Article ID: JAR20180315 | By: Eric C. Redmond
A movie review of
Directed by Ryan Coogler
(Rated PG-13, 2018)
Editor’s note: We realize that interpretations and reactions to storyline elements and their ramifications have been debated. We offer this review as one plausible viewpoint.
Please also be aware that major plot points will be discussed in the following article.
Marvel’s Black Panther movie completely undoes the negative portrayal of Black culture that was germane to the Blaxploitation narratives of the 1970s’ cinema. The film, which hit theaters on February 16, 2018, depicts the 1966 Marvel Comics character and has grossed more than $1 billion to date. It is extremely positive in its entire portrayal of African Americans and Africans, and a welcomed addition to the superhero serials.
The primary setting of the movie is Wakanda, a fictional native African nation located somewhere in East Africa, and the home of the Black Panther. It is evident that the storyline focuses on Wakanda’s selfish desire to protect her wealth and safety within the world. The opening scene asked the question about the present hiddenness of Wakanda in light of the greatness of her history and power. Much of the dialogue that ensues concerns saving Wakanda versus serving the usurping king, the peace enjoyed by Wakandans versus the plight of two billion other people who look like the Wakandans, and whether or not it is time for Wakanda to share her resources with all other nations. Just as M’baku and the Jabari tribe share their resources with King T’Challa in order to preserve the king’s life, so too the movie closes with King T’Challa offering to share Wakanda’s resources with other countries as he speaks before the delegates of the United Nations.
The movie writers script an ingenious exchange of roles in order to send a message to contemporary culture. The protagonist, King T’Challa, the Black Panther, is from a country in Africa. He has access to untold advanced technology, wealth, prosperity, and military might. Within his bounds are enormous volumes of vibranium — the strongest substance in the universe — much of it yet unmined, but available to power all of Wakanda’s weaponry and other living pleasures.
In contrast, the antagonist, Erik Stevens, Killmonger, is from America. He has grown up in Oakland, California, with African Americans living in the African diaspora. Although orphaned as a child, he has worked hard to graduate from the Navy Academy and MIT, and has served as a Navy Seal. He has a burden for the suffering pan-African people of the world who do not have Wakanda’s resources at their disposal. He is driven in life to kill the King of Wakanda so that he can put the power of Wakanda in the hands of all pan-African peoples in order that they might be able to rise over their oppressors and destroy them.
Whereas in the real world many consider African Americans — as Americans — to have far greater resources than African people of color, the movie’s switching of the loci of prosperity and suffering makes a poignant message: African Americans are guilty of selfishly hoarding their resources when they could help empower the exaltation of people of color in the rest of the African and pan-African world. In fact, per the mid-credits scene at the UN, African Americans could make the whole world better. The rebuke of Wakanda, a mythical country in Africa, is not the concern of the movie but rather the rebuke of African Americans.
If this switching of perceptions and roles of the African American and the African is the intention of the writers, it is worth asking if the role of religion in the movie also experiences a switching. In particular, Zuri, the shamanlike priestly mediator and servant of the throne of Wakanda, appears to be the object of some crafty signal-trading.
Zuri first appears in the movie as James, friend of Prince N’Jobu — the brother of King T’Chaka, father of Erik Stevens, and spy who is a betrayer of the people of Wakanda. Unknown to N’Jobu, his friend James also is a spy, assigned by King T’Chaka to watch the affairs and actions of N’Jobu. Zuri witnesses T’Chaka’s killing of his brother N’Jobu, and buries the death as a secret of which he never is to speak.
Later Zuri appears as the priest who oversees M’baku’s combat with T’Challa to challenge the right to the throne. It is Zuri who administers the death ritual that allows T’Challa to speak to his father among the translated ancestors. Zuri is the keeper of the garden of the vibranium enriched, heart-shaped herb that gives the reigning king the power of the Black Panther. Yet no mention is made of how Zuri makes a career move from spy to cleric. The audience is allowed to fill in its own narrative, including the possibility of penance for his role as spy, spiritual pilgrimage to overcome the guilt of bearing the silent secret, or favor granted for loyalty to the king. There is no sense that Zuri has come from a long line of priests or has been appointed to his sagely role by Bast, the panther goddess.
By his spycraft and subsequent silence, Zuri remains complicit in the death of N’Jobu, in the lack of an honorable burial for the prince, and in abandoning “the child,” Erik Stevens. When King T’Challa confronts Zuri on the happenings of that dark period in history, the king is clear on stating that it was wrong to abandon the child.
Keeping with the paradigm of role-switching to portray the modern state of affairs, the religious institution in question in the movie would be the African American church. I say church and not religion because the church is the symbol of religion for African Americans. Images of African Methodist Episcopal leaders laying hands on presidential candidate Senator Barak Obama, and of any national Democratic politician standing in the pulpit of an African American church during election season, solidify the church as stock photo religious representer. One also thinks of the church’s role during slavery, the Civil Rights Era, and post–Civil Rights Era.
