**The following contains plot spoilers for Black Panther.**
Black Panther is no superhero and T’Challa is no king. Those titles are mere foibles in the story of a Black man’s journey to better define his identity.
Based on the Marvel Comics character, Black Panther tells the story of T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), an African prince who must adjust to life as the new warrior-king of the advanced nation-state of Wakanda.
He’s soon challenged to answer questions of diplomacy, domestic affairs, and social ethics—often responding in ways that, if answered in our present-day world, are sure to offend the historically and socially informed viewer. From this perspective, Black Panther succeeds in not offering easy solutions. It fulfills its purpose to conflict and forces moviegoers to analyze and question their civic and moral philosophies.
But while the film embraces significant political and social principles that challenge audiences worldwide, its richest depth is best found in its universal story of humanity’s unending grappling for personal identity apart from its nationalistic or religious allegiances. Marvel’s newest superhero entry achieves this lofty goal on a most personable level, primarily by filtering its entire narrative structure through the lens of its title protagonist, T’Challa. Director Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed) expertly tracks T’Challa’s journey as it intersects with several characters, forcing the superhero to question his own allegiances, as well as help him shape his role as the Black Panther.
The first character to challenge T’Challa’s place and what it means to be Black Panther is M’Baku (Winston Duke), king of Wakanda’s neighboring Jabari Tribe. At Warrior Falls, where T’Challa’s official coronation takes place, M’Baku interrupts the ceremony. “It’s challenge day!” M’Baku exclaims, ready to oppose T’Challa for the throne.
As the fight commences, M’Baku quickly gains the upper hand. In the battle’s darkest moment, the would-be-king’s stepmother, Ramonda (Angela Bassett), yells, “T’Challa, show him who you are!” Finding strength in his position, T’Challa yells, “I am Prince T’Challa! Son of King T’Chaka!” This declaration offers T’Challa the strength he needs to turn the battle, eventually forcing M’Baku to yield his challenge. T’Challa can, and has the right to, kill M’Baku, but he instead spares his life.
As a whole, this scene symbolizes the journey and fight for T’Challa’s realized identity—a journey that plays out in a myriad of ways throughout the film. In Black Panther, T’Challa must discover exactly who he is as a person and a ruler. Does he find meaning and purpose in his abilities to protect and defend both his kingdom and family? Or, is his personhood discovered through tradition and national ideals? Through the testing of his character, humility, and integrity, T’Challa discovers that his personal value and purpose is in a prescribed legacy he is destined to carry. It’s in this revelation that forms him into the King, and Black Panther, of Wakanda.
In this sense, audiences can identify with T’Challa, because we often interpret or find ourselves sorting through relationships, mistakes, and hardship. When forced together with difficult people, our weaknesses are revealed to the world. Those failures, in turn, make plain our ignorance, allowing us to become more aware of who we truly are as human beings. To put this principle into the language of Black Panther, opposition does a fine job of yanking off our protective masks.
To understand how our journey is associated with T’Challa’s, we must also understand his paternal relationship, the second character who helps him define his character.
In a divinely intimate and heart-gripping scene, T’Challa later meets his father, T’Chaka (John Kani), in the ancestral plain where the Wakandan Black Panther royalty reside in the afterlife. T’Challa beams with joy upon catching a glimpse of T’Chaka, but is soon overcome with guilt for failing to protect him from a bomb that detonated during a speech given to the United Nations (as detailed in Captain America: Civil War). The pangs of T’Challa’s conscience brings him to kneel before his father after embracing him with elation, but T’Chaka disapproves. “Stand up, you are a king!” T’Chaka commands him.The film offers a powerful lesson for us today: our fully realized identities are not found in responsibilities that can be relinquished, but in the sacrifices made when most seemingly unnecessary.
As the two converse, T’Challa’s father assures him that his distinctiveness as Black Panther is not in what he achieves or who he protects. His significance is established in a legacy of virtue. His individuality is not determined by his performance, rather his performance is driven by his identity.
But that did not mean being king would be easy for T’Challa. His father warned him, “You are a good man, with a good heart, and it is hard for good men to be kings.” Indeed, T’Challa’s greatest virtue would prove to be his greatest weakness. So T’Chaka advised T’Challa to surround himself with good people he could trust.
And surround himself he did. In fact, he was already surrounded by good people—primarily great Wakandan women—who are key contributing characters that help define T’Challa. His ex-girlfriend Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) offers him fullness as a defender and lover; his stepmother, Ramonda, provides wisdom; his General, Okoye (Danai Gurira), leads the King’s personal all-female bodyguard, offering him protection; and his younger sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright), equips him with the world’s most advanced technology—that is, his nearly indestructible Black Panther suit.
These strong and intelligent women, and the cogency of his father’s influence, are the central support for T’Challa’s strength as Black Panther and as a man. These relationships enhance his virtue, leadership, and superpowers, and they are the key to helping him succeed as king.
