I’m a little late to the party, but I recently watched Marvel’s Black Panther in theaters. The movie came out nearly a month ago, but the conversation surrounding the various themes and characters within the film has yet to quiet down.
Given the ideological leanings of Hollywood, though, I expected to sit through an exciting film that contained oblique statements related to social issues designed to jab at Western culture. Instead, I discovered that the movie contained a deeply resonant theme and message that centered on something Hollywood tends to rail against––transcendent values.
The story arc of Black Panther directly imitates the gospel narrative in one of the most powerful ways I’ve seen from a movie. Critiques of finding “gospel themes” in pop culture aside, Chadwick Boseman’s character contains some significant Christ-like features that are often overlooked in mainstream culture.
Most superhero movies include messianic/savior themes––the genre basically requires them––but Black Panther does so in a way that appropriately relates to our cultural moment.
MAJOR FILM SPOILERS FOLLOW
In the film, the extremely complex set of issues surrounding race relations plays out on the big screen. One of the most compelling aspects of the film is watching T’Challa (Black Panther sans the super-suit) attempt to find the appropriate road through the chaos. Does he go the route of his ancestors who essentially hid from the problem? Or does he take the route of Killmonger who craved a violent revolution against oppression?
In a culture obsessed with the concept of social justice, Black Panther attempts to answer a very important question: “how does a society achieve justice?” The way that the film went about answering that question hit a sour note for some. Even Boseman has been quoted as calling his character, T’Challa, “the enemy” because of his character’s privilege of being born into royalty.
Several commentators have fallen in love with Killmonger because of his strategy of acheiving black liberation by arming oppressed Africans around the globe with advanced Wakandan weaponry. In many ways, this fulfills a desire of many on the Left.
Adam Serwer in The Atlantic points out that Killmonger doesn’t desire liberation but dominion. “It is remarkable that many viewers seem to have taken the ‘liberation’ part at face value, and ignored the ’empire’ part,” Serwer writes. For many on the Left, though, liberation and dominion often appear to be synonymous. They want to destroy their cultural enemies rather than engage them.
T’Challa’s heroism rests in the fact that he opposes Killmonger’s methodology, but unlike his father, he does so out of a desire for redemption and justice, not self-preservation. In his fight to achieve those ends, T’Challa chooses what should be understood as the way of Christ.
As the story unfolds, T’Challa embodies Jesus’ command to “love your enemies.” He chooses this path because, as he says to Killmonger in one of the most poignant lines in the film, to choose the path of violent revolution will mean becoming “like them” (I cannot remember the line verbatim). In the fight for justice, even the oppressed do not truly achieve victory if their revolution only leads them to become oppressors themselves.
T’Challa realizes that the only way forward is redemption through self-sacrifice. Even when T’Challa finally defeats Killmonger, he neutralizes him without killing him. Then, he offers his enemy a chance to be saved. In Paradise Lost, Lucifer famously says “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heav’n.” Echoing that sentiment, Killmonger rejects T’Challa’s offer and dies, saying, “Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from the ships because they knew death was better than bondage.”
Of course, there’s no hint that T’Challa simply intended to imprison Killmonger like a criminal. If the final coda to the film is any clue, T’Challa desired his redemption. Marvel movies have become well known for the scenes that appear at the end of the credits (called “coda”). Black Panther has two, and in the final scene, we’re reminded of Bucky, a man who had been brainwashed into becoming a villain in prior films. In Wakanda, he’s been rejuvenated and redeemed. Presumably, T’Challa would have charted a similar path for Killmonger had the antagonist not instead chosen death.
For any worldview that eschews transcendent values, T’Challa’s path of self-sacrifice does not make much sense. Without such values, huddling into little tribes and waging a cultural war against the ‘others’ around us seems to be the only adequate path. Such tribalism runs rampant in our contemporary culture, and we need a renewed hope in the transcendent in order to follow T’Challa’s advice in the first coda and recognize that we’re all “one tribe.”
Now, Black Panther makes this point without quite grasping the fact that it’s making such an appeal. In the end, the film seems to rely on technology and education as humanity’s last hope, but one of the major crises in the plot centers on Killmonger’s desire to use Wakanda’s advanced technology to liberate by violence. So, the value of the technology is determined not by the tools but by the hands of the ones who would wield them. This distinction is subtle within the film, but it’s too important to miss.
How does a society achieve justice? By pursuing self-sacrifice over self-preservation. Yet, only the influence and awesomeness of a high ideal can spur a person, let alone a whole society, toward pursuing such a goal. For a man to lay down his life, he must have his sights set on something that is larger than the life inside his bones. Only then could a person love the enemy who tries to crush him, as Black Panther obviously cared about Killmonger despite Killmonger’s aspirations to domination.
In history (or legend if you find it hard to take seriously), only the character of Jesus Christ emulates and embodies these commands and ideals. Unless we decide to imitate His example, as individuals and as a society, we will only continue to spiral toward the abyss––tribe against tribe.
If, however, Jesus’ sacrifice did not actually happen, then we have no hope of ever seeing our wrongs being made right. And if His resurrection never happened, then we have no power to become creatures capable of meeting that lofty standard of pursuing self-sacrifice. Without Christ, there’s only the logic of self-preservation. All “transcendent” values eventually wind up in the grave.
Through T’Challa’s character development, the creators of Black Panther underscored the need for transcendent moral values, whether or not they realized it during the production.