‘Black Panther’ Is a Meditation on Leadership
A superhero movie we need
This article contains spoilers for Black Panther.
Black Panther is a blockbuster. Marvel’s newest film is setting box-office records and smashing ancient Hollywood myths about race and success. It’s touching nerves for all the obvious reasons, but film’s legacy will be its political message. In an era where no one is happy with politicians, and America is a floundering superpower, Black Panther talks about what it means to be a good king and a responsible global power.
We need more stories like it.
T’Challa—son of T’Chaka, the Black Panther—is more than just a superhero. He is the king of Wakanda, an isolationist East African country with more resources and technological power than anywhere elsre on Earth. As the movie begins, T’Chaka has just died and T’Challa is ascending to power. As he does, he faces an important question–will he keep Wakanda closed or open its borders to the chaos outside?
Spymaster Nakia wants to help the world. She thinks Wakanda can open its borders, send aid, and remain strong. More than that, after ranging across Africa and seeing its various humanitarian crises, she no longer things an isolated Wakanda is moral.
Head of border protection W’Kabi disagrees. “Refugees bring their problems with them,” he tells T’Challa. “Open up the borders and soon Wakanda will look like everywhere else.” He then suggests leading a team of warriors to clean up the world’s problems at the end of a vibranium spear. It’s a succinct pitch for a nationalist empire–close the borders and solve the refugee crisis through intervention. Because that always works out so well.
T’Challa doesn’t have time to make a decision before the villain forces his hand. Erik Killmonger is Marvel Cinematic Universe’s best bad guy. The story empathizes with Killmonger and asks the audience to do to the same. T’Challa’s father killed his own dad and abandoned the boy as a child in Oakland, California. Killmonger grew up, survived and thrived first in college, and then in the military, with whom he murdered his way across the planet.
Killmonger is an abandoned child, angry that Wakanda has forgotten him as it has forgotten all oppressed people on the planet. Killmonger wants to take Wakanda’s advanced weapons, arm those oppressed communities and lead revolutions across the planet.
The system would remain the same, with Killmonger in charge. “The sun will never set on the Wakanda Empire,” he explains.
Killmonger is the bad guy but his liberation politics identify a very real problem. His solution comes from a place of anger that’s very real and Black Panther acknowledges that anger. T’Challa knows that his father and his ancestors were wrong–he is the benefactor of a privileged system that exists at the cost of billions of live. Wakanda remains comfortable by ignoring its responsibility.
It’s not T’Challa’s fault that his country is like this, that it has created Killmonger and left billions to suffer, but it is his responsibility. He doesn’t shy away from it.
That’s what makes T’Challa so unique and Black Panther so special. Most superheroes run in, beat down the bad guy–or kill them–and take off once they neutralize the threat. T’Challa knows he must do more and his decisions reflect that. He’s a good leader because he understands the responsibility tied to power, reckons with his country’s complicated past and moves forward with a sense of hope.
He also acts in a morally upright manner. In his first appearance in Captain America: Civil War, T’Challa captures the man who killed his father. He has the chance to kill the man, but instead turns him over to the authorities. He knows vengeance is poison. In Black Panther, he has the opportunity–twice–to kill political rivals. Both times he attempts to save their lives instead.
After the dust settles, T’Challa choses an optimistic path forward. He opens up Wakanda, joins the world community, and begins to help people. He’s a good king who believes a better world is achievable, not the at the end of a vibranium spear, but through thoughtful communication and direct assistance.
It’s a big and optimistic change, one that takes responsibility for Wakanda’s absence from the world without using violence to course-correct. He’s the kind of world leader we need.