The tragic loss of Chadwick Boseman to cancer last night is hitting Marvel geeks and the whole world in a very hard place. Yes, 2020 has been a dumpster fire of the most epic proportions, but this hurts particularly because of what T’Challa, the Black Panther movie, and Mr. Boseman’s embodiment of Wakanda had for our black friends around the world. In a time when the pervasive reality of racism is on our nightly news, to lose such an icon is beyond devastating. I can empathize, but I cannot speak to the heaviness of that loss as a white person.
What I can do is write about what that movie meant to me and why I feel his loss so acutely as a Marvel fan and as white person who is continually working through my own racist indoctrination.
I don’t know if I am normal among Marvel readers, but I mostly read for one character, Captain America. I read Avengers comics too, but mainly for Cap. Prior to the movie, I had never read a Black Panther comic, though I knew of him from Avengers comics. I think part of the systemic racism that we have all lived with is that on some level, I bought into the idea that Black Panther comics weren’t “for me.” Meaning, the character was written to give black comic readers a hero, which is awesome, but I had also internalized that I was not the target audience, so I never bothered.
T’Challa’s first appearance in the MCU was in Captain America: Civil War and I was taken in by Chadwick Boseman’s performance from the moment he was on screen. His first scenes are a close up of T’Challa talking to his father and on the huge screen I could see that Chadwick’s ear was pierced. It seems small, but that tiny detail gave me instant affinity to him. Throughout the story, T’Challa stands as an outsider in the middle of this family feud and in the end, when he prevents Zemo from killing himself, he seals his place as a leader in the MCU as someone who knows that villains are often just a matter of circumstance, something Chadwick himself said on “The Daily Show” when he said he didn’t believe Killmonger was the villain of Black Panther, rather he was the other side of a coin that was T’Challa.
Then came the movie. From my first viewing, I knew how special this film was. I resonated with the beauty of the integration of nature and technology. I fell in complete love with Shuri and her brilliance, sarcasm, and creativity. I relished the demonstration of equality of the sexes on a level never seen before in Nakia and the Dora Milaje. I appreciated the complexity of the issues presented in the film as well as what it would mean to the world to have a country like Wakanda in real life. Black Panther instantly rose to the top of my list of favorite Marvel films where it has remained. My laptop is named Shuri and my car is named Zuri, who was the Spiritual Leader of Wakanda.
What Black Panther did for me was highlight what has long been missing from the MCU and honestly from all media; Black Excellence. And in that, I’m not saying we’ve only missed strong acting or writing or directing. There’s not enough of any of that to be sure, but that’s not what I mean. What we had in Black Panther was a vision of a world where there are no limitations on what African culture and all its decendants could do and be in the world. Where colonialism was repelled, yes, and the culture and society were able to develop without white influence or control. The end of the movie carries Nakia’s hope that Wakanda could maintain itself and provide wisdom to the world. Wakanda is a place I want to exist.
In the Marvel movies that have come out since, I have felt it acutely when there is absence of Wakandan influence. Of all the characters lost to “The Snap” I was most upset about T’Challa. I hoped that Shuri would have survived but when teaser clips confirmed she had been lost too, I felt how terrible the loss of both siblings would be to Wakanda. The only consolation (not knowing how Endgame would turn out) was that I knew a second Black Panther film was in the works. Looking at IMDB today, all previously attached actors (which had included Chadwick Boseman) are now gone from that films’s page. I’m so heartbroken because that was the one Stage 4 film I’ve been looking forward to because it meant returning to Wakanda for another 2+ hours.
My black friends and other black influencers I follow on social media have written about what Boseman’s portrayal of King T’Challa meant for them and I can only try to imagine what this loss means for them. I don’t have to imagine what it means for me. Wakanda is the vision of the world we all need right now. King T’Challa was a leader for the more just society we need to create. The Black Panther film (and if you want to dive into the comics, start with the series by Ta-Nehisi Coates) allows us all to spend two hours in a world where Black Excellence reigns in a way it always should have. Mr. Boseman embodied that excellence both on screen and off and our world is so much better for your too-brief 43 years. Your ancestors have welcomed you home with great pride.