Black Panther is a great movie, and you should go see it. That’s the short version of this review.
Before I get into a few bits of analysis, let me say a couple things. First, I don’t normally do movie reviews, and I don’t know how to write the kind of review I want to write without spoilers. If you want my spoiler-free review, see the first sentence of this article. That’s it.
For those who don’t care about spoilers, proceed. . . .
Second, I am writing about a few of the more outstanding points I found remarkable. This is not a comprehensive review. There are both good and objectionable aspects I do not cover. I hope you find what I offer here helpful and illuminating, but if you find it lacking, please write the compliment to it.
I am fully aware there are aspects in this movie that portray paganistic tribalism, etc. The irony is that where these are undergirded by Christian theology, they are important and key to the movie. Where these aspects have no such foundation, they feed the vices of the movie, or are irrelevant. More on that at another time, perhaps.
How shall black humanity be regenerated?
The key issue in the plot is how Wakanda relates to the rest of the world, and this is intimately tied to the Christian idea of regeneration. The story comes down to two black leaders vying for control of the throne of Wakanda. One, “Killmonger,” is a kill-whitey radical. The other, T’Challa, who is the main protagonist, is initially a moderate conservative, but transforms into something far greater.
Killmonger could be said to be analogous to the more extreme elements of #BlackLivesMatter. T’Challa, in his initial form, is like a modern American conservative. As some have noted, he is like Trump in a way (Build the wall! Don’t take in refugees!). He is, in reality, like any compromised leader: at the whim of tradition, institutions, the expectations of the masses, fear of outsiders, jealous of resources, etc. He is ruled by a whole set of fears and limitations derived mostly from the sins of the past. He cannot be forward looking.
In his second form, however, he is a sacrificial warrior, a lover, a fighter, a giver, a compassionate and merciful victor (even to the vanquished), a bridgebuilder, an entrepreneur, a philanthropist, statesman, and more. He is, in a word, what every Christian should aspire to be.
The question in the movie is, which of these visions will prevail: black revolution, black isolation, or black regeneration.
In the end, the ritual through which the king-elect must pass in order to become the Black Panther shows the true path. It is involves drinking a sacred drink, being ritually buried (baptism), falling into a death-sleep (think of Adam, Abraham, etc.), and finally awakening to be resurrected from that temporary burial. While there are obvious paganistic embellishments to this, the half-awake Christian can discern the basic theology undergirding that.
And it is from here that he must take our cues. For the whole difference in the movie is made in whether the person awaking from that ritual is doing so as a truly new man, or as a man merely reconfirmed in his old self. (Hint: only in the instance in which he emerges as a truly new creation does he go on to save the day.)
On top of this, two of the movie’s themes drive home the righteousness of the conclusions and make the movie as great as it is. These are: 1) overcoming the sins of your fathers, and 2) the right and duty of private judgment.
Overcoming the sins of the fathers
Both times T’Challa is initiated as the Black Panther, he goes in a dream to revisit the ancestors, specifically his father, T’Chaka. The difference in these two visits is all the difference in the movie, and it is a message for us all.
During his first visit, early in the movie, T’Challa confesses he’s not ready to be king. He lacks confidence in himself. At this encounter, his father assures T’Challa he is indeed ready. He says, “A man who has not prepared his children for his own death has failed as a father.”
This is true. It is powerful wisdom in general, but especially here. It is highly ironic, the viewer will come to find out. T’Chaka seems to be suggesting he has fulfilled this role. That is the assumption for the viewer, and for T’Challa. It gives the encouragement needed to proceed at the time. Whether or not T’Chaka was being conscious of his failure when he was saying this, we will find out he had failed nonetheless, and to profound effect.
With his encouragement, T’Challa resurrects as the Black Panther and assumes his throne. But his confidence is a false one. It is a confidence that says you may now proceed according to the status quo and everything will be fine. But this is allowing his father to set his agenda for him.
