How the latest Black Panther film exhibits, and gives space to diasporic mourning.

The choice to replace the late Chadwick Boseman in Ryan Coogler’s latest addition to the Black Panther film canon may have seemed like an obvious choice for some, but Coogler, along with co-writer Joe Robert Cole chose to do something different with this film, namely, acknowledge Boseman’s passing by having his character T’challa’s death be the crux of the film’s narrative. This was a bold choice for the writers, who already had a script which Coogler detailed in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter was ‘[Written] before Chadwick passed [and] was very much rooted in T’Challa’s perspective. It was a massive movie but also simultaneously a character study that delved deeply into his psyche and situation.’ Choosing then, to abandon what they had when they could have replaced Boseman with another actor (with the hashtag #RecastT’challa circulating on some social medias), and instead, configuring the film as an ode, a way to honour their friend made this film’s expression of grief palpable in how tangible it became once the lines between the fiction of the story they had created and the reality of Boseman’s passing blurred into one. 

When we bear witness to T’challa’s funeral near the beginning of the film I felt like a fly on the wall, a guest bought in to observe over an intimate gathering as Shuri, Queen Ramonda, the Dora Milaje, and Wakanda’s spiritual chiefs all preside over the funeral ceremony in the woodlands. Enacting West African traditions of ancestral reverence such as the pouring of libations onto the ground, they speak words over T’challa’s casket, shedding tears that clearly extend beyond the script, before the casket is taken away. Transfixed, I sat rooted in place by this deeply personal meta moment that invited you to listen, to participate in a collective mourning that both felt universally accessible for fans of the franchise, but also very specific to the traditions and customs that it was pulling from. 

Principally, the aesthetic of Wakanda has various influences from across the African continent; which Rev. Dr. Yolanda Pierce, Director of the Center for Black Church Studies and Associate Professor of Religion and Literature at Princeton Theological Seminary goes into detail unpicking, writing that these various influences can be seen in: 

“[T]he lip plates worn by the Mursi and Surma peoples of Ethiopia (among others); cast members speaking the African languages of Xhosa and Hausa; the clothing of the Dora Milaje, the Black Panther’s elite bodyguards, modeled after the Masai peoples in Kenya and Tanzania; or in the headdress worn by the character of Queen Mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett), similar to what is actually worn by Zulu women in South Africa.” 

However, these cultural elements aren’t exclusive to these places and exist in their own ways all across the African Diaspora. Therefore, when I was invited to mourn T’challa (and by extension Boseman), it made me reflect on my own practices of mourning, specific to my identity as a Black Briton of Jamaican heritage, and the ways the film mirrored, and allowed me to see the beauty in how we’ve learnt to remember those that have gone. 

To cite a personal example, every year around Christmas time, myself and my family visit my Grandmother’s grave to pay respects. With us, we bring along spray to clean her gravesite,

cleansing it of its dirt, and adding flowers for decoration; all the while humming her favourite songs as we converse with each other, filling her in on our year and remembering those moments we shared with her that exists now only in memory. This ritual of remembrance and the importance of our dedication to seeing those who have passed as still with us, still able to be spoken to is a large aspect of much of West African spirituality and Cosmology. The ancestors in African spirituality are an important aspect to how many both in Africa, and across the African diaspora, understand those who have passed, and the impact they have on our lives today. Academic Abiodun Ige wrote: 

‘In the African belief system, the family is made up of both the living members and the ancestors. The ancestors are still present, watching over the household and the property of the family. They are the powerful part of the clan, maintaining a close link between the world of men and the spirit world. They are believed to be interested in the welfare of their living descendants.’ (pg. 27) 

Similarly, In Jamaican culture, we see those who have passed as still being with us, with the word “duppy” (often referring to the deceased’s spirit or soul) thought to have originated in Africa. The idea of the all-powerful duppy is similar to the African belief that the ancestors of the living are always present, keeping an eye on the living to make sure they follow traditional customs. Black Panther is careful to incorporate this unique kind of ancestral veneration, with the Ancestral Plane being a place in the film where one may commune with those that have transitioned for guidance. Death isn’t the cold final end as preconfigured in more secular, euro-centric modes of knowledge, but a transitory stage to the metaphysical, a realm where a community of our kin reside whom we can look for in times of need and can acknowledge their presence. That is why then when T’challa’s casket is being pulled through the street his death evades pessimism, and transcends to a festive wake where his life is celebrated, as he’s seen as going on a journey. Although time has poked holes in my memories, my mother recounted to me after my grandmother’s funeral, one of her friends commented that “I don’t want to sound rude, but this was the most fun I’ve had in ages”. There is a unique Jamaican process of wake when a person dies called Nine Night, referring to a service held for the deceased that can either last one night or nine (as its namesake implies). With roots in West African funeral tradition passed on from enslaved Africans taken to Jamaica, the main purpose of Nine Night is to aid the ‘duppy’ in transitioning to the ancestral homeland, lest the community be haunted. Thus, there is a heavy emphasis on family members and friends being joyful and celebrating the deceased through hymns and dance. Together then, we decided to see my grandmother’s passing, as a time for singing, dancing and drinking with loved ones, as an expression of life similar to how T’challa’s wake is presented in the film. 

