How Parents Can Talk About ‘Black Panther’ With Young Kids
The latest Marvel movie isn't just fantastic cinema; it's a collection of important lessons for children.
Black Panther was a massively popular idea before it became a massively popular film. And it’s no small wonder. The 18th film in the modern Marvel canon is the first with a largely black cast and features a story that honors both African and African-American culture — a melange of the two really. For young black kids who haven’t seen people who look like them save the world, it’s a big moment. No wonder movie theaters across the country, many booked ahead of time for free showings for children, were flooded with fans over the weekend. No wonder T’Challa, Chadwick Boseman, and Wakanda’s teen scientists are having a moment. No wonder director Ryan Coogler doesn’t have to pay for drinks.
Still, for parents, it can be hard to talk to children about the issues that movie raises, both because it raises them almost parenthetically (it’s ultimately a blockbuster with crowd-pleasing intentions) and because they are largely unresolved. Black Panther is not a history lesson and, in fact, contains very little history at all, which means that the comic book answers to some of the questions the film provokes won’t prove satisfying. After all, Black Panther traffics in moral complexity as well as Lexus product placement. And while children may not pick up on, say, the intricacies of the foreign policy arguments trotted out, they will likely notice that the movie touches on identity, ancestry, misogyny, and even economics.
Used well, Black Panther can facilitate discussions on hard-to-broach topics that will ultimately be edifying for a young kid. With that in mind, here are four conversations that you should be prepared to have after you leave Wakanda.
Good Intentions vs. Evil Actions
Michael B. Jordan’s Erik Killmonger may have a typical Marvel Cinematic Universe villain name, but that’s all it is, a name. As a former American special ops operative, Erik is a fierce fighter, but he’s also a human being with a relatable backstory and a powerful purpose. While his methods are unambiguously evil, his desire for the Wakandan throne is both deeply selfish and deeply moral. He wants to use the highly-advanced society’s many resources to help the oppressed throughout the world. That this is born out of a sense of familial vengeance marks him as a villain in the Shakespearean sense, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t got a point. Erik’s hunger for power can only be understood in terms of the power taken from him and his people — a group that is a bit poorly defined in the film but seems to refer intermittently to the oppressed and to black people.
Erik’s moral ambiguity can help teach kids a simple truth about the world: No one sees themselves as a purely evil person. Erik is not a villain to Erik. He believes himself to be righteous and he is both right and wrong. In a cinematic universe where most villains are world-conquering megalomaniacs, having a nuanced villain with relatable motivations makes Black Panther stand out and makes the film into an opportunity to begin a conversation about morality. The fact that T’Challa ultimately hears Erik and offers him some respect — in a sense anyway — is a reminder that we can learn from those who oppose us.
Respect For Other Cultures
Speaking of Erik, his intro scene serves as a good jumping off point for discussing the importance of embracing other cultures. At a London museum, he takes offense when a white curator tells him about the items in the West Africa collection, saying that these relics were stolen from his ancestors. Then, he steals them back. While you may want to have a separate talk with your children about stealing, the idea of cultural appropriation by force has real-world analogs. Mesoamerican peoples, for example, have long fought its American neighbors to the north for the right to display their cultural history. Most recently — and particularly similar to Erik’s plot in Black Panther — the acquisition of a 400-year-old map of Mexico by the Library of Congress was met with resistance from indigenous people who believe the rightful place for the map is in Mexico.
While that all may go over a child’s head, you can turn the conversation about appropriation toward cultural appreciation. You can teach your child that other people have different histories that all deserve respect — and that there is a difference between holding something up and truly embracing it. Erik might go about reclaiming his culture the wrong way, but the idea that his culture has been trivialized and put up for display is one that can open up a larger conversation about real-world history.
Helping Others Vs. Helping Yourself
One of the most important narrative threads running through Black Panther concerns the conflict between Wakanda’s isolationism and the assumed responsibility that an advanced civilization has to help out the rest of the world, including the oppressed and marginalized. While your child may not understand the film’s references to the refugee crisis, or slavery and histories of oppression, the lesson here is simple: One should help others, even at a personal cost. Though that choice takes shape at a national level in Black Panther, the choices that T’Challa has to make for Wakanda are not all that different from the choices a child might face, say, when one of his classmates is being bullied. The movie grapples with the hazards of both isolation and interference and comes to an earned conclusion about the merits of connecting with the world around you, even if it’s not the easy or simple thing to do for your own well-being.
Your Parents Aren’t Always Right
While you may not want to teach this to your child, it’s true that parents don’t have all the answers. In the movie, T’Challa’s father, T’Chaka, is shown to be a flawed, if well-meaning, ruler before his passing. While the younger Black Panther looked up to his father for his whole life, finding out that his father was imperfect helps trigger a third-act realization that he must learn from his father’s mistakes in order to rule Wakanda. Talking to your child about learning from mistakes and becoming better for them will show them that they, too, can improve from the many errors they will commit in their lives. Just be ready to be challenged next time you tell them it’s bedtime; after all, T’Challa goes to sleep whenever he wants, and he turned out just fine.