Healing the Wounds of the Past: ‘Black Panther’ and the Lessons of Classical Tragedy

Black Panther has made a huge splash in recent months as an excellent superhero movie that has spurred complex discussions of race, identity, and African culture. Interestingly, it seems to have acquired a literary and theatrical dimension: it has been called a “Shakespearean tragedy,” and it is true that Black Panther resembles Hamlet, in its emphasis on a son contending with the legacy of his father.

As we turn to the plays of ancient Greece and Rome, I’d like to suggest that what makes Black Panther particularly tragic (in a dramatic sense) is its use of a narrative pattern that comes to us from the mythological family sagas of Classical tragedy: the crimes and sins of previous generations build up overtime, come to a boiling point, and erupt into violent conflict, often based on the desire for power or revenge.

The following contains plot details from ‘Black Panther.’

Modern edition of Seneca’s tragedies.

One major example of this narrative pattern is the myth of the house of Atreus, as recounted in several different tragedies. The cycle of conflict begins with Atreus and his brother Thyestes fighting for control over the kingdom of Mycenae. Whoever owns a special golden ram earns the right to be king, and so, Thyestes seduces Atreus’ wife and enlists her help to steal the ram. In the ensuing struggle for power, Atreus comes out on top by falsely agreeing to share the kingdom with Thyestes. He invites his brother to a feast, where he butchers Thyestes’ children and feeds them to their unsuspecting father. All this is told in Roman dramatist Seneca’s famously grim play, Thyestes.

In a similar but less brutal way, the roots of conflict in Black Panther emerge from familial strife between brothers over a kingdom’s wealth and power. King T’Chaka accuses his brother N’Jobu of betraying Wakanda by plotting to steal the kingdom’s valuable Vibranium reserves and sell them to an arms dealer. The scene culminates in family-on-family violence, as the king is forced to kill his brother.

We later learn that the greater act of betrayal—one that T’Challa angrily confronts his father about in the Ancestral Plane—occurs when T’Chaka abandons his brother’s young son in Oakland and leaves him to grow up separated from and longing for his Wakandan heritage. This act, though not violent, is portrayed as a cruel betrayal of family, one that perhaps mirrors Atreus’ treatment of his nephews, or in the next generation, the decision by Atreus’ son, Agamemnon, to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia to attain favorable winds for his campaign against Troy.

As recounted by Greek tragedian Aeschylus in the Oresteia trilogy, these acts lead to additional acts of violence in the name of retribution: to avenge her daughter, Agamemnon’s wife Clytemnestra murders him upon his return. Aiding her is her lover, Aegisthus, one of Thyestes’ surviving sons, who seeks vengeance against his cousin on behalf of his father. Years later, Agamemnon’s son Orestes returns from exile to slay his father’s murderers, including his mother.

Clytemnestra, urged on by Aegisthus, prepares to slay Agamemnon.

Meanwhile, in Black Panther, N’Jobu’s son utilizes violent methods to avenge his father. Erik Killmonger challenges his cousin T’Challa for the throne, seizes control of Wakanda, and starts to carry out his plan to distribute powerful Vibranium weapons to promote a global, armed uprising by people of African descent against their oppressors.

Killmonger challenges T’Challa for the throne of Wakanda.

Significantly, these acts occur for political and institutional reasons, not just personal ones. T’Chaka abandons his nephew, mainly to prevent the political disruption that would occur if the circumstances of his brother’s betrayal and subsequent death were revealed: the presence of N’Jobu’s son would raise complicated questions. But he also undertakes this act to maintain the long-standing isolationist policy of Wakanda, which has for generations kept the kingdom shielded from outside influences. The American-born son of N’Jobu, a representation of that exact sort of foreign influence, is a threat, and so, he is cast aside.

Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter to pursue his ambitions and maintain his authority as head of a military and political alliance, but most importantly, out of the belief that the utter destruction of Paris and the Trojans, who have stolen his brother Menelaus’ wife, Helen, is necessitated by justice and sanctioned by Zeus. This and the other extreme acts of violence in the Oresteia occur due to a system of law where, violence, personal vendettas, and harsh retribution are considered appropriate forms of justice; where the responsibility to pursue justice falls upon the family and the individual, rather than the community; and where state authority is confused with familial affairs.

Within the context of these larger institutions, we realize that, even as we protest the destructiveness of their methods, these “avengers”(pun intended) are right to demand justice. Killmonger is right to ask, “Where was Wakanda?” and question the wisdom of the kingdom’s isolationism. Wakanda has remained silent in the face of centuries of systematic oppression of people of African descent all over the world, when it possessed the power to make a difference, and he is right that action should be taken to rectify that.

