Movies

Mourning Chadwick, Mourning T’Challa

Michael McKoy

Editor’s note:This post contains spoilers for Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever opens with a completely black screen and a whispered prayer from Shuri (Letitia Wright) to the panther goddess Bast, begging Bast to heal her brother, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman). In return, Shuri promises to never doubt Bast again. Shuri’s prayer is both ironic and heartbreaking. Ironic, because in 2018’s Black Panther, we saw that Shuri—one of the world’s greatest scientific minds—has little regard for Wakandan religion. Heartbreaking, because as viewers we know Shuri’s prayer will go unanswered.

Chadwick Boseman’s 2020 death brought with it the death of King T’Challa. Although some fans pushed for T’Challa to be recast, I disagreed. For me Chadwick Boseman is T’Challa; he embodied everything T’Challa stands for. Boseman’s joy, his humility, his faith, his respect for elders such as Phylicia Rashad and Denzel Washington, his embrace of Blackness. Boseman poured all these qualities into the character of T’Challa. In conversations with friends and interactions with fan communities, I have seen the deep and widespread love fans have for him, with many affectionately referring to him by his first name. I worried that recasting T’Challa would force that actor to labor in Boseman’s shadow, as fans continued mourning Chadwick’s passing.

Wakanda Forever’s marketing and rollout became an extended act of mourning, as it demonstrated the joy and beauty that mourning can entail. The teaser trailer features a soulful, melodic version of Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry” and crescendos with a gut-wrenching lament from T’Challa’s mother, Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett). After the trailer premiered at Comic-Con 2022, the original Black Panther cast embraced each other, shed tears together, and grieved for their departed brother.

Such acts are reminders that we are called to “mourn with those who mourn,” to join in the mourners’ sorrow and pain, and to celebrate the glories of life that God gives for today and offers for eternity. To mourn together is to collectively lament the full weight of sin, which robs us of so much, including life itself. Only when we take time to recognize sin’s true cost can we more fully and joyfully proclaim, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” When Jesus came to Lazarus’s tomb, he first wept over death’s sting. Then he showed that he held the final victory over the grave. Mourning is not a rejection of God’s purposes, but an acceptance of them. Together we weep in the night, even as we know that joy comes in the morning.

Mourning permeates Wakanda Forever. Shuri wrestles with her own guilt and anger over her brother’s untimely death. Globally, other countries see T’Challa’s death as an opportunity to undermine Wakanda. But it is Talokan, an underwater Mesoamerican kingdom led by the demigod Namor (Tenoch Huerta Mejía), that strikes Wakanda. Like Wakanda, Talokan is a vibranium-infused society that survives European imperialism by going into hiding. Initially, Namor tries to recruit Wakanda into a joint campaign against the surface-dwelling colonizers. When Wakanda refuses, Namor attacks Wakanda, killing Queen Ramonda in the ensuing assault.

Soon after, Shuri reconstructs the Heart-Shaped Herb that gives one the powers of the Black Panther. Consuming the herb typically transports its recipient to the Ancestral Plane, where they can commune with departed loved ones. Yet when Shuri consumes the herb, she only sees her villainous cousin, Eric Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan). Killmonger tells her that her rage and guilt have turned her grief into vengeance. He urges her to weaponize her grief in order to achieve justice, asking her if she wants to be noble like her brother or “take care of business” like her cousin.

This scene unexpectedly affected me. When Killmonger appeared onscreen, my heart sank. I loved Jordan’s performance in Black Panther and I was glad they found a way to include him in the sequel, but I realized that I subconsciously hoped that Shuri would see T’Challa—that it would be Chadwick Boseman onscreen. I ached to see Chadwick again, just one more time. That of course was not possible, for me as a viewer or for Shuri as a character.

To mourn together is to collectively lament the full weight of sin, which robs us of so much, including life itself.

As the new Black Panther, Shuri leads a vengeful assault on Talokan, allowing her grief to be corrupted. But right when she has Namor at her mercy, she hears her mother's voice, repeating what she said to T’Challa in Black Panther when he faced a threatening foe: “Show him who you are.” And like her noble brother, Shuri chooses mercy over vengeance.

Shuri’s journey of mourning and healing does not end there. Nor does it end at Wakanda’s Warrior Falls, where tradition calls for her to be crowned as queen. The ever-iconoclastic Shuri skips the ceremony and instead journeys to a Haitian beach, where Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), T’Challa’s great love, now lives. There Shuri burns her mourning clothes and finally allows joyful memories of her brother to wash over her. There is a naturalistic beauty to this scene that stands in stark contrast to much of the film’s muddy, computer-generated imagery, particularly its underwater scenes. This distinction, even if unintentional, visually illustrates the soft solace of mourning.

After these final moments comes a mid-credits surprise. Nakia introduces Shuri to a six-year-old boy also named T’Challa, revealing a secret son that Nakia and T’Challa decided to keep away from the pressures of Wakanda’s royal court. This scene recasts T’Challa in a way—not through replacement or resurrection, but through future generations. We cannot replace those we have lost, but we can build for tomorrow.

Wakanda Forever reminded me of a conversation I had with my two oldest daughters this year after we had read the story of Job. Shaddai, who is 10, seemed dissatisfied and asked me whether Job receiving a new family was a true replacement for the family he lost. (She also asked why God was hanging out with Satan, so it was an interesting discussion all-around.) I told her no, that no one can truly replace someone you’ve lost and that nothing should stop us from continuing to remember and mourn those who are gone. But we must also go on living and experiencing the joys God continually provides. Job’s new family could not and should not replace those he lost, but—like Nakia and young T’Challa with Shuri—they can sit with Job, comfort him in his suffering, and rejoice that there are new joys every morning.

There is no replacing Chadwick Boseman. There is no replacing the T’Challa he was and will always be. But the cry of “Wakanda Forever!” is a cry of endurance and hope in the face of sorrows, traumas, and injustices. It beckons us to seek the joys that are new every morning.

Topics: Movies