By Corey Patterson
Marvel Studios’ film Black Panther blends superhero action, drama, thriller, and a variety of other genres in an unforgettable film experience. Unlike the previous stand-alone Marvel pieces, this story explores the societal and cultural factors that shape the titular character, T’challa a.k.a. Black Panther.
One of the most prominent themes found in the film is liberation, but not necessarily in the way one would expect. In fact, the movie’s plot takes place in a country that has never suffered from oppressive forces of the external world.
Wakanda isn’t a nation that prospered through ongoing struggle with a vast array of enemies — it’s actually due to the country’s isolation that they have been able to cultivate the most advanced civilization in human history. Wakanda doesn’t need liberating, but rather flips the liberation narrative on its head.
Instead of suffering from the heinous acts of more prosperous countries’, Wakanda generates its own prosperity. Instead of failing to stand up against the advanced technology of foreign aggressors, they have created their own technology that is light years ahead of the rest of the world.
Wakanda doesn’t need liberating, but the notion of liberation is thrust upon them anyway by Eric Killmonger, a Wakandan who was exiled to America as a child. He lived through the prejudices in the outside world and returns to his homeland, claiming to be the one who will alleviate the suffering of all oppressed black groups. He believes the best way to address these issues is by controlling the near-infinite resources of Wakanda.
Many theologians and spiritual leaders also developed an ideology of black liberation during the 20th century, most notably during the Civil Rights era. They sought to articulate the themes of liberation found throughout the Christian Scriptures in hopes of generating large-scale social change. One of the most prominent leaders in this movement is James Cone.
Cone draws themes of liberation from two major sources in the biblical texts: the Israelite Exodus from Egypt and the teachings of Jesus Christ in the Gospel of Luke. These two sections place much emphasis on the oppressed and poor, which can be applied to the struggle of minority groups in our society.
According to Cone, Moses preached liberation to the Israelites in Egypt, a powerful message that can be applied to our society. He compares the empire of Egypt to that of America, claiming that the oppressed in our society are God’s ultimate concern:
“In the Exodus event, God is revealed by means of acts on behalf of a weak and defenseless people. This is the God of power and of strength, able to destroy the enslaving power of the mighty Pharoah” (Cone, “God of the Oppressed,” 58).
In this understanding, God is the mighty defender who protects the defenseless. God is full of power and fights the forces of oppression. But this God isn’t always a strongman; Cone claims this God becomes weak for the oppressed as well:
“In Christ, God enters human affairs and takes sides with the oppressed. Their suffering becomes his; their despair, divine despair” (Cone, “Christianity and Black Power,” 8 ).
Cone envisions a liberating God who is both strong and weak, but the vision of liberation from Killmonger is far from this image. The exiled Wakandan seeks to liberate suffering people across the world through the use of force. It is this ideology that T’Challa, and Wakanda as a whole, must address.
Killmonger’s plan entails seizing control of the country by usurping T’challa’s role as king and leading its vast army against any would-be oppressors in the outside world. The oppressors must experience the same violence the oppressed underwent.
T’Challa attempts to stop Killmonger’s proposed regime, noting the fundamental hypocrisy in using violence to oppress the oppressors. Stopping any form of oppression should be a society’s goal, but using violence cuts away the foundations of such a cause. He realizes a true liberator must be both strong and weak like the God presented to us in liberation theology, and Killmonger’s ideology presented a god who only wants to sow destruction.
What’s amazing is that T’Challa understands Killmonger’s plea while at the same time recognizing the faults in the proposed solution. After Killmonger is defeated, the Wakandans regroup under T’Challa’s leadership and create a new vision for the nation. They would become a true country of liberators who used their immense resources to fight for and protect oppressed people across the globe. This new vision paints a beautiful picture of a liberating God who is strong inasmuch as it fights oppression and weak inasmuch as it stands in solidarity with those who suffer.
For years Wakanda lived in the shadows; non-intervention was their best policy for surviving and thriving. But Killmonger’s hatred of oppression opens up T’challa’s eyes to the immense liberating goodness their civilization could offer the world. But Wakanda’s liberating power would come through peace, not violence.
Corey Patterson is a writer and webmaster. He is passionate about the synthesis of theology and geek/pop culture stories. His interests lie primarily in superhero and fantasy genres. Check out his blog here.
Cone, James H. “God of the Oppressed.” Orbis Books, 1997
Cone, James H. “Christianity and Black Power.” Risks of Faith the Emergence of a Black Theology of Liberation, 1968–1998. Boston, MA: Beacon, 1999