Similarly, Clytemnestra is right that someone should be punished for her daughter’s death, and Aegisthus should rightly feel horrified at the fate of his siblings and father. Unlike Killmonger, however, they do not work against an institution, but are hemmed in by it: the ancient society in which they live presents no other method for them to attain justice, except for violent retribution.

After Orestes kills his mother, the cycle of retribution continues unabated, for he is pursued and tormented by the Furies, ancient deities responsible for punishing familial bloodshed.

Orestes being pursued by the Furies, as depicted in a 19th century painting.

But the real solution to these institutional problems is not further destruction, as represented by the Furies or Killmonger, but large-scale institution shifts: Orestes seeks refuge in Athens, where Athena and the Athenian citizens implement a new democratic system of jury trial predicated on dialogue in a public forum to adjudicate Orestes’ actions. He is acquitted, and though the Furies vow vengeance, their rage is assuaged, as they are invited by Athena to claim a place of honor as guardians of Athens: reconciliation and healing win out over retribution.

King T’Challa, meanwhile, reverses the isolationism established by ancestors, not by promoting violence, but by announcing at the U.N. that Wakanda will be turning toward a new policy of outreach and dialogue with the rest of the world.

King T’Challa makes his announcement at the U.N.

There are of course significant differences between Black Panther and the Oresteia. Perhaps because Black Panther is first and foremost a superhero-action film, T’Challa’s victory—although leading to outreach and renewed dialogue to atone for Wakanda’s past sins—is only possible through a violent, physical contest against Killmonger. In the Oresteia, the concerns of the dangerous Furies are handled entirely through debate and negotiation, not violence.

As a superhero film, Black Panther emphasizes that political and institutional change in hinges on the initiative of a single “hero”—the Black Panther, king of Wakanda. The name of the movie reinforces the centrality of that one figure.

Statue of the goddess Athena, now in the Vatican Museum.

Though the trilogy is called the Oresteia, the figure of Orestes ultimately fades away. Instead, the primary role is claimed by Athena, patron goddess of Athens, and the anonymous Athenian jurors, who together represent a new, democratic society dependent on the will of the people, not kings and heroes. The citizens of Athens, in the end, are the true heroes of the trilogy.

These differences point to a number of problems with the solutions offered by Black Panther. We are reminded this is a narrative that does not include, for the most part, the perspectives of everyday Wakandans. Even as the kingdom wavers between Killmonger and T’Challa, we do not hear what ordinary citizens think of these leaders, nor do we learn what they think of T’Challa’s new policies. Most of the action, as expected in a superhero film, is driven by heroic individuals.

We must also consider the fact that Wakanda remains dependent on unstable monarchical institutions that are undemocratic. The throne was quickly seized by a usurper through ritual-combat, and in an absolute monarchy, the policies established by one king can easily by reversed by the next.

Though dialogue, reconciliation, and healing are desirable, Killmonger’s grievances could not, unfortunately, be resolved through those means. Perhaps this is the greatest tragedy of all in Black Panther, one that echoes the downfall of many tragic figures of Greek myth, from Oedipus to Agamemnon: the sins of previous generations are so entrenched and intractable (institutionalized, we might say) that Killmonger, in his quest to tackle them, feels he has no other choice but to follow a violent path that leads ultimately to his end.

Killmonger burns the heart-shaped herbs, a major symbol of Wakandan culture and tradition.

As a sign of Wakanda’s uncertain future, and perhaps the fragility of King T’Challa’s new direction, the heart-shaped herbs that grant the king his powerful Black Panther abilities are burned by Killmonger. In his quest for vengeance, he would sacrifice the longevity of Wakanda’s long-lasting traditions. T’Challa then consumes the last one, in order to pull the kingdom from the brink of destruction. Without the herbs, who will be able to carry on the mantle of the Black Panther? What if something happens to King T’Challa? Who will ensure that the new direction of outreach and dialogue will be maintained? Can the institution of the Wakandan monarchy continue to function into the future?

As these questions and problems reveal, there is always more to be done when it comes to contending with the sins and mistakes of history. There are no perfect ways to overcome the legacies of institutionalized racism or to grapple with the harm caused by Wakanda isolationism, but as the struggle to attain justice in the Oresteia suggests, if there is to be any possibility of healing the wounds of the past, it will occur only when we go through the real, difficult effort of reconciliation and dialogue.

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