What Black Panther Can Teach Us about Our Place in the World
Editor's Note: This piece came from a random yet delightful Facebook conversation between Rabbi Allison Bergman Vann and me just before the High Holidays. After seeing, from my social media posts, how much I love the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Rabbi Vann asked to discuss how the themes in the critically acclaimed movie Black Panther regarding unity and connection could be included in a Rosh HaShanah sermon. This essay is the result of that conversation: a “remixed” version of her incredible sermon and an example of what happens when a brilliant rabbi and a nerdy black Jewish blogger unite to inspire our fellow Jews for the new year.
This is dedicated to Jewish comic book writer, editor, and publisher Stan Lee, who passed away on Monday November 12, 2018 at age 95. As the co-creator of Black Panther, Spider-Man, and The Avengers (to name just a few), Lee was an icon in the world of comics and a real-life superhero to all who loved him. Though he may no longer be with us, his work will continue to entertain and inspire us for generations to come.
A few months into 5779, we are faced with even more uncertainty and unpredictability about our nation. To make matters worse, we isolate ourselves from one another and even within our own bubbles of agreement. We suffer from infighting and lack of compromise. Our disagreements ostracize and demonize in lieu of fostering dialogue. The vitriol, inability to work together, and “othering” of each other has driven an enormous and seemingly insurmountable wedge between us. It has brought anger, frustration and despair.
In times like these, it’s easy to give up hope, to further isolate ourselves, to give in to complacency and let the chaos around us win. But I believe that it is important now more than ever not to give up hope. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “Hope is a conviction, rooted in trust...an ability to soar above the darkness that overshadows the divine.” I also believe that God exists within the interconnectedness of all things, so when we reach out to one another in times of need, we are not simply being nice; we are engaging in a sacred act.
As a nation wounded by pain and division, it’s no surprise that we turn to movies time and time again for hope, especially movies about superheroes. One movie that stood out this year is Marvel Studios’ Black Panther, a cultural phenomenon that wowed audiences ranging from young children to die-hard comic book fans to casual moviegoers who had no other knowledge about the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It broke countless box office records; it transcended race, age, and background; and it succeeded in telling a fun, entertaining story with an important message of hope and unity.
The Black Panther, whose name is T’Challa, is the king and protector of the fictional African nation of Wakanda. This country is home to Vibranium, the strongest substance on earth, which the Wakandans used to create technology more advanced than any other nation. But in doing so, Wakanda hid itself from the rest of the world out of fear of colonization and exploitation of their resources.
The film’s villain, an American mercenary soldier named Erik “Killmonger,” emerges from the shadows, reveals himself as a Wakandan, and challenges T’Challa for the throne and the title of Black Panther. Despite being a ruthless assassin, Killmonger raises a legitimate question in his violent quest for the throne: What gives you the right to keep this Vibranium to yourself while there are billions of people in the world who need it too?
After a significant struggle with this question, T’Challa finally recognizes his nation’s responsibility to care for the those in need around the world. While giving a speech at the United Nations, he says:
"Wakanda will no longer watch from the shadows…We will work to be an example of how we as brothers and sisters on this Earth should treat each other. Now, more than ever, the illusions of division threaten our very existence. We all know the truth: more connects us than separates us. But in times of crisis the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers. We must find a way to look after one another as if we were one single tribe."
Our isolation and fragmentation in times of crisis limits us at best and destroys us at worst. Rabbi Hillel even commands us in Pirkei Avot: “Do not separate yourself from the community” (4:2). He knew that when we isolate ourselves, it is as if we are keeping our own precious resources – our own personal Vibranium – from those who are in need of our love, support, and, yes, even hope.
It is only when we open our personal borders and spark hope in the nefeshot (souls) of others that we can begin the work to practice tikkun olam (repairing the world).
From both the wise words of Jewish sages and Marvel superheroes: May we stay connected and stay hopeful in the pursuit of a better tomorrow.