Spoilers Ahead!!! Proceed with caution.
I saw Black Panther on Friday with two friends and, like most movie goers, we left the theater thrilled! About twenty-five minutes into the film I leaned to one of my friends and noted, “I could leave now and this has already been worth the price of admission.” Thankfully I stayed! Afterwards we, naturally, began discussing the movie. There were many topics covered but we can place them in three broad categories.
- Inspirational. As we left the theater I turned to my friends and stated, “I gotta tell ya, I feel like I should be going outside and trying to make the world a better place.” How many movies can make you feel that way? This feeling brings us to category two.
- Leadership. At various times during our post-movie chat one of us would exclaim, “T’Challa 2020!” What makes a great leader? How does a leader weigh the best course of action? When should a leader lean on tradition and when must he or she blaze a new trail? To bend a line from T’Challa’s father T’Chaka into a question, why is it hard for a good man to be king? To whom is a leader most responsible?
- Balance. This concept was brought up as we had witnessed a powerful blend of technology and spirituality. Powerful and prideful male and female characters seamlessly sharing the films multitude of subplots. Compassion balanced by conviction. The list went well on into the night.
For this post, however, we will focus on an aspect of balance I did not raise with any particular force with my friends. To be honest, I am not sure I mentioned it at all. It was, however, percolating in my mind. It will continue to do so well after this post is complete.
Some years ago I was blessed to encounter Stephen Biko’s essay, “Black Consciousness and the Quest for a True Humanity.” This was mentioned in the first post on this website but the time has arisen for a little unpacking of the power of this thought. What might our “True Humanity” look like? What dangers do we face when we allow ourselves to venture far from our greatest potential? Is it an ideal to achieve or a goal we can forever chase, perpetually approximate, and raise us up while never achieving full realization? An, as of this moment, incomplete manuscript considering the implication and power of True Humanity rests in my mind, in a variety of notebooks, and on my desktop. A brief summation of that idea resides in a single word: balance.
The quest for True Humanity includes the balancing of five human components. Our physical, intellectual, psychological, emotional, and spiritual sensibilities have been on display throughout history and across cultures. These components, in a multitude of forms from harmonious balance to harmful overemphasis, were also on display in Black Panther. Here are examples from each trait for your consideration.
T’Challa has profound respect for his father T’Chaka. He sees his him as a great king, loving father, and wise protector of Wakanda. When he learns of his father’s handling of his Uncle, T’Challa is shaken to his emotional core. He only regains his equilibrium when he stands before his father in the spirit realm of the ancestral plane and gut wrenchingly declares his father was wrong (I must confess here that I so want to hear a conversation between T’Challa and Thor about the trials of being raised by kings). The struggle of losing and regaining his emotional center is central to T’Challa’s final victory. The fact this victory transpired in the ancestral plane also reveals how one aspect of our humanity, in this case spirituality, must lend support to another.
Psychological maturity is not something we effectively promote in this country. The failure to do so is reaching tragic proportions. In Black Panther a fine example of psychological strength (again supported by love of tradition – an aspect of spirituality) is exhibited by M’Baku, chief of the Jabari. M’Baku, who was defeated in ritual combat by T’Challa, saves his rival’s life after his subsequent defeat at the hands of Erik Stevens aka Killmonger. M’Baku is offered the power of the Black Panther by Queen Ramonda who is desperately attempting to remove Killmonger from the throne of Wakanda. She is unaware her son lives in M’Baku’s lands. She just knows she needs help. M’Baku has his heart’s desire offered to him…and he refuses it! Opting for honesty and the noble (and old fashioned) idea of repaying a debt he brings the Queen to her son.
According to psychologist James Fowler one of the challenges people of deep faith present is the expansion of our sense of community. Who gets to be included under the protective umbrella of “us” and who must remain a “them.” Spiritual leaders throughout history have attempted to shake people from their parochial worldview so they can adopt a more cosmopolitan perspective. Wakanda, as presented in the film, has a long isolationist tradition. Isolation, be it personal or national, often arises rom the logic of fear. In Wakanda’s case it was fear of vibranium falling into the wrong hands (There was also the Wakandan intentional isolation of the Jabari as presented by M’Baku. This action struck me as a form of regal superiority). T’Challa, who was taught the responsibility of royalty by his father throughout his life, has a traditional isolationist outlook. His sense of community is challenged, quite regularly by Nakia, who declared not only that Wakanda should give aid (as other nations do) but would likely do it better. Nakia also challenges Okoye, general and leader of the Dora Milaje, when the two debate the correct course of action when Agent Ross is injured. Their disagreements continue when briefly debating what matters more serving the throne or saving it. The film’s mid-credit scene, T’Challa vowing to end Wakandan isolation and build bridges instead of walls, speaks to his expanding view of humanity and the inspirational power of Nakia’s moral courage.
All of these human traits have literal and metaphoric interpretations as well as real world manifestations. A prime example of this is witnessed through the physical lens to our humanity. Beyond the striking physical prowess of so many characters we see the physical mindset where might makes right and problems can be rectified by physical conquest. The captivating Erik “Killmonger” Stevens forcefully dismisses all other paths as an expression of his righteous fury (Not unlike another complex and wrathful Erik in Marvel’s pantheon of villains, Erik “Magneto” Lehnsherr). Killmonger, in an ironic twist, confronts Wakandan isolation much like Nokia. He, however, does not want to send aid. He wants to conquer and will kill anyone, black or white, who does not agree with his vision. He declares, without remorse, that the families an children of his opponents must also die. While his anger is understandable his path would only produce a cycle of violence that would consume the world.
Who other than the scene stealing Shuri would be the finest representative of the intellectual realm of life? Inventor, scientist, physician, and wise cracking younger sibling she brought spirit, humor, and the joy of intellectual pursuits to the screen. I smiled wide when my eleven year old daughter leaned to me in the the theater (my second viewing of the weekend) and said, “I want to be her.” One of Shuri’s greatest traits was a humbler approach to her intellect than some other Marvel geniuses (I’m looking at you Tony Stark). This speaks to the balance she has embraced in her young life. I also found great enjoyment when she referred to Agent Ross as a “colonizer” but did not hesitate to turn to him for help during the final battle (“You were a great pilot.”). This action by Shuri underscored the greatest example of hope presented in the movie. She viewed Ross as a representative of historic misdeeds while recognizing the past need not hold sway over the present. A present day ally need not share our past so we can help each other to a better future. That is the promise of Wakanda and the challenge of T’Challa. Are you ready to heed the king’s call to action?