To listen to Black Panther, click on the arrow. The podcast (35 minutes) is more personal than the article below, which served as the notes for the audio lesson. Some sections have been expanded, others compressed, for the sake of the podcast. To download and listen later, right click here.
In April someone asked me if I'd seen Black Panther. I had heard of it, but admitted I wasn't particularly interested in yet another superhero movie. "I'll probably watch it once it comes out on the airplane," I replied. Yet on learning the film featured a black superhero -- possibly the first ever -- and had touched some emotional chords among many African Americans, I knew I needed to see it. This is an important film -- and one reason I needed to watch it was that I am not an African American. There are some things I simply don't get.
As it turned out, in May I was able to watch Black Panther on a flight to Japan. (Even on the small screen, the movie was riveting.) I took copious notes. I watched it a second time (without the sound) on a flight from Atlanta to San Antonio. It's truly a superb film. But let me digress for a moment.
Detour: Black Lightning
Poking around the worldwide web, I quickly found another black superhero. He is Black Lightning, a winsome and modest school principal with superpowers. But this DC Comics creation isn't recent; Black Lightning came out way back in 1977 -- the last time it snowed in the Bahamas, and the year I became a Christian. The television series Black Lightning came out in 2018. As one reviewer put it,
It is a disturbingly familiar scene: a black motorist standing outside his car on a rainy night, arguing with the white police officer who has pulled him over for seemingly no reason. As this moment plays out in the opening minutes of “Black Lightning,” the CW series based on that DC superhero, the motorist in question is Jefferson Pierce (Cress Williams), who stepped back from his role as a crime-fighting vigilante to focus on his civilian identity as a high-school principal and father to two teenage daughters. Just when his roadside confrontation is about to cross a dangerous threshold, Pierce closes his eyes. When he reopens them, his pupils glow with angry electricity… Click to continue reading the New York Times article. For more on the important cultural issues highlighted in the Black Lightning series, click here.
This is very well done -- I was hooked, with at least enough interest to view the entire first season (13 episodes). Then I found more superheroes of color... and more... We took this detour to note that there are numerous black superheroes (even if I was clueless as to their existence) -- not to mention superheroes of other complexions and ethnicities. See the bullet points at the end of this article for a complete list. For now, back to Black Panther.
Vibranium & Wakanda
Long ago a meteor containing a special element, vibranium, struck West Africa. As a result, there is a mountain full of vibranium, which has been mined for centuries -- and yet they are only just scratching the surface. Because of the unique and near-miraculous properties of vibranium, the people mining it, the country of Wakanda, become a highly advanced civilization -- more advanced than any of the developed nations of the world. Some of the many cool special effects of Black Panther are bulletproof suits, aircraft like spaceships, holographic telephones, and super-advanced medicine (e.g., bullet wounds healed 100s of times faster than normal).
Yet fearing what might happen if other nations also possessed vibranium, they hide their secret from the outside world, in order to safeguard their source of power. Their warrior-king becomes the first Black Panther, the protector of Wakanda. (For more about the plot and characters, click here.)
Black Panther has all the elements of a great film. There are some aspects that are not realistic. For instance, the Northern Lights are visible in West Africa. (But, hey, this was fun!) Wakanda itself has been cobbled together from multiple (continental) African cultures, languages, and geographical regions of Africa (which probably broadened its appeal).
Beneath the surface
Although I thoroughly enjoyed the movie, I was conscious of a layer of dialogue -- sometimes just small nuances -- passing below me:
- When T'Challa's uncle comes to the US, he observes US how blacks were being treated. He is indignant! From childhood up, I have certainly witnessed plenty of mistreatment and injustice.
- T'Challa’s sister calls Everett Frost, a CIA agent, a “colonizer.” Anyone who knows the history of Africa, especially in the past 125 years, has a different view of the western powers.
- Wakanda was in a position to liberate the two billion people "who look like us."
