Five Lessons from Black Panther

I had the good fortune of seeing Black Panther on opening weekend. It was exactly what I wanted it to be: fun and thought-provoking. The special effects were dazzling, the cast was excellent and the story covered a number of significant themes. Given their literary beginnings (yes, comic books can be considered literary), Marvel tends to do a good job with storylines, using them to reflect our current reality and try to improve it. Black Panther is no exception. Here are five themes that I found particularly relevant. Be warned: mild spoilers ahead.

  1. Employ the best people for the job.

Wakanda utilizes everyone according to their talents, whether they are young or old, female or male, black or white. Nowhere was that more evident than in how they employ women. We’re (sadly) used to seeing only one or two women in secondary roles, especially when it comes to leadership but Wakanda clearly doesn’t subscribe to that philosophy. Women are everywhere: staffing the royal guard, farming, advising the king, advancing technological prowess and operating in the foreign service. Not only do they hold important roles but they’re fierce, intelligent, courageous and powerful. Wakandan women contribute so much to their society that it makes you wonder how much we could improve our circumstances if we too fully utilized women’s talents and leadership abilities.

  1. Nationalism is selfish.

Vibranium – the metal that provides Wakanda with most of its gifts – allowed them to hide themselves from the world and develop their resources solely for their own advantage. But their isolation came at a great personal cost, especially for the rest of the world. Wakanda is a recent example but this dynamic occurs time and again throughout history. One country refuses to participate fully in the human race only for everyone to suffer for it in the end. The United States has a regrettable history of doing just that, particularly in the run-up to both world wars. We’re even guilty of it now as we refuse to participate in global solutions towards climate change and reducing aggression.

Nationalism isn’t just about refusing to take a side in various conflicts though; it’s also about withholding everything you have to offer. That’s pretty selfish. Parents frequently tell their kids they must share because it’s the right thing to do but why should that lesson only apply to children? For decades, Wakanda refused to share technology which would help people in other parts of the world until they could no longer turn a blind eye to the suffering of others. But the lesson was difficult and the cost was high. We should learn from that, both within our country’s borders and outside them. Caring is sharing.

  1. Choose leaders based on how well they’ll lead.

The king (I’m unclear if there could be a queen) of Wakanda is chosen only among those of royal blood but also according to whether he can physically beat those who challenge him. This seems not only archaic but unwise. Strength or clever fighting tactics don’t necessarily make for a good leader. The Wakandans found that out quickly. To truly lead well, you need vision, intelligence, wisdom, compassion, a willingness to listen to others, and the desire to make things better. That’s a pretty tall order which is why restricting leadership to those with brute strength is troublesome. The United States doesn’t have a combat requirement but if you substitute money for physical prowess, you pretty much describe our system.

King T’Challa was born with great physical gifts while Killmonger, his challenger, gained his through hard work. While both may sound good, each method has a number of problems. Neither automatically leads to the development of leadership qualities yet that’s the choice physical combat as a tool of succession provides. Our system is no different. Maybe we don’t hold our elections in a waterfall or demand a certain bloodline but our one big fight – our election – is chiefly about who has the most money. And that’s not working out well. Instead of relying on an antiquated system that elevates people based on one deeply flawed characteristic, we should discover better ways of promoting good leaders.

  1. Showing compassion to your enemies is difficult but wise.

In both his movie appearances, when T’Challa had the opportunity to kill people he thought were his enemies, he held back and showed compassion. This allowed him to discover that one opponent was innocent (Bucky Barnes) and another (M’Baku) was just being a good leader. This led to both Bucky and M’Baku becoming valuable allies and to him gaining something even greater: a sense of peace and justice. The moments when T’Challa chose compassion over vengeance were pretty powerful since we don’t see that a lot.

People increasingly seem driven by anger and revenge rather than sympathy and hope. We tend to jeer our enemies instead of recognizing their humanity or realizing that their situations could one day become ours. All too often, we choose the fleeting satisfaction of bringing someone down versus the lasting peace of having done the right thing. Popular culture is definitely guilty of this as is our political arena. We’ve seen it in the treatment of political rivals or people like the Parkland kids who want something different. Yet while compassion can be difficult to offer, it is what moves our future forward. Dead enemies can never become allies and true sympathy gives people the opportunity to change. T’Challa demonstrated this nicely. He desperately wanted vengeance for the murder of his father but realized the price he would pay – the cost to his soul and to the idea of justice – was too high. In the end, compassion gave him wisdom and made him a better leader. We would do well to emulate his choice.

  1. Propping up an unjust regime isn’t the right thing to do.

There comes a moment in the movie when all the characters have to choose a side: they must stand with tradition and the smooth transition of power or follow their hearts down an uncertain path, one that could lead to chaos and war. It’s an extremely difficult choice and there were, to coin a phrase, good people on both sides. The people who chose tradition thought they were doing so for the good of Wakanda. Unfortunately, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Many Nazis also believed they were acting in the best interests of Germany which, by the way, goes back to that whole nationalism thing.

Clearly this has relevance to us now. Our election was rigged – and rigged badly by enemies both foreign and domestic – yet, for the good of the country, power was smoothly transferred. The door to a dictatorship has opened. While many people are resisting, it’s not enough. There are still good people in positions of power who have yet to realize that propping up an unjust regime is not righteous. It’s dangerous and leads down a path of moral decay. As the Wakandans discovered, unjust regimes survive on the backs of good people. Dictators remain in power because good people are too afraid or too blind to resist them. Only when people stand up for what’s right do things change.

Yes, Wakanda is fictional and wrongs were righted there in the usual neat movie timeframe. Things aren’t so easy in the real world yet I still believe that we should heed the lessons of Black Panther while we can. If we work toward a society which utilizes all our citizens equally, shares our wealth, shows compassion and chooses our leaders more wisely, then perhaps the last lesson, that of an unjust regime, won’t be one we need to learn.

Share Your Thoughts