A while ago, I stopped watching a certain type of black movie.
In the wake of the black suffering that I saw in real life, I didn’t want to see another black slave scene. I didn’t want the water hoses of Alabama to once again wreck my hopes. I didn’t want to see us integrate another school, sports team, or profession despite the overwhelming odds. I didn’t avoid these films because I was ashamed of our history, but because my soul needed rest.
The film Black Panther presented itself differently. It did not set out to highlight black suffering, but black achievement. Furthermore, it was black achievement in a black context. For black people, this was a film for us, by us, and about us.
The Marvel movie—set in a fictional, futuristic African country (Wakanda) and featuring an African and African American cast—has even inspired black viewers to come to the movie dressed in traditional African clothing.
This response might seem excessive, but given the history of cinema, the chance to center the black experience outside of the setting of extreme poverty is no small thing. Black audiences are celebrating the vision for a bigger story for black boys and girls; their support is a call to attend to the whole of black life and culture.
American evangelicals might look to Black Panther as a starting point for dialogue and reflection as they increasingly address concerns about diversity, reconciliation, and representation in their churches and the church at large.
This movie milestone exemplifies how deeply we as a people want to be our whole black selves and tell our whole stories. We resist the expectation that we must conform to cultural norms in order to be accepted in white spaces, including evangelical institutions.
If eschatological vision of the kingdom of God contains a strong affirmation of cultural distinctives (Rev. 7:9), can we glory in those distinctives now? Can evangelicals accept strong affirmations of black culture that do not recount black Christian forgiveness of racism?
The bigger black story reflected in Black Panther also leads us to ask how that narrative challenges, affirms, or ignores elements of the Christian story. Black Panther does have something to say about the black diaspora that is directly relevant to church and its mission.
At the heart of the film lies the question: What are those with resources (the Wakandans) going do about black suffering in the world? The film posits three responses: violent black nationalism, isolationist black nationalism, and an engaged nationalism that addresses the rest of the world.
These responses are not unique. In Jesus’ day, the zealots believed that violent revolution was the only solution to Roman oppression while some Essenes opted to separate from the world to preserve a pristine Judaism. Eventually, the Wakandans opt for the third solution, and it’s a black woman, the humanitarian covert agent Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), who most clearly articulates the vision for an engaged Wakanda.
Black Panther shows us that rejecting violent nationalism need not carry with it rejecting the concerns of oppressed peoples. This idea is deeply Christian. For example, Martin Luther King Jr. could say that “riots are socially destructive and self-defeating” and that “a riot is the language of the unheard.”
In the same way, Black Panther gives the black revolutionary tradition, represented by a father (N’Jobu played by Sterling K. Brown) and son (Erik Killmonger played by Michael B. Jordan), a sympathetic hearing. When attempting to rally his brother, the king (T’Chaka), to his violent position, N’Jobu weeps when describing the plight of blacks in the US. T’Chaka’s cold-hearted pragmatism, by contrast, rings hollow.
If the father embodies a sympathy that leads to violence, the son embodies rage. We first encounter Killmonger discussing African artifacts at a museum. After declaring his plans to rob the place, he asks a pointed question to the curator: Did your ancestors buy them at a fair price or take them?
Killmonger is such a compelling antagonist because audiences are left to wonder whether to see him as a criminal or the inevitable outcome of society’s past sins. His path of violence is thwarted, but the questions he raised still linger. How do we come to grips with the legacy of what was done to African peoples?
In real life, we also find ourselves grappling with whether or how to address these kinds of questions. In the church, can we be painfully honest about the past? I tend to believe that black and evangelical churches are not separated by different understandings of the Bible but different readings of history.
Black Panther also showcases how isolationism creates a void that will be filled by something else. The great sin of the movie occurs when the Wakandans, in their success, separate themselves to protect their resources. This results in Killmonger directing his rage at the world and the Wakandans. They are complicit in the suffering of the black diaspora by their inaction.
This is a challenge to wealthy Christians. Have we ignored the needy? Many black pastors and lay leaders know that the segment of the black nationalism community, which advocates abandoning Christianity, contends that the black church has failed poor blacks. This criticism is overstated, but it is there. We must remember that people need the bread of life and actual bread and actual jobs that give them the dignity of providing bread for their loved ones.
The Wakandans, in the end, offer black people technology and expertise. I am not sure that technology can save us. Technology is only a force for good when underpinned by an ethic and worldview to direct it. Killmonger wanted to use that technology to destructive ends, so what prevents others from doing the same?
Humanity needs a vision of the good and the true to guide our use of what God has given us because we have shown a tremendous capacity to turn potential goods into instruments of death. This is especially true when, as Killmonger made clear, we all have our grievances. We need a true reconciliation that does not ignore our past hurts but points a way through our grievances. The Christian gospel, rightly understood, can lead the way in this.
To establish this kind of vision, we need more than the wisdom of our ancestors. God is barely present in Wakanda. A deity shows up to direct the early Wakandan monarchs to a flower that gives them power to rule but ultimately offers no further guidance.
The Wakandan deity is the watchmaker who tinkers once but seems content to let them go their own way, except for the guidance of the ancestors. However, the film turns on even that influence when the Black Panther, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), must reject their wisdom for the better way.
By contrast, the God of the Bible is the sovereign who brings about his purposes. He has not left us without assistance. We have his Spirit, his Scriptures, and his body (the church). In addition, our wisdom is not limited to one group of (male, royal) ancestors, but the global communion of saints whose collective witness is itself a testimony to the universal saving power of the gospel.
Black Panther, then, should be lauded because it explores a bigger story about the variety of solutions on offer to the suffering of black folks. To my mind, that black story (like all others) still finds its completion in an even grander one that climaxes with the coming of the Messiah.
In a telling encounter, T’Chaka tells his son that it is hard for a good man to be king. We know that it is only the truly good man who can be king. The story of that kingship is big enough to encompass a real acknowledgment of our sins—individual and corporate, present and historic—along with real hope for reconciliation.
This is a story that the church needs to recover to bear faithful witness in our time.
Esau McCaulley is assistant professor of New Testament and early Christianity at Northeastern Seminary. He writes about New Testament scholarship, Anglicanism, and the black experience for The Living Church and his blog, Thicket of the Jordan. He is also one of the organizers of the Call and Response Conference, an event examining the past, present, and future of black Christians in America.
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