- When T'Challa's rival for the throne, N'Jadaka (Killmonger), is mortally wounded, T’Challa says that maybe he can be healed. N'Jadaka replies (I am quoting from memory): "Why? So you can just lock me up? Just bury me in the ocean, with my ancestors that jumped from ships 'cause they knew that death was better than bondage." I thought of films like Amistad, and books like Uncle Tom's Cabin, which depict the horror of chattel slavery.
- The film ends with a question about black identity: "Who are you?" In other words, Who am I? Will I do what is right? What is meaningful? Or will I only react to how I have been treated? Great questions all.
I noticed these salient points -- perhaps I could write an essay -- but I confess I did not feel much. (Knowing the history of an oppressed people is a good start, but it hardly puts the reader on the inside.) Since I am an "outsider," I asked three friends for their take. The first two are African-American; the third is married to an African-American. (I also spoke to several more friends from Africa, Asia, and Europe, but I thought the following responses were the most thoughtful.)
- Joey Harris, CEO & Consultant, Aeron IT Consulting, Augusta, Georgia
- Michelle Wright, Anchor and Morning Reporter for WSB Radio, Atlanta
- Michael Burns, Teaching Minister, Minneapolis-St. Paul Church of Christ -- with a special ministry as a popular speaker on racial issues.
What my friends thought -- and felt:
"I appreciated the (typically intra-community) themes of the various ways of resisting colonialism represented by Wakanda (isolationism) and Killmonger (armed resistance/revenge/militancy), as well as the larger themes of Wakanda protecting the world from their advanced technology (isolationism) vs. sharing their knowledge and technology with the rest of the world. I enjoyed the way their decision was portrayed at the end of the film, and again at the first of the two post-credit scenes.
As an African-American, it was refreshing to see a representation of an African country free from the effects of colonialism with a multicultural (pan-African), religiously pluralistic, multiethnic society which fused traditional aesthetics and values with ultramodern technology, without surrendering their unique cultural identity. I especially enjoyed the way that women and men were portrayed as equal partners in all aspects of society. And yet the traditional respect of elders, authority, and society were maintained in ways which still fit well with modern society and technology. Even the user interfaces of the technology were done in very believable and African ways.
I liked the way they protected their society (and the world from their technology) by having an outer, 'public' Wakanda— the portrayal of the Wakanda marketplace was also very believable, with the streets milling with people, shopping, eating, transacting business, etc—and a hidden, shielded, 'true' Wakanda.
Directorially, I loved the way that Coogler managed such a large cast and gave everyone—not just the main, titular character—important roles and screen time. I also enjoyed how General Okoye and her husband were on opposite sides politically, but able to maintain their relationship in the face of strongly opposing views. The women in general were strong characters. (Okoye, N’kia, the Dora Milaje, the Queen -- and of course, T'Challa’s little sister, Shuri, was 'the world's smartest living person.') (In Avengers, it’s Infinity War; they make it clear she is much smarter than both Tony Stark and Bruce Banner.) Yet she is still a (teen? early twenties?), a normal, fun-loving young woman in other respects.
The villain was truly tragic. He had a valid point about injustice, but a wrong way of reacting/dealing with it. Yet I was struck by how humble T’Challa was, sparing his opponents (the other tribal chieftain and Killmonger), as well as wanting to collaborate with people and nations wherever possible. Getting to the heart of things, T’Challa admits that he and his ancestors were wrong to isolate Wakanda with protectionist policies, hiding the true nature of the country’s advancements. The Wakandans ultimately decide to share their knowledge and take concrete steps to do so as soon as the decision had been made—a blessing for the world."
Michelle weighs in:
"Black Panther stirred me... It was fantastic. As many have said, it was nice to see 'people who looked like me' on the screen—both protagonists and antagonists. It was so good to see personal differences, not just differences of skin color. The acting was superb, and the effects fantastic. It truly made me proud (in an honored, not prideful way). The movie opened up discussions not just between American blacks and whites, but also between American blacks and African blacks.
There were a lot of deep, deep things in this superhero flick. There are so many layers dealing with so many things: economic disparity (Compton v. Wakanda), lack of exposure, the death/killing of black fathers which leaves many black sons fatherless and trying to figure out what to do, concealing of talents/resources, and hiding who we really are (for fear of exploitation). A truly amazing movie!"
