The Purpose of Grief in Black Panther Wakanda Forever | Nerdy Sermon
Two years after his tragic passing, we’ve finally seen Marvel’s honoring of Chadwick Boseman and his excellent portrayal as the Black Panther, aka T’Challa. And the pressure was real, I’m sure. The world has wondered for years now how the franchise would adapt and shift with the needed change. How would his legacy be captured? How would the fictional character be lifted to highlight the real one?
Of equal importance to honoring the life lost, Black Panther Wakanda Forever sought out not only that but also to allow the coping and processing on behalf of Letitia Wright’s Shuri and Angela Bassett’s Queen Ramonda. That, in my opinion, was the real crux of this film, and - long runtime and busy script aside - I’m fascinated by the grief processing exhibited in the movie.
What can we learn from Ryan Coogler’s presentation on grief when there is no one to blame? Let’s talk about it.
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Speaker: StainedGlaz (Shane)
47 While he was still speaking, Judas, one of the twelve, arrived; with him was a large crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the elders of the people. 48 Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, “The one I will kiss is the man; arrest him.” 49 At once he came up to Jesus and said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” and kissed him. 50 Jesus said to him, “Friend, do what you are here to do.”[a] Then they came and laid hands on Jesus and arrested him. 51 Suddenly one of those with Jesus put his hand on his sword, drew it, and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear. 52 Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place, for all who take the sword will die by the sword. 53 Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? 54 But how then would the scriptures be fulfilled, which say it must happen in this way?” 55 At that hour Jesus said to the crowds, “Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a rebel? Day after day I sat in the temple teaching, and you did not arrest me. 56 But all this has taken place, so that the scriptures of the prophets may be fulfilled.” Then all the disciples deserted him and fled.
Before we get started - let’s throw some spoilers in for this one. I’m going to be presenting the grief presented in this film, so assume that none of the spoilers in the movie are safe.
What is Black Panther Wakanda Forever, and why should we care about it?
As mentioned in the opener, this is the first Black Panther project since the tragic loss of the star actor Chadwick Boseman to stage 4 colon cancer in 2020
Knowing the depth and expanse of the MCU, Black Panther 2 was a crux film for the current Phase (phase 4) of the MCU experience. It was almost certainly already written, if not undergoing further pre-production, at the time of this passing.
This was going to change everything.
Fans of the MCU, especially fans of the Black Panther mantle, were waiting anxiously to see how Coogler would make the needed changes to the character. Would we see a CGI T’Challa deepfaked into the start of the film? Would he just go off to college a la Steve from Blues Clues?
Luckily, the day was upon us, and neither of those things happened. Instead, Coogler opens the film with Shuri, T’Challa’s sister, frantically trying to synthetically recreate the heart-shaped herb that Killmonger burned up in the first film.
And she fails.
And he dies on the table while Shuri is busy in her technology trying to save him.
Then we have a unique MCU intro stinger that pays tribute to Boseman in complete and utter silence. It’s beautiful; it’s haunting; it’s a great start to a film.
This leads to the remainder of the movie focusing on the tension building between the US and Wakanda, the nation that Black Panther rules, and the newfound underwater nation of definitely not Atlantis Talokan.
While Shuri busies herself with work and technology, Queen Ramonda, T’Challa’s mother, takes the throne and KILLS it as the influential leader of a nation. For real - woman deserves an Oscar at the bare minimum.
We learn that Nakia, the widow of T’Challa, has traveled to Haiti to work at a school/orphanage.
Okoye, the general of the Dora Milaje, is doing her best to keep the peace between the nations and to maintain a strong sense of power for a weakened Wakanda.
So we have four strong female leads who are all working through the loss of a pillar of a community and are doing it well.
Until the fire nation attacked - I mean, Namor attacked.
Namor, or sometimes Namor, is the king (mutant) of Talokan. He (a mutant) was born from a Mayan tribe that ate some gillyweed herb that turned them into merpeople (but not him, because he is a mutant).
Namor is trying to protect the people of his underwater nation and decides that the best way to do that is to force Wakanda to work with his country so that the rest of the world can be destroyed. Good plan, right? Obviously no.
This leads to a silly war that eventually ends the life of Queen Ramonda and forces Shuri to double down on her pursuit of recreating the heart-shaped herb so that she can access the ancestral plane to tap into the wealth of power that is the Black Panther.
She succeeds and becomes the next Panther, but when entering the Ancestral Plane, she doesn’t see T’Challa waiting to greet her, but the villainous Killmonger, her cousin who is less than stellar.
He explains that she saw him because their goals are the exact - revenge.
Shuri then chooses to pursue the silly war with Talokan anyway, and somehow, the plot armor manages to hold true, and the nation of Wakanda survives, wins, and she doesn’t give in her revenge! Yay! It all worked out. Uh, sort of.
The loss is still palpable for these folks.
Queen Ramonda is gone.
Shuri has lost everyone (well, almost everyone *wink*) and is still not happy with being the Panther. She has no interest in ruling Wakanda and flees the role at the film's end.
