We did not make it two steps into the movie theater’s front door before we were greeted, “What’s good, my brothas?” As he shouted to us over the masses in the ticket line, he crossed his arms, clenched his fists, and gave a slight bow — a Wakandan greeting.
“Ya’ll will understand after you watch it,” he said. And with that, he disappeared into the night, and we entered into Wakanda.
Overall, I was a fan of Marvel’s new blockbuster, Black Panther. It wasn’t “the best movie I have ever seen,” as one person told me repeatedly in the hallway, but it was one of the better Marvel films. The story picks up after the explosion in a previous Marvel movie where T’Chaka, the king of Wakanda, dies in the bombing. T’Challa, his son, then returns to his homeland to assume the throne and take his rightful place as king of Wakanda and as the Black Panther. But opposition arises, leaving the fate of Wakanda — and the rest of the world — at stake.
Having watched a civil-rights documentary beforehand, I found the ideologies of the two main characters to be thought-provoking. And although Black Panther has good action scenes, strong characters, a decent narrative, and helpful questions about global responsibility, the enchantment of the movie for many blacks in the theater was not, in my estimation, about the hero per se, but about the society. I left wanting to be like the Black Panther. But I left wanting to be in Wakanda even more.
More Than a Movie
In the movie, Wakanda is a fictional African homeland hidden from the rest of the world. It is uncolonized, technologically advanced, brimming with black excellence and beauty, industrious, mountainous, breathtaking. But the utopia itself, not the black superhero, hit an ancient ache that four hundred years in America hasn’t come close to soothing. We rally around superheroes like the Black Panther because we hope that they can lead us to Wakanda.
“We rally around superheroes like the Black Panther because we hope that they can lead us to Wakanda.”
But such a place was make-believe. Or so I thought.
Even before I could watch the movie, I heard the trickle of Wakanda’s waterfall, felt the sunshine of her gladness, and witnessed her people dance to her music. Men, women, and children were dressed in African garb. Families lined up to take pictures with the Black Panther poster. Strangers greeted one another in the hallways. The movie, to many, was more than a movie. It became a slice of Wakanda.
We walked in twenty minutes before showtime and people were already seated. And we were all early, not because we wanted to get good seats (they were already assigned), but because we didn’t want to miss a moment. We wanted to be in Wakanda as long as possible. For three hours, we celebrated sameness, leaders who cared deeply about the black community, and the beauty of black culture liberated from its history and current struggles.
As my Sierra Leonean Christian brother and I sat there, we wondered at the distinct pleasure we felt in this majority-black cultural moment. This movie was largely for us and by us (so to speak), and it pictured a world many of us have dreamed of for decades, a world many of us would choose over this world in a moment.
But at the same time, as a Christian, I thought, “What of the beauty of diversity? Shouldn’t that be the ideal? Is it wrong to feel so at home in Wakanda?”
Tribe of the Panther
Similarity is one of Eden’s sweetest fruits. If Adam could have sighed in paradise, it would have been in naming the animals without being able to find “a helper fit for him” (Genesis 2:20). The difference of the turtle’s shell pleased, the elegance of the eagle’s soaring captivated, but these were not Eve. And when Adam’s expectant eyes started to dim, God brought her from himself — and she captured him in ways no other creature could. So wonderfully different, and yet, finally, “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (Genesis 2:23).
“A homogeneous society, a tribe of the Panther, provided a distinct pleasure for those within it.”
This delight in sameness is what C.S. Lewis calls the beginning of friendship: “The typical expression of opening Friendship would be something like, ‘What? You too? I thought I was the only one’” (The Four Loves, 65). Friendship shares a common love — or burden — that others do not share. I received a Wakandan reception at the movie theater because I experienced what it means to be black in America. I and the other black people in the theater knew what it is to be racially profiled, to be the “only one” in almost every setting, and to live under the current presidency — we knew what it is to live outside of Wakanda.
And so, we sat there with many people who looked like us and laughed at jokes that were hidden from some outside of the culture. We watched people who looked like us on the screen fight for the issues of people like us in a dreamland where our communities flourished. No slavery. No Jim Crow South. No second-class citizenship. No explaining what that phrase means — we all knew. A homogeneous society, a tribe of the Panther, provided a distinct pleasure for those within it.
The Coming Wakanda
I can remember the first Wakandan experience I had with Christians. I can still remember the thrill of walking in to see a room full of African and African-American Christians on fire for Jesus. Never had I experienced anything like it. Men and women from similar backgrounds, who spoke the same vernacular, opened up their Bibles to hear from and worship God.
And during that time, I discovered that Paul acknowledged the pleasures of similarity, especially for those outside the faith: to the Jews he became a Jew, to those under the law as one under the law; he became all things to all people in order to win some (1 Corinthians 9:19–23). Finding yourself in a room full of similar people can make you feel at home like little else can. But as I continued in my Christian walk, Paul taught me that there is a pleasure that exceeds even the sweetness of cultural sameness.
“The healthy church is a foretaste of the coming paradise where Jesus unites a people of differences.”
He spoke of a completion of joy that comes from the diverse church in Philippi — full of men, women, children, little Jewish girls and Roman jailers — dwelling in fearless unity together (Philippians 2:2). He spoke of the grandeur of Jesus spilling his blood in order to unite his multiethnic people together into one new man (Ephesians 2:15). John added to the conversation by showing me a page from the last chapter of every believer’s story:
After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Revelation 7:9–10)
In God’s word, I learned that his Wakanda has borders that expand beyond cultural similarity. All nations, all tribes, all tongues share a common citizenship, an everlasting fellowship that unites irrevocably. And this reality has already begun.
In Christ, I can greet a teenager in the mountains of Guatemala as “my brother.” I can divulge my deepest pains to an elderly white woman as I ask her to pray for me. Marrieds commune with singles; the rich dine with the poor. The healthy church is a foretaste of the coming paradise where Jesus, our King, unites a people of differences. Our distinctions don’t disappear, but a greater reason for unity appears. This family is connected by better blood: his.
In God’s coming Wakanda, he offers something even greater than the world of Black Panther: a unity made perfect through diversity. The different colors will complete the painting. The different notes will strike the chord. The eye will join with the nose and the arm to make the body whole. In that place, union — not uniformity — will be the greater light. There, the temporary brotherhood of the Panther will be engulfed by the diverse and eternal oneness of the Lamb.