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‘Black Panther: Wakanda Forever’ offers an invitation to grieve

“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” portrays what no other Marvel film has: how grief can affect a community. This film hasn’t left my mind even days after viewing, and any film that succeeds in provoking this level of thought and emotional reactions is one I consider a success. This movie invites audience members into its world and to participate in its story about life and loss alongside the characters. 

The movie is a powerful tribute to the late actor Chadwick Boseman, who passed away from colon cancer at the age of 43 in August of 2020. He was best known for his role as King T’Challa, the Black Panther. His death was unexpected and no one, not even those close to him, knew of his diagnosis. 

Going into this movie, I knew the experience was going to be an emotional one. I, like many others, looked up to Boseman. He was an actor who understood the power of representation on the big screen. Most of the stories he participated in telling were not often given the time to be shared properly. He breathed life into Jackie Robinson, James Brown and Thurgood Marshall in movies involving struggle, determination and Black pride. His presence in Black Panther was wide reaching. He played the thoughtful T’Challa, who always chose the noble action no matter what. Boseman played a believable leader and hopeful king to his kingdom, fellow Avengers and closest allies. Boseman’s passion ignited every scene he was in and he brought a sensation of hope that seemed to bounce off of the actors around him.

Audiences were able to love not only the world of Wakanda, but also the people who were passionate about building this world. There was so much detail when it came to fashion, culture, music and even technology in this fictional world. For once, Black audiences felt like they were a part of something. Walking out of the theater after “Black Panther,” audiences left with a deep sense of love and pride. Like any other fan, I was excited to see what they would do with these characters in the future.

Boseman’s absence in “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” felt unsettling. There were moments I wished T’Challa could embrace the characters who were struggling and all would be better. 

The film at times did not feel like it was connected to the first “Black Panther.” While the film had many of the amazing characters from the first movie, like Shuri, Okoye, Nakie and M’Baku, on top of having the same director, Ryan Coogler, and costume designer, Ruth E. Carter, something was missing. Wakanda was the same country, but the spark that made the original “Black Panther”’ so amazing was gone.

“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” ended Marvel’s fourth phase after its “Infinity Saga.” After reflecting on all of the films and shows that have been released these past two years, starting with “WandaVision” (2021), the overwhelming theme has been about grief and legacy. We have seen these big characters, like Iron Man and Captain America, shine on the screen for years now. Phase four has been about passing down the mantle and navigating room for a legacy. Paul Bettany’s character Vision says it well in the series “WandaVision.” 

“What is grief, if not love persevering?” he said. 

For me, this quote is an explanation of why “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” has resonated with me the way it has. 

Characters have felt grief in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) before, but it always felt short lived. Grief has always felt like a convenient tool to give a character a quick motive, or to add a level of mystery or drama to a sequence. There was always the possibility that characters could be resurrected from the dead or might have not been dead at all. This pattern usually took away from the emotion I felt as an audience member when watching Marvel movies because there was always a possibility we might see that character again. Loki has been presumed dead four times, but Marvel always found a way to bring him back. Death never felt permanent in this universe because there was always another option. 

In “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” we were not only mourning T’Challa, but also Chadwick Boseman. There was no resurrection or redemption. There was no mystery or plot twist. Both of them were truly gone, and there was nothing anyone could say or do to change that fact. In the movie, T’Challa passes from an undisclosed illness. His sister, Shuri, played by Letitia Wright, stretches her resources to search for a cure and ultimately fails to find an answer in time.  

It felt like all of the characters in the movie were walking alongside the audience in their journey of grief. The film allowed us to digest this unspeakable loss. Despite the difficult feelings of sadness, “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” treats death as a celebration. The people of Wakanda wear white, which is a color of life and purity, when bidding farewell to their king.

In the MCU, it’s a popular sentiment that members from Wakanda have expressed before. Our introduction to T’Challa in “Captain America: Civil War” shows him talking about how death is a new beginning. 

Originally, I thought he was only talking about the soul who had passed, transitioning to the afterlife. But after watching “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” T’Challa’s death sparks a new beginning for Shuri and the nation of Wakanda.

The film focuses more specifically on Shuri’s construction of grief. She is unable to let go of her brother and simply tries to ignore reality by making herself busy with work. Namor, played brilliantly by Tenoch Huerta, is introduced in the movie as the new villain. He plays an effective role by forcing her to understand the power of grief, and what it might inspire after succumbing to it. In the first Black Panther film, T’Challa faces the pressure of trying to be the great king his father was. Similarly, this movie focuses on Shuri finding her place in the universe without the presence of her brother. 

Marvel ends phase four giving audiences a clear answer on who might be the leaders of the MCU in the future. The ending of “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” gave me that same hope and excitement of the future as its predecessor did. The movie made me cry more than once while viewing. Marvel offered audiences an invitation to be vulnerable within a community that loved and respected Boseman. This movie felt like a film that audiences could take instruction and inspiration from. It offers a different perspective on grief that might offer counseling to audience members going through similar situations. There was so much heart and emotion that was put into making this film, something Boseman would definitely be proud of. Rhianna’s new song “Lift Me Up” was played at the end of the movie. Repeated throughout the song is a phrase that fits well with the idea of grief. 

“Lift me up, hold me down, keep me safe, safe and sound,” Rhianna sings. 

The song offers comfort to those who are mourning. It displays a message that someone who is lost is not truly gone. They are always with you.  

Boseman helped create this beautiful realm where people of color could see themselves as warriors, kings and queens. As long as more stories are told about the characters of Wakanda, I believe a part of him will remain throughout the project. He is gone, but will still live in our hearts forever.

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