Do it For the Diaspora?: The Moral Question Behind Black Panther
Once wunderkind writer and director Ryan Coogler and the stellar cast of “Black Panther” were announced, there were few doubts that the film would be good. But many questions still loomed. How will it compare to other Marvel films? Would the film be consciously black? How much of a cultural moment could Coogler and company create?
“Black Panther” has firmly lodged itself in the discussion of the best Marvel films to date. The reason “Black Panther” is particularly special is its simultaneous and sophisticated treatment of core Pan-African concerns and questions of brotherhood.
For all its justified praise and hype for its representation of black heroes, “Black Panther” provided not only a rare Hollywood representation of African heroes, but also a representation of distinct modes of black consciousness by exploring the ideological clash birthed from the experiential gap between Africans and African-Americans.
AM I MY BROTHER’S KEEPER? QUESTIONS OF DIASPORA’S RESPONSIBILITY
This ideological clash is the driving tension of the film. The opening scene places viewers in Oakland, California during the Rodney King era when N.W.A. was the daily soundtrack and police brutality was the daily threat.
By allowing inner-city Oakland to be the first location viewers experience, Coogler highlights his Pan-African sensibilities—that Wakanda’s fate is tied up in a mutual garment of destiny with African-Americans in the streets of Oakland. In Oakland, we meet N’Jobu, younger brother of King T’Chaka. Upon coming face-to-face with the condition of blacks in America, N’Jobu betrays his covert Wakandan mission and turns into a strap-totting revolutionary for black liberation.
He sees the plight and oppression of African-Americans and hears the question: am I my brother’s keeper? N’Jobu answers yes.
King T’Chaka deems the deliverance of African-Americans too risky to the safety of Wakanda. Inaction is his reply to the question of familial responsibility among the disapora—and by extension the human race.
Wakanda has no bond—human or black—in Oakland strong enough to necessitate action.
This ideological clash leaves N’Jobu dead at the hands of his royal brother, while leaving young Erik Killmonger, N’Jobu’s son, as another fatherless black youth to navigate a radicalized society on his own.
The Moral Question at the Center
Killmonger grows to become the personification of James Baldwin’s revelation: “To be black and conscious in America is to be in a constant state of rage.” Righteous rage expressed through unrighteous means—fighting for black liberation by oppressing his oppressors—is Killmonger’s philosophy of choice.
The most poignant scenes in the film are the ideological warring between T’Challa and Killmonger. When Killmonger enters the throne room to challenge for the crown, he mocks the Wakanda royal court for their refusal to see the plight of blacks in America and the world at large while demanding their action on behalf of the disapora.
This is what makes his “hey Auntie” line so scathing. Killmonger’s very presence in Wakanda is the proverbial chicken come home to roost, the literal and figurative offspring of Wakanda’s failed responsibility to their brothers and sisters across the disapora.
Killmonger both embodies and asks the crucial moral questions of Wakanda. What is the obligation of the wealthy and free to those still impoverished and oppressed? Can we not see the shared ethnicity and humanity in the plight and suffering of our brothers and sisters across the globe?
Each of these questions coalesce into the film’s dexertous central moral question—am I my brother’s keeper? This question with a moral power and poignancy naturally extends into multiple contexts: among the African diaspora who share a common ethnicity, the broader church who share a common Lord and faith, and among humanity who share a common Creator and the common seal of the Imago Dei.
The question that Killmonger embodies is not new. Its most powerful permutations are found in the very people Killmonger pays homage to with his dying breath: African slaves.
In his slave narrative, Olaudah Equiano asked: “O, ye nominal Christians! might not an African ask you — Learned you this from your God, who says unto you, Do unto all men as you would men should do unto you?”
The film’s suggestion that the fictionalized wealthy and resourced Wakandan people voluntarily neglected to advocate and act for blacks in time of trauma and injustice draws an inescapable parallel for Christians to consider how the historical wealthy and resourced American church has similarly failed. The fictional opening scene of self-serving inaction in Oakland 1992 transports us to consider the historical self-protecting inaction in Jamestown 1619.
“Black Panther” seizes the power of Afrofuturism—speculative, sci-fi imagery that lends agency through alternative story-telling to the marginalized—to imagine blacks with untapped resources to bear each other’s burdens across national, global, and political lines and to inspire blacks across the diaspora to act in righteous, self-sacrificing service and solidarity here and now for all black people living under the burden of injustice. This is a good and godly call for black Christians to reflect on—a material and social derivative of Paul’s spiritual burden for his kinsmen according to the flesh (Romans 9:1-3).
A Moral Question Close to the Heart of God
This film’s central moral question extends an additional call to action for believers—it reminds us that Christians have the greatest grounds for addressing the physical and social burdens of our kin according to the flesh (our ethnic identity), our kin in Adam (all image bearers), and our kin in Christ (the Church) as all such concern is driven by Christ’s command to love God and our neighbor, empowered by Christ’s Spirit, and patterned after Christ’s radical self-giving in his atoning sacrifice.
The film invites all viewers to reckon first and most notably with questions of responsibility of the black diaspora and among the whole human family. These questions are of deep value and interest to anyone who confess that Jesus is Lord, especially black Christians.
Do we simply care about our immediate nation and neighbors—or do we care for our kinsmen across the black diaspora? Do we simply care for the believers near us and like so—or will we give ourselves to the care of the material and spiritual burdens of our global church family?
Both questions emerge from this film’s moral center and both questions are godly and valuable for black believers to consider—and that’s not something that can be said of every superhero movie.