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Black Folks, It’s Alright to Cry: Grief & Mental Health in Black Panther

Black Folks, It’s Alright to Cry: Grief & Mental Health in Black Panther

Erik Killmonger Marvel movie poster

If you’ve seen the awesomeness that is Black Panther, you remember the kick-ass fights, comedic gold (Don’t tell me Shuri didn’t have you rolling), and FIRE musical soundtrack. And with all that, it’s easy for us to forget that the basis of this film is how different people end up dealing with their grief.

From the Black Panther himself to Shuri, Queen Ramonda, Okoye, W’Kabi, Zuri, and most memorably, Killmonger, many of the main characters have suffered deep, personal losses that change their lives forever.

The movie highlights T’Challa’s struggles with coming to terms with his father’s death, his duty to his family and country, and the uncertainty of what “the right thing” is. I expected that. After all, it’s a movie centered on T’Challa. What I didn’t expect was the gravity of Killmonger’s struggles. WHEW.

The scene that hit me the hardest was the scene in which T’Challa’s cousin, N’Jadaka/Erik “Killmonger” Stevens, the movie’s villain, sees his father, N’Jobu, for the first time since he found N’Jobu’s dead body as a child. Now, that trauma alone—a child finding their parent dead—is enough to tug at the heartstrings. Killmonger goes through much more than the loss of his father. Growing up away from his family, he also loses the ability to connect with part of his own identity as a Wakandan. And all of that is a recipe for Instant Oh-Sh*t A La Mode.

Unlike T’Challa, Killmonger doesn’t get the support he needs when his father is killed. Nor does he have anyone to comfort him, thanks to his uncle T’Chaka’s decision to leave him alone rather than take him to Wakanda to be with his family. And keep in mind, Killmonger was a lot younger than T’Challa when he had to deal with his father’s death. So, you’ve got a grieving, embittered, angry young man with no support system for YEARS. Sh*t was likely to go left if unchecked—and it sure did.

When Agent Ross gives T’Challa a profile on Killmonger, he makes no mention of Killmonger having ever received counseling or any other kind of mental health assistance after his father died. No one had ever given Killmonger the proper tools or help to deal with his grief and anger. So he finds another way to vent. 

He handles his grief, resentment of his father’s family, and anger with violence. He joins the military with one murderous intention—to increase his skill at killing (I mean, y’all know they didn’t give ol’ boy that cool nickname for nothin’). And this makes for a lack of emotional stability and buildup of rage that shows throughout the movie in almost everything he does.

So by the time his reunion with his dad’s spirit comes around, the stage was set for some serious intensity. In the scene, Killmonger switches between his young adult form and reverting back to himself as a child. He and N’Jobu share a tender moment as they talk about what N’Jobu taught him, but as soon as N’Jobu brings up the fact that Killmonger isn’t crying over his death, the warmth of the moment is shattered by Killmonger’s cold response: “Everybody dies.”

The pain on N’Jobu’s face as he wept got to me…and I am not ashamed to say that I sat there crying right along with him. Why? Because he, like many black parents, realized that his child had fallen prey to the warped idea that crying, or showing emotion, makes you a weak.

IRL, we’re told that emotion in moderation is okay, but then we’re shown how anger is mocked (Worrrrrrrldstar) and that anything more than the allowed amount of sadness or upset is considered pathetic. Almost everyone has been told something along the line of “Suck it up!” or “Relax, it’s not that serious!” as a way to tell us to keep a cap on what we feel. It’s a line of thinking that causes serious harm to young people, especially young black people who are taught that we need to speak, act, and present ourselves in a certain way in order to be accepted by either society as a whole or by the black community itself.

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As a teenager, I’d felt the negative effects of trying to shut off my emotions after feeling that my grief over my closest aunt’s death was “too much of an inconvenience” for those around me and that it made me look like a whiner. It didn’t help, and if I recall anything clearly about that afternoon, it’s the hot sting of the tears I’d been trying to hold in as I realized that sitting, growing cold in the seat in front of me, my aunt was no longer breathing.

If I recall anything clearly about that afternoon, it’s the painful lump in my throat as the realization, disbelief, sadness, fear, and hysteria swallowed me up. The dark feelings tore at me as a stranger held me while I cried. Now, while it took some time for me to deal with my grief, the support I got from my family and close friends pulled me through that dark place.

But Imagine a black kid feeling all that, only unlike T’Challa and myself, having no one there to help them through it. They’re sad. They’re angry. They’re alone. Switch back to the movie’s reality. They’re Killmonger.

Movies often show us a reflection of real life. And Black Panther is one powerful mirror.

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