Okoye has been stripped of her general status and is dealing with citizenship again.
And Nakia is, well, she’s doing pretty okay. Good for you, Nakia.
But before we look too deeply into this, let’s look at the scripture for this one.
In this passage from the gospel of Matthew, we see one of the more famous stories of Jesus, where he is finally being betrayed by Judas and is about to be taken into custody.
Judas points out who Jesus is with a holy kiss, and the guards that attended to him arrest the Savior of all.
Suddenly, one of those with Jesus pulls out a sword, rolls for initiative, and lashes out with a sword, cutting off the ear of one of the slaves of the high priest.
Jesus turns to the one who has committed the offense and says, “Yo! Put your sword back in its sheath. Fools who live by the sword will be fools who die by the sword. Don’t you think if I wanted a war, I would win? I have backup, but that’s not how this is supposed to go.”
Then he’s like, “Y’know what, Imma make this a teachable moment,” and he addresses the whole crowd of those gathered behind to arrest him, “Hey - for real? Why do you bring swords and clubs? Am I some kind of rabble-rouser? I’m a teacher. I’ve been teaching, but you didn’t come and get me from the temples. Instead, you’re doing all this just as predicted.”
And then those who followed Jesus left. Abandoned him. Gone.
We know that Jesus will be beaten, bruised, and ultimately die on the cross, a brutal and disgusting death. And at the moment that mattered most, he was utterly alone and without support.
When I read this passage, I couldn’t help but think about where I would be in the story. On the one hand, I am unabashedly a pacifist. I don’t think I would be the follower that cuts the guy's ear off. I might be one of the disciples that gets going when the going gets tough. I might be coming after Jesus in the dark of the night someday. I might even be as bad as Judas some days, betraying him in the worst fashion.
But what has always struck me in this story is that no one does the right thing other than Jesus.
It’s a pretty dismal story. If we’re looking for hope in humanity, there is none here.
When it comes to the ultimate sacrifice, it doesn’t matter if you have your favorite verse memorized or attended every Sunday… none stick through that tension other than Jesus.
I usually rag on the disciples, but I wonder if this wasn’t the moment when I DID understand the story. Jesus, their great teacher, was going to die. And so, what we’re witnessing here is grief.
The follower who cuts off the ear is lashing out in grief, not unlike Shuri, who is willing to destroy if it means working through her grief.
The disciples that leave the forefront don’t go out of just fear or abandonment; they are mourning the loss that will be about to happen. Maybe they just know there is no control. Perhaps they are just plain old sad. Just like Nakia, who had to get away, nothing could be done. Or Ramonda, who boldly puts on a brave face and keeps Wakanda moving, there is simply nothing to be done other than leaving the funeral rites behind at the grave.
It’s brutal, but I think in both this scene and in the film Black Panther Wakanda Forever, the story being told is one of the finality of death and the process of grief that must follow after. We are slaves to grief; there’s no choice in the matter. Even running from it is a choice we make in our grief, not in place of our grief.
By the end of the film, when Shuri does finally burn the funeral cloth that marks the end of the mourning period, that isn’t in place of the grief process; it’s just a step on the way, a reminder of the lack of control that we have over the moment.
What this film does well is not allow a simple coping mechanism to be used. Conquering the nation of Talokan doesn’t resolve anything. Becoming the Black Panther doesn’t resolve anything. Even the post-credits scene doesn’t resolve anything. Because there is nothing to be resolved - only grief to be had., and that’s okay.
In fact, side tangent - we learn a bit about the ancestral plane throughout these movies, and the truth of T’Challa’s visions is that they serve as revelations of change, not helpful advice from the ancestors. So perhaps Shuri sees Killmonger not because of their shared vision of revenge but instead for Shuri to have a revelation of where hatred leads us in the life and death of Killmonger. The ancestor isn’t informing as much as revealing a more profound truth. But that’s another video entirely.
With all this in mind, what does this actually mean for us today?
First, this film presents us with an important lesson: grief is unavoidable and is addressed differently by everyone. No one in this film is ultimately wrong for grieving in the way they do - it’s all simply a process to be worked through.
Another reminder is that none of them are able to out-power their grief. As human beings, we are wholly incapable of that kind of grace. Only one source can provide that life-changing resolution, and it’s the same grace that conquered the grave. Maybe we’re still finding ourselves in a place where Christ feels more dead than ever. But Christ did rise and conquer- there is something more to all of this, and that same grace is made available to you too.
Feel the feelings you need to, but know that at the end of the processing, only one entity can ultimately hold your hand, and it’s Jesus alone.
Did I expect a film like Black Panther to draw up these kinds of tools for us to use a grief processing? No, but I’m thankful for nerdy projects like this that allow us to utilize the hurt and pain of real-life tragic losses to help us better understand grief on a personal level.
And Checkpoint will be working through these nerdy projects so that you can get all out of them as possible.
So, whether you’re still working through things (Okoye), in over your head (Everett Ross), or seeing the light on the other end of the tunnel (Shuri), know you’re always welcome here at Checkpoint Church.