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By Ariadne Night
This is an opinion piece.
“A man who has not prepared his children for his own death has failed as a father.”
The late King T’Chaka’s words to his son T'Challa in the first Black Panther sit heavily in the wake of Chadwick Boseman’s death from colon cancer. How does one prepare for the loss of a loved one when that same loved one was a famous stranger you never met? Especially when it becomes clear that he’d suffered in silence for years and still brought the story of one of Marvel’s first and most important Black superheros to screens. T’Chaka and T'Challa’s conversations on the ancestral plane combat the ever presence of grief with the condition that “death is not the end”; that our ancestors live among us in the legacies of love and humanity they leave behind. In the ways they help us know ourselves. We, the general public, will never know why Boseman kept his illness a secret for so long. What we do know, however, is that the bodily strain he endured to give us that movie was a labor of love and dedication. The type of dedication that would make a multi-million dollar powerhouse studio like Marvel let the hero pass with him rather than recast the role.
Warning: This article contains spoilers for Black Panther: Wakanda Forever
As with all things, however, not everyone agrees with this decision. Searching the hashtag #RECASTTCHALLA on twitter will undoubtedly bring up dozens of faceless accounts demanding that Marvel refill the hole Boseman left behind, and even high-end publications have joined the call, cursing the decision to let T'Challa pass as an “infantilization” of its audience. I disagree. The urge for a recast is understandable; they’ve happened before, after all, and the chance that we’d never get the opportunity to see T'Challa on screen is disappointing. Fair arguments, none of which take into account that the man who brought the character to us in the first place was a hero and friend to many. Made by a cast and director who’d loved the late Boseman dearly, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is clear and prescient in its understanding that there is impact when a Black man dies, and that the contributions they bring forward are not replaceable. Instead of arguing the merit of the decision to not recast, we should look at the possibility it presents.
Shuri’s comic history as the Black Panther may not be as extensive as her brother T'Challa’s, but that young women worldwide will get the opportunity to see a Black woman as one of the most powerful beings in a blockbuster franchise can’t be overshadowed. Conversations about representation can often get didactic, but it shouldn’t be ignored that for years before this movie, the white-heard weather goddess Storm held the position as one of the few mainstream Black woman superheroes in mainstream movies (besides, I suppose, Halle Berry’s Catwoman). We often hear that representation allows for under-represented communities to tell our own stories and that’s true, but its real strength is in its ability to give audiences outside of those communities the tools to approach different worldviews empathically. To see that even though our social differences inform our experiences, they don’t have to divide us. Shuri is a genius, often underestimated, who lost her entire family–most of whom to acts of war and violence. She is flawed, sometimes arrogant, and driven by the same urge to protect her people that motivated her brother and father. She speaks like real people, shares the interests of real people, and in her power represents the path forward for her people onscreen and audiences in theaters. She won’t have to do this alone either. The post-credits introduction of the young prince T'Challa Jr. serves not just as the physical embodiment of T'Challa’s legacy, but also as a way to continue the work begun by Chadwick Boseman. Here, in a series of movies that question the legacies we leave behind, and how we use the lessons of our departed ancestors to chart a path forward, we find a character with limitless potential; capable of being the vessel for every comic book Black Panther story and picking up the mantle of Black Panther with a deeper reverence than Boseman’s version of the character could’ve had. It sets the opportunity for a younger Black actor to take the role in the years to come, one who is not shoehorned into a movie for the sake of continuing a franchise and is instead given his opportunity to grow in conversation with the audience still grieving Boseman.
Further, in the decision not to recast and the ways they handle the grief of their characters, Ryan Coogler and team succeed in providing one of the most timely superhero movies to date. At a time when millions have died from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic; where Black folk are so often killed and brutalized without significant media attention; where we have been made to go on with our lives as though these things do not have impact, it makes sense why taking a moment to breathe can feel like a betrayal. All we’ve done these past few years is keep pushing, even as the world has seemed to crumble and bleed around us. But some things deserve a moment of pause, especially when it involves celebrating the life of a man who succumbed to an incurable illness at the prime of his career.
When the time is right, we will have T'Challa back on our screens. Until then, the nation of Wakanda — and the future of the story–remain in the capable hands of T'Challa's genius younger sister Shuri, and a young prince named after the forever King of Wakanda.
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is in theaters now.
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