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Acton Commentary

Marginalization and solidarity in 'Black Panther'

The latest installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has become a global phenomenon. Black Panther, featuring the mythical African nation of Wakanda and its new king, T’Challa, has smashed box office records and sparked cultural commentary and reflection on the significance of colonialism, race, nationalism, and social responsibility. A key theme running throughout Black Panther is that of marginalization: we find numerous instances, at multiple levels, of people who have been isolated from the mainstream or from a larger community, often with disastrous consequences. A corresponding lesson the film teaches is the underlying unity or solidarity that all human beings manifest, even in the midst of sharp disagreements and differences.

The main antagonist in the film is a character named Killmonger, a special forces veteran, whose specialty is his namesake lethality. Killmonger is a striking figure, in large part because as we become familiar with his backstory he becomes equally sympathetic and imposing. As an illegitimate son of an exiled Wakandan prince, Killmonger was excluded from his homeland and left to fend for himself in urban America. As a hardened adult, Killmonger has come to claim what he sees as rightfully his, the throne of Wakanda itself. While Killmonger’s vision of a militaristic global empire, which in turn oppresses the historical oppressors, is chilling, it is in its own way an attempt to grapple with the moral realities of responsibility. As W’Kabi, a Wakandan general and one of Killmonger’s sympathizers, puts it, the Africans spread throughout the world are also in some sense brothers and sisters to whom Wakanda has a responsibility, a responsibility it has shirked through its isolation.

A corresponding lesson the film teaches is the underlying unity or solidarity that all human beings manifest, even in the midst of sharp disagreements and differences.

If Killmonger is an example of the potential fruits of marginalization at the individual level, the Jabari represent marginalization at the national scale. One of the founding tribes of Wakanda, the Jabari live an isolated existence in the mountains, apart from the rest of the Wakandan tribes and as erstwhile opponents of the Wakandan kings. The film opens with T’Challa’s succession to the throne, and part of Wakandan culture allows for anyone to challenge the fitness of the king in ritual combat. This ensures an element of merit; the would-be king must deserve to rule and be able to prove it if called upon. M’Baku, leader of the Jabari tribe, does in fact challenge T’Challa. And while he is defeated, the legitimacy of M’Baku’s challenge, despite the isolation and marginalization of the Jabari, demonstrates the deeper claim the Jabari have to being part of Wakanda.

This dynamic becomes critical later in the story, as T’Challa’s family and friends are themselves marginalized following Killmonger’s defeat of T’Challa. Now the royal family has become vulnerable, and their only hope is the Jabari. The Jabari do in fact live up to their responsibilities as part of Wakanda, first by saving T’Challa himself and then by joining the fight against Killmonger.

In addition to these illustrations of marginalization at the individual and national levels, Wakanda itself exists at the margins on the global scale. It is a member nation of the UN, which provides the backdrop for the death of T’Challa’s father, T’Chaka, and T’Challa’s ascension to the throne and assumption of the mantle of Black Panther. But its façade as a nation of subsistence farmers belies its greater resources, not just in terms of material wealth and the rare and powerful element vibranium, but in its moral and intellectual resources as well. T’Challa’s sister Shuri has genius to rival Tony Stark, and a far more developed moral sense than is displayed by the crony capitalist playboy. T’Challa’s love likewise has a deeper sense of Wakanda’s broader responsibilities based on the gifts it has to offer the rest of the world. Her activism on behalf of the marginalized in facts leads to her own marginalization, while her vision of service to her brethren is diametrically opposed to Killmonger’s militaristic imperialism.

The resolution to these dynamics in the film comes when T’Challa finally embraces a vision of solidarity that will no longer allow Wakanda to remain isolated and marginalized within the world community. It will help the world, not through conquest as Killmonger would have it, but through peaceful trade, exchange, and engagement. T’Challa’s final speech at the UN focuses on the deeper human bonds that unite all of us in the midst of our differences, echoing the words of Maya Angelou:

“We are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.”

This is something significant that Wakanda has to offer the world beyond its obvious material and technological achievements. This truth will no doubt become increasingly important as Black Panther takes its place within the larger narratives of the MCU, and as an isolated and marginalized planet, Earth, is faced with truly cosmic threats. When confronted with galactic powers that dwarf those of even its superheroes, the inhabitants of earth will come to truly appreciate the urgency that lies behind Benjamin Franklin’s famous statement: “We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”

Wakanda at its best represents a kind of respectful, or what has sometimes been called confident or principled, pluralism. Each of the tribes retains its own characteristic features; each of the individuals has his or her own strengths and interests. But each of these disparate elements is also grounded in a deeper sense of unity and solidarity, an understanding of the common good that can only be achieved together and not as isolated individuals or antagonistic groups. In this way Black Panther provides us with an important lesson about how to live together in the midst of diversity, with proper respect for our differences, but without devolving into the diabolical marginalization and alienation of those who are different and indeed with whom we sometimes quite sharply disagree. We are strongest in our families, in our communities, nations, and throughout the world, not when we withdraw into ourselves or seek to conquer, but rather when we recognize, affirm, and value our differences amidst the deeper reality of our unity.

Featured image used under Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC 2.0). Some changes made (cropping).

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Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; PhD, Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project.