Black Panther: Image Bearing in Wakanda

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Black Panther is a cultural phenomenon. It’s the first major superhero film featuring a Black cast and director. This groundbreaking work has shattered all expectations and records by becoming the fifth highest grossing film in history, and ranks in the top four grossing films in second weekend sales. The international ticket sales have also outpaced expectations and disproved the myth that a movie with a predominantly Black cast could not succeed outside of the United States.[1]

Additionally, Black Panther drew the most diverse fan base to theaters in the history of superhero films.[2] Across ethnicity and race, this film defied odds–but its most significant impact is more than box office sales. The statement this film emblazoned in the hearts and minds of countless millions around the globe is that those who are rejected and dehumanized because of the pervasive stain of racism can retain nobility and grace. The provocative assertion is most accurately described as being made in the image of God. The affirmation of Black dignity is likely Black Panther’s greatest and most enduring contribution to pop culture.

Black Panther changes the narrative about Africa, Africans, and the Diaspora in radical ways. Africa–the land often depicted as primitive, corrupt, impoverished and backward–is displayed as sophisticated, wealthy, noble, and technologically advanced. The film frames Africa, through the fictional nation of Wakanda, in a way that declares its grandeur. Seeing and celebrating one’s ancestral homeland as significant and valuable is a key starting point for what it means for us to be made in God’s image. The Apostle Paul identifies the importance of nationality, time, and location as components of what it means to find our purpose in the story of God.

From one man he has made every nationality to live over the whole earth and has determined their appointed times and the boundaries of where they live. (Acts 17:26)

In addition to the land itself, Black Panther celebrates the beauty of women and men of African descent in revolutionary ways. The film displays a stunning array of African-inspired wardrobes and stylings flawlessly executed by costume designer Ruth Carter. Her meticulous attention to detail and accuracy demonstrate value for the Igbo, Maasai, Lesotho and other ethnic groups of Africa rarely treated with such aplomb in film.[3] But the land and customs are the settings for the actors and actresses whose backgrounds are a celebration of the human mosaic of the African diaspora.

Image Credit: Entertainment Weekly

The cast’s origins tell the story, which Black Panther echoes. The lead, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), his nemesis, Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), and director Ryan Coogler are African American. Film star Lupita Nyong’o, who plays Nakia, is a Kenyan Mexican. Danai Gurira, who shines as Okoye, the fierce general of the Wakandan army, is Zimbabwean American. Letitia Wright (Shuri), who almost steals the show as the tech-savvy teenage whiz, hales from Guyana. Daniel Kaluuya, who starred in the smash hit Get Out, is a Ugandan Brit. M’Baku, played by Winston Duke, is from the Caribbean island nation of Trinidad and Tobago. The eight principal contributors to the film represent four continents, all with ties to Africa. Their range of deep mahogany complexions, accents, and experiences declare an undeniable statement: Black is beautiful. To see Blackness in this film is to see elements of the face of God that are too often neglected, and even worse, distorted.

The celebration of Black Panther only makes sense in the historical context of pop culture that has centered whiteness as the epitome of excellence in film, fashion, and art.[4] The most persistent images and messaging about people of African descent have often implicitly and explicitly stated that Black is not beautiful. Such ideas stand in stark contrast to Black Panther, which echoes the position of the Scripture that finds divine worth in us all:

I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. (Psalm 139:14)

But the dazzlingly gorgeous display of Blackness is just one component of the image of God we find triumphant in Black Panther. The film represents Black women with strength, dignity, and beautiful fierceness that is nothing short of revolutionary. Danai Gurira’s performance as Okoye, the general of the Dora Milaje, the elite, all-female fighting unit in Wakanda (inspired by the real life Dahomey Women Warriors[5]), puts forth an image of Black women as dynamic leaders and powerful allies. Shuri, the Black Panther’s younger sister, breaks the mold as the “brains” behind Wakanda’s most stunning scientific advancements. The power in these portrayals is not that they present invincible super-women, but that in meaningful moments in the film, women persevere in spite of challenges. True strength means displaying courage in the midst of vulnerability. In this way, the women of Wakanda display the wisdom of virtuous women of the Bible’s wisdom literature.

Image Credit: Marvel Entertainment and Walt Disney

She draws on her strength and reveals that her arms are strong. (Proverbs 31:16)

Never before have we seen the core tensions of the African diaspora interwoven with a plot of a blockbuster film. Director Ryan Coogler provokes us to ask critical questions: Are the common ancestry shared throughout African diaspora and its shared history of oppression merely relics of the past, or a compass to guide us in the future? Perhaps the dynamism of Black Panther is demonstrated most fully in the complexity of conflict between the noble, yet novice protagonist, T’Challa and the compelling, yet menacing, Killmonger. Black Panther asks us to examine what we see when we look in the mirror. Can we find beauty and brokenness? If we can’t find both in ourselves and others, then it’s likely the images we see are distorted.

Black Panther’s release is an opportunity to reflect on how our view of ourselves and others can be distorted by the lenses through which we see. Black Panther adjusts those lenses, and in so doing affirms truth we see in Scripture: we are image bearers, not only in Wakanda, but wherever we find ourselves.

From one man he has made every nationality to live over the whole earth and has determined their appointed times and the boundaries of where they live. He did this so that they might seek God, and perhaps they might reach out and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. (Acts 17:26-27)

Written by Rasool Berry

Edited by Christina Utley

[1] Allison Winkinson, Vox, Black Panther Crushed Overseas Expectations

[2] Anthony D’Lessandro, Deadline, Black Panther Breaks More Records

[3] Melena Ryzik, New York Times, The Afrofuturistic Designs of ‘Black Panther’

[4] Alexandra Giroux, The norm of whiteness

[5] Arica Coleman, There’s a True Story Behind Black Panther’s Strong Women, Time

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