The Important Symbols and Messages of 'Black Panther'

*THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SPOILERS*

With the buzz and electrified energy surrounding Black Panther, it is safe to say that the film exceeded the expectations of the many people who’ve seen it. It is also one of the few movies that people are not ashamed to say they’ve seen more than once in theaters. I for one have seen it twice already, and I have no shame in saying that I plan to see it a third time within the next few days!

What I love so much about this film is the dialogue (and the memes) that it has created much like Jordan Peele’s groundbreaking 2017 film, Get Out. In the same way that Get Out was more than a horror film, Black Panther is more than a superhero movie. It is riddled with important symbols and messages and was also a representation of the history behind the African diaspora in our world. Here, I present some of the symbols and messages that I deem to be some of the most thought-provoking and captivating aspects of Black Panther.

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Women Being Portrayed as Fierce Warriors

One thing that was hard to miss was the presence and dominance of women throughout the film such as the “Dora Milaje,” which were a group of female bodyguards who also take part in special forces. The general of the Dora Milaje and head of Wakanda’s armed forces, Okoye, was such a powerhouse and played a big role in returning balance to Wakanda. The more important thing to note about her character is that although she works alongside king T’Challa, she is not a sidekick. If anything, she is part of the layered foundation that holds up T’Challa and allows him to be successful. Because as we all know, no structure can stand without its foundation.

I’ve watched one too many movies where the man is the one that everyone counts on to pull through and save the day and women are portrayed as whiny and in need of saving. But in Black Panther, the women were the ones who did the saving, and T’Challa would not have been able to achieve his tasks if it weren’t for the fierce women by his side. In an interview that actress Lupita Nyong'o did with The View, she mentions how the men of Wakanda are not threatened by the power and authority that these women possess. Danai Gurira (actress who plays Okoye) also mentioned in the same interview that these women were allowed to be “fully feminine and fully fierce,” which I couldn’t agree with more. Although fictional, to see a society where women are truly equal to men and it is not questioned is awe-inspiring and I can only hope that one day our society can achieve that status.

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Black Women in STEM

As an aspiring scientist, it was so refreshing to witness Shuri, Princess of Wakanda, a young black woman, using her artistry to innovate and create. Shuri was basically the mastermind behind the technological advances of Wakanda as well as the fancy gadgets that the Black Panther possessed.

Too often, young black women are painted as obnoxious, angry and overly sassy individuals in movies, and we are tired of this played out portrayal. So, to see a young black woman using her mind, without the help of others, to design technology that literally powers her community is iconic and is something that little black girls need to see. Young black girls need to know that they too are capable of intellectual excellence.

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Another great example of how unthreatened the men of Wakanda are by the women happened when M’Baku, the leader of the Jabari tribe challenged T’Challa. As he criticized T’Challa’s ability to lead, he turned to Shuri to exclaim how the technological advancements of Wakanda were being overseen by a CHILD. Notice how he doesn’t say girl or young woman. He does not mention her sex at all. Instead he scolds her for being young (which is not a barrier of intelligence to be honest). But the fact that he’s more uncomfortable with her age rather than her being female stems from the innate appreciation and acceptance of women in Wakanda.

Killmonger Representing the African American Experience

Black Panther is also one of the few superhero films where many people could say that they actually understood and felt for the villain. Erik Killmonger, the long lost relative of T’Challa, shows up threatening to take T’Challa’s place as king. As extreme and destructive as he was, he made a lot of deep and philosophical comments throughout the film. In the scene where his identity and motives were being questioned, he exclaimed that, “Y’all sitting up here comfortable.” He goes on to say how there are two billion people all over the world who look like them but stand in the face of adversity and how Wakandan tools can be used to liberate them all. He believed that sending Vibranium and Wakanda’s advanced weaponry around the world was the key to saving the African diaspora. Now before I continue, I must say that Killmonger’s mentality is one that I do not agree with at all. His idea of waging war and killing all those who stand against them is wicked and should not be entertained. And in the words of T’Challa, it is not their duty to play, “Judge, Jury, and Executioner.” But when you look at the bigger picture, you realize that Killmonger’s mentality stemmed from a place of hurt. Having his father taken away from him and growing up in a city where he probably didn’t have the economic status or resources to succeed are most likely the reasons that fueled his hate. It is also likely that as he grew up, he witnessed many other African Americans in his community falling victim to the many disadvantages that people of color face in our society.

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The last and probably the most significant thing that Killmonger said in the movie took place as he drew his last breaths. T’Challa turns to him and says, “Maybe we can still heal you.” Killmonger then responds with, “Why? So you could just lock me up? Just bury me in the ocean with my ancestors that jumped from the ships cause they knew death was better than bondage.” In that moment, my indifference toward him quickly turned to sympathy. Even though what he stood for was wrong, it was clear that his character also represented the hurt and pain that African-Americans have dealt with throughout history.

T’Challa vs Killmonger (Martin Luther King vs Malcolm X)

During a conversation that I had with a friend of mine, we talked about the personality characteristics of T’Challa and Killmonger. We also talked about how drawn we were to T’Challa’s calm and peaceful aura as well as his promising ability to lead. But the turning point of the conversation was when my friend brought up how T’Challa’s and Killmonger’s interaction was much like the relationship between Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.

As many of us know, M.L.K was a man who believed that change and progress could only take place through love, peace and non-violent protests. In a book that he published back in 1963, Strength to Love, he writes that, “Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” Malcolm X on the other hand, was known for being a bit more aggressive with his approach and challenged the mainstream civil rights movement. In several of his speeches, he urged his followers to defend themselves in any way that they could. In other words, he supported the idea of African Americans bearing arms in order to stand against their oppressors. In his speech at the Founding Rally of the Organization of Afro-American Unity, he stated that, "We assert that in those areas where the government is either unable or unwilling to protect the lives and property of our people, that our people are within our rights to protect themselves by whatever means necessary.” Just like Malcolm X, Killmonger believed that arming oppressed black people and meeting their oppressors with force was the key to freedom. But, T’Challa much like M.L.K believed in peace and knew that it was not their duty to wage war on the rest of the world.

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Representation

As a child, whenever a popular movie would come out, it was commonplace that I would jokingly argue with my friends about which character we were. Of course, the character we all wanted to be was attractive, confident, and smart. But as a young black girl, the characters never looked like me or any of my black friends. As a child, when the people who look like you are rarely ever portrayed as beautiful, intelligent, or heroic, you begin to think that it’s because they do not possess these qualities. So, to have a film full of individuals who look like us, being portrayed as strong, passionate and heroic is absolutely necessary. We now have a film where black boys and girls can point to a character and say, “That’s me!”

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