A Kingdom Not of This World: Kingship in Black Panther

by Patrick Stallwood

 

Spoiler Alert: If you haven’t seen the movie yet… seriously?

 

To say Black Panther is a success is an understatement. As of writing this article, the movie has grossed 1.2 billion dollars worldwide, and is on track to be the 11th highest grossing movie of all time. It has become the highest grossing superhero movie ever in the United States. Furthermore, the soundtrack for the movie, curated by Kendrick Lamar, rocketed to the top of the charts upon its release. Numbers aside, this movie is a cultural milestone, as a black superhero finally gains the attention he deserves when comic book movies have struggled with diversity in leading roles.  

Here is a quick summary for context. After a meteorite rich with vibranium strikes the center of Africa, the region quickly becomes lush with resources. During brutal tribal wars over the region, the Black Panther is formed when a man consumes an herb rich with mystical power and gains otherworldly strength. The tribes unite under the Black Panther, and they form the hidden kingdom of Wakanda. As the world burned with war and slavery, Wakanda only watched and grew in power, becoming a utopia. Then there is the protagonist, T’Chala. After the death of his father in Captain America: Civil War, T’Chala returns home to claim his throne. At the climax of the movie, his reign is violently usurped by his estranged cousin Eric Killmonger.

 

The movie presents two kings: T’Chala and Killmonger. Wakanda is at a crossroads. Does the country continue to isolate itself from the world and withhold its resources, or does it enter the global stage and open itself to the same exploitation as previous African countries? The political strategies of T’Chala and Killmonger bolsters their relationship as foil characters. Additionally, when viewing the movie from a biblical perspective, one notices how Jesus as a king differs from the expectations of the Israelites.

 

First, the reign of T’Chala. After his father’s death, T’Chala must secure his birthright to the throne by ceremonial trial by combat. He fights with mercy and forces his challenger to yield rather than be killed. When confronted with Wakanda’s isolationism by his love interest, Nakia, he reaffirms the traditional position of staying hidden. By the end of his character arch, he opens up Wakanda to offer foreign aid to underprivileged neighborhoods and developing countries, as well as enter global politics in the United Nations.

 

Next is Killmonger. While living without a father in the projects of Atlanta, he learns about the racial prejudices, violence, and injustices that plague the world. He responds to this with violence of his own. When he enters Wakanda to try to claim his birthright to the throne and beat T’Chala, he earns the respect of the tribal elders by killing one of their most wanted criminals. He then defeats T’Chala in trial by combat and promises to use the power of Wakanda to dominate the world. He will colonize European colonizers in Africa and vanquish Wakanda’s enemies.

 

When the Israelites imagined the chosen king from the line of David, they were expecting Killmonger. Since the reign of Saul, Israel’s kings were military strategists. David earned the approval of the tribes by killing Goliath, much like how Wakanda listened to Killmonger after he kills the criminal and beats T’Chala. Israel was expecting a messiah who will break their Roman oppressors and assert Israel as God’s chosen people, a leadership style found in Killmonger. When Jesus came proclaiming the kingdom of God, he was describing a kingdom that “does not belong to this world,” defying all expectations of kingship (John 18:36).

 

But instead, Jesus presents an “upside down” kingdom. The meek inherit the earth, the last shall be first, and the king washes the feet of the subjects. His kingdom is not dependent on force or intimidation, but on mercy and love. T’Chala exhibits some of these same qualities by using his wealth to serve the poor, and by being merciful in battle. Their similarities are edified by the fact that both Jesus and T’Chala are presumed to have lost their trials. Much to the surprise and dismay of his followers, Jesus was crucified. As he hung on the cross, the chief priests said of him, “He saved others; he cannot save himself” (Matthew 27:42). In the same way, Wakandans are shocked and heartbroken as T’Chala is pushed off a cliff. Furthermore, both men are mocked and brutalized as they approach their end. The difference is that T’Chala fights back, and then cheats death by never dying in the first place. Jesus remains nonviolent and dies on Good Friday, but overcomes death for everyone, by opening his heavenly kingdom. Jesus demonstrates that love and service, not strength and combat, make a true king. In this way, T’Chala reflects more of a Christian version of kinghood than Killmonger.

 

In terms of Wakanda’s isolationism, Jesus would challenge the country to go out and serve the world, as he charges all disciples. As T’Chala learns, by abandoning its self-preservation and isolationism, Wakanda can become a light in a dark world and fulfill Jesus’ words that “a city set on a mountain cannot be hidden” (Matthew 5:14).


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