The first black big screen hero in the Marvel Avengers franchise to earn his own cinematic origins story, Black Panther is many things—a celebration of African diversity and culture, a grand adventure, a reflection on family dynamics, and about the awakening of its hero to social needs outside himself. It has all the pulses and beats of a hero’s story with echoes of a Messianic tale (loss, betrayal, death, and resurrection, with him extending forgiveness to his attacker and being found by ‘the women’), but at its core is a deeper message about forgiveness of the past and shifting the world toward social betterment, instead of violence.
In Civil War, T’Challa teamed up with Tony Stark to take out Bucky Barnes for the murder of his father, but his blood ties to the ultimate villain of Black Panther, Killmonger, cause him to want to see his cousin’s redemption… at the final hour, he asks to save his nemesis. He hates his cousin’s warlord mentality, but feels deep sorrow for his family’s role in creating his resentment and anger.
Black Panther comes when society has deep racial divisions, and still-seeping wounds from the mistreatment of blacks in America, but takes an interesting approach in handling this controversy. The film holds its heroes and villains responsible for their actions and spreads the blame around; Killmonger has such anger toward ‘slavery’ he would rather die than live inside it, but carries his wrath too far; he wants to arm the blacks worldwide, so they can ‘rise up against their oppressors and BECOME the oppressors.’ His idea is an eye for an eye; the abused should become the abusers.
T’Challa does not believe this, and advocates against violence, but the story also shows how accountable he is for his ‘lack of care’ for anyone outside his borders. The advanced technology of his country could save others in Africa and across the world; but they have preserved it, kept it secret, and protected it, at the cost of isolating themselves from greater global welfare concerns. Others have suffered due to their neglect and self-interest. The subtext is that black society has a responsibility to act for its own greater good… but must let go of the past to accomplish this.
T’Challa had nothing to do with his father killing his brother, and leaving his child alone in the world, isolated from his tribe and angry about it; but Killmonger should not hold an entire civilization or race responsible for the sins of their ancestors. Black Panther’s undercurrent is to look forward, not back—to what their race and nation could be, to the positive change it could inflict in the world, and to embrace a culture of forgiveness and reconciliation.
One cannot alter the sins of the past, but one can celebrate change. Much in our world is better than it was before as societies learn to progress in their thinking; civilization has shifted from animal abuse to animal welfare; littering to protecting the environment; public brutal executions to a debate on the death penalty; rampant and accepted slavery to social awareness of its immorality, and its ban in civilized countries. Change is never all at once, but happens step by step, as part of a larger awakening, and often come from one person’s decision to stand up for what they believe is right and pursue a greater future; as William Wilberforce did in pursuing the end of the British slave trade (a cause that encompassed his entire adult life and robbed him of his health); as Martin Luther King Jr. did, in promoting equality and inspiring his people toward a ‘dream’ (which cost him his life); and as T’Challa does at the end of the film, when he steps outside his own nation, puts his feet on American soil, and starts up outreach programs across the globe.
Such stories, real or fictional, inspire the audience to ask themselves: what could I do, to pursue a better future? Black Panther goes a step further and asks, “How can I do it without hatred?”