Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is, without a doubt, the hardest review I will write this year. That’s because of how masterfully the film dealt with grief, something I’ve been dealing with on an intimate basis for nearly two years now.
The thesis of the film sounds simple–how do you make peace with grief? How do you manage to find yourself again after the sea of wild emotions takes hold? Through emotional courage, writer/director Ryan Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole were able to find a way to relay this in cinematic form.
What makes this a hard review for me is that grief has been something so personal, like a buried secret, that it feels weirdly shameful in a way for me to even write about it, even within a review about a movie about grief. But, incredibly, exploring this irrational sense of shame is also what Coogler and Cole examine through the character of Shuri (Letitia Wright). We’ve come to know Shuri as a tech genius, and in the very beginning of this film, we see her frantically trying to save T’Challa from illness. The heart-shaped herbs Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) burned in the last film are still gone, so Shuri is trying to create a replacement. It’s clearly insinuated that she feels she alone can save her brother, but she runs out of time. She feels like a failure.
Shuri’s internal collapse recalls my own, one I’m still trying to get out of, to be honest.
Before my father unexpectedly from a heart attack died last year, I thought I understood the mechanics of grief. As selfish as it sounds, things hit differently when one of your immediate circle, one of the people who have shaped your life, leave to a place where you can’t see, touch, or talk to them ever again, until it’s your time to go (or so we hope).
Even my hesitancy to believe in the thought that there is an afterlife we can meet our departed loved ones again is evidence of the deep scars grief have placed on my mind and on how I move in the world now that my dad is no longer here. Without him, everything seems a little less certain, a little more dangerous. As a result, I feel a lot more angry and a lot more guilty. Guilty about the fact of life I couldn’t prevent, about how little control I have over anything in life.
For me, my guilt fed itself on the idea that if I had called home the night before, things might have been different. Where Shuri felt she might have saved T’Challa if she was able to synthesize the herb, I kept having a gnawing fear that if I had called home, since I felt he looked strange the last time I saw him, would things have turned out differently.
I’m not the first person to get stuck in this level of grief, where the irrational blaming and “what if”-ing goes on a loop in your head. Many people have felt this irritation before. I’m not the first to feel anger at my situation, or angry at God, or anger at not knowing what the future could hold. But, as I’ve been learning in therapy, that kind of blaming and shaming only makes you feel sicker; it doesn’t lead to any positive outcome. Seeing Shuri make that journey, get stuck, and find a way out provided a glimmer of hope for me. Grief doesn’t have to become something toxic, but if it does, there is still a way out. Even if you lose yourself for a while, you haven’t lost who you are forever; it’s just clouded by the confusion that comes with being human.
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, the film tasked with giving audiences a Wakanda without Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa after his death from cancer in 2020, portrayed grief, particularly the toxic kind I’ve described, in a way I hadn’t seen in the media in a long time, possibly ever. Now that I’m on the other side, I get how grief isn’t just surface level emotion–you’re not just sad for a while and you get over it. You never get over it; you just learn how to adjust your life around a new set of circumstances. In essence, the person you were died at the same moment your loved one did. That leads to another type of grief–the grief of not ever getting the person you were back.
Shuri deals with all of these sludgy sides of grief. She feels entirely too guilty for her brother T’Challa’s sudden death, and with her guilt comes a severe disbelief and distrust in anything anyone has ever told her about how the world works. Anything that could be seen as stable is now questionable and dangerous, because it could just be another lie.
I was moved throughout the entirety of the film, but there were two moments that struck me hard enough to bring tears to my eyes. The first was T’Challa’s funeral. The second was when Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) tries to comfort Shuri by telling her that her brother will always be with her, but she doesn’t want to believe it.
For me, seeing T’Challa’s funeral took me back to how I felt at my dad’s funeral. Any funeral is sad, but things are taken to another level when the funeral you’re attending is put on local television. Seeing T’Challa’s public funeral was triggering, if I’m being honest. The decision to make Shuri and Ramonda’s experience of the funeral as time slowing down while the ceremony continued around them reminds me of what I felt, realizing that not only was I facing the most challenging moment of my life, but I was also facing it during the most publicized moment, too–with my dad being a decorated city official, his stature was reflected in the people–those who came and those who stood outside of their homes, saluting. For me, it was as magnificent as it was confusing. And seemingly, that dichotomy of emotion was reflected in Shuri as well; no amount of ceremony can bring the person you love back.
