In ‘Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,’ Water Holds Wisdom About Grief

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Angela Bassett as Ramonda in Marvel Studios' Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.  (Marvel Studios. © 2022 MARVEL.)

In 2018, I saw Black Panther at the Grand Lake Theater in Oakland. Aside from seeing Malcolm X there when I was 10 years old, it was one of the most exhilarating theatrical experiences I’ve ever had. Black families filled the rows; kids danced in the aisles. There were tears and laughter. During the opening scene, set in Oakland, people in the audience gasped, clapped and jumped up in their seats, responding as if they knew the characters. I will never forget.

There was so much life on screen. So much buoyancy. I left the theater feeling hopeful, like the film industry was opening up to new worlds and new ways of imagining Blackness. I was emotional, and yearning for more. That was a different time.

Sometimes I wish I could go back.

Five years later, the world has changed in drastic, tangible ways. The pandemic continues to reshape how we live our lives, leaving so many people in cycles of fear, isolation, sickness and confusion. Despite that, we’ve pushed forward, but not without the weight of loss, war, violence and racist hate. A certain bleakness hangs over our lives and our world.

This sense of loss also hangs over Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, which I saw weeks ago at an advance screening in Los Angeles. The 2020 death of the film’s lead actor, Chadwick Boseman, prepared me for a completely different viewing experience. As T’Challa, he represented so much life and vitality in the original Black Panther, and inspired millions with his groundbreaking journey as an artist. While waiting for the film to start, I could feel our bodies being pulled into an emotional space of preparing to grieve, to remember him through this film. I wondered how writer-director Ryan Coogler would handle Boseman’s absence while rendering Wakanda and its world anew.

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The answer came in waves, literally, as the film uses water and all of its properties to remember, to reclaim, to fight and to unite characters with the memories of those who have passed on, including Black Panther. It is an emotional journey, or a sort of flooding of our senses, allowing us to see its characters in a more complicated light. In the shadow of T’Challa’s demise, they are more human, existing in spaces of turmoil and discovery.

Wakanda Forever doesn’t spend a lot of time trying to explain the circumstances of T’Challa’s death, which may rub some the wrong way. Still, the story becomes a tribute to him, or a meditation on life in the process of grief. It centers the love and remembrance that is born of loss; the colors, the warmth, the emotion, the hope, the anger and catharsis that flows from our bodies when we remember and honor those who are no longer in our lives.

Lupita Nyong'O looks out onto the ocean with a pyramid in the background.
Lupita Nyong'O as Nakia in Marvel Studios' 'Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.' (Marvel Studios. © 2022 MARVEL.)

We see Shuri, played powerfully by Letitia Wright, grapple with the difficult, often complicated emotions of loss related to her dear brother. At the beginning of the film, she sits by the water with her mother, Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett), unable to understand any deeper, spiritual meaning to his passing. Namor, the film’s antagonist, rises from the water, warning of the imminent threat of the CIA and American government’s attempts to steal Vibranium from the ocean, which Namor has used for his underwater community, Talocan.

By far, one of the most exciting and daring elements of this film is the introduction of Namor and his underwater world of Talocan (Tlālōcān). In the comics, this character hails from Atlantis, but here he is an Indigenous warrior. Drawing deeply from ancient Aztec mythology and history, Coogler brings to life a villain born from the Marvel universe, in the same complex spirit as Killmonger. Namor is an antihero whose backstory is so rich with depth that we understand and feel for him. Tenoch Huerta plays him with a gentle, calculated intensity and power.

Tenoch Huerta as Namor in Marvel Studios' Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. (Marvel Studios. © 2022 MARVEL.)

In one of the most majestic sequences, we witness the origin story of Namor as his brown-skinned mother gives birth to him in the blue water. He becomes one with the ocean, as it provides a haven for survival away from the colonial, Spanish conquest that is taking place in Mexico. Later, the water again becomes a connecting force as Shuri is taken into the depths of Namor’s ocean community set to a calming song by Foudeqush and Ludwig Goransson. Shuri understands how important this community is, and she respects it. There’s a gentle, powerful chemistry between Shuri and Namor in these scenes that almost made me think they might become intimately linked.

In a time of increased anti-Blackness and racism in this country and around the world, there is something so powerful about seeing a film that acknowledges the history and culture of Indigenous, brown Mexicans and their links and ancestral connections to African people, after so many years of this history being erased from mainstream cinema and education. Here, we see two communities fighting to preserve their lives in the midst of threats to their existence.

It is powerful to envision a world in which communities of color might come together to understand each other’s struggles, and work together in a more global fight for justice. The multicultural emphasis that is highlighted in this film made me think of home, the Bay Area, from which Coogler hails. Here, it is not uncommon to see communities of color, especially African Americans, Mexicans, Latinos, Filipinos and Vietnamese people building communal coalitions and grassroots support together. But that doesn’t mean division doesn’t exist, and the film depicts the conflict and misunderstandings that threaten to erase both communities when they are not united.

As the film traverses the ocean and continents, connecting characters and storylines in a map-like formation, it becomes a bit clunky. But it builds toward a triumphant, moving conclusion that brought me to tears. This is the perfect tribute to Chadwick Boseman and T’Challa, because it encourages the characters and audience to celebrate life.

Ultimately, this is not a straightforward sequel to the film we saw in 2018, and it shouldn’t have to be. It is different in ways that make it important for the times we live in. We have lost so much. We are grieving. We are living and laughing in the midst of it all. We are remembering people who have passed on, or who are no longer in our lives. Watching this film made me remember people I once loved or cared for, who are no longer here or who have exited my life for reasons unknown to me. It made me think about home, about loss, and my love of cinema, which was born in Oakland at the Grand Lake Theater, watching Malcolm X.

We are in a new time, and a new world. This film asks us to remember, to honor our lives and our love, to keep going in the presence of grief.

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Nijla Mu'min is an award-winning writer and filmmaker raised in Oakland. Her feature film Jinn premiered in 2018, and she has since directed episodes of Insecure, Queen Sugar and other television series.