The Black Panther is apparently “the” movie to talk about.
So are you prepared to talk about it? How did this particular Marvel film unite often-critical consumers and hardly-consuming-critics? And what about this is worth leveraging in conversation or programming with teenagers?
Over the past ten years, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has produced multiple blockbusters rooted in at least one of four primary origin stories:
- Men-of-influence-who-also-have-father-issues (Iron Man, Thor)
- Humble-wallflowers-who-become-amped-up-fighters (Captain America, Spiderman)
- Shady-past-loners-who-team-up-for-the-greater-good (Guardians of the Galaxy, most of the Avengers)
- Professionals-who-tamed-everyday-life-only-to-be-thrust-into-the-wild (Doctor Strange, the Hulk)
The X-Men films focused on those who were “born” a certain way amidst a society that stood against them. Given different studios produced these films, comic book fans have (ironically) debated whether or not these films count as legitimate Marvel movies.
Black Panther reaches further than all its predecessors by theming “classic good-guy-versus-bad-guy” with “purists-who-are-either-right-or-wrong-in-a-complex-society.” It’s a debate that Captain America: Civil War notably introduced but kept safely tucked inside of its script. As a Time Magazine article points out, Black Panther interweaves fiction and non-fiction in a culture where trolls are real (on both sides of the bridge) to remind us how “us” and “them” are impossible categories to live in:
If you are reading this and you are white, seeing people who look like you in mass media probably isn’t something you think about often… Those of us who are not white have considerably more trouble not only finding representation of ourselves in mass media and other arenas of public life, but also finding representation that indicates that our humanity is multifaceted. Relating to characters onscreen is necessary not merely for us to feel seen and understood, but also for others who need to see and understand us. When it doesn’t happen, we are all the poorer for it.
Make no mistake, Black Panther is an action movie about a man navigating a royal lineage that empowers him to do heroic things on behalf of his kingdom. Multiple scenes will pump audiences up accordingly, yet simultaneously hand us consequential real-world arguments to wrestle with. Rather than solely watching characters going through defining moments, we personally go through those moments with them.
The movie leverages diverse cinematography, taking us back-and-forth between the broken world we all live in and the hidden African utopia “Wakanda.” The latter being a tribal but technologically advanced culture. this dichotomy prompts the audience to wonder if solutions to life’s problems are found in the ancient world, the emerging world, or the elimination/ ignorance of one to preserve the other.
That’s what is brilliant about how Black Panther asks who the real minority is. The people you and I mentally skip over thinking about each day are real people. It often isn’t until their stories are shared that you begin rooting for them. The power of a testimony or a good story that draws us in turns those who were “strangers” into those who are actually “like me.”
“You are all sitting up here comfortable. Must feel good. There are about two billion people around the world who look like us and their lives are a lot harder. Wakanda has the tools to liberate them all.”
- What would have happened if oppressed people during eras of extreme mistreatment were given off-the-chart weapons to overpower their oppressors? Would the cycle of violence have ended there, or somehow continued? If the latter, what does that mean about what we’re to do with how things actually did play out?
“The wise build bridges while the foolish build barriers.”
- How is it both a good thing and a bad thing for countries, churches and student ministries to maintain their borders? If we were challenged to give the next generation one piece of wisdom on this for their own personal lives, how confident would we feel about our advice and why?
“Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from ships, cause they knew death was better than bondage.”
- What do we do with painful eras of history that were never fully acknowledged as they happened? Do we ever, and should we ever, “move on” from retroactive grief, anguish, and fury?
“You can’t let your father’s mistakes define who you are… You get to decide what kind of king you are going to be.”
- Have you ever realized that the ideals someone raised you with were something they also struggled to live out? How would you respond if you saw how successful or unsuccessful someone really was at it? Would their track record cancel out the truth of what they ascribed to?
Wrestle with these questions around a small group or a meal with students. Black Panther doesn’t pretend to offer bumper-sticker platitudes to these questions, so don’t try to for your youth. Perhaps we’ve all replied quickly in a sentence or two to students about larger issues they’re wrestling with. Such slogans may get them through the moment, but never prepare them for a life of dialogue with Jesus.
That’s the benefit of us spectating multiple extreme points of view among fictional characters in a movie and real people we read about in the Bible. We discover that every well-intended human-founded solution or philosophy always creates a whole new generation of blind spots. We then get to respond as everyday people grafting their turning points into our own so that a seemingly God-forsaken world isn’t ever truly God-forsaken.
What if we owned how our attempts to further ourselves damage others? What if we began living differently by denying ourselves and taking up our cross daily, following Jesus and furthering a real Kingdom? A kingdom full of diversity which is never the focus, but never suppressed, as we are all individually bound together around the Savior we all commonly need.
We are His Body – our royal lineage empowers us to do heroic things on behalf of the Kingdom. Part of that involves ensuring that the next generation can have their turn.
So what do you think it means to suit up?