I was on an emotional roller coaster ride watching Wakanda Forever, and it left me in tears, incredibly disheartened at such tragic storytelling.
The moment I saw the Mayan people I was so lit up inside. I exclaimed aloud to my partner, “I’ve been waiting years, centuries really, for this.” I’ve wanted to see a Mayan person being represented in a big and good way for so long. Wow, was I wrong and thrown for a ride with the film. Soon after the introduction, I realized the Mayans were the antagonists (villains) of the movie. The main Mayan character is literally K'uk'ulkan, the feathered serpent, the god of rain, wind, and life. So to see K'uk'ulkan portrayed in this disrespectful way was very hurtful. I was aghast for most of the film, with my gut in knots the entire time. I was truly shocked that it took such an unsettling turn of events.
The portrayal of the Mayan people in this film is beyond hurtful. It is that not-so-subtle type of racism. The story line, dialogue, and power dynamics are very telling of who is on top and on bottom.
You might wonder, like I did, since Wakanda and it’s Wakandan people are made up for the film and do not exist, why not use a made-up name for a god and for people from Meso-America?
This has tremendous consequence because to use a literal Mayan God and the Mayan people is not only blatantly disrespectful, but also hurtful in the deepest sense by being villainized. Imagine taking an African deity/their people, and then call them barbaric and make them out to be the bad guys/villains in a story. That is what Wakanda Forever said and did to the Mayans. Also, it’s important to note, the Wakandan and Mayans became enemies simply because of the existence of colonizers (for comedic relief, a Wakandan literally named one of the men from the CIA in the movie "her favorite colonizer"). Even though there is much pain shared by these cultures at the hands of the colonizers, the movie stages the Mayans as wild savages, emotionless, and revengeful people. And instead of leaning into their similarities, it’s just another westernized movie where one culture is placing themselves above another. I really had hoped that this film would be respectfully inclusive, so this is why it was even more painful to watch; it is the opposite of inclusive, and it is explicitly divisive.
At times, it felt like what I was watching couldn’t be true, yet I realize I shouldn’t have been surprised. Not enough in our mainstream culture has really changed. However, it does make way for more beautiful stories and films to tell a Mayan story that gives reverence to a lineage and heritage that still exists in the real world. We deserve to be respected and represented in a good way. I do see the silver lining and yet, it still pains my heart for those who are brown and will see this film and not consciously understand what they are seeing. On some level, they are receiving messages that they (and their indigenous ancestors) are barbaric and villains, whether or not they recognize this. I can imagine this would make many brown people feel even more inclined to create continued division between their deeper indigenous roots and their currently adopted western culture, perpetuating colonization even in their own life.
This has already been the sad reality for people native to the Americas for far too long. Millions of brown people truly believe their Catholicism is the only right way, never stopping to feel into the painful truth that their very religion was violently forced upon them by colonizers. There is a part in the film that shows the Catholics calling the Mayan god a demon. While K'uk'ulkan does kill the priest after he sees his people being enslaved, this perpetuates the story that he is a murderer and the same kind of savage as those who caused him pain.
The end of the film semi-saved the story by showing the protagonist and the antagonist making amends and bonding over their shared vengefulness, soon after the Mayans fell to their knees as Wakandans stood and declared, “Wakanda Forever.”
The film was beautiful in ways yet has so much room for inclusion and empowering both beautiful cultures that are truly more alike than different. Also, it missed an opportunity to clearly highlight the real enemy that still exists…colonization.
For too long, browns and blacks have been pitted against each other, not realizing that if we truly recognized how similar we are, we’d all be stronger for it. If all indigenous peoples united, it would be a true threat to colonization and any kind of racial supremacy.
I left the movie in tears for the missed opportunity it was. They literally colonized a Mayan story to promote their film. This is a great example of getting it wrong so that when my and Syris’ films comes to light you can see what it means to have true representation in a good way and in right relation. I look forward to creating and seeing those films.
Go watch it and see what you feel. Does it feel good that they’re telling this story in the way they did?