Could it be that the writers of Black Panther are chiding the African American church for playing a complicit role in African Americans’ apathy toward the plight of the peoples of African descent throughout the world? Are the producers suggesting that African American believers have been bystanders as people of the Motherland have been forced to war among themselves in response to the greater society’s oppression of their nations? Is the cry “I had your father killed! Take me!” a means of indicating that the church has made feeble and slow offers of contrition to a society no longer interested in nonviolent means of empowerment?
Much more telling is the movie’s portrayal of life after Zuri. Once Killmonger has removed the priesthood — which he does without remorse (“I’ll take you both, Uncle James”) — a nonclerical, elderly woman steps forth to crown him with the kingly Black Panther necklace. In the death-to-life ritual in which the new king seeks the blessings of the ancestors, no shaman is present, but this does not hinder Killmonger’s ability to traverse to the afterlife. Once the throne’s usurper awakens to life in the temple area, he calls for burning completely the remaining crop of the heart-shaped bulb, and – if I may – he chokes the deaconess who will not carry out his wishes immediately. On the screen, Wakanda needs no help or interference from the faithful to help the African-world community rise from suffering to power. Wakanda needs the church out of the way, never to return in Wakanda’s new society. Zuri, once slain, poetically disappears without an honorable burial, just as he and T’Chaka failed to give one to Stevens’ father, N’Jobu.
If this is the sort of message one is to take from the Marvel movie, it would not be a new sermon from Hollywood’s Black bully pulpit. Spike Lee has dismissed the church in the vast majority of his movies, portraying churchgoers with grand hypocrisy, including much sexual immorality. In He’s Got Game, Spike Lee’s college athlete protagonist, wooed by “LaLa” (read “Delilah”), must make a college choice between attending “Big State” and “Tech U.” With great, four-letter verbal resonance, Spike’s movie tells the church, “Tech you.”
The Black Panther writers do not show cross-emblems in their movie, or give an episode of preaching or corporate worship. That would make the intended portrayal obvious. Rather, keeping with the more cryptic, swapping depiction of the mother and daughter cultures, the script is devoid of almost everything akin to contemporary African American worship. The repeated refrain of “Praise the ancestors” is the closest one gets to a “Praise the Lord!”
If this affirming portrayal of Black characters and positive message toward America’s most socially oppressed ethnic group also serves as an indictment of the African American church, the church should take note, for this is only the beginning; the church is now in Marvel’s sights. The Marvel movies’ franchise has honed a profession of making anti-Christian messages the thrust of its movies — whether it is the dark figure in Doctor Strange who comes to annihilate civilization and offers an eternal life that is not really life, or whether it is the need for a coalition of heroes to come together to avenge the Earth of those from another world who would destroy the planet.
Yes, the church has more labors of love for the world’s people of African descent than can be counted: soup kitchens, school supplies giveaways, clothing and food closets, tutoring programs, scholarships for college, care for the homeless, marching against police brutality, fighting against apartheid, supporting civil rights workers, campaigning against human trafficking, sustaining the beaten slave, participating in local works of social justice, sending and supporting missions works of many types to Africa and the African Diaspora, and the list goes on forever. This is reality. But the big screen portrayal of an unnecessary church may be a good wake up to alert the church not to allow grass to grow under her feet or to rest on her laurels when it comes to fighting for the betterment of the oppressed people of color in the world as an outworking of the preaching of the gospel.
The gospel — the message of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God the Son — is relevant to all matters facing any people of the world. The preaching and living out of the gospel, including deeds of justice, is part of Jesus’ working to deliver people from this present evil age (Gal. 1:4). The church needs to remain faithful to the gospel and its truths in order to selflessly serve people in need of being rescued from modern forms of slavery, political oppression, and institutionalized discrimination that keeps wealth and enfranchisement out of the hands of the many (cf. Ps. 82:4; Prov. 24:10–12; Isa. 58:6–7; Luke 14:13; 1 Cor. 7:21). Unintentionally, the writers of Black Panther admit to such when a fisherman — a Fisher of Men figure? — rescues the dethroned King T’Challa from death so that he might be brought back to life.
Just as Killmonger’s message of hate was in error, so those ringing the death knell of the church also err. Neither an uprising nor Black Panther is needed to elevate the African world. The African American church has the powerful claws of the gospel, and the gospel message is sufficient to do battle in this world. Now more than ever is the time for the church to lead her people through the power of Christ. Now is not the time for us to hide. – Eric C. Redmond
Eric C. Redmond is assistant professor of Bible at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Illinois; associate pastor of adult ministries at Calvary Memorial Church in Oak Park, Illinois; and a member of the St. Augustine Fellowship of the Center for Pastor Theologians.
 See the CRI Doctor Strange review, “Fighting Scientism with the Occult in Doctor Strange,” at http://www.equip.org/article/fighting-scientism-occult-doctor-strange/.