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By Poppy-Jayne Morgan on

‘Black Panther’: Engineering an inspirational movie experience

Following our special screening of Black Panther as part of Bradford Science Festival, Poppy-Jayne Morgan writes about how engineering is portrayed in the film, and what we can learn from it.

The year 2020 has been unprecedented in so many ways, and it will be remembered not just for the Covid-19 pandemic but for enhanced positive awareness and engagement with the #BlackLivesMatter movement. As part of Bradford Science Festival, the National Science and Media Museum and the Royal Academy of Engineering have partnered on a special film screening to celebrate the cultural impact of Black Panther. Directed by Ryan Coogler, this groundbreaking Marvel film with an almost entirely Black cast broke the mould of Hollywood blockbusters.

Described in Time magazine as ‘a movie about what it means to be Black in both America and Africa—and, more broadly, in the world’, Black Panther is also entertaining, funny, sharply choreographed and beautifully lit. And it stars the late Chadwick Boseman, who brought incredible grace and complexity to his portrayal of King T’Challa—the eponymous Black Panther. Boseman was a role model to many people as an actor, an advocate, and a superhero. Playing both biographical and fictionalised roles, Boseman chose his roles carefully to share inspirational stories with a global audience.

Chadwick Boseman and Letitia Wright

Black Panther also features some jaw-dropping engineering—from flying taxis to self-closing shoes—masterminded by Shuri, Princess of Wakanda, played by Letitia Wright. She is important because we need a lot more people like Shuri. Only 12% of UK professional engineers are female and 9% are from Black and minority ethnic backgrounds.

Accompanying the screening—and available to view below or on YouTube—is a panel of engineers assembled online to discuss the importance of representation on screen and in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) careers. We were honoured to have our panel chaired by Sharon Watson, CEO and Principal of the Northern School of Contemporary Dance. As a renowned dancer and artistic director, Sharon has done much to foster and promote Black talent in the arts, including her choreography of Windrush: Movement of the People and Black Waters.

Our panellists include Titi Oliyide, who trained as a chemical engineer and works for Siemens as a safety engineer; Tara Plummer, senior IT manager for PPG; and Felicia Williams, a product designer for social media, working with virtual reality products to shape how we communicate with each other. All three are engineers who are passionate about promoting and changing misconceptions about the engineering profession.

Wakanda, the fictitious African nation imagined in Marvel comics, showcases the wonder of engineering imagination. From super-suits and smart materials to holographic interactive communication systems, the science fiction of the comic book world is becoming a reality with the help of real engineers.

Letitia Wright as Shuri

Role models on stage, on screen and in STEM roles are key to inspiring future generations. Shuri spearheads Wakanda’s research programme in state-of-the-art laboratories and leads the development of amazing new technology using the unique properties of Vibranium, a mysterious metal found only in Wakanda. She oversees an extensive Vibranium mining operation and has used it to create super-strength shielding, spaceships and maglev trains—and is also an expert in medical engineering.

On the panel is Felicia Williams who is part of the Royal Academy of Engineering’s This is Engineering campaign. The campaign aims to tackle narrow public perceptions of engineers and counter negative stereotypes by sharing inspiring stories of role models nationally. Felicia is an ambassador, showing how creative engineering can be, how engineers solve problems and design the future of tech in exciting ways. By showcasing the diverse breadth of engineering and the people behind the innovations, This is Engineering aims to inspire young people’s career choices.

This panel discussion comes in the lead-up to This is Engineering Day on 4 November and provides an opportunity to celebrate the engineering that shapes our world for the better, whether that’s by making our day-to-day lives easier or tackling some of our biggest global challenges. From the technology that brings a blockbuster film from set to screen, to the engineering behind real exoskeletons, holograms, and green energy, engineers make a difference in the world.

This year, the Royal Academy of Engineering, in collaboration with engineering partners, are announcing their plans for a new virtual museum: the Museum of Engineering Innovation. The museum will feature the engineering behind theatre productions, 3D printed musical instruments, CT scans and much more.

Diversity in engineering—just as in cinema and the arts—is vital to ensure that the technology we develop is unbiased, accessible to all, and benefits all our communities.

Bradford Science Festival 2020 takes place from 24 October to 1 November 2020. Keep an eye on the Bradford Science Festival page for more online resources, videos and activities.

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