This assumption means that tradition rules, not necessarily right and wrong. It means the new generation has not grown into the mature person who judges for himself. It rides on past achievement, presumes upon past institutions, but therefore also assumes and perhaps ignores past failures and inadequacies.
Therefore, despite his illusion of confidence, it is actually T’Challa’s original lack of confidence and vision that determines his policy: Wakanda shall be what it has always been; it must not take risks, reach out, reveal itself.
But refusing to exercise one’s full potential, or even really to try, is to deny that potential in practice. It is, therefore, a rejection of one’s potential. And for what? Fear, complacency, indoctrination.
In the interim, however, T’Challa’s Wakanda is visited by a rival to the throne—one who has a true claim to heirship. This is N’Jadaka, a.k.a. Erik, son of T’Chaka’s brother and an American mother. There is valuable backstory here, but the short version is that T’Chaka executed Erik’s father, but also abandoned Erik in Oakland. Erik becomes a violent revolutionary, now a.k.a. “Killmonger,” hell-bent on revenge. He hates whites, and he hates those blacks he perceives to have either joined or enabled the exploitation of blacks.
When he finally succeeds in confronting T’Challa, he captures the throne through the bloodsport ritual in which he defeats T’Challa, it appears. Now Killmonger is made the Black Panther. His dream-resurrection experience reveals that his heart is bitterness, revenge, and revolution.
T’Challa, however, secretly survives, and is revived to be made Black Panther again, secretly. It is here we see T’Challa undergo the necessary change.
In his second initiation, T’Challa is forced to confront himself, essentially, because of the sins of his father(s). He had learned of his fathers’ failure in the meantime. Confronting this became the key turning point. It was largely in abandoning his own nephew—a son of Wakanda—fatherless and in poverty.
This failure of the fathers clearly scarred Killmonger. It fuels his worldview. He wants to burn the world down and start it all over. He says so explicitly. This is the classic Marxist doctrine of violent revolution. It is regeneration by violence; creating chaos that we may build our own order from it. This is the rage of the spurned, the abandoned, the fatherless. Instead of enabling that bitterness and resentment, however, making those vices hinges for a Marxist revolution, Black Panther makes them the ultimate villain, the evil.
During the interim, T’Challa receives a key piece of advice from his love interest, the Wakandan spy and warrioress, Nakia. She sees the father-problem. She also wants Wakanda to advance, embrace its potential, reveal itself, and enrich the world. She knows what needs to happen. She tells T’Challa, “You cannot let your father’s actions define your life. You get to decide what kind of king you want to be.”
This is the key to the whole movie, in my opinion. This is Black Panther tackling head-on the problem of allowing the sins of the fathers, as well as of the exploiters, to rule their present and future.
For generations now, some whites and conservatives have blamed blacks for ignoring the problems “in your own community,” and highlighted the fact that leftists exploit these vices for political gain. Black Panther defies this accusation. It makes the problems of “its own community” the central vices from which its community must break, and which it must overcome.
It goes a step further. It does not even portray these vices as pure victimhood. Black Panther instead makes them an obstacle that must be surmounted, even though there is some level of genuine victimhood in the circumstances. It says, essentially, that while blacks are in part victims of what whites have done in the past, that is no excuse either 1) to keep victimizing themselves, or even, 2) to victimize whites in revenge.
The Right and Duty of Private Judgment
The regular reader will probably recognize in this heading a doctrine that came out of the Protestant Reformation. It is this: no one may rely on tradition or the doctrines of men for their salvation. You must go to God’s word and believe for yourself. Likewise, no one is required to submit to tradition or authority if they determine for themselves these are opposed to God’s law. Obviously, this needs to be fleshed out more, but this is the nutshell.
This theme appears clearly in Black Panther, and it is key to its development and success.
When Killmonger arrives on scene to capture the throne, he has a lawful right to do so, according to tradition. He is able to do so only because of the blood sport ceremony of dueling until either submission or death. T’Challa has to accept this or else compromise the confidence in his throne. He accepts, and is defeated. We are led to believe he is killed.
