In a world where black people, my people, have been historically objectified and labeled as savages, Black Panther subverts these categories, humanizing black people without sacrificing our social, cultural and ethnic contexts.
The film accomplishes this primarily through the story of superhero Black Panther and his archnemesis, Killmonger, as they vie for the throne of Wakanda, a powerful but hidden African nation within the Marvel universe. This fight is not just one of might, though, but of the importance of human responsibility.
Black Panther is a necessary movie because it doesn’t objectify or deify black people. Because it humanizes and portrays us positively, the movie empowers and celebrates black people in a way rarely seen in film. It gives us a powerful glimpse of the sure and better hope to come for all of humanity.
The Beautifully Imperfect Wakanda
Black Panther is a magnificent work for many reasons, but a theme that has overjoyed black people around the world is Wakanda, the hidden kingdom ruled by Black Panther.
The Wakandan idea explores a concept commonly hard to imagine for black people, until now: a unified people with heritage, leadership, meaning, substance, celebrated culture, uniqueness, acceptance, dignity, power and virtue. To the outside world, Wakanda is an agricultural third-world nation with nothing to offer society, but behind the veil of an impenetrable African rainforest, there lies a fortress filled with culture, innovation and intelligence.
The real beauty of Wakanda, though, is its imperfection.
Wakanda also contains the world’s most valuable natural resource: vibranium. It is a strong yet lightweight metal at the center of Wakandan life and it’s also a resource the rest of the Marvel superheroes, like Captain America and The Vision, depend on heavily.
The real beauty of Wakanda, though, is its imperfection. While it displays the beauty and richness of black culture, Wakanda doesn’t catalyze black supremacy. It is about uplifting and celebrating a people who have been marginalized, categorized and otherwise mistreated throughout history.
Many fans would have celebrated a utopian Wakanda. In fact, a number of critics want the Wakandan empire to be a better version of America and have criticized the movie for merely being a “black version” of a selfish society obsessed with self-protection. Over time, though, we would have been crushed by the weight of such perfection. If Wakanda were portrayed as a perfect place with perfect people, it would have made the movie unrelatable, so far removed from reality no one could identify with it.
The imperfect portrayal of Wakanda rightfully reinforces the imperfections—the humanity—of black people. It isn’t trying to show black people as being perfect, nor somehow having perfect community, but it is trying to say, “Hey, we’re people too. And not just average people. We are a great people, capable of accomplishing and creating things this world has never seen. Don’t deny our communal distinctions, the uniqueness of our individuality, our strength or our vulnerability.” This can be celebrated rather than criticized.
A Better Wakanda in the Future
However much Black Panther and the nation of Wakanda can be dissected and critiqued, its greatest benefit proves two-fold: the movie both uplifts and celebrates the humanness of black people and points to the hope of a better Wakanda.
Through challenging and humbling events, Black Panther learns the value of sacrifice and commits his nation in leading the global effort for peace and love. “We will no longer hide in the shadows,” he proclaims because he believes the people in the world are “one tribe” and should be treating each other as such. It’s a small glimpse of Revelation 7:9, the Great Multitude, where those from all nations, tribes, peoples and languages are worshiping the Lord together in glory.
Black Panther is a challenge to elevate our imaginations, our worship and our celebration of the real and better Wakanda: the new heaven and new earth.
Christians have the benefit of expanding the imagined Wakandan concept to include not only a unification of African tribes but also Asian, Middle Eastern, European, North and South American nations, where no one group will be able to lord their race or nation over another but will instead humbly and gladly bring the best parts of every culture to the Lord, casting our crowns on the throne of Jesus Christ.
This is not to over-spiritualize or extinguish the burning excitement, revelry and celebration of Black Panther. Instead, it is a challenge to elevate our imaginations, our worship and our celebration of the real and better Wakanda: the new heaven and new earth (Isa. 65:17–18).
When Christ returns, the globally marginalized and oppressed victims of injustice who call on the name of the Lord will be elevated and united in a Wakandan type of way. It will be a worldwide Wakandan experience with Christ on the throne for eternity.
The Joy and Challenge of Wakanda
Black Panther is a timely movie given how it uplifts a race of people commonly portrayed as beastly, criminal, subjugated and disenfranchised. As it celebrates black people and black culture, it indirectly uplifts the human race—as imperfect as we are—and points us to the sure hope of a better Wakanda, the New Jerusalem (Gen. 1:26–27; Rev. 21:1–2).
The movie has a message for all moviegoers but can specifically serve as a challenge for God’s people to love more genuine and sacrificially. This should challenge Christians of all races living in countries like the United States to offer this hope of a better Wakanda using the ideas, money, resources, skills and talents we now have to love people and point them to Jesus.
We should not only talk about how excited Black Panther makes us feel, though. The overflow of communal joy we feel after watching a movie as celebratory as this can unify us in pushing back the darkness of injustices like racism, sexism, elitism, colonialism and classism with the light of Christ. We can take the enthusiasm and excitement surrounding Black Panther and the Wakandan idea to shine our lights all the more brightly in dark places (Matt. 5:16).
This is why Black Panther is already arguably one of the best Marvel films ever made. I’ll be going back to the movie theaters for a third, fourth and maybe a fifth time to celebrate the humanity and diversity of black people in the Black Panther’s futuristic Wakandan world, knowing that a better one awaits me.