Black Panther’s Vision of Zion
Minorities don’t simply like Black Panther because it has a black protagonist. The massive appeal of the movie, which is now out on DVD, has more to do with its overall ethnic vision. Black Panther is a celebration of a thriving and powerful black community filled with a rich culture and history: the fictional African nation of Wakanda. Here, the citizens are able to realize their potential in a culture that sets them up for success. The Africans in Black Panther are not powerless or oppressed, but rather good, powerful, and respected—and the whole world comes to know this. If we think about it, isn’t this scenario reminiscent of the biblical vision of Zion?
Consider the scenes of the New Jerusalem in Revelation 5 and Revelation 7. The former passage describes a people “from every tribe and language and people and nation,” whom Christ has made “to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God.” The latter envisions “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people, and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” Put together, these verses cast an incredible vision of Zion, God’s holy city, that affirms the dignity, worth, and humanity of all peoples of the earth.
Black Panther creates a vivid depiction of the imago dei by offering a nearly all-black cast. It’s not only the title character, the king of Wakanda (Chadwick Boseman), whom we admire. The movie also presents Shuri (Letitia Wright), the king’s smart and resourceful sister, who oversees Wakanda’s technology. In addition, we meet Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), a stealthy Wakandan spy, and Okoye (Danai Gurira), the deadly, no-nonsense head of the king’s guard. They are all dignified figures, each representing a different kind of hero.
Isn’t this scenario reminiscent of the biblical vision of Zion?
I can’t help but see these strong Wakandans—with their beauty, their rich dress, and their dignified (even royal) positions—as glimpses of what minorities will be like in Zion, reigning as priests alongside their white brothers and sisters in Christ. We will be priests made perfect in our diversity. After all, the biblical vision of Zion includes redeemed Africans, East Indians, Latinos, Chinese, Filipinos, and more—all will all be in Zion with glorified bodies, wearing white robes, and reigning on the earth. We will do this together, as one body. What an incredible vision of racial solidarity!
Anthony Bradley describes racial solidarity as the pursuit of “racial diversity and multi-ethnicity … on the basis of the fact that we are all made in the image and likeness of God.” In other words, racial solidarity stems from the belief in the imago dei and it paves the path to a celebrated diversity. In similar fashion, Black Panther distinguishes itself from past Marvel pictures not only because of its breathtaking aesthetics and narrative depth, but also in its representation of racial solidarity. First, we see unity among the five tribes of Wakanda. The Jabari, who live in the mountains of Wakanda, initially separate themselves from the others. However, when King T’Challa is in need, the Jabari are quick to offer aid, resulting in a renewed camaraderie. Besides tribal unity, we also see how T’Challa expresses care—emotionally and financially—for his African-American brothers and sisters, recognizing a kinship across borders. More provocatively, he also establishes diplomatic relations with white American CIA operative Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman).
There is another element to Black Panther’s vision of equality: its esteem for black women. The women of Wakanda have not suffered under a domineering form of patriarchy. They do not know the trauma of sexual assault or even the pains of workplace inequalities. Instead, they too embody the Zionic role of priests that Christ envisions for his church. Okoye, Nakia, Shuri—these are all women with agency. Shuri even becomes the new face of STEM in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, supplanting rich white guy Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.). Black Panther shows us black women who are both powerful and smart and—even more astounding—who are respected by their husbands and male colleagues. Is this not another extension of the imago dei achieved within the walls of Zion?
The fact that Black Panther means so much to so many North-American minorities, including minority Christians, should give us pause. Though the film’s social, racial, and geopolitical commentaries are complex, it’s ability to tap into both the pains and longings of individual minorities could not be simpler. Indeed, the real power of Black Panther is its scintillating accuracy in visualizing the true world of minorities, while also dreaming of how this world could be different—and, indeed, will be different one day in Zion.