Academic Christina Sharpe has a term called Wake Work that refers to the ongoing and continuous process of mourning, resistance, and resilience that is experienced by Black people in the aftermath of slavery and ongoing racial violence. In her book “In the Wake: On Blackness and Being,” Sharpe argues that the violence and trauma of slavery and racial oppression have had a profound and lasting impact on the lives of Black people, and that this impact can be seen in the way that Black people navigate and negotiate the world around them. Sharpe’s concept of

“Wake Work” highlights the ways in which Black people must constantly confront and resist the ongoing effects of slavery and racial violence, and how they must find ways to survive and thrive in the face of these challenges. Symbolically then, I believe this film in some ways functions as Wake Work in how it enables a participatory mourning from its black audience, allowing them to grieve loss on their own terms, collectively, in ways they may not have been able to, or been given the space to, because of the ways imperialist White Supremacist Heteropatriarchy exhausts this capacity in their everyday lives. 

In the film, the cause of T’challa’s death is never specified, and only ever hinted at as some incurable disease he kept private, like Boseman, who dealt with colon cancer, which he’d kept secret from the world and many of his cast mates as he battled with it over a four year period. Coogler’s decision to intermix reality with fiction in how Boseman and his character T’challa meet their end then pervades the cinematic constraints of Marvel to give solace to the cast, and many black folk who may have similarly been affected by knowing someone, who met their end abruptly due to an unexpected illness. Indeed, many from across the diaspora would have been able to feel an intense empathy for Shuri, with Black (and other ethnic minorities) having faced the harsh brunt of COVID-19 during the pandemic (both here in the UK and the US) and also, statistically being more at risk of cancer in general, with psychologist and writer Guilaine Kinouan stating that: 

“As far as cancer inequality goes, African Americans have the highest death rate and shortest survival rate of any racial/ethnic group in the US for most cancers.In the UK, prostate cancer, the most common cancer in men, is two to three times more likely in Black men than their white counterparts. The death rate is twice as high. Black men also develop prostate cancer younger. Black women’s survival rate for any cancer is among the lowest.” (pg 81) 

Thus, narratively, in Shuri’s journey in acknowledging what she has lost, I see this film as (on some level) speaking to the premature sense of loss that has historically haunted black folk in the past and in recent times and looks towards what we can do with that grief. Still battling a global pandemic, threats to our lives on a daily basis and a worsening financial crisis, we in the diaspora live with the spectre of death over us at all times. Consequently, the question stands, what does one do with all that grief? How do we contend with loss? In the darkness of the cinema, I’d say Coogler allowed me catharsis, using T’challa as a proxy, a conduit to excise that heavy burden and see the beauty of a life remembered, of traditions and customs that demand we resist and hold onto how we are shaped, and in turn have shaped others, in this life, and the next. Sharpe writes ‘Black people everywhere and anywhere we are, still produce in, into, and through the wake an insistence on existing, we insist Black being into the wake’ (pg 11). I’d say that is what this film does in ways, that is, it injects a Black being through a collective moment of mourning that many of us over our lives (but especially these past few turbulent years) may not have been able to grasp. As a piece of art, going further than just being another Marvel film and becoming a space for introspection. A space for us to remember those who passed, who didn’t get to become elders, whose lives were shortened through ill health caused by strife, ongoing racial terror, failing governments and health care systems, or many of the other numerous forms death assumes in our lives. A space to become united in grief.

Works Cited:

  • Guilaine Kinouani. LIVING WHILE BLACK : An Essential Guide to Overcoming Racial Trauma. S.L., Ebury Press, 2021. 
  • Ige, Abiodun. “THE CULT of ANCESTORS in AFRICAN TRADITIONAL RELIGION.” An Encyclopaedia of the Arts, vol. 10, Apr. 2006, 
  • Keegan, Rebecca, and Rebecca Keegan. “Lupita Nyong’o on the Intense Shoot for ’Black Panther: Wakanda Forever’ and the Weight of Global Stardom.” The Hollywood Reporter, 19 Oct. 2022, 
  • ver-chadwick-boseman-2-1235243812/. Accessed 5 Jan. 2023. 
  • Pierce, Rev Dr Yolanda. “African Cosmologies: Spiritual Reflections on “Black Panther.”” Sojourners, 20 Feb. 2018, 
  • Sharpe, Christina. In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Durham, N.C. Duke University Press, 2016.

By Jordan Aitcheson-Labarr