Deep in My Own Grief, “Wakanda Forever” Created Space to Process Loss
I have never seen a movie celebrated like “Black Panther” was in 2018. It premiered, fittingly, during the middle of Black History Month, and Black families across the country adorned themselves in the finest tribal and animal prints to go watch the film. I remember the triumphant applause when Chadwick Boseman appeared on the screen for the first time, the laughs at every “Black” joke, and the resounding “Wakanda Forever” that filled the room as the credits started rolling. The fictitious characters in Wakanda ascended to real-world regality, catapulting the actors to household stardom.
With the return of “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” it’s impossible not to think about how different things are compared with when the first film premiered four years ago. In my own life and in Wakanda, grief now punctuates everyday living.
When I watched “Black Panther” in 2018, I had been genuinely euphoric, despite navigating life after college and my mental health challenges. The joy of witnessing Black genius on the big screen was contagious, and I looked forward to what else 2018 would bring.
But a few weeks after the premiere, I found myself in the backseat of my parents car as my father sped down a Detroit freeway. My grandmother had just called, bearing the news that my older cousin suddenly collapsed. As we said many prayers in the car, my heart dropped below my abdomen, my lungs felt like they were caving in. Still, I wanted to think positively. After all, she was only 33 and I’d just seen her the week before. We arrived in the ER as a doctor came to meet my aunt; I imagined he’d say that my cousin was awake but a bit lethargic, needed hydration, and would be home soon. I should have known then by the look in his eyes that the words he would utter would be the opposite, knocking the wind out of my body.
What I also didn’t know, or couldn’t comprehend then, was that grief would hardly give me a moment to breathe. My cousin’s sudden passing would usher in a season of grief for me, my family, and my community at home. Since losing her, I have attended 10 funerals. In addition to these losses, more than a dozen former classmates are no longer living, taken too soon by gun violence, fatal car accidents, or illness.
When I went to the “Wakanda Forever” premiere earlier this month, I couldn’t help but to lament these losses. I was heading to the same theater where I watched “Black Panther” four years ago, when I’d been full of joy, but now I was forever changed. And so was the world: when Boseman died in 2020 at age 43 because of cancer, millions of people mourned.
As I watched, I reflected on my own losses, the losses of the people I knew, and the losses of those I didn’t know at all.
“Wakanda Forever” suitably opens with loss: the story begins in Princess Shuri’s lab, during King T’Challa’s final moments alive. She works tirelessly to attempt to heal him using technology, but he tragically passes. Watching it, I was immersed in an experience I know well: the times I’ve unwaveringly believed in the small chance of a loved one living, holding onto that belief despite reality suggesting that it’s time to let go. And so the story of “Wakanda Forever” unfolds with King T’Challa deceased and Boseman actually gone.
I was gutted by the scene, but I managed to gain solace in the tender mourning that followed at T’Challa’s funeral. It was reminiscent of other funerals I’ve attended, with celebratory music, dancing, and worship as a loved one passes from one life and transitions to the next.
Wakandans don’t know the bondage of colonization or imperialism, and so they celebrate death with principles found in African tradition: death isn’t a gathering for sorrow but a welcoming ceremony unto the ancestors. Here in America, in the 1600s, enslaved people were often buried by their slavemasters with nameless graves. But when Christianity was introduced to justify slavery, slaves could begin to gather jubilantly and celebrate death as the ultimate freedom. Today, for many Black people across the globe, life on Earth is still just another phase of living.
Many Marvel films present tragedy alongside a promise of resolution, but “Black Panther” stands apart. Its tragedy isn’t reminiscent of Thanos’s decimation of the entire human population, or of a sacrificed Iron Man in “Avengers: Infinity Wars.”
The whole Black Panther franchise explores loss as a catalyst for their characters’ journey to glory and grandeur: Prince T’Challa’s ascension to kingship ensues after the sudden death of his father, and he is ignited by a fierce power to protect as king when his mentor Zuri is murdered. “Wakanda Forever” follows a similar narrative of cumulative grief with Princess Shuri, who denies the prowess of the panther altogether in an effort to justify T’Challa’s death in her care. When her mother is drowned by an underwater demigod, she is fueled to protect and avenge.
While I was excited to watch what would come of each character’s quest for vengeance, I was also reminded me of the many ways immeasurable loss changes people’s day-to-day lives. I recognized myself in each character’s display of grief. Shuri attempts to reason and becomes a workaholic; Okoye displays a desire to protect; Queen Ramonda searches for someone at fault; and Nakia slips into escapism. I felt compelled to commend the acting, but I knew that the grief was real – that the tears of Shuri and Queen Ramonda were really those of Letitia Wright and Angela Bassett, mourning their beloved costar.
Boseman’s portrayal of King T’Challa had launched him into superstardom that very few Black actors accomplish. It is a gut punch to know Boseman left the world prematurely because of colon cancer, which Black men are 24 percent more likely to get than white men and 47 percent more likely to die from. My own paternal grandmother’s health rapidly declined because of a similar cancerous disease, which took her far too soon as well.
In ruminating on Boseman’s death, I also can’t help but connect it to what was happening in 2020, the year he died. It came amid a world of compounded loss: Black and Brown communities were being hit especially hard by COVID-19, and the world started learning about the wrongful killings of Black people across the country. Ahmaud Arbery. Breonna Taylor. George Floyd. Tony McDade.
So this year, watching “Wakanda Forever,” I very much recognized what was missing: Boseman’s physical presence. I thought of his family, as well as the team members who had to adapt to keep a well-loved and much-needed utopia intact. As I watched, I reflected on my own losses, the losses of the people I knew, and the losses of those I didn’t know at all.
“Wakanda Forever” didn’t generate the resounding applause, gut-busting laughs, or exuberant joy that the first film did. At the movie’s end, there was only silence. But what the film did extend to me was an invitation to mourn. And rather than push me further into grief, it provided me reassurance that death is not the end.
One of my favorite poems about grief is Ellen Bass’s “The Thing is.” She starts by describing the painful reality of grief: “to love life, to love it even / when you have no stomach for it / and everything you’ve held dear / crumbles like burnt paper in your hands.” Towards the end of the piece, she eventually gains radical acceptance. She writes, “Then you hold life like a face / between your palms, a plain face, / no charming smile, no violet eyes, / and you say, yes, I will take you / I will love you, again.”
I will try to embrace this new normal. I will grow around the grief, but I may not love life the same.