It’s not very often that we are able to look up on the big screen and see male protagonists that are all around good. Usually, the whole point of a movie is to watch a man going from being a nobody or a not terrible but not decent person to a great, caring and mostly kind man. It’s rare for them to start out that way.
Toxic masculinity has been up on the big screen since movies began. It’s a normal thing if we’re being completely honest. Even outside of the movie theater, toxic masculinity is in our everyday life. When we’re children, little girls are told that if a boy is being mean to them it means they like them. The idea that men are supposed to be mean to the women they like has been ingrained in our heads since elementary school. We were told that men are supposed to be assholes. And it’s wrong.
Black Panther and its lead T’Challa challenge this notion. I’ve been thinking about T’Challa since my first viewing of the movie and there’s really only one word I can think that accurately describe him. Soft. T’Challa is a soft character. Many would disagree with this and argue because usually the idea of a man being soft means that he is weak. We’ve been conditioned to associate the word soft with unmanly things. T’Challa is anything but weak and unmanly. Again though, it comes down to how we’ve been brought up to think.
T’Challa is openly emotional, he listens to what those around him have to say, and he clearly respects the women around him. T’Challa is compassionate, he puts the well being of others over himself and he’s dead set on being a great King to his people. Of course, his journey in the movie is about how exactly he’s going to do that. He’s faced with his first real problem as King and it’s in his way of finding a solution that I feel T’Challa is in the running for the best male character we’ve had in a long time.
T’Challa is an amazingly fleshed out, thought through character. His development has come a long way in just two movies. He went from being a whirlwind of anger in Civil War to a grieving son, then a lost man and finally at the end of Black Panther he’s become a comfortable king. I don’t mean comfortable in the sense that he sits on his throne all day and has no worries. I mean comfortable in the way he carries himself. The confidence and the strength T’Challa gains through the journey of his movie makes him comfortable with the idea of being King and ruling over people.
I’ve seen it argued that some were disappointed that T’Challa wasn’t as “badass” as he was in Civil War (which isn’t true, he very much was) but to me, that sounds very much like mansplaining. T’Challa wasn’t the only character in Civil War, he technically wasn’t even a main character. So it was fine that his character had almost no development and was just pure fire and fury. It was a way for him to gain the audience’s attention. To have T’Challa be that same ball of frustrated energy and to be that angry for a whole new movie would have made the character redundant. If T’Challa can’t have emotions other than anger and they want to fight, then what’s the point of him being a character at all. We got used to superhero movies being all about cool looking fights, catchy one-liners and the man using his internal pain to beat the crap out of the villain. That’s not to say Black Panther doesn’t have these things because it most definitely does but that’s not all the move has. This movie develops its characters, it gives them all purpose and reason.
It also speaks to toxic masculinity again to complain when a male character shows something other than anger and violence. The stereotype that men must always have this hard edge to them is as damaging as it is inaccurate. Men don’t want to experience or express their emotions because they are afraid of being seen as weak. And when they see other men being well versed in letting their emotions out, it makes them uncomfortable. T’Challa is okay with crying and he’s okay being visibly sad, if he were white like Tony Stark, then it would be grumbled about only. I do believe that him being not only a man but also black, adds another layer toxic masculinity that not everyone would realize.
When you’re black, standards are different. If we’re going to do something we have to do it to the absolute best of our ability. Especially if when we do it, we will be in competition with others. This applies to pretty much everything, from the streets in the hood to the office buildings where you’re either one of or the only black person there. For black men, they have to always be strong. Always. There is no room for a black man to be weak or soft on the streets. There is no room for a black man to be anything other than strong and hard-working if he’s trying to make something of himself. It’s all we’ve known so it makes sense that most expect us to be portrayed the same way in movies. It’s only recently that black men have been able to openly express themselves and even now, there are still many who won’t. They still fear being labeled as weak, being laughed at. As a community, we’re still learning to accept that we have emotions. And that it’s okay for us to display them.
T’Challa is a soft man. He is not weak, he is literally a king and a superhero. But he is still soft. He has frustrations and insecurities but those do not make him any less strong. He’s beaten up Captain America but still had the compassion to want to hear out Killmonger and make something work. T’Challa has a series of complex and everyday emotions and it never takes away from his awesomeness when it comes time to suit up and fight.
I also took special notice in not only the way T’Challa listens to the women around him but the way he trusts them as well. His royal guard is all female to start, the people in charge of protecting the king are women. It speaks volumes that men aren’t the ones keeping the one on the throne safe. T’Challa’s sister, Shuri, is in charge of all of the country’s technological advancements. A sixteen-year-old girl is the smartest person in all rooms at all times and T’Challa recognizes that. He admires that. At the end of the movie, he puts Shuri in charge of Wakanda’s new tech dealings with other countries. Because he knows that she is the best person for the job and he trusts her. T’Challa even breaks all tradition and opens Wakanda’s borders to the world because of Nakia. It was her words about Wakanda being strong enough to help those less fortunate and protect itself at the same time, that first settled in T’Challa’s mind. Killmonger may have been the terrifying but educational push T’Challa needed to do it, but it was Nakia’s optimism that he trusted. And by putting Shuri and Nakia in charge, by providing them with the means and support, T’Challa is now king of a new Wakanda. One that is open to the world.
The kind of character Ryan Coolger has created with T’Challa is one I hope to see more of. I also hope they write T’Challa this way more in the comics because let’s face it, comic T’Challa is an asshole most of the time. I hope we get more black boys and black men roles where they’re allowed to have emotions. Where they get fully fleshed out character arcs and their characters struggle isn’t in vain or some thinly masked attempt to keep them manly. Let black men have emotions on screen. Let black women have emotions on screen. Let black children and let black people have emotions up on the big screen. It makes the movie ten times better.