Warning: This article contains spoilers.
“Papa, tell me a story.”
“The story of home.”
In the opening lines of Marvel’s box office phenomenon “Black Panther,” Wakanda’s royal Prince N’Jobu (played by stellar actor Sterling K. Brown) shares a bedtime story with his American-born son, N’Jadaka. This touching moment embodies the centuries of oral history passed down through generations of African people. It sets the emotional stage for a film that tackles a broad range of relevant issues within the black diaspora.
“Black Panther” is many things at once. From suave action story and Shakespearean tragedy to womanist power statement, filmmaker Ryan Coogler juggles the best of these mini-genres deftly in a stunning cinematic achievement. But at its heart, the main conflict is driven by fathers and sons.
In both film and comic, Wakanda exists as a fictional African paradise, hidden in plain sight from the outside world. Free from colonialist oppressors, the nation has become a technological marvel, replete with every resource imaginable for flourishing. It is, on the surface, a utopia. Many of the main character’s decisions are motivated by maintaining this afrofuturistic utopian vision.
As the country’s ceremonial black panther, King T’Chaka served as protector and ruler of the beautiful country for decades, before being assassinated in front of his son and successor, T’Challa. The slain king and his newly crowned son are juxtaposed with N’Jobu and N’Jadaka (nicknamed “Killmonger”) as brothers, cousins, and philosophical adversaries. Yet, what they share is an ability to express an uncommon intimacy with one another.
The movie cleverly subverts black masculine stereotypes by showing each of the men’s most vulnerable emotional expressions, including tears, physical embrace, and tender touches. In the first ceremonial dream sequence, T’Chaka powerfully affirms his son’s identity, as every good father should, by speaking to his royalty: “Stand up! You are a king!” T’Challa responds with an affectual admission, “I am not ready to be without you.” These lines left stains from hot tears on my shirt as I recalled the first moments that my father told me he was proud to call me his son.
Despite his wicked actions, the adult version of N’Jadaka (painfully embodied by Michael B. Jordan) has his own moment of emotional catharsis. The exchange of begrudging tears with the spirit of his dead father was among the film’s most unexpected beautiful moments. “They will think you are lost,” N’Jobu prophetically warns his son about Wakanda. “Maybe they are the ones who’s lost,” the young warrior retorts.
Clearly, N’Jobu and T’Chaka love their young sons. Their proud eyes dance with the possibility of their greatness. Their chins sit just a few inches higher as they address their legacy. But the movie complicates their characters by asking, “what are the consequences when your father fails you?”
Even with their beautiful, fatherly affection, both T’Chaka and N’Jobu had their sins. The latter took a noble cause too far and secretly betrayed his homeland. His subsequent threat of retaliatory violence led to his untimely death, cementing that his son would forever remain in exile. T’Challa naively asserts that his father has “never” failed him, yet T’Chaka hid the killing of his brother and orphaned his own nephew to an evil American system that would eventually radicalize his ambition.
The elder Panther King callously describes this action as “the truth I chose to omit.” Actor Chadwick Boseman brilliantly saves T’Challa’s fiercest emotion for his father, raising his voice in a moment of disappointed agony. He painfully cries out, “You were wrong!” The object of his adoration had become the source of his scorn. The myth had been shattered.
I recently became a father to a beautiful baby girl. From the second her invigorating squeal pierced the hospital air, I was in love. After a moment of weeping, I quickly studied every inch of her newborn frame, accepting my new responsibility to protect her. I stared at her furrowed brow, and grinned with the realization that she would never be able to deny that I’m her father. Yet, in the midst of my affection, holding her caramel skin felt like a two-ton weight against my chest. For the first time, I felt the palpable fear that, one day, I would inevitably disappoint my daughter. I felt the crushing pressure to construct my own myth of perfection.
Fathers are often demonized when they’re absent and mythologized when they’re present. Faced with the responsibility of providing and protecting, maintaining a veneer of perfection is always tempting. But a pursuit of perfection will only lead to dishonesty and disappointment. It will inevitably crush us and the ones we love. As he confronts his father, T’Challa calls his cousin “a monster of our own making.” The slain king’s attempt to protect the idea of Wakanda resulted in the country’s chaos. T’Chaka did not realize that fathers will always fail under the faulty expectation of utopia.
The Scriptures are unflinching in the account of its own “heroes.” The men in the Bible often spectacularly failed God and the people he entrusted them to lead. Abraham set a foolish example of lying that his son Isaac unwittingly emulated. Lot offered his daughters to a mob to satisfy their sexual desires. David failed to punish his son for the rape of his daughter Tamar. By speaking about their triumphs and their evil deeds, the Bible de-mythologizes these fathers, telling the brutal truth about their imperfections.
T’Chaka and N’Jobu accepted their sons’ admiration and decided it was greater than telling the truth about themselves. The collateral damage was immeasurable heartbreak and the death of many Wakandan lives.
When the myth was still strong, T’Chaka advised his son, “A father that has not prepared his children for his own death has failed them.” Staring at my newborn child in that hospital room was a moment of reckoning. In that quiet space, I made a number of private vows with God. Above all, I whispered a promise to always tell my daughter the truth. I want to love her enough to debunk my own myth long before the truth shatters her heart. Because a father who chooses to omit the truth about himself has already failed his children.