1. Black Panther is an important movie about black identity in America. I've had people ask me before why it is okay for black people to say that they are proud to be black while it seems not okay for whites to say they are proud to be white. The answer to that has to do with identity. White is a category of social construct that has always been, at its core, about power and control. It's a fluctuating category that didn't always include Italians, Slavs, Irish, and others, while no one has a problem saying they’re proud of being Scottish or German or Greek. While these ethnic identities should never trump our identity in Christ, they can be fun but important pieces of who we are. After all, identity was in Christ. He saw no superiority in his ethnic identity, but he still identified with being Jewish, viewing the Jews as his people. But black Americans don't have that ethnic and cultural identity. It was stripped away from them. They can't say I'm proud to be Igbo, or Zulu or Xhosa. They only thing they have is to confirm pride in being black. We did a DNA test for my wife recently, and she found out that she is most predominantly Nigerian. There was something important about that to her, I think. It doesn't matter in terms of her being in Christ, but it does matter. Galatians 3:28 doesn’t deny there are differences between male and female, slave and free—only that in Christ—at the foot of the cross, as it’s often said—we all stand on even ground.
That's where Black Panther becomes so important. Most African Americans don't have those roots and identity. Wakanda is a mythical place but it was never colonized, it was never enslaved, and it embodies all kinds of African culture. It is the dream. And because so many black Americans don't have that ancestral identity, Wakanda seems like the perfect symbol. It gives them an identity. This is why, I think, so many have latched on to it. For that reason, I think it was a really important movie for many. It connected them with something they want, even if they haven't always known they wanted it—an identity. This identity of course is a secondary identity for those in Christ, but still an important one.
2. The character of Kilmonger is both fascinating and nuanced. In the end, his philosophy is embraced as correct; T'Challa changes his mind. Kilmonger felt it was wrong for Wakanda to turn its eye inward and ignore the injustice imposed on the rest of Africa. He was right. But I see an important piece of social commentary under the surface with this character. He allowed his bitterness towards these injustices to boil over, becoming a weapon of revenge. In so doing, he was destroyed by the very injustice. Wakanda had ignored the oppressed, but they had survived. They would now turn to help others, but on their terms. That's very powerful social commentary. That leads into the next observation.
3. The movie gets at the very real social pressure put on African Americans when they have "made it" somehow. They must deplete their own resources, at least according to the community, by giving back what they can to family members and others. My wife has felt an enormous pressure from this and the constant requests and expectations to pay for everything, to help, to take care of others. These can be difficult waters to navigate. Should they indiscriminately help because that is their obligation? Should they start over with their own generation and give to the next, yet realize they simply cannot save everyone else? Should they help but on their own limited terms? Difficult questions to answer.
4. Black Panther does a brilliant job of capturing the tension between Africans and African Americans. I've met many African disciples living in the United States who tell me that when they moved here as teens their African parents told them to stay away from African Americans because they were no good. They have really had to struggle with their prejudices since becoming Christians. The movie doesn't overtly address those issues, but it is there under the surface in a very real way.
Those are just a few thoughts that I have had initially. Oh, and the big fight scene in the final third of the film dragged on and was a bit gratuitous, but I guess that's Marvel films for ya :-)."
Spiritual growth opportunities
- If you're still holding out, watch Black Panther.
- Appreciate the biblical points of the film. For example:
- Reject racial stereotypes.
- Share, don’t hoard.
- Engage, don’t withdraw.
- Human anger does not bring about God’s will.
- Some character embody "godly" wisdom, others "earthly" wisdom (see James 3). [Selected scriptures read from James 3-4.]
- Talk to friends about how the film impacted them.
- And if you are a majority race member (white), especially if you live in the U.S.:
- Read Michael Burns’s Crossing the Line: Culture, Race, and Kingdom.
- Embrace forgiveness, patience, and reconciliation—not bitterness, anger, and agitation.