Although these virtuous and strong women are guiding, comforting, protecting, and strengthening T’Challa, he is not excluded from learning an invaluable lesson of humility on his own. T’Challa’s cousin (and the film’s primary villain), Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), confronts his pride in an unsuspecting way during the latter half of the film. When Killmonger arrives in Wakanda to challenge him for the throne, T’Challa’s world is turned on its head. He becomes driven by his anger, rather than virtue, as he learns the truth about his father’s flawed character.
It is revealed that T’Chaka (Atandwa Kani) killed his brother N’Jobu (Sterling K. Brown)—Killmonger’s father—after he found out N’Jobu gave away Wakandan secrets to liberate subjugated and oppressed Black people in the United States.
Instead of owning the part he played in the death, though, T’Chaka covered it up and abandoned young Erik, leaving him to discover his Wakandan heritage alone.
T’Challa, feeling betrayed by his father and again questioning his place as king, pretentiously and arrogantly accepted Killmonger’s challenge for the throne. Allowing his anger to fill him with arrogance, he again believes his identity is in his abilities to defend and protect Wakanda.
Unfortunately, this outlook lead’s to T’Challa’s downfall—literally—as he is tossed from Warrior Falls, off the shoulders of Killmonger in defeat. If Black Panther is a film exploring the true nature of self, we also learn how the throngs of pride will often destroy us or humble us—possibly both.
Ironically, T’Challa’s virtue turns out to be his true savior. When his body is discovered and brought to M’Baku, T’Challa’s life is preserved because of his decision to spare M’Baku’s life earlier in the film.
But before recovering the powers of Black Panther, with the help of Ramonda, Nakia, and Shuri, T’Challa must once again face his father on the ancestral plain. But this time, better understanding himself through the lens of humility, he confronts his insecurities and the traditions of all the other past kings and queens of Wakanda. “You are wrong! You are all wrong!” King T’Challa says to his ancestors, confidently rebuking the error of their fear.
Part of T’Challa’s transformation comes with now understanding that tradition doesn’t always merit incorruptible morals. Honestly surveying the plight of his complicit isolationist ideals according to tradition, he knows he must defeat Killmonger and then correct the wrongs of his ancestor’s sins even though it wasn’t his fault. But this time, he will battle with a heart filled with humility rather than arrogance and anger.
Killmonger and T’Challa eventually face-off to finish the challenge for the throne in a stunning underground railroad battle that ends in T’Challa’s victory. Though his cousin eventually chooses death over bondage, T’Challa adopts some of Killmonger’s revolutionary principles, but begins using them to resourcefully help people around the world with more economic and educational opportunities.
T’Challa inevitably learns that, outside the materials afforded to him as Black Panther, he is not the smartest, wisest, strongest, nor most virtuous person in all of Wakanda. Yet, he is the most human. The people he intersects with and their associated circumstances help him better understand his humanly limitations and his subsequent need to depend on and be informed by his relationships. He sees his flaws—and those of the individuals who preceded him—more clearly through the tumultuous downfall of his pride, which turns out to be a catalyst for a more definitive and honorable understanding of his self.
Given its take on personhood and worth, Black Panther offers a powerful lesson for us today: our fully realized identities are not found in responsibilities that can be relinquished, but in the sacrifices made when most seemingly unnecessary. As Jorja Smith puts it on “I Am“ from Black Panther: The Album:
When you know what you’ve got
Sacrifice ain’t that hard
Feel like depending on me
Sometimes we ain’t meant to be free
And as a part of a healthy realized understanding of our personal self, we will grow in humility, which will require us to learn from other people—much like we see through the individuals around T’Challa in the film. Those unsure of their own individuality often fail to filter out the harmful from the helpful lessons that can be acquired from people opposite of them. Understanding yourself, forgiving yourself, and learning from and depending on others helps one become confident in their own skin, while appreciating differing perspectives.
For Christians, this lesson from the world of Black Panther finds a distinct thread through the heart of the gospel. As those made in the image of God, humanity’s best self is realized through the person of the Son, and his subsequent death and resurrection. The more this reality is absorbed, the more aware we become of our imperfections and our resulting need for dependence on Christ’s redeeming sacrifice. And like T’Challa, understanding our spiritual identity allows us to learn from our mistakes and the sins of our fathers, simultaneously feeling compelled and empowered to uplift the weak and marginalized within society.
This sentiment is summed up nicely at the end of the film, when a young boy watches King T’Challa’s “Bugatti-like spaceship” land on an Oakland neighborhood basketball court (which will soon become the first Wakandan International Outreach site). “Who, who are you?” the boy asks.
T’Challa stares, smiling for a moment, and without recording an answer, the movie ends. The audience doesn’t need a response. We already know the answer.