“Black Panther”: Theological and Moral Issues Add Impact to Film
Even before the film opened, it enjoyed one of the most aggressive promotional campaigns in recent history and maintained first place in ticket sales for many weeks.
So when I decided to see the movie, I wasn’t sure what to expect – would it live up to the hype or would it be just another Marvel escapist movie? I was so surprised when I found the film was everything it was promised to be and more.
“Black Panther” offers more than the usual Marvel Cinematic Universe fare. It has considerable substance that speaks to our modern world. The film picks up from “Captain America: Civil War” with the return of King T’Challa, known also as the Black Panther (played by Chadwick Boseman), to his home country of Wakanda for his coronation as its new leader.
From this point forward, though, we begin to see what distinguishes this film from other superhero films. On one level, it offers an interesting balance of traditionalism and modernity.
We are introduced to a point of traditionalism with the coronation process that includes the right to challenge the future king in mortal combat. The example of modernity, on the other hand, is seen in the fact that Wakanda’s technological advancements are far beyond that of the rest of the world thanks to its secret natural resource – a special mineral called vibranium.
The film is built around three challenges facing the new king. Two of the challenges involve threats to T’Challa’s reign. One of these threats is in the form of Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), a black market arms dealer, smuggler and general nemesis to the King and to Wakanda; your classic bad guy/good guy and good and evil script.
The second challenge comes from an American-born ex-military man, Erik Stevens, a.k.a. “Killmonger,” revealed to be T’Challa’s cousin. An angry young man who was orphaned at a young age and who experienced a race-torn world, Erik (Michael B. Jordan) becomes a formidable opponent to T’Challa. More profoundly, this challenge raises theological and moral questions around the concepts of resentment and anger vs. revenge and forgiveness.
This leads to the third challenge addressed by the film, concerning leadership and the needs of the world vs. revenge vs. the needs of one’s country. In the case of Wakanda, this means understanding how best to use the country’s natural resource – to preserve and protect Wakanda or to make it available to the wider world? It is how these challenges and issues are addressed that raises the film beyond the superhero film genre.
Throughout its life, the small country of Wakanda managed to keep its true identity and resources hidden from the rest of Africa and the larger world. The country played its role very well as just another poor, simple African nation with limited resources, and therein lies the problem for the new king. Having grown up in the 21st century, T’Challa sees the needs of the world around him and questions whether Wakanda can continue to bury its head in the sand and shirk its responsibility to help heal the world – especially if it has the resources and means to do so. Yet, as noted by proponents of maintaining its secret, as shown by the history of Africa, if they reveal their secret and serve humankind, the world will only seek to abuse Wakanda and their resource.
The related moral issue centers around the use of Wakanda’s resources. For an angry Stevens seeking to avenge all the wrongs committed against him and his people, Wakanda has the means to lead Africa to turn the tables on those nations who have colonized and oppressed not only Africa and Africans but all African-Americans. It is these theological and moral issues that add impact to the film.
On another level, while “Black Panther” offers exciting action-packed scenes and high-tech gadgets, not to mention great scenery, two additional points help the film rise above the average Marvel film. These involve gender and race.
The official trailer for “Black Panther” (courtesy Marvel Studios).
First, the James Bond movies set the precedent in which the inventor of all the unique gadgets and high-tech equipment used by 007 was always a man. While Bond’s superior, “M,” has been portrayed by a man or a woman, “Q” was always a man. Plus, America grew up with Bill Nye, the “science guy.” The world has learned to expect to see men as the science geeks and tech specialists – but not necessarily women. So, to see a young African woman as the equivalent of “Q” or Bill Nye sets a whole new precedent that can motivate young girls to pursue science and technology as a career.
