Processing Grief–“Black Panther, Wakanda Forever”

We’ve all been through a lot these last few years. Even if you didn’t loss someone to COVID, you had to change the way you lived your life. So much upheaval and change, so much stress, and everyone trying to adapt. We’ve learned to pivot to whatever the new reality is. And we’re all exhausted. I think there’s a deep sadness in our society.

There’s a reason that “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” remains at the top of the box office. Yes, the first movie was a smash hit and an incredible film. It’s more than fans flocking to see the sequel. The death of the star of the film, Chadwick Boseman, was a tragedy that touched many people. A talented young man at the top of his game, Boseman died young at 43 years old. He was well-loved by his co-workers and respected in the movie industry. This film is in many ways a tribute to him and a way for the cast and crew to process his passing.

“Wakanda Forever” (directed by Ryan Coogler) opens with Boseman’s character, T’Challa’s having died recently. The beginning is the Black Panther’s funeral. What starts as a somber memorial becomes a funeral parade reminiscent of a New Orlean’s style Jazz Funeral. With dance and song, the funeral procession is greeted with villagers clad in white, some adorned in white body paint. Drummers beat the rhythm as the coffin is carried through the dancing crowds. They are celebrating T’Challa’s soul and his journey to the Ancestral Lands.

This film stars T’Challa’s sister Shuri. Letitia Wright is excellent in the role. Her face a mask of grief and pain, she throws herself on her brother’s casket. Later, we’ll see that’s she thrown herself into her work. She’s buried the trauma of loss and isn’t dealing with it, ignoring calls of concern from friends and family. Wright carries this film on her slight shoulders. It’s her grief and later, her revenge that drive the plot.

Shuri was the wise-cracking genius in the first film. Her inventions using the technical wizardry powered by Vibranium make her much like the Q character in James Bond. Her interactions with her big brother, the Black Panther, were lively and had a playfulness that lifted the film. Her costumes have an androgynous, futuristic look that sets her apart from the other women dressed in more traditional African-styled costumes.

Shuri has failed to use her skill to save her brother and she’s tormented by grief and guilt. There’s so much plot in “Wakanda Forever” but throughout the churning of the elaborate dance of threats, betrayals and war, there lies this grief. There’s a pivotal scene where Shuri must choose to have her revenge or to salvage an alliance. Once she’s turned from her path of vengeance, she can focus on the business of healing.

Guiding her toward healing is her mother, Queen Ramonda. Played with regal bearing and fabulous costumes by Angela Bassett, Shuri’s mother warns her that she must reckon with her pain. The Queen takes her to the jungle to help her start her journey only to be interrupted by Namor (Tenoch Huerta), the flying underwater King of another kingdom hidden from the modern world. When the dust settles and Shuri is ready to begin again, she must seek another guide to heal an even larger pool of grief and pain.

Lupita Nyong’o returns to Wakanda as Nakia. Her role as T’Challa’s grieving widow is brief but crucial. Nakia is the moral guide that helps Shuri reject her yearning for vengeance. Her warmth and wisdom end the film with a wonderful surprise. From death and destruction, there comes rebirth and renewal.

There is much to love in “Wakanda Forever”. There are the creative costumes (Ruth E. Carter) and sets, the chance to revisit Wakanda, and some emotional moments. There are many new characters, many seen too briefly, and an entire new world created for the film. It’s great to have so many women dominating the screen time in a big-budget film. Danai Gurira as Okoye, leader of the women warriors, gives an exceptional performance and has a great character arc here. The score is heavy-handed (Ludwig Göransson) in a few spots but overall, very moving.

The new villain is a complex character with another civilization to protect. In the first film, I fell in love with Wakanda. I wanted it to be real and could let go of the imaginary power source and focus on the mythology. In this film, the underwater world was not convincing. I enjoyed the mythology but couldn’t buy the concept of the culture or daily life of these creatures. I did love the mother of our winged villain and wanted to hear more of her story.

Do I think that audiences flocked to “Wakanda Forever” to help deal with their grief? Does anyone go to a Marvel movie looking for redemption? No, most people went looking for entertainment. If they found that they also enjoyed a little catharsis with their popcorn, all the better. Not all of us can go to the wilderness to burn our funeral garb, but we can experience tears and laughter in a shared space: the movie theater. Even that much can give us a measure of healing.

Drinks With Films rating: 2 ½ sips of heart herb tincture, in the hopes of healing or the dream of a superpower (out of 5)

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