“Black Panther” raises big questions about identity & loyalty

How the hit movie proves so effective

Killmonger facing off with T’Challa: Who are you and what are you loyal to?

Black Panther confronted me with two big questions I find simultaneously longstanding and fresh.

The best stories are those that continue long after the last page has turned or credits have rolled. But even among these best, there are two sub-categories.

There are those that have produced fundamental shifts in how I see things — single stories like Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Ubervilles and Ursula K Le Guin’s The Wizard of Earthsea, and The Matrix (the first one, thank you), and epic sagas like JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (the books and movies alike) and the grand story of my Christian faith, among others. These are the great stories of my life, each representing one or more major landmarks in my emotional and moral maturity.

And then there are what I think of as the really good stories: the ones that raise serious questions about how I see things. Where the first kind make bold statements, these kinds pose challenges without necesarily claiming to offer answers. It is in this latter sub-category that Black Panther falls.

I knew after the first time I saw it that I wanted to see it again, but I wanted to give it some time to percolate first. So I wrote down (and tweeted some of) my initial thoughts, checked out think pieces and reviews, talked about it with others who’d seen it, and all of that engagement with other perspectives and positions deepened my understanding of the questions on my second viewing.

Black Panther raises the two big questions of identity and loyalty.

  1. Who are you?
  2. What are you loyal to?

(Warning: minor SPOILERS after this point. They, however, might — I hope — enrich your viewing of the movie, and I spoil no major plot points, so proceed AT YOUR OWN RISK. Understood? Great, let’s get on with it.)

Big question #1: Who are you?

I noticed this question from the first time but it wasn’t until my second viewing that I realised how deeply embedded in the story it is. But let’s consider it through the lenses of the three key instances of the question.

Opening scene

The question comes in a triple sequence here. First N’Jobu asks who is at the door (this is where Zuri responds with the now well-known quip about “Grace Jones-looking ladies,” and N’Jobu warns that they won’t knock a second time). Then T’Chaka asks N’Jobu to identify himself as a Wakandan (which he does to Zuri’s apparent surprise). Then he asks Zuri to identify himself as a Wakandan spy, to N’Jobu’s true surprise.

This kind of triple sequence is used in story to, as I understand it, show a connection, strengthen the connection and then subvert the connection. [1] Right from the start of the story, it is used effectively in foreshadowing the importance of identity to this story, with the question of who one is being used thrice to reveal surprises: the first two times with a tension that is relieved (by the Grace Jones joke in the first and by delight of a father in the second), and the third time subverting by revealing the surprise of betrayal.

Pivotal mid-story scene

Killmonger faces down T’Challa and the Wakandan leadership and taunts them into challenging his identity and the elder shouts, “Who are you?” Like in the first instance of the identity question, this second instance is also about surprise, but not to us as the audience, because this time we feel like we’re in on it: we, like T’Challa, know who Killmonger is, and surprise is on the Wakandan leadership. But it turns out there is a surprise in store for us too, for as we soon discover, we don’t fully grasp the implications of our inside knowledge: Killmonger’s true identity grants him an unexpected legitimacy. Once again, unknown identity underlies betrayal. The second instance strengthens the connection.

Closing scene

Here the question comes from a boy who, unlike his mates, is less fascinated by what T’Challa and Shuri have, as much as he is by who they are. “Who are you?” he asks, smiling, and we smile with him, because this time we are fully in on it and there are no surprises. We know his life is about to change for the better, and perhaps for good.

Where the first two instances of the identity question set us up for a surprise that proves unpleasant, this one subverts the connection by setting up a surprise that we can enjoy. And this time we really are in on it. (This theme of a surprise we are in on is echoed in the first after-credits scene, which is why I get the criticism about the scene being somewhat redundant.)

And this doesn’t even cover all the times identity comes up in the story. There’s when T’Challa’s mother Ramonda yells at him to remember who he is during the first fight against M’Baku. There’s the reminder from T’Chaka too. And there’s the questions about who Agent Ross is.

So there’s no doubt to me that a big question that what the story is intended to raise is about identity. Who are you? Do you know where you come from? Do you know what you represent, what you stand for, to whom you belong? And do you grasp the multifaceted implications of your identity? And underlying all that is the sense that to not know all this is to set yourself up for possible disappointment when it matters most.

Big question #2: What are you most loyal to?

But the identity question is tightly related to the loyalty question: one of the implications of who you are is what you are going to be loyal to.