Shuri (Letitia Wright) is not only the sister of T’Challa and a princess, but the person who develops new and innovative technological equipment and amazing breakthroughs in science and technology for her country. This also introduces a wholly different image of Africans from Hollywood’s traditional perspective. Rather than portraying Africans as those in need with little education, “Black Panther” shows a prosperous, innovative, creative, and successful young African woman who helps save her nation. Such an image says more to a young girl than hundreds of words as to what they can achieve and do as young women.
But the film does not just offer science and technology as a viable career option for young women. The second point that caught my attention is the use of an all-women regiment as the “Dora Milajie” or royal guard. For the original Marvel comic authors and film director Ryan Coogler to depict the royal guard as composed of only African women was quite revolutionary.
We can certainly point to films that have portrayed women as those with integrity, skills, strength, and as leaders who save the day – “Tris” Prior in the Divergent series and Katniss Everdeen in the Hunger Games films. And we have seen women as part of a secret service detail or as FBI or law enforcement officers. But to conceive of those charged with protecting and guarding a royal family as only women is a bold statement even in the 21st century. The use of martial arts and weapons other than traditional arms by the women was equally innovative and bold for the film. They were certainly not my mother’s image of the secret service or royal guards. Nor did the key women in “Black Panther”have to sacrifice their sense of femininity to carry out their designated roles.
To take this point a step further, though the young princess and the Dora Milajie were attractive young women, there was no hint of hyped up sexuality or exploitation of women as sexual objects. Could it be that there is still hope for today’s Hollywood? Though this is a trendsetter opportunity, the question remains whether or not it will be nurtured and expanded in future films because our girls and young women need to see who and what they can become.
When it comes to race, I found the film to offer a ray of hope that the tide was turning in terms of how Hollywood views Africa and Africans in films. Certainly many of us remember films that did not hesitate to portray Africans in a negative light. Africans were to be pitied because they were poor, uneducated or isolated from the “real world.” Or they were portrayed as violent, war-mongering people to be feared. In literature and cinematic history, Africa was usually called the “Dark Continent,” holding multiple connotations with little to offer the world other than precious gems, ivory and gold. Africans were often called savages or uncivilized – people who needed the Western world to bring them out of darkness and into the light of civilized society.
This isn’t at all to say Hollywood hasn’t portrayed Africa and Africans in a positive manner. Nor is it to say that issues such as blood diamonds, civil war and other issues should be ignored in film. But it’s a question of balance and ensuring that cinematic portrayals are not one-sided. There were films here and there that tried to offer a more accurate and balanced view of Africa and its peoples, but not in the trail-blazing way of “Black Panther.”
In “Black Panther” not only is an African nation portrayed whose people are prosperous, innovative, educated, and hard-working but we see the different tribal groups able to govern effectively and harmoniously, and a people with the means to serve the world – a world that includes diverse ethnicities, cultures and races. And more importantly, this is the first movie in which the superhero is black. It is also the first in which an African nation offers its resources to help the world. Finally, it is a film in which the director is African-American and the cast is predominantly black.
As Jamil Smith writes in TIME magazine, “‘Black Panther’ is poised to prove to Hollywood that African-American narratives have the power to generate profits from all audiences. And, more importantly, that making movies about black lives is part of showing that they matter.” As a famous ad tag line says, “Oh the possibilities…!”♦
“Black Panther” (rated PG-13) is still in some theaters, will be available on digital (e.g., iTunes, Amazon Video) May 8, and on DVD and Blu-ray May 15. Running time: 134 minutes. Directed by Ryan Coogler; written by Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole (based on the character created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby). Main cast: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Letitia Wright, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, and Andy Serkis. Some scenes were filmed in Busan, South Korea; and, as always, there are mid- and post-credits scenes. See IMDB for full details.
Dr. Kathy Winings (UTS Class of 1987) is Professor of Religious Education and Ministry; Director, Maryland Additional Location; and Director, Doctor of Ministry Program at UTS. She is also Vice President of the Board of Directors for the International Relief Friendship Foundation.
Photo at top: Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther (courtesy Marvel Studios).