anthropomorphic elephant.
Winner: Wakanda. Coming to America mixes cultural references and makes something of a mockery of Africa and elephants in this category.
Portrayal of Women
Two groups of women feature prominently in both Wakanda and Zamunda, in very different ways.
The Black Panther is guarded by a group of warrior women named the Dora Milaje. They are recruited among the various tribes composing the Wakandan population, originally as queens to the current king.
For reasons unclear, the Dora Milaje only speak Hausa amongst each other and to the Black Panther. Why Hausa, a West African language spoken primarily in Niger and Nigeria, was chosen by Kirby and Lee for the Dora Milaje and consequently as a special language for the Black Panther in an East African, Bantu kingdom is up for speculation. It does speak of an easy amalgam for viewers and readers unfamiliar with the continent, who look for exoticism and ready-made Africana.
Zamunda has, unlike the warrior queens of the Dora Milaje, Bathers, whose sole purpose appears to be cleaning the prince’s genitals, in suggestive ways, as evident in the bathing scene early in Coming to America, and may be at times possible contenders for queen, as Semmi (Akeem’s manservant) suggests when Akeem first mentions the possibility of finding a wife in the United States and confirmed by his father before the wedding ceremony.
While T’Challa’s mother does not feature in the comic books, his half-sister, Shuri, is a powerful, trained, and fierce woman in her own right.
Akeem’s queen-to-be, Imani Izzi, is represented as subservient to the point of idiocy. Which is a statement of itself.
Winner: Wakanda. The Black Panther does better by its female protagonists than Coming to America.
Sexual Inclination in the Main Characters
Both princes, Akeem and T’Challa, are straight black males. However, both of them seem to have a penchant for light-skinned, mixed-race, or foreign women of black African descent.
T’Challa has been affiliated to two major women, most recently, Ororo Munroe, otherwise known as Storm, who is of mixed Kenyan and Egyptian heritage and took on the name Ororo Iqadi T’Challa upon marrying him. He was previously associated with the African American singer Monica Lynne.
Akeem pretends to wish to sow wild oats, while in fact coming to America in order to find a bride that would mirror the true wishes of his heart. He finds this soulmate in the person of Lisa Macdowell, in Queens, New York, herself in many ways a heiress, if not to a kingdom, but to the fast food chain her father had created in imitation of McDonalds, which in twentieth-century North America holds the weight of capitalist aristocracy, if a minor one, liable for litigation.
Winner: None. Both protagonists appear to put love ahead of their royalty.
Some of you may point out that this fictional analysis makes very little sense.
You are correct.
However, in six of the eight categories above, The Black Panther offers a more thorough and empowering vision of Africa than Coming to America.
Both have been criticized for stereotyping Africa and Africans, and both do. But it is interesting to note that the stronger depiction of Africa is the product of two Caucasian Americans, Lee and Kirby, rather than an African American, who apparently thinks Africa is something to be ridiculed rather than honored and showcased as part of his ancestry. Obviously, both were developed for vastly different purposes, and Marvel's canon allows for much more detail, yet the fact remains.
I am both African American and Senegalese American, a duality that Larry Wilmore once peevishly considered a contradiction when referring to Barack Obama's equally dual identity, if Kenyan and not Senegalese. It is because of my identity that I chose these two products, as they speak to my American and African sides.
Although a fan of both, I relate to neither.
Both creations utilize Africa but neither represents it. They were created to fill a void through a fictionalized identity, Akeem sadly enough to mock, and T'Challa to commercialize and increase readership.
Neither of them are African.
The problem with the appropriation of African attributes is that given the disparity in wealth and reach between Africa and the United States, these kind of clichés remain pervasive across the globe and limit the ability for Africans to promote heroes, and buffoons, of our own. There is a blooming African “Renaissance” in comic books and animation nowadays that, although influenced by Lee and Kirby's pioneering, showcases what the continent truly has to offer and how Africans wish to represent ourselves.
Several of these endeavors are reviewed here, but there are many more. Africans are filling the gap, one step at a time, in comics, science fiction, fantasy, and speculative fiction in general, and it would be foolish not to pay attention. Given time and proper visibility, there is no reason for African productions to not shine as brightly as their Western forebears.
Food for thought, but mostly for entertainment.