By Jesse Sumpter
Black Panther engages with some important philosophical questions—some of the best since The Dark Knight trilogy. But the movie fails to give anything close to an interesting answer. The ending scene in Oakland fails to offer anything substantial because it fails to grapple with the true nature of humanity: why are people evil? What was it that made Killmonger wrong? The movie doesn’t address these things and so it doesn’t address the root issues at stake in the human heart. In the end, the movie tries to say that T’Challa has a different solution than Killmonger but the reality is that they both offer the same solution. The movie just doesn’t want to admit it.
The central question the movie considers is: what is the responsibility of a powerful nation in regards to other nations and people? If we recognize the humanity of other countries and peoples—and we should—then how should we help them and encourage them toward peace, liberty, and prosperity. These are not secondary concerns for America. These are central issues for our nation and we have been wrestling with them for the last century. What do you do with the resources and power that you have? There is a way to abuse this power and there is a way to use it for good.
At first, T’Challa’s position is to protect his own people and his own country. He says “I am not king of all people. I am king of Wakanda.” He sees his responsibility is to take care of his people first. In this sentiment, he agrees with Trump: Wakanda first. But the movie suggests that this position is arrogant and backwards because it fails to help those outside of the country. T’Challa’s vision is challenged by Killmonger when he tells T’Challa: “About 2 billion people all over the world that looks like us but their lives are a lot harder. Wakanda has the tools to liberate them all.” T’Challa is forced to reconsider what his responsibility is to his neighbors.
Killmonger suggests that there are other people in the world that Wakanda should care about. This suggestion starts as an appeal to love of neighbor but Killmonger is not really interested in loving others. When he finally seizes control of the throne, he reveals his real interest is world conquest. He says: “It’s time they know the truth about us! We’re warriors. The world is gonna start over and this time we’re on top. The sun will never set on the Wakandan empire.” His vision is to overthrow the powers that be: to replace one empire with another empire.
The movie makers set up Killmonger as a foil to draw out T’Challa and by the end of the movie T’Challa has shifted his vision of empire. He has seen the problems of various peoples (specifically black peoples) and he is moved with compassion to help them. This brings us back to the ending scene in Oakland where T’Challa rushes to inner city Oakland and begins to help others. He sets up the first “Wakanda International Outreach Center.” He places his sister, Shuri, in charge of “science and information exchange” and she begins to introduce Wakandan technology to the kids gathered around.
At this point, I have to almost laugh. If I didn’t know better, I would say that these filmmakers got this idea from inner city mission trips. The name “Outreach Center” sounds like a summer youth project. And all of this drives to the naiveté of the film. I doubt any of these filmmakers have ever worked in an inner city before. The reality is that you can’t just drop a space ship into the middle of Oakland and think everything is going to be hunky-dory. I suggest that T’Challa should read “When Helping Hurts” on how helping others in an ignorant way can actually destroy them.
This connects back to the nature of humanity that the movie fails to grapple with. The key question being: where does technology come from? The movie assumes an evolutionary explanation of technology in the origin story of Vibranium: there was this random rock that hit earth and gifted this people with technology. Wakanda used the technology and so has this power. But that origin story is completely wrong. Technology does not come from random events like a rock or from scientists doing things in the lab. Technology comes from people obeying the laws of nature and submitting themselves to the God of nature. True and lasting technology comes about when human nature has been redeemed and made good so it knows rightly how to love God and love neighbors. Technology is not an accident; it is one way that people love their neighbors.
In contrast, the movie assumes a kind of generic innocence and goodness of all people: it proposes that if people are given technology, then they will use it well. But what T’Challa is offering to the inner city kids in “technology and science” is the same thing that Killmonger was offering: the space ship has weapons. The final scene then becomes T’Challa offering to arm kids. But contrary to the origin story of Vibranium, technology itself does not have any power to fix the world’s problems.
In the end, Black Panther leaves us with a liberal imperialism which suggests that if we give inner city kids technology then that will usher in world peace. But that will only work if T’Challa is a perfect and all powerful savior. That is, if he can change hearts. But T’Challa was right earlier in the movie: he is not king of all people. There is only one person who is king of all people and only He has the power to change hearts. The movie ignores this spiritual reality and so it has seductively suggested a prideful program of imperialism. The movie is suggesting that people can use technology to fix others. But that is plain wrong. Only Jesus can change hearts and until hearts are changed, people will take technology and they will always use it as a weapon. At the end of the movie, T’Challa has simply become Killmonger.