How Black Panther Promotes a Consistent Life Ethic
by Andrew Hocking
Since its release last February, the movie Black Panther has made a tremendous impact, becoming a commercial and critical success—currently a Best Picture Oscar nominee—and also generating commentary about its social significance. As the first major studio release about a black superhero, with a black director and predominantly black cast, the racial justice themes of Black Panther have appropriately received much attention.
While those themes alone would make the movie important to defenders of life, Black Panther champions the consistent life ethic across multiple interrelated political issues. Specifically, the film exhorts us to apply the same ethic to our public policy and personal lives. If we do not, disastrous consequences follow when we violate our conscience for the sake of the nation. (Significant spoilers follow.)
Follow Your Conscience
The fictional African nation of Wakanda embraces a strict isolationist policy as it hides its significant technological advancements made possible by their natural resource vibranium. Throughout history, Wakanda did not act as it watched neighboring nations being enslaved and colonized. In the present day, the country’s government refuses to help outsiders, not sharing technology, providing aid, or accepting refugees.
This begins to change when T’Challa, the Wakandan king and superhero known as the Black Panther, leads a mission to capture an individual who previously attacked his nation. As the mission unravels, a CIA operative named Everett Ross takes a bullet in order to protect a Wakandan. Despite the risk of exposing his nation’s secret technological advancement, T’Challa brings Everett back to Wakanda to save his life.
T’Challa acts as he does because, simply put, he could not have stood by and watched an individual die when he had the power to save him. Few could do so. This being the case, why do many people support policies of national inaction?
The Danger of Double Standards
Whether spoken or unspoken, many believe the fallacy that morality for a government is different from that for a person. The previous king, T’Chaka, explains to his son, “You’re a good man with a good heart. And it’s hard for a good man to be king.” He implies that a king, or government, must commit immoral acts for the sake of their nation.
The fundamental conflict between the antagonist, Erik Killmonger, and T’Challa flows from King T’Chaka’s mistaken belief. Decades prior to the film’s main events, he violated his conscience to do what he considered to be in Wakanda’s best interest. After killing his brother to protect a friend, he left his brother’s son and mother to fend for themselves, living in poverty in Oakland, California, rather than bringing them to Wakanda. Justifying immorality in the name of serving the country, he actually endangered the country as this boy grew up to become Erik Killmonger, who nearly kills T’Challa and usurps power.
As I write about spirituality in stories at asyoupoetshavesaid.com, I need to make a comment directed to conservative Christians. Many white Evangelical leaders explicitly say the Bible’s commands to individuals do not apply to governments. Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University, recently commented:
It’s such a distortion of the teachings of Jesus to say that what he taught us to do personally — to love our neighbors as ourselves, help the poor — can somehow be imputed on a nation… It’s a distortion of the teaching of Christ to say Jesus taught love and forgiveness and therefore the United States as a nation should be loving and forgiving, and just hand over everything we have to every other part of the world… In the heavenly kingdom the responsibility is to treat others as you’d like to be treated. In the earthly kingdom, the responsibility is to choose leaders who will do what’s best for your country.
Comments like this imply Jesus’s teaching might work in theory, but not in practice. It denies that acting ethically, by caring for the poor and turning the other cheek, for example, is “best for the country.” It reveals a fundamental disagreement in worldview, a difference over what is right, what is wrong, and what works.
What Do We Truly Believe?
The end sequence of Black Panther exemplifies how people’s worldview determines their actions and political stances. Specifically, we see the outworking of T’Challa’s and Killmonger’s beliefs about the morality and efficacy of violence.
Unsurprisingly for an action film, T’Challa physically defeats Erik Killmonger. Nevertheless, though he stabs Erik in the chest in the heat of battle, T’Challa says “We can still heal you…”. Erik responds “Why, so you can lock me up? Nah. Just bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from ships, ‘cause they knew death was better than bondage.”
The audience never finds out what T’Challa would do after saving Erik’s life. At a minimum, though, his offer of healing spurns the logic of the death penalty. At best, his offer embodies restorative justice. The movie’s post-credit scene offers evidence in favor of this second interpretation, showing that T’Challa worked to successfully rehabilitate a killer named Bucky Barnes, who is featured in other Marvel films.
T’Challa’s worldview values life, leading him as an individual to offer mercy and forgiveness towards an individual, even to an enemy. Since he is absolute monarch as well, the film presents his worldview manifesting itself in government policy. Finding no place for the death penalty, he offers restorative, not retributive, justice.
Erik’s response, however, reveals he does not even consider that his future would involve anything other than incarceration. Why would he? He grew up in poverty knowing racial injustice, likely seeing first-hand mass incarceration destroy his community. Furthermore, his experience as an American covert operations soldier erased any further notions of grace or mercy, leaving him with a worldview that has room for only retributive, not restorative, justice.
Erik pulls out the blade in his chest and dies moments later. Effectively committing suicide, he continues to act out the worldview that views death as a solution.
While some might say a government could never apply Jesus’s radical teachings to love your enemy and turn the other cheek, Black Panther demonstrates it has applications which can lead to beneficial outcomes for all. Instead, failing to embrace these teachings leads to unnecessary suffering and death.
Making It Personal
Have you made T’Chaka’s mistake? Do you justify immoral government action or inaction?
As a quick test, think of a government policy you support and consider if you could personally act out what you have voted for the government to do. For instance, could you personally block a refugee family from entering the country? Could you personally kill a person on death row?
If you support policies that contradict your conscience, what does this say about your underlying beliefs? Rest assured that protecting and cherishing life through nonviolent means is the best policy for individuals and governments.
For more of our blog posts from Andrew Hocking, see:
For more of our blog posts on movie reviews, see:
Hollywood Movie Insights (The Giver, The Whistleblower, and The Ides of March)