The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Black Panther’ asks the question: What happens when leaders fail to protect a nation’s young?

Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) and T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) face off in “Black Panther.” (Disney/Marvel 2018)
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Major “Black Panther” spoilers ahead

EVEN A fictional nation has problems protecting its young.

One of the major themes of “Black Panther” revolves around the human price when those in power chose policies that imperil child safety, even when politicians must resort to rhetoric and obfuscation. Sacrifice the child, a ruler decides, to maintain “the lie.”

A key revelation in “Black Panther,” as with so much in politics, centers on not just the crime but also the coverup. It’s a pivotal decision that invites the audience to question just who the true villains are.

The film’s central setting is the comics-created African country of Wakanda, and a political betrayal between royal brothers leads to a boy becoming fatherless in ’90s Oakland, abandoned by his blood line. After King T’Chaka (John Kani) kills his brother, he returns to Wakanda without the brother’s son to keep the murder a secret back home — a crime unknown even to the king’s own child T’Challa.

Back in Oakland, the boy gradually feeds off that original sin, channeling his murderous rage into becoming a fearsomely heroic American black-ops soldier, his body scarred to mark each of his hundreds of kills.

That familial sin also propels him to try to upend what he has grown to hate about the land of his ancestors. He must kill his cousin to assume the crown, and he must be king to wage a form of global warfare that will validate his own father’s betrayal involving an arms deal.

The child turned warrior is born Erik Stevens but becomes Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), the Marvel movie’s complex and somewhat sympathetic villain. But what most shakes the faith and trust of new King T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is his own late father’s admission that Erik was sacrificed to keep the secret and maintain Wakanda’s Shakespearean coverup.

One reason “Black Panther” is being hailed so widely by filmgoers is because it offers so many mirrors of real-world relevance, reflecting our hot-button politics and problems.

Director Ryan Coogler is the Oakland-born son of a community organizer and a juvenile justice center officer, and his films — including his breakthrough “Fruitvale Station,” about the slain Oscar Grant — frequently do more than find resonance in parent-child relationships; they also reverberate with a moral force.

As America’s battle rages anew over what steps politicians will or will not take to protect their nation’s next generation — sometimes with lethal consequences — Coogler is the type of director who is in a rare position to illuminate these battle lines through his prominent, socially grounded art.

Coogler’s forthcoming film “Wrong Answer” is based on a real school cheating scandal in Atlanta — a story, as reported by the New Yorker, that questions what we ask of, and model for, our children. The filmmaker is also signed on for a “Creed” sequel.

But as the next generation demands more from its leaders — a clear-eyed insistence that is again on demonstration after the latest school shooting, in Parkland, Fla. — I hope that Coogler, who has moonlighted as a youth counselor himself, will continue to shine his camera light on America’s questionable treatment of its children and young adults.

What gets corrupted when leaders play politics while the moral and financial stakes are high?

Coogler is just the storyteller to keep showing us some of the deeply necessary answers.

Read more:

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Many fans, including civil rights hero John Lewis, are moved by this line from ‘Black Panther’