Over the past weekend, Black Panther shattered box office records to become the fifth largest opening weekend for a film. Ever. That’s a big deal, especially as certain pockets of the film world continue to herald the imminent onset of “superhero fatigue.”
My entire immediate family are huge superhero nerds, so this past Thursday night my husband and I packed our kids up and headed to the theater to watch Black Panther. While my children might give me the stink eye for referring to them as such — at 13 and 17, being called children is the ultimate insult — both are still of an age where the entertainment they consume can leave an indelible mark on them.
If you’re tempted to poo-poo at that, think back to your own formative years and you’ll surely come across a memory or two where a fictional character informed who you are today. After leaving a packed theater on Thursday night, rest assured that entire generation will one day be citing Black Panther as one of those formative films.
What Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole have done with King T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), Okoye (Danai Gurira), Shuri (Letitia Wright), and the rest of the cast is nothing short of Shakespearean. From the opening crawl explaining the history of Wakanda to the final moments before the credits roll, Black Panther engages with the audience about family, race, and responsibility in a nuanced way.
Parents would do well to take their brood to see a film that couches deep philosophical questions within the action bombast of super-powered folks blasting the (bloodless) heck out of each other.
For me personally, Black Panther was a perfect film to take my 17-year-old son to see. While my husband does his level best to deprogram toxic masculinity at home, The Boy must still go to high school, a place saturated with messages about what a “real man” is. A “real man” doesn’t have many emotions, and certainly not touchy-feely ones like doubt, fear, or grief. High school boys are drowning in island prisons of their own making, trapped in a way the girls are not, as the latter are encouraged to converse and talk through their feelings.
Girls can like things traditionally designated at male, such as sports, while finding a straight high school boy willing to admit he’d like to take an interior design class would take a rare kind of self-assurance.
Into this toxic void, Black Panther is a breath of fresh air; the first modern blockbuster that solidly shatters the false illusion of what it means to be a man.
T’Challa is many things. He is the king of Wakanda. He is a man grieving the loss of his father. He is a brother and a son. Above all, he is a man trying to do the right thing when the definition of the “right thing” has changed since the time of his fathers.
Chadwick Bosemen infuses his character with a wide range of emotions not normally allowed to an archetypal action hero. He struggles with his father’s legacy, he feels compassion and empathy for his enemy Killmonger, he is hurt but understands why W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) would choose a different path, he treats his competitors such as M’Baku(Winston Duke) with respect.
Whereas Killmonger uses his power to subjugate his people and hurt the women around him, T’Challa listens to a wide variety of opinions, has empathy for those that lash out due to their background and circumstances without sacrificing the safety of his loved ones, and treats women as equals.
At the end of the day T’Challa, like Wonder Woman last year, chooses love over fear. A powerful lesson for boys to see on the big screen. Boys can choose love, too.
But T’Challa isn’t the only character impressing progressive messages on our boys. The women of Black Panther are as varied in personality and role and treated with a kind of equality women outside of Wakanda can only dream will one day come to pass. Okoye and her stringent military beliefs softened by her sense of humor. Nakia’s determination to use Wakandan ingenuity to help the impoverished and oppressed. And Shuri’s absolute joy in creating new technology for her people to use. The face of STEM in Wakanda is a teenage girl. A whole generation of boys is going to see this as normal. That in and of itself is like finding a unicorn. The fact that no one in the film, not even Martin Freeman’s character Everett Ross, treats Shuri as less than because of her age or gender is nothing short of revolutionary.
Of course, this is not to say Black Panther is only for boys. Every girl out there should feel empowered by Shuri, Okoye, and Nakia. They can look to T’Challa for how men in their lives should treat them; as equals capable and ready to meet any challenge. Having a generation of kids watch adults simply acknowledge that men being vulnerable is not a weakness and seeing a black female teenager as the smartest person on the planet is the kind of radical acceptance that wouldn’t have been possible even a few years ago.
But Black Panther doesn’t just subvert action hero expectations with T’Challa and Shuri. From the bitingly funny and vegetarian M’Baku to Okoye and Nakia debating if patriotism means blind loyalty or righteous rebellion, the film is full of themes that can be great conversational jumping off points. How does a person’s socioeconomic status affect how they view the world? What responsibility, if any, do technologically advanced nations have in helping raise the quality of life for those around the world? How can you be a good ally without barging into spaces you can’t fully understand like a rampaging bull?
Some of these themes are a bit advanced if your kids haven’t hit puberty, but taking them to see Black Panther can plant in their minds the seeds of how society can be, not how it is today. Then watch our boys thrive as they move past being a “real man” to being an integrated member of a multifaceted society. Watch them choose love.