Film & Theater

“The Truth We Omit”: How Black Panther Addresses Fatherhood

Tyler Burns

Warning: This article contains spoilers.

“Papa, tell me a story.”

“Which one?”

“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.

6 thoughts on ““The Truth We Omit”: How Black Panther Addresses Fatherhood

  1. Nadiyah Shaheed

    Thank you, Tyler, and like-minded individuals. The points in this article and the sentiment of the movie itself, along with Yvonne’s comments, will be a major part of the foundation on which our children will be able to grow and thrive as they maneuver this world that has been usurped. This is what is necessary as they navigate the shortcomings of their inner selves and those of their loved ones and work toward self reflection, self awareness and that self-reproaching soul that leads to growth and a greater sense of inner peace and calm. It begins with awareness and gratitude of and toward our Creator and then trickles out to the world through such action as the author and commentors express. This is the only way to combat chicanery, hypocrisy and the chaos that leads to evil in all its forms. Hope is being restored by those such as yourselves. Our children are not so doomed after all.

  2. Yvonne

    We Do no honor to children, our selves or our Ancestors when our children do not know their family or their history.
    We are our brothers/sisters” keeper and hold a special place of nurturing in the lives of their children regardless of the relationship with the parents. MHO My Humble Opinion.
    You share the same bloodline regardless of if it is only with one parent.
    I stand by- No child left behind.
    A father that has not prepared his children for his own death has failed them.” -Black Panther the Movie
    It is never a good idea to breastfeed children into adulthood . It is a cruel disservice to them .
    Remember what you teach them or neglect to teach them ,will one day be taught or neglected to your grandchildren .
    This a good article and worth sharing.

  3. Thomas W.

    I think the only thing in this movie that confuses me is why would the elder King hide his execution of his brother? His brother, having committed crimes against Wakanda, who then attempted to kill the King upon being told he would be taken back to Wakanda for trial, was immediately executed instead. With a witness present, I’m not sure what the fear was that it needed to be hidden, as I would assume a King has the authority to make that judgement, esp having been attacked from behind.
    Understandable its a plot device to create a killmonger, but help me out if I’m missing something here?

    I’m also assuming the Jordan is left behind as a child because he’s half American, and because the sins of the parent are judged upon the next generation too?

    Anyway, the movie was fantastic as a whole. It did a great job of exploring all of these themes, themes which cross over to any other culture, and does so without dichotomizing the answers to those themes. I appreciate the article here and it’s focus on one of those major themes. It’s well written.

    Probably my favorite scene is the end, where T’Challa offers Killmonger mercy and a path to redemption, even after everything that had occurred. And yet, he doesn’t take it. He dies refusing the mercy of the King, refusing to realize the only thing that needed to die was his own ideology of revenge and power.

  4. Eddie

    Great article bro’! Good insights into the characters and their respective mindsets, “ideologies” if you will. Appreciate this article and helping us to look deeper into the relationships between the fathers and the sons they love. Good stuff. GOD bless you man!

  5. Tremaine M

    Further, I don’t think N’Jadaka’s method is effective; it doesn’t fill that hole. Michael B. Jordan did an amazing job portraying that incompleteness. I’m thankful to have a healthy, affirming relationship with my father even without having him in the house during important times.

  6. Tremaine M

    This is awesome! The scene I’m still tripping on N’Jadaka’s first time in the throne room because it was my contrast to T’Challa’s affirmation scene with his father. IT WAS SO POWERFUL ON SO MANY LEVELS! As a child of divorce it spoke to me this way:

    N’Jadaka didn’t drop the subject until they asked him his name. He spent his whole life waiting for his moment to assert his identity himself because N’Jobu wasn’t there to do it (even if he wanted to). He put his whole being into that one line of Wakandan because he knew it was his one chance to be affirmed by his people.

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