How 'Black Panther' Is Teaching College Students About Foreign Policy

Black Panther Still 14 - Publicity - H 2018
Matt Kennedy/Marvel Studios
A former USAID deputy administrator turned Dartmouth professor made Wakanda a central part of a spring-term seminar.

When Black Panther began its months-long conquest of the box office in mid-February, stories about the significance of the film's representation of a nearly all-black cast became briefly omnipresent on news sites. Far less visible, but still prolific, was a small body of literature from foreign-policy experts — including Brookings Institution analysts and professors of international relations and politics — who pointed out that the film's take on national openness and foreign outreach was also notable.

Now a global development class at Dartmouth College has expanded on these initial reaction pieces and is about to produce a 120-page report imagining how protagonist King T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) might fulfill his promise at the end of the film — to begin using his wealthy country's resources and technological prowess to help other nations — and deliver it to foreign-policy institutions.  

Students in The Challenge of Global Poverty: Why It Matters, What We Can Do About It, a class from former deputy administrator for the United States Agency for International Development Donald Steinberg, have spent a chunk of their spring term imaging how the film's fictional setting, the African kingdom Wakanda, might offer $400 million in aid to neighboring countries Tanzania, Rwanda and Uganda (as per the Marvel mythology) and one city with ties to the movie, Oakland, Ca. (Full disclosure: This author attended Dartmouth College but never took a class in this department or with this professor.)

Steinberg was inspired to incorporate director Ryan Coogler's film into class in part by a speech at the end of Black Panther. When he saw the film on opening night with his 14- and 11-year-old children, Steinberg said he "got goosebumps" as Boseman addressed the United Nations in Vienna, pledging aid to other countries and ending the country's historically isolationist policies. Steinberg helped write former President Barack Obama's pledge to end "extreme poverty" with global partners in his 2013 State of the Union address — Boseman's rhetoric seemed to echo his and Obama's own message.

Steinberg also figured Wakanda would be an ideal "clean exercise" for students. Global development agencies and nonprofits often use fictional countries to help employees learn about the application of methodologies, rather than just their theories. Wakanda, in addition to having its own well-formed Marvel mythology that laid out the country's GDP and population size, didn't have murky motives or tricky financials to deal with. Steinberg figured this gave students the opportunity to focus on realizing some of the United Nations' sustainable development goals — which Steinberg helped to author — without being hindered by political, financial and military considerations.

And so, about one-third of the way through the term, Steinberg introduced the idea of using Wakanda as a case study to the class by jokingly telling them that King T'Challa phoned him up one night and asked for help on a foreign development strategy.

"Everyone looked at me like I was crazy. By the end of the class, though, I had four people come up and volunteer to be 'deputy ministers' to put the process together," Steinberg says.

Students signed up for roles and research ideas — senior Caroline Hsu, for instance, researched how to avoid the perception of neocolonialism during development and how drone technology could help foreign aid, while freshman Jessica McDermott took the lead on helping to develop Oakland.

"It was kind of absurd at first, to be honest, to be talking about, like 'We have this [gross domestic product] for Wakanda where there is tons of vibranium,'" Hsu says. "But tying it to a movie made it more applicable to us because everyone in the class had basically seen the movie."

Experts who helped Steinberg with the U.N.'s SDGs, including Brookings Institution senior fellow in global economy and development Anthony Pipa, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service professor Steven Radelet and International Youth Foundation president and COO Susan Reichle, also signed on to consult with students on the project.

Steinberg says he promised experts CustomInk T-shirts reading "Wakanda Ministry of International Cooperation Haldeman Division" — referring to the school building the class was held in — if they participated. "I know the typical reputation of people in government or in these think tanks is that they're very serious, but they all got it immediately," Steinberg says.

Jonathan Addleton, a former U.S. Ambassador to Mongolia and current Mercer University visiting professor of international and global studies, believes that movies like Black Panther can help students retain concepts. After he penned a story in The Telegraph about foreign policy in Black Panther, he distributed it to the class hoping it would help students remember three schools of foreign policy for upcoming exams.

"I do think that popular culture can be helpful in a variety of ways, including this one," he wrote in an email. "Ironically, it can perhaps also become a platform for making current events seems more 'real' while also discussing broader issues such as development and foreign policy."

Hsu certainly found it easier to talk to her friends about the concepts she was learning vis-a-vis the Marvel Cinematic Universe. "It allowed me to share information about the SDGs and eliminating extreme poverty with my premed friends," she says.

Steinberg's students are currently preparing a 120-page report on the project, which has already been requested by the Brookings Institution, the Ford Foundation and the National Youth Foundation. And on Thursday they presented to a group of professors and peers, some of whom Steinberg admits fell asleep during the talk.

"I think they came because they thought this was so cool — because Wakanda," he says. "But this was hard economics we were doing."