BLACK PANTHER: WAKANDA FOREVER and the Evolving Story of Self

Much has been written about the many themes present throughout BLACK PANTHER: WAKANDA FOREVER. The sudden death of Chadwick Boseman left the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) without one of its most charismatic actors. Like Robert Downey Jr. and Ironman, Boseman felt like the perfect match for the Black Panther role. 

The franchise’s first film highlighted an actor comfortable with bearing the weight as the MCU’s first African superhero. With his unforeseen loss, many fans urged the studio to recast the role, but Marvel Studios decided to continue the story without a recast, a challenging endeavor some would say. It is not surprising then that one of the themes throughout WAKANDA FOREVER is grief. 

Oftentimes grief turns us angry and confused, without much reprieve from the pain we feel. However, WAKANDA FOREVER is not just a story about grief. It is a story about how our emotional capacity fuels the narrative identity that guides us throughout our lives. In addition, the film provides the viewer with the character foils of Shuri and Namor that act as an example of how two individuals develop their differing narrative identities within a similar framework of survival.

What is “narrative identity”? Narrative identity is a psychological term best described as the internalized story we create about ourselves. Our narrative identity begins in childhood and has a significant impact on the path we take in life. 

These stories we tell ourselves generally reference our upbringing, social life, education, and our emotional capacity. They provide meaning and act as a tapestry of our lives. Throughout WAKANDA FOREVER we see how narrative identity individually and collectively impacts the characters. 

The film begins with a race against time in an effort to cure T’Challa of a mysterious disease. Unsuccessful with her heroic efforts to save her brother, Shuri is left bereft and angered by the death of the Black Panther. After the death of T’Challa, we are transported to a remembrance ceremony. And the real-life passing of Boseman, and the consequential sorrow felt by this loss, are revisited throughout the film. Not only is his presence felt, but his legacy is remembered and addressed with care. 

For Shuri, T’Challa’s passing is a reminder of her inability to save her brother’s life. Going forward, this death will act as a catalyst in developing a narrative identity that is in service to her goals.

The plot of WAKANDA FOREVER centers on the emergence of Talokan, an underwater kingdom based on Mesoamerican cultures. For the first time, Namor (the feathered serpent God played by Tenoch Huerta) is introduced to Wakanda and provides the audience with a complex and unique character. 

Namor, when facing Queen Ramonda and Shuri, explains his narrative identity: a man grieving over the loss of the surface world his people once called home, and who is willing to protect his kingdom no matter the cost. His people have had to start anew underwater, bringing an entirely different set of challenges. 

Namor’s introduction also includes a surprising revelation in stark contrast with the narrative identities of Shuri, Queen Ramonda, and the people of Wakanda. For years, the citizens of Wakanda were under the impression that their origins were unique to them and them only. The origins of vibranium are the cornerstone of Wakanda’s myths and legends, and with this new development, Wakanda must collectively reckon with a legacy that betrays its original narrative identity. 

For the people of Wakanda and Talokan, Namor views vibranium as the unifying force that can aid them all. 

As the story progresses, Namor offers the kingdom of Wakanda a framework of cooperation and allyship. However, this form of allyship comes with caveats: join me or die. With the newfound focus on race, racism, and diversity in the U.S., allyship is a thorny subject to navigate in communities of color. By providing this aspect of Namor’s character, the audience is left to struggle with his moral compass (much like they did with Kilmonger).

Throughout WAKANDA FOREVER, I shared an affinity for Namor. The exchange between him, Shuri, and Queen Ramonda reminded me of the many stories I heard in relation to the birth of myself and my siblings in Ghana. For many children of immigrants, the phrase “we came to this country to give you a better life” fuels our narrative identity; a narrative you carry with you for most of your life; a reminder that these hardships will be worth it in the end. 

Due to forces beyond their control, Namor’s people fled their native land prior to his birth and remain hidden during his childhood. Many immigrants feel as if they do not have much of a choice, and neither did the people of Talokan.

In addition, I could not help but think of the brutality of colonization, a dominant theme in the first Black Panther film. With the prolonged grieving for his mother and initial loss, the narrative identity of Namor pushes him to not only protect his people but avoid another form of colonization at any cost. All of this comes to a head and provides the story with an established conflict. 

When Namor’s actions lead to another significant loss for the people of Wakanda, this puts him on a collision course with Shuri. Shuri must not only struggle with continuing to lose those around her, but her narrative identity now pushes her to seek revenge against Namor. This aspect of the plot reminded me of a quote from renowned Martinican psychiatrist Frantz Fanon’s WRETCHED OF THE EARTH: “Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it.”

Fanon was known for his bullish stance on the wickedness of colonization, the importance of rejecting it, and embracing decolonization: the right and ability of Indigenous people to practice self-determination over their land, cultures, and political and economic systems. Shuri and Namor both embrace this concept, but with vastly different narrative identities that fuel it. 

Whether it’s our friends or family members, our narrative identities are not necessarily set in stone and can be shaped to provide a new and welcome path. When our narrative identity is challenged, it is our responsibility to self-reflect and develop one that is in alignment with the new goals and/or challenges we may face. 

BLACK PANTHER: WAKANDA FOREVER utilizes narrative identity as an effective means of showcasing the development of its main characters. Narrative identity also provides a plot paradigm that allows the viewer to fully understand the characters’ motivations and their contrasts. The film tackles heavy themes, and director Ryan Coogler continues to display a strong aptitude to properly translate complex emotions and uncomfortable truths onto the big screen.

Richard Atta Amoako, Jr. is a social worker and child therapist residing in the greatest neighborhood in the world: West Philly.