This forces an immediate decision on the part of all of Wakanda. Everyone knows Killmomger is an evil villain. He has regained the throne for openly evil purposes. The three key women in the movie, Nakia the covert agent, Shuri the genius, and Okeye the royal guard, are all loyal to the Wakandan government and throne. They are now in a moral dilemma. They are forced to exercise private judgment: do they fight for what they know is right, or do they compromise to the evil because of ceremony and tradition?
They all ultimately choose right, which means they must defy authority and tradition. This is easiest for Nakia, for she is used to working in the underground. She adapts quickly. Shuri does so as well, for her clear moral sense and can-do ingenuity drive her.
Okeye, however, presents a tougher case. She is the throne’s personal guard, the most loyal of the loyal. She has no gray area in which to operate. She is not pragmatic, but dogmatic. She has been trained her whole life to die for that throne, to do her duty, no matter what.
When T’Challa returns to recapture the throne, she fights to help him; but in the interim her loyalty to what is right is not clear. This deserves more exploration. At the least, it shows the great pressure some will be under when the right and duty of private judgment must be exercised, and what that will look like for those people. There will be Okeyes who prevail in due time. There may also be those who remain loyal for their own neck, or a paycheck.
In the end, it was the righteous rebellion of these women and a few others that cleared the only path back to the throne for T’Challa. Emboldened by Nakia’s counsel, he overcomes the sins of the ancestors and the rebellion of the revolutionaries who were a product of the sins of the past.
A necessary condition for this, however, was for the right people at the right time to defy tradition and ceremony, and to work contrary to evil authorities.
In the end, T’Challa announces to the world that he does not want to build barriers (i.e. Trump, or old Wakanda), but wants to build bridges. Here is a man who is no longer tossed about by every wind of doctrine—whether revolutionary winds or ancient traditions built on fear—but has grown into full maturity. He no longer hides the light of Wakanda under a bushel. He is not possessive of it, nor is he afraid. He is ready to reach out in self-confidence and love, interacting with the world around him to better it and to be bettered by it.
The irony in all of this is two-fold. First, it means that Breitbart’s pro-Trump twist on Wakanda and Black Panther is short-sighted (Build the wall! Keep out refugees!). It does not account for the key character development in T’Challa that changed his whole outlook and policy. (This is why they couldn’t make sense of the after-credits scene at the end in which T’Challa announces that good leaders build bridges not barriers.)
Contrary to some other conservative critics, Black Panther also is not about welfare statism, reparations, glorifying or justifying a “hood” mentality, blaming whites for everything, etc. Nonsense. If there is a central message of blame, it is at least partially, if not mainly, on their own ancestors. Yes, whites are seen as “colonizers” who exploited Africa. This is probably because whites colonized and exploited blacks in Africa. But the standard retorts that “blacks enslaved blacks, too!” and “colonization also did some good!” are both accounted for in the movie—especially the sins of the fathers.
All that said, Black Panther is actually about self-discipline, improvement, and individual achievement. It is about blacks teaching blacks (and the rest of the world for that matter) that we can only raise godly generations through faithfulness and self-sacrifice, and we can only raise up the impoverished among us through giving of ourselves to do so (contrary to one review I read, this was not portrayed as a government program, but private philanthropy).
The movie is specifically anti-revolutionary, anti-resentment, anti-Marxist. It is not about class warfare, but about healing the nations, beginning with your own, which in Wakanda’s case is black.
That commentary forces the conservative hand, too. Even as conservative pundits line up to shoot down the movie, to point out what they can to criticize it as activist, Marxist, liberal, blaming whitey, etc., they (we!) are the ones missing that the movie teaches that the path is through regeneration, not revolution. It is not through revolution, nor through ancient traditions and institutions that we will succeed, but only through a new creation, and by that, a new way of thinking and acting.
Is this not the message of the New Testament?