Shuri’s resistance to finding peace and resorting to simmering in her misery also rings true for my experience as well. I turned inward, finding reasons to taunt and torment myself over not being able to control my dad’s outcome. Shuri goes through a similar fate, first with Ramonda asking her if her brain is imprisoning her with guilt instead of creating relief. Next, after taking the synthesized heart-shaped herb. Instead of seeing something comforting, she sees Killmonger, the embodiment of her pain, rage, and self-torment.
For me, the film hit grief expertly well. But everyone’s not coming into the film with my level of grief experience, the film might hit you in a different way. Regardless of where you are when it comes to that emotion, I think it will be next to impossible to not feel even a twinge behind the eyes as the characters navigate their new reality. I also think you’ll be hard-pressed to think Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole could have done any better trying to put this intangible, shifting emotion down on paper.
What I admire about Coogler and Cole’s script is that they allow Shuri to show these layers of character. They validate the fact that all forms of grief aren’t going to be pretty or even make sense. You can grieve your loss, as well as grieve the person you used to be when your loved ones were still here. You can be angry. You can even want to take revenge on the world for what it’s robbed you. You have to let those feelings play themselves out without engaging in them too much, or else you will–at least for a moment–be lost to them. That’s tricky, but Shuri’s journey shows us that grief, like all emotional journeys, is a journey of finding yourself again.
Wright definitely deserves her flowers for this performance as Shuri. The entire film hinged upon her ability to plumb the depths of her own grief regarding Boseman’s death, and she courageously rose to the challenge gave us a Shuri that had been through the wringer of life and has now come out of the other side, matured, tempered, and thankfully, still vulnerable. Bassett as Ramonda was also sensational; many are rightly calling for her to get an Oscar nom, but I’d throw Wright’s hat into the ring as well. Both need to be recognized for their commitment to telling this story.
What’s even more impressive about this film is that this exploration of grief could have been the entire movie. But Coogler and his team took the film above and beyond what anyone could have expected by once again using the IP of Black Panther to discuss real-world issues and create a platform for bridge-building for people of color. Coogler didn’t have to reimagine Atlantis in a way that turned it into a Mayan underwater city, but he did. No one asked him to bring in Brown Mexican actors to play prominent roles in the film, but he did. Everything about his decisions regarding Talokan were intentional. The film and us viewers are better for it.
Tenoch Huerta is outstanding and awe-inducing as the charming, but dangerous Namor. His version of the character is, thankfully, a far cry from the offensive origins of Namor from the Marvel Comics (at the time it was rumored Namor would join the Black Panther sequel, fans wanted the character to get taken out of its offensive origins and firmly reimagined as a meaningful Asian character). With Huerta’s Namor, we have a fully-realized leader who will, to paraphrase Malcolm X, take any means necessary to defend his people. Once again, Coogler has given us a villain who is more of an understandable and complex anti-hero.
Coogler’s villains in the MCU all carry the same scar from white supremacy, and that focus builds characters who are, at least in their ideology, completely justified in how they view the world. If we take out the one unforgivable action he takes in the film, Namor’s thinking is plain: it’s best for the countries who have everything to lose at the hands of the global West to stick together to survive and, possibly, topple the systems that have put lives at risk.
A couple nitpicks include some jokes not quite landing and the fact that some time could have been trimmed (like the time it took to make those jokes I referenced). But overall, with what Coogler and his team had to confront, they completed the impossible task of creating a Black Panther film after Boseman’s passing with flying colors. Not only was it a solemn, respectful tribute to a fallen king, but it was also a soul-searching exploration of grief, an eye-opening experience for audiences regarding Mayan culture, a beacon of hope for Brown representation, and global platform for people from Black and Brown communities–as well as all POC communities–to create stronger bonds and connections to each other.