In various interviews for his new movie, director Ryan Coogler has said the theme of Black Panther is: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” This theme colors the film just as much as the Afro-futuristic production design provides it with a never-before-seen vibrant lushness. But as I walked out of the theater, I focused on a much different theme: How do the emotional bonds between a father and son shape the son’s life and the father’s legacy?
The dramatic core of Black Panther is a lie, one that King T’Chaka tells his son T’Challa (brought to life with a thrilling performance by Chadwick Boseman). The king doesn’t outright lie; instead, he omits the truth, which is just as dangerous. The ugly truth T’Chaka avoids and hopes to spare his son, ultimately shapes the life of another son, and sets the two sons against one another. (Spoiler alert: King T’Chaka kills his brother, which orphans his nephew, T’Challa’s cousin, the film’s villain, Erik Killmonger, played with irresistible charisma by Michael B. Jordan.)
In screenwriter terms, the two sons function as a “union of opposites.” One son (T’Challa) must learn the omitted truth to become the man he’s destined to be. Meanwhile, the other son (Killmonger) has been doomed by this same truth. The ugly fact of his father’s wrongful death has twisted Killmonger’s soul, and perverted his emotions in his murdered father’s absence.
Perhaps the reason this theme resonated so deeply with me is that I grew up knowing that my father’s uncle shot and killed his brother. And years later, the murderous brother died of a broken heart. This disfiguring truth, this family legacy, shaped me. It informed my understanding of violence. And it made me hyper-aware of how often men fail to deal with their emotions, which leads to tragic results.
Why does King T’Chaka lie about killing his brother? As he explains in the film, “Some truths are too great to bear.” This is his rationale. But does it suffice? Certainly not. The fact that human beings are imperfect is a known truth. And one we all understand.
The best advice T’Challa receives then on how to be a good man doesn’t come from his father, it comes from the woman who loves him, Nakia (an indefatigable and charming Lupita Nyong’o). As T’Challa emotionally wrestles with what it means that his father killed his uncle, Nakia cautions him, “No man is perfect — not even your father. You can’t let your father’s mistake define who you are.”
This last part is key. I learned the same lesson from my father and our family’s tragedy.
The trouble for men is how we feel pressure to be in control, to be strong, to present ourselves as inviolable. But this is a lie. No human is always in control. We cannot create a defense strong enough to keep out all that might hurt us — especially the truth.
Right now, we live in an era defined by “fake news.” The idea that truth can be manipulated or denied is an appealing fantasy. The world feels like it moves too fast to fact-check. Instead, we act on our beliefs. If something feels true, if it confirms our bias, we’re often likely to believe it and to share it on social media. This is hugely damaging to who we are as a society, and who we are as individuals. But it’s also indicative of who we are as human beings. We’re emotional creatures, first and foremost. We process the world emotionally, and then, we rationalize how we feel. It’s easy to lie to ourselves and to others, just as T’Chaka lied to himself and his son. The truth, however, is non-negotiable.
If men are to understand our emotions, like King T’Chaka, we cannot omit a fact and believe we’re telling the truth. We cannot change facts to suit the truth we wish to tell others or ourselves. The best example of this, of course, is our president: The King of Fake News. He would ask you to believe him rather than to confirm what he’s saying. He sells stories — ones that for many people feel true.
The problem is how we conflate what we believe, what we feel and what we know to be true. We treat truth in emotional terms. T’Chaka wanted his lie to be true, so he told it to his son. What was the result? His son was ill-prepared for the reality of the world, and was ultimately blindsided by his cousin. When a man rejects facts in favor of his feelings, not only does he endanger his wellbeing, he endangers the whole world.
Right now, in the era of Fake News, the president, his supporters, his critics and the media alike would all have you believe that two things can be true at the same time. In essence, we live inside the box with Schrödinger’s cat. As long as no one looks inside the box, the cat is both dead and alive, at the same time. The president can be telling the truth, as he sees it, while also lying to the American people. That is, until someone, peels open the box and confirms that it’s either one or the other — the cat is either alive or dead, indisputably so. We call this confirmation “objective truth.” This is how we ascertain facts and how we separate our beliefs from reality. Men, in particular, are terrible at that.
In the case of Black Panther, T’Challa’s father was a murderer. That was indisputable fact. By hiding that from his son, he weakened him and left him vulnerable to reality. We must learn to process our emotions, to parse our feelings and to confirm our facts. Just because something feels true doesn’t make it so. Otherwise, our beliefs become blinders to reality. They leave us under the sway of our roiling emotions.
I was lucky my father didn’t lie to me. He told me the horrible ugly truth of our family. I knew the propensity that men in my family had for violence. It forced me to confront my own tendencies, to learn to quell my temper before it exploded into rage. That honesty was a tremendous gift.
At the end of Black Panther, after he’s been mortally wounded, Killmonger expresses this idea in a chilling, powerful last line. He tells his cousin how to dispose of his body, after he accepts the reality of his impending death. He says, “Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from ships, cause they knew death was better than bondage.”
My ancestors taught me the same thing, only in this instance, the truth is freedom, and lies are a bondage that results in the servitude of slavery to one’s feelings. Heed your emotions, but don’t believe them to be true. For only the truth will set you free.