The moment you first lay eyes on Black Panther’s Wakanda, you can immediately see the care and attention to detail that went into realizing the fictional nation’s diverse array of cultures. They blend elements of the fantastical with actual African iconography, languages, and tradition. But certain religious aspects have raised eyebrows.
Black Panther production designer Hannah Beachler has spoken at length about just how hard the minds behind the film worked to create a Wakanda that was respectful of the real-world cultures that influenced it, and it certainly shows. But one particular moment in the film was allegedly cause enough for India’s Central Board of Film Certification to bleep out a line because of what some might consider cultural appropriation.
At one point during the film, M’Baku, leader of the Jabari, says “glory to Hanuman,” a reference to his tribe’s gorilla deity—their answer to the panther goddess Bast, who’s worshipped by the royal family.
Hanuman doesn’t play much of a role in the Black Panther film or comics, but the deity is featured prominently throughout the Hindu epic poem Ramayana, a fundamental text that informs much of Indian society both culturally and religiously. In one story within the Ramayana, Hanuman (a monkey deity, not a gorilla) is tasked with retrieving the sanjeevani, a fabled herb that can heal mortal wounds and resurrect the dead—something he needs to save the life Lakshmana, Rama’s brother. Though Hanuman knows that the special herb is located somewhere on a mountain in the Himalayas, he isn’t exactly sure what it looks like and so he does the sensible thing and brings the entire mountain back. While there are a number of tales about Hanuman throughout the Ramayana, the story of the sanjeevani is so tied to the deity that he’s often depicted carrying the mountain.
There’s a lovely bit of narrative symmetry between the story of Hanuman retrieving the sanjeevani plant and how the Wakandan royal family flees into the Jabari mountains to bring M’Baku the heart-shaped herb during Black Panther. But that doesn’t change the fact that Black Panther seemingly borrows the name of an actual religion’s deity to give character to a fictional, non-Hindu culture. It is, in the most literal sense of the phrase, cultural appropriation and it raises some questions about the filmmakers’ intent.
While it didn’t at all seem as if Black Panther was trying to be disrespectful toward Hindus, it’s rather odd to hear Hanuman’s name dropped in a film about an isolationist African nation where Hinduism isn’t practiced and would not have become part of Wakanda through cultural osmosis. Regardless of Black Panther’s intent, the line about Hanuman has been censored all the same in Indian screenings, though some reports claim that the decision came from the producers behind the film’s Indian distribution.
Regardless of who passed the decision down, it’s worth keeping in mind that films like Black Panther are seen by audiences across the globe—and that studios have to take care to be respectful if and when they choose to start drawing inspiration from the stories of other cultures.