Here’s what I tweeted about Okoye after seeing the movie the first time. Someone had just tweeted about Okoye putting her country first always in response to a question by Kelechnekoff about whether Okoye was Machiavellian, but I didn’t feel like that characterisation captured her with quite enough nuance:

Exploring the complexity of what Okoye’s arc and what it means for us would require a whole other article (which I may well write) but the point here is that she stands as great example of someone who, while maintaining her loyalty (it didn’t exactly change over the course of the story), had to redefine what exactly that loyalty meant. And that’s a reality we all face in real life.

But Okoye was not the only character who had to redefine what loyalty meant to her. Nobody, in fact, embodies the two questions of loyalty and identity like T’Challa himself. To illustrate this, allow me to share yet another tweet from my first-viewing thoughts:

(You might want to take a moment here to try to guess which character represents which position. Answers at the end of the article.) [2]

Here’s the thing: while other characters prioritise their chosen loyalty almost exclusively, T’Challa is the one character who seeks to embody all the loyalties in a sort of equilibrium. Where other characters quickly abandon other loyalties in favour of their preferred one, he seeks to maintain each of his loyalties without abandoning the others. And the ongoing tension from this balancing act is perhaps borne out in a fact I’ve heard several comments on: he seems rather understated — overshadowed, even — in his own movie.

Where Letitia Wright wins hearts everywhere with her characterisation of Shuri as a playful genius and Danai Gurira impresses with her portrayal of Okoye as a general with a sense of dignity matched only by her quietly sardonic humour, Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa is a stoic soul who smiles seldom, and never (as I recall) at his own joke. Even Andy Serkis’ Ulysses Klaue has a wild sense of sociopathic humour, and Michael B Jordan’s Killmonger (who admittedly also seldom smiles) certainly makes up for his own lack of humour with a passionate anger that ever simmers just beneath the surface.

T’Challa, however, is serious. And while this has (understandably) bothered some people, I find it to fit the fact that he, of all the characters, struggles most with reconciling all the tensions the others pick and choose from. Again and again, T’Challa refuses to pick and choose. He is not fond of the either-or, but a man of the both-and.

We see this play out, when, immediately he assumes the throne, an elder pointedly tells him the nation needs a king and not a warrior, and while he does not respond, it is clear he believes they can have both, instead of one or the other.

T’Challa is not a man of extremes and passion, but a man of restraint and balance who, even as a warrior will not take a life if he can avoid it (a character trait established from his appearance in Civil War), which is why his father astutely observes, “You are a good man, with a good heart, and it is hard for a good man to be king.” And that is another tension he seeks to resolve: being a good man and a good king, not one or the other.

And even in the end, even after he yells at his ancestors that they were all wrong, it is not in order to simply dispose of the legacies of the past, but to admit its liabilities as well, and to reconcile the past with the present, instead of simply ignoring the present in favour of the past.

So what is T’Challa loyal to? In the end, it is, I think, to truth.

And it is this loyalty to truth that differentiates him from the kind of fickle person who has no loyalties. Because he’s not loyal to nothing. Actually not even the fickle person is loyal to nothing: they are loyal to themselves, to their egos. But not so T’Challa. He is not a man without loyalties, but a man with a higher loyalty by which he seeks to order all his other loyalties. He is loyal to what is right and true, and he refuses (unlike Okoye, who is incidentally my favourite character) to settle for easy answers as to what that means.

That’s the kind of person I want to be.


  1. I learned about the three-beat structure from the amazing guys at the Daly Planet podcast, as they mention it a lot in their discussion of two of my favourite stories ever, Worm and Ward. Follow them on Twitter @gotwormpod.
  2. Here’s the characters by answer to the question of loyalty: “When push comes to shove, who am I most loyal to?”
    – My lover: No one, really — but W’Kabi seems to expect this of Okoye
    – My calling: Okoye (her loyalty to the throne being grounded in a profound sense of personal calling, not just career)
    – My ethnic group: W’Kabi (M’Baku, as well, initially, although he later expands his loyalty to the nation as a whole)
    – My nation: T’Chaka
    – My race: Killmonger
    Humanity: Nakia (she loves her nation, but she sees it in terms of its value to humanity, and not as a value in itself)
    (If you’re wondering about characters not on this list, like Shuri and Agent Ross, I’m not saying they didn’t have loyalties. But the ones on the list are the ones who best embody those loyalties in the story.)

Published by Doc Ayomide

I’m a medical doctor with specialty training in psychiatry, and I love thinking and writing about what it means to be human.

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