In the Marvel film BLACK PANTHER, Wakanda would be a light to the world if it weren’t for one dark secret. Erik Killmonger has come home to roost, but the merciful King T’Challa stands in his way. Join us as we discuss these Christian themes and so much more in this episode of the Finding Christ in Cinema podcast.
For your convenience you will find each podcast segment at the time referenced below:
- 00:00:00 – Introduction and Previous Episode Recap
- 00:02:57 – Movie Review and Discussion
- 00:27:57 – Christian Themes in BLACK PANTHER
- 00:55:30 – More Christian Themes in BLACK PANTHER (podcast only)
- 01:18:30 – Listener Feedback and Well-Mannered Frivolity (podcast only)
To say that the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s production of Black Panther is a successful one would be a gross understatement. What started with an estimated budget of $200 million opened to box office earnings equal to that and then some. In the four months since then, it has earned over $1.3 billion worldwide. Critics and fans are in love with King T’Challa and his home of Wakanda.
The film’s premise is simple yet powerful: a new king has to defend his kingdom against people who want to destroy it. The acting is superb (Michael and I dote on the actors and their performances in the podcast, so I’ll bypass it here). The spectacle actually works with the story to great effect. At times, the flow is as suspenseful as a Shakespearean tragedy, and at others, it is light-hearted and comedic. Through all of these accolades, however, shine Christian themes so brightly that you may need your own Panther Habit to protect yourself.
Wakanda, at first blush, can be compared to the “city on a hill” to which Jesus alludes in his Sermon on the Mount. Unadulterated by the outside world, Wakanda thrives as a country unlike any other. Technological advancements beyond our wildest imaginations exist there. The people are happy and wealthy, and those in power wish to keep it that way.
To T’Challa, this is home, and he loves it and wants to honor and protect it. His family and friends all live here. There are some, however, that hunger for something more. Shuri, T’Challa’s kid sister and technological genius, reminds her brother that “just because something works doesn’t mean that it cannot be improved.” His former love interest Nakia even sneaks out on her own, independent mission to help outsiders.
As for the rest of Wakanda, isolation from the outside world is a good thing. T’Challa’s father T’Chaka and all the kings before him believed that ignoring the rest of the world and all of its ills was the only way to keep Wakanda safe. At first, T’Challa wants to carry on the tradition of isolationism, but he is unable to do so because of Erik Killmonger.
Killmonger, to borrow a phrase from Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Arthur Miller, is a long-neglected “bird” that has come home to “roost.” In Miller’s opinion, all good and compelling drama is concerned with the birds coming home to roost. He expounds this idea in an interview with the Boston Review: “It’s about challenges that were not met when they came up and so those challenges return and haunt people.”
Killmonger is certainly that ghost from Wakanda’s past. T’Chaka killed Erik’s father N’Jobu for betraying the secrecy of Wakanda by helping the black market arms dealer Ulysses Klaue steal vibranium. Instead of cleaning up the mess and taking the little Erik back to Wakanda, T’Chaka simply abandoned the little boy and let him find his father’s dead body with panther claws in his chest. Once Erik learns the truth about T’Chaka and his own father’s murder, he makes it his mission to avenge his father.
The unique factor about Killmonger, though, is that he isn’t just fighting for his own family’s honor but also for that of everyone on the planet of African descent. More than that, Killmonger is such a complex and tragic villain because he wants the same thing the T’Challa wants: peace for his people. While T’Challa wants to remain isolated in order to keep his home safe, Erik wants to give his people – everyone who has hurt by Wakanda’s negligence – the power to kill their oppressors.
This is where our merciful King T’Challa gets to shine his light the brightest. Throughout the film, we’ve seen glimpses of T’Challa being merciful even when he himself is in danger. After M’Baku has impaled him with a spear, T’Challa doesn’t retaliate because he has compassion for M’Baku and knows that the latter’s people need their ruler. Even when he catches Klaue after a chase through urban South Korea, T’Challa does not kill him on the spot but agrees to take him in for questioning.
In the final fight, T’Challa and Killmonger both wear a Panther Habit and espouse the Power of the Black Panther. T’Challa delivers the final blow of the fight, making Killmonger concede the match. T’Challa mercifully offers to heal Killmonger, but Killmonger refuses, removes the spearhead, and dies. Again, even when his attackers almost kill him, T’Challa remains merciful.
There is one wound from which T’Challa cannot so easily heal: the spiritual wound from his father. Until the moment that T’Challa learned the truth about what his father had done, T’Challa looked up to his father with the greatest admiration. But when T’Challa saw that his father had abandoned the young Erik after killing his father and thus created their present threat, T’Challa’s heart broke.
Dr. Chip Dodd of Sage Hill Counseling and the Center of Professional Excellence puts it like this in his personal blog: “Children naturally expect integrity and are deeply wounded when they find that the appearance doesn’t match reality.” T’Challa naturally expected his father to have integrity, but when he discovered the truth, it sucked the life out of T’Challa. For a moment, he was genuinely broken. Thankfully, he chooses to deal with his brokenness in a different way.
We never really know if T’Challa heals completely from his father wound; maybe that’s a discussion for another time. What we do know, however, is that he responds to his father’s wound by breaking Wakanda’s chain of isolationism. He doesn’t want anyone else to be wounded like himself or abandoned like Erik. Instead, he opens the Wakanda International Outreach Center with the hope that Wakanda can finally become the light of the world it should have always been.
Black Panther is wonderful film wonderfully made with a wonderful story wonderfully told. As is one of our core beliefs here at Finding Christ In Cinema, all great stories have elements of the Greatest Story. As you watch Black Panther with friends and family, dwell on the things mentioned here – Wakanda as the city on the hill, Killmonger as the bird coming home to roost, and T’Challa as the merciful king. Use them to point people to our own merciful King so that we all may no longer create monsters of our own misgivings but be the light of the world that we are called to be.
Finding Christ In Cinema is the show where we discover Christian themes in movies past and present. Join us and together we’ll dig deeper into the silver-screen classics of yesteryear as well as the box-office hits of today. Brought to you by the Great Commission Transmission Network. View the complete show notes – including links to articles discussed – by clicking here.
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