BLACK PANTHER: A story about honor

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This entry is part 9 of 12 in the series Exploring Entertainment through a Gospel Lens
SPOILER ALERT: This analysis explores plot details that may spoil the movie for those who have not yet seen it.

BLACK PANTHER’s titular character (whose given name is T’challa) was introduced in CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR, where his father — the previous Black Panther and king of a small African nation of Wakanda — was murdered in a terrorist attack. BLACK PANTHER starts as T’Challa returns home to Wakanda after the events of CIVIL WAR to formally step into his new role as king in place of his now-deceased father, and as Black Panther, the protector of the Wakandan people.

BLACK PANTHER includes genuine role models

Following the footsteps of CAPTAIN AMERICA and WONDER WOMAN, BLACK PANTHER gives us a character who is a genuine role model. His moral virtues are not quite as defined as Steve Rogers’, and when he is first introduced in CIVIL WAR, he embarked on an unadmirable path of vengeance.  In that film, T’Challa witnesses the dangers of vengeance and learns the importance of forgiveness. These are character traits that help define his journey in BLACK PANTHER, which gives him many choices between violence and forbearance, and T’challa usually chooses the latter.

In many ways, T’challa represents the best monarch possible: wise, moderate, gentle, but fierce as, well, a panther when needed to protect his people. As king, he must earn the loyalties of competing factions within his nation, which he eventually does through his single-minded devotion towards what is right, regardless of whether it is popular. T’challa is a man of honor. And that makes him a unique character in Marvel’s pantheon of superheroes. I suspect that the writers are grooming T’challa to replace Steve Rogers as the moral center of the Avengers, as Chris Evans prepares to leave the franchise.

But T’challa is not alone. Other characters also shine: his sister, Shuri, for her cheerful exuberance for science and technology, and loyal support for her brother. There is also Okoye, the leader of a fierce band of female warriors. Some have argued that Black Panther offers a better feminism than WONDER WOMAN: while WONDER WOMAN gives us one fully realized female character, BLACK PANTHER gives us several, and devotes far more screentime to them than one might expect. The female characters are treated by the other characters and the screenwriters as independent contributors, fully respected by their peers.

BLACK PANTHER gives us plenty to think about

The story and setting of BLACK PANTHER gives us plenty to think about. Just hearing characters in the movie discuss historical racial injustice in cogent (albeit brief) ways — while also being admirable people in their own right — helps me to be less dismissive of those views By putting some of the most resentful rhetoric of the black community on the lips of the villain of the story, I got a glimpse into that world without feeling threatened by it. By giving that same villain truly legitimate grievances, it helped me to momentarily inhabit the head-space of those who feel similarly aggrieved in real life.

But there’s plenty to think about about, far beyond the politics of race. Must existing monarchies abandon their regal systems of government and adopt democratic institutions in their place, before becoming bastions of civil liberty and moral enlightenment? (I don’t think so, but it’s an open question.) Can a society thrive in the long-term when political disputes are resolved through ritual combat? (I don’t think so, but it’s an open question.) It was fun to explore some of these hypotheticals, and to share in a “vision” of sorts of what it might look like for non-Western civilizations to become nations of liberty and moral virtue without Westernizing all of their institutions.

BLACK PANTHER deftly navigates the charged politics of race

It has become common to caricaturize one side in modern U.S. politics as the champion of minority rights and concerns, and the other side as indifferent to those concerns. As high profile police shootings have inflamed racial tensions, we have seen the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. Regardless of any superficial equality individuals have under the law, many argue, there are still deep and pervasive disadvantages that come with being black — and many of these are still holdovers from the mistreatment of prior generations.

On the other side, many believe that racism refers to a cancerous disdain towards those of other races — something that few conservatives see in themselves or in the country they love. They see an America where every individual is afforded the same opportunities and treated equally under the law. In this view, perceived systemic inequalities are either sensationalized or partially attributable to bad behavior among black communities. This just the briefest snapshot of the current political climate — the nuances and variaties of views on each side could fill books.

In this highly politicized environment, BLACK PANTHER steps forward to tell an engaging story that places the politics of race front and center, but so deftly and with such nuance that you hardly notice that it’s happening. Not once did I feel propagandized to or preached at (although it’s possibly that others more sensitive might have a different experience). Neither Republicans or Democrats, conservatives or liberals, or white or black moviegoers should leave this film feeling defensive. Like all Marvel superhero movies, the purpose of this film is to entertain, not to evangelize any particular worldview. It was written to resonate with people of all persuasions.

Things are not black and white in BLACK PANTHER

BLACK PANTHER deftly navigates these tensions in part because it avoids painting anything in black and white. One could say that T’challa represents a measured, principled approach to addressing injustice, of a kind with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — an approach that eschews violence (as much as a Marvel superhero can) in favor of principled and peaceful activism. The villain of the film — who goes by Killmonger — could be thought to represent a more violent and impassioned approach to addressing injustice, of a kind with Malcom X. Setting up the stakes this way makes the racial politics of the film wholly palatable for conservative audiences.

But even while T’challa and his father are protagonists and the heroes of the film, T’challa learns that the safety of the kingdom is now jeopardized by grave errors made by his father and predecessor decades before. We learn that Killmonger’s deep grievances against Wakanda and its leadership are (at least in part) legitimate. His path of vengeance and his plan for empowering black communities worldwide is power-hungry, reckless, and evil, and we are meant to celebrate when he is held accountable for his actions. But all the while, we are also mean to ache with his pain, and see him as partly the product of his broken childhood.

