9:15 pm EST, February 25, 2018

What Wakanda can teach Agrabah: Creating a good fictional country

In an industry where fictional countries like Agrabah set the standard for depicting fictional countries, Black Panther’s Wakanda is a revolutionary example of how to create a realistic nation that is free of racist stereotypes.

Black Panther’s Wakanda has revolutionized Marvel and Hollywood as a whole in many ways, breaking box office records and inspiring a generation with its depiction of a strong, beautiful and diverse African nation. And while Wakanda isn’t a place that actually exists, the way Black Panther framed it made it a place that fans can be proud of.

It’s not that Wakanda as a nation is owed accurate representation: it’s not a real country, so technically there would be no one to offend if it had been depicted less favorably. This is what filmmakers have used as a way out of acknowledging the stereotypes that necessarily inform the culture, traditions and plot surrounding the fictional country.

One of the most well-known fictional countries, and a perfect example of fictional-country-making gone wrong, is Agrabah — the nation in which Aladdin is set. With Disney’s live-action adaptation coming up soon, and with a social discourse that is greatly informed by happenings in the Middle East and stereotypes surrounding Middle Eastern and South-Asian people, there’s much reason to examine the high standard that Wakanda has set for depicting fictional countries in the future… and be aware of what standards we should hold Aladdin to in a post-Black Panther society.

wakanda agrabah aladdin

Related: Aladdin’s responsibility in a culturally insensitive world

It’s undeniable that the main reason for why Wakanda was so well crafted as a fictional country is director Ryan Coogler’s own willingness to discover the real Africa. As an African American born and raised in California, his first trip to Africa was in preparation for Black Panther.

In an interview with Variety, Coogler explained that he visited Lesotho, South Africa and Kenya, and through his experiences there began to see the parts of Africa that are at the core of every African culture, and which up to then had never been properly represented in a blockbuster film.

“You see representations of this place in media, and a lot of times, the representations that you see are sources of shame… You see starving children, people that are in need of aid from other places, strife — they aren’t things that will make you feel proud. What I discovered — it’s kind of what I knew all along — is that to be African just means to be human.”

That being African just means to be human shouldn’t be a revolutionary fact — but Hollywood has a tradition of showing African countries in disturbingly dehumanizing depictions. And it isn’t just Africa (although they are certainly the receivers of the worst injustice); it’s also Asia and Latin America, and really any developing country anywhere to which ancient stereotypes still cling.

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The makers of Black Panther clearly loved Wakanda from its inception, from a place of ownership. That’s not the sense you get when being introduced to Agrabah in Aladdin — a place explicitly described as “barbaric, but hey, it’s home.” Agrabah is populated by a series of exotified caricatures that are both unrealistic and uncomfortable to watch.

Drawing on elements of different Middle-Eastern and South Asian cultures, Agrabah puts them all together with no real explanation of how or why they interact. Its stereotypes — from the evil, greedy Vizier, to the sultan, and the oppressed woman (who is sexualized and degraded by the very story that seeks to empower her). Wakanda, on the other hand, draws on many cultures but never seeks to hide the diversity within its own population; it readily showcases the differences between tribes, rejecting the idea that all of Africa is the same.

And Aladdin gives its hero very Western traits. Is there anything about Aladdin that is Middle-Eastern at all? Or is his costume only thing that truly sets him apart as a diverse character? It seems impossible to imagine a T’Challa (who, like Aladdin, is learning to deal with power in the movie) removed from his African heritage. He is Wakandan. His heritage goes far beyond his costume.

To build the concept of Wakanda, Coogler sought out the deeply-embedded cultural traits that can be seen in every African culture. He found that “there’s a reverence for your ancestors no matter where you go [in Africa]. Another is the idea of where someone is buried. The idea of home. Of your attachment, of your tribe’s attachment to a certain place.”

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There is no trivializing the characters’ nationality or their location in Africa, and no jokes at expense of this. Everything, from the comic relief to the romance, treats being Wakandan as an identity rather than a fun character trait to add a colorful “twist” to the story.

And the research, from the weapons to the costumes to the language, shows. Wakanda is never dumbed down for the Western audience, or for the sake of being “relatable.” T’Challa and his story are relatable to all of us, even if we aren’t African. After all, Black Panther is a story about humans dealing with human feelings and human problems. And humans are complex — we have different ancestry, values, languages and beliefs.

The choice to give the Wakandans an accent, and to have them speak isiXhosa throughout the film with subtitles is truly revolutionary. It’s unusual in a major blockbuster film like this one; usually the only people that need subtitles are the villains, and that is a statement in of itself. IsiXhosa is a real African language, and one that has suffered discrimination in the past. Black Panther treats it with reverence and makes it a language of royalty.

The animated Aladdin, on the other hand, has no accents other than oddly-placed European ones. How great would it be for the live-action film to give its characters an Arab or Persian accent? Although — as seen in the live-action Beauty and the Beast — it seems unlikely that Disney would go so far to make a fairytale historically accurate, such a choice would do wonders for the perception of Middle Eastern people in a socio-political climate that discriminates them for their speech patterns and their language, and only uses them in films to depict terrorism.

wakanda agrabah

And before anyone says that trying to make Aladdin “politically correct” (whatever that means) will ruin the whole point of the movie, let’s remember that it’s this awareness for a story’s place in social discourse that made Black Panther so great. It isn’t merely a fantasy of an uncolonized African country: it’s a country that has a place and a role in the wider society and is dealing with the consequences of its own decisions.

And while Aladdin doesn’t have quite the same plot in relation to a wider world, Agrabah could greatly benefit from having the kind of depth that Wakanda does. As a country, it too would have much to offer to the wider society — after all, historically speaking, the Middle East was at the center of scientific and literary advancements for a very long time.

If Disney learns from the massive success of Black Panther, Aladdin has a chance to create a fictional country that, instead of settling for showcasing stereotypical sword-swallowers and belly dancers, can create a fictional place that not only has self-respect, but pays tribute to the cultures that inspired it; and like Black Panther’s Wakanda, can build on a budding tradition of making diversity more than just an entertaining prop: rather, a celebration of humanity.

What else do you think we can learn from Wakanda?

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