At the Movies: Black Panther

Black Panther: My Brother’s Keeper
Genesis 4: 1 – 10 and Psalm 133

Even though Wonder Woman is a DC character and Black Panther is by Marvel, it dawned on me last week during Jill’s sermon that they have very similar signature moves. (demonstrate). They have also accomplished similar record-breaking feats as cinematic successes, moving from ensemble movies to incredibly successful solo films, both a “first” in their category.

So besides learning that audiences will flock to see majority black films, what do we learn from Black Panther?  Since I’m fresh off of teaching a May Term course at the University of Redlands on race and comics, allow me a bit of history before jumping into the movie itself.

Black Panther debuted in 1966 (July, in fact; the Black Panther Party was founded in October of the same year).  He was introduced in the popular Fantastic Four series. He was the brainchild of the inimitable Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.  In his debut issue, he lures the foursome to Wakanda as a final test for himself: if he could defeat them, he was ready to take on his nemesis, Klaw.  As otherworldly as Wakanda looked to us on the big screen, one member of the Fantastic Four felt that he was familiar with the story – an interesting commentary about the pre-scripted narratives of the genre and how they shape our expectations. (Picture) The effect is to undercut the Black Panther, even though other characters chastise The Thing for his brash remarks.  Lee and Kirby were evidently willing to be ground breakers, but perhaps wanted to remind readers that they weren’t doing anything that new. Of course, Black Panther and the Fantastic Four end up working together and defeating Klaw; once that’s accomplished, T’Challa isn’t sure what to do next.  Luckily, his new white friends have the answer: share his powers with the down-trodden everywhere. That’s just what he does, bouncing back and forth between The Avengers and The Fantastic Four, falling in love with a black female musician from Harlem, and spending a lot of time in New York.  The writers seemed to lose interest in Wakanda for a decade or so.

The world presented in Ryan Coogler’s movie is more fully realized as a composite African country, and the question of what it means to have power resonates all the more strongly.  This time, however, the pros and cons of involvement outside of Wakanda are voiced by other Wakandans, both those close to T’Challa, and those who challenge him.

  • First, Nakia, his exgirlfriend.
  • His friend and advisor Wakabi has another view on relationships with outsiders.
  • Finally, the most challenging position comes from his antagonist, Killmonger (born N’Jadaka).  Some of Killmonger’s background is important to understand – as you’ll remember, his father, N’Jobu, was brother to the previous ruler of Wakanda, King T’Chaka.  He was sent to Oakland, California, as a spy; what he witnessed there radicalized him, and he plotted to take violent action to seize power in the community by using vibranium, Wakanda’s secret magical mineral.  T’Chaka is so determined to keep Wakanda under wraps that he kills his own brother for risking exposure, leaving his nephew, N’Jadaka, behind. The Cain and Abel narrative is brought forcibly to mind in this confrontation between brothers.  This begins the path of violence that Killmonger has been walking since.

Killmonger was an incredibly powerful figure in the film, especially since it is hard to disagree with his criticism of Wakanda, even if you disavow his violent methods.  When CIA agent Everett Ross labels Killmonger “one of ours” the criticism of American race relations is poignant. Since Killmonger has passed his childhood in Oakland, being “one of ours” resonated for me as a Californian as well.  (and I’d be happy to talk more with anyone interested in this character – there is a lot being written about him). He was not always quite so engaging (picture), but the film’s presentation of the character really drives home the question of what it means to be your brother’s keeper, the question Cain raises in angry self-defense.  When Jill asked me to talk about Black Panther, this was the first theme that occurred to me; imagine my relief when doing some research in preparation for today I discovered that the director, Ryan Coogler, considers the question of what it means to be your brother’s keeper one of the core messages of the film as well.  Whew!

T’Challa’s development over the course of the movie helps us see that we must not only think about what it means to designate someone our “brother” or not, but also what it means to “keep” them.  He reaches the conclusion that Killmonger has been let down by his father’s country, as have by extension all of those who were torn from Africa. He comes to believe that the wealthy and powerful have a responsibility to those without power, even if they are not responsible for the disparity.  He confronts his father’s spirit, but his anger is not just at his father for neglecting N’Jadaka (aka Killmonger) but at all of the former rulers of Wakanda for isolating themselves from blacks suffering around the world.

  • You were wrong

But the solution is not “to rule over them in the right way” as Killmonger’s father suggests to T’Challa’s father.  In fact, Black Panther engaged with more global racial concerns very early in his history (picture), but what he could accomplish by this path of violence was very limited, and he gave only the strength of his arm, not the power of his country.  In the film, in no small part because of Nakia’s example, T’Challa has learned the importance of nurturing and supporting those he would help, not just stopping those he opposes. This is the work that T’Challa takes up at the end of the film.

  • UN speech

This strikes me as significant for a couple of reasons; first, because unlike his initial appearance in the comic book, T’Challa is deciding his own actions, not being told what to do by white westerners; that’s an important representation of African autonomy on the individual and national level.  In fact, T’Challa is helping not in his role as the rugged individual hero Black Panther, but from his position as a leader of people. He doesn’t show up ready to fight drug dealers and corrupt cops; he shows up with educational resources and community outreach programs, delegating day-to-day operations to Nakia and his sister, Shuri.  Some critics view the contrast between Killmonger and T’Challa as a reflection on the different stages of the Black Panther Party itself, with Killmonger representing the more militant phase, and T’Challa symbolizing the more peaceful, grassroots activist phase; the increased importance of women in that phase is echoed by Nakia and Shuri’s roles in T’Challa’s schemes.  

Secondly, while we, the viewers, may not be royalty, there is certainly something for everyone watching this to learn about who our brothers are, and the kind of keeping we can offer.  Those that T’Challa seeks to help are grouped by skin color, but their number will include descendants of many nations on the African continent and from the islands, and will include those of mixed heritage as well.  His sense of his “brothers and sisters” has gotten widely inclusive by the end of the film, a model to which we would do well to aspire. And the science fiction plot crutch of vibranium is not without its symbolism for us to ponder; this metal has made Wakanda’s fortune, insured its independence, and is a central part of the national identity.  Given that one of its chief properties is the ability to absorb shocks and vibrations, I would suggest we can see it as a sci-fi representation of privilege. If you strike it, it absorbs the blow rather than breaking; if it is dropped, it absorbs the sound. It keeps things quiet, the ultimate “smooth ride.” How many of us have had smoother rides, even if not luxurious, because our grandparents were able to own property where they pleased?  How many of us, from a happy accident of birth, grew up in a community that helped absorb the shocks of life – a neighborhood that had clean water, good schools, well-stocked, accessible grocery stores, safe places for children to play? Or equal political rights for all, administered fairly? If you are born with resources that insulate you from the bumps and jostles of life, what is your responsibility to those born without such protection, without vibranium or inherited wealth or cultural capital or social standing?  Can we, like T’Challa, learn to recognize our brothers and sisters from different walks of life and different national origin, and to understand what it means to “keep” them? I believe we can, and I believe we must. The power to dwell in unity, as the psalmist celebrates, is within all of our reach.