In other words, the protagonists show deep moral failings which they are trying to correct, while the villain is treated as partially sympathetic. None of this diminishes the goodness of the heroes or excuses the evil of the villians. But it shows us a complicated world that is anything but black and white, and invites self-reflection and evaluation, lest our blindspots catch up with us someday as well. T’challa leads his people into a new age in which they attempt to reverse the mistakes of generations past. Is this an example to follow?

The dangers of nativism and dogmatism

Wakanda represents an exemplary heritage of culture and progress, a technological superpower that is build on non-Western ideals and culture. However, we learn that the Wakandan nation was forged and protected through the centuries of deep-seated nativism and xenophobia. When Agent Ross from the CIA steps foot in Wakanda, he is the first outsider to do so in living memory. The only reason the Wakandan people have advanced so far is because they have kept themselves hidden and their borders closed. They have exported no goods, and have admitted no refugees. They are true isolationists in every political sense of the term.

The movie ultimately settles against nativism, and embraces the idea that trade, commerce, and open relationships with neighbors are preferable to the isolationist policies of centuries past. T’Challa eventually concludes that their former approach was a colossal error in moral judgment — the world needs their leadership, their technology, their example.

But it was refreshing that the film did this without derisively dismissing nativist concerns and worldviews.Tthe nativism of the Wakandan people is not treated by the writers of this film with disdain, but with respect. When one character says, “You let the refugees in, you let in all their problems,” this line is not treated derisively as xenophobic rhetoric. In fact, you get a sense that this character is exactly right: their nativist policies have helped preserve Wakanda from the cultural decay and other social ills they’ve seen the world over.

I am fully against our current nativist detour in modern U.S. politics, and have been discouraged by the anti-refugee and anti-immigration rhetoric that has festered in conservative circles. But perhaps we can learn from BLACK PANTHER, and dialogue in more respectful ways about these issues.

Perhaps anti-immigration advocates look at the political corruption and crime in Mexico and fear that millions of people moving from there to here will bring with them those same problems. They may look at the terrifying conflict in Syria, and say, “You let the refugees in, you let in all their problems.” They might be wrong, but are they obviously wrong? It might be the right thing to do to let them in anyways, but are their fears wholly without merit? And even if so, could reasonable people mistakenly hold them? These questions are important, and should invite us to reflect on how we engage in disagreement.

BLACK PANTHER help me glimpse a different world than my own

And I’m not talking about the foreignness of the culture and nation of Wakanda. I’m talking about the world inhabited by black Americans who I encounter every day. In our efforts to be “color blind,” we often blind ourselves to real differences in the lived experiences of whites and blacks in America. We dismiss their experiences when they differ from our own. So it is with me. I do not have the background or experiences to know what it is like to be black in America.

And I’m not even talking about the charge politics of the matter. As a white American, I really have been blind to the way Hollywood and television have historically catered itself to people like me. Perhaps these thoughts from one viewer, William Oliver, will help illustrate:

Until I saw the Black Panther, I thought the only reason that white people kept putting mostly white people in movies was out of their own greed, racism and prejudice (and I still think this is partially why). But now, after seeing Black Panther, I think that it’s in large part because white experiences are the experiences white people relate to.

I know, it seems obvious, but you have to understand. Seeing this movie as a black person was a revelation. In any of the Batman movies, for example, there was never a thought, consciously or unconsciously, that “Bruce Wayne’s parents remind me of my parents”. Not even in the slightest way. In star wars, never had I thought, “Leia reminds me of my sister” not even a little bit, I have always thought “Leia is Luke’s sister”. I literally just thought people didn’t relate in this way to characters in movies, and that was just the way movies were.

Seeing Black Panther was like having a splash of water over my face. When Killmonger goes back to his childhood home, the decorations in the house reminded me of the decorations my parents had in their house. The neighborhood he lived in reminded me of my grandma’s neighborhood.

The Elders of Wakanda reminded me of my Grandma’s friends. T’challa’s sister behaved in ways my sister would. It has literally never ever happened that I could relate so many characters and places in a movie to things from my childhood and my life. And this was actually eye opening for me.

I now completely get why, if you are white, you might tend to like movies with white characters more than movies with black characters. That simply didn’t make sense to me before because I did not know that it was possible to relate to characters in this way. I had never had the chance. I thought there was some difference in experience, but I didn’t get exactly what it was, or how extremely profound a difference it makes when watching a film.

Some have derided what they see as a pop culture over-reaction to this film: is it really that significant to have a film about a black superhero? Well, yes, it is. It’s significant to have a film where black characters are both villains, henchmen, protagonists, sidekicks, and bystanders. Where, as some have pointed out, black characters are treated as diverse in their worldviews and loyalties as white people are in most movies. And for many, that’s refreshing.


Black Panther is worth seeing. I’ve heard a number of friends and acquaintances remark that they might not see the movie, because Black Panther isn’t their favorite superhero. Or they aren’t interested in seeing a film that went out of its way to include (nearly) only black actors. Or they worry about the racial politics of the film. I urge them to set aside all these concerns, and to go into the film with an open mind. While it leaves you with plenty to think about, it does not preach to you. And it’s fun in all of the ways that Marvel movies typically are — and it’s a good story too.

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