Even if you’re not a follower of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) movie franchise, you’ll probably have heard of the passing of one of its leads and how it plunged fans everywhere into shock and grief.
The actor Chadwick Boseman, who played the title role in The Black Panther (2018), tragically passed away in 2020 at the tender age of 43 from colon cancer. He left behind a void not only in the MCU but also in the hearts of many a fan.
His sudden passing meant the entire Marvel family had to do some serious re-scripting of the planned Black Panther sequel.
Should they recast another actor for the role and carry on as though nothing happened? Or should they pass the mantle of The Black Panther (BP) to another of the film’s existing characters?
Either way, I had strong misgivings.
I just couldn’t see anyone else playing BP. Given that Chadwick was literally snatched from the world at the prime of his life and career, it would just feel like a travesty for another actor to don the iconic BP suit and shout forth the battle cry “Yi-bam-be“!
Yet the show must go on as they say, so I was curious how the MCU would tackle this gnarly problem.
To grief and honor Chadwick Boseman
Two years since Chadwick’s death, the world was presented with the answer when the sequel Black Panther – Wakanda Forever (BPWF) debuted in cinemas everywhere a couple of weeks ago.
It was the second-highest weekend opening film this year, behind another MCU mega sequel Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.
Having watched BPWF a week ago with my sons, I came away feeling like I had just attended one long memorial tribute to Chadwick.
It was truly groundbreaking.
No other MCU movie had so much pathos and poetry packed in, yet delivered the action and excitement we’ve come to know and expect from the MCU.
Not only did it pay the highest compliment and tribute to a great actor; but the gravitas that permeated the entire film also felt like a fitting end to Phase 4 of the MCU timeline. (Phase 5 will kick off early next year with Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania)
I can only marvel at writer/director Ryan Coogler and the stellar cast for their vision and commitment to forever immortalize on the silver screen the respect, honor, and love they have for their colleague and friend Chadwick so poignantly and powerfully.
And to help many through the six stages of grief as, two years later, the world mourns once more Chadwick’s passing.
The Six Stages of Grief
There are different stages in the grieving process. Some say there are five, others say there are more.
Me? I resonate most with the Six Stages of Grief expounded by grief expert David Kessler (he added the sixth stage to the five established by his mentor Elizabeth Kubler-Ross).
The six are Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance, and Meaning. These aren’t necessarily sequential in their manifestations, and the process is often iterative.
In BPWF, I found expressions of all six, mostly with the character Shuri, played flawlessly by Guyanese-British actress Letitia Wright.
Little wonder many who’ve watched it say this movie was an apt and moving tribute to Chadwick from start to finish!
[Warning: spoilers dead ahead!]
Stage #1 Denial — the first stage of grief
In the opening sequence we find Shuri, the princess and chief scientist of Wakanda, racing against time to recreate the ‘heart-shaped herb’ in her cutting-edge lab to try and save her older brother King T’Challa, aka The Black Panther, who was fighting a losing battle with an unspecified illness.
Unfortunately, Shuri wasn’t able to synthetically create it in time and so the Kingdom of Wakanda lost its beloved ruler.
In those nail-biting moments before his death, the sequence showed a heart-pounding, nail-biting Shuri going nearly ballistic at everyone in her lab as she tried to hold back her panic while trying to beat Father Time.
But when her mother, Queen Ramonda, appeared before her to announce T’Challa’s demise, the look of sheer disbelief on Shuri’s countenance was painful to witness.
Shuri was in full-blown denial. Despite the Queen’s entreaty, she refused to leave the lab and refused to accept the news of her beloved brother’s death.
Stage #2 Anger
There’s probably no angrier moment for T’Challa’s grieving mother Queen Ramonda (played superbly by the ever-outstanding Angela Bassett) than the one when she strips the rank of General Okoye, who commands an elite squad of female Wakandan soldiers and bodyguards called the Dora Milaje.
This was after Okoye failed to protect Shuri from enemies who went on to kidnap the princess in a pivotal scene that happened early in the movie.
The news of the kidnap and the chilling thought that she might very well have lost the last member of her family would make any mother go insane. What more Queen Ramonda, who already had her hands full trying to keep the kingdom together a year after losing T’Challa, while still dealing with her own grief.
The prospect of losing her one remaining child and family member explains the angry tirade she went into before sacking Okoye.
Stage #3 Bargaining
Throughout the 12 months following T’Challa’s death, Shuri threw herself fully into her scientific research for the heart-shaped herb.
Like a warrior on some invisible warpath, Shuri looked determined to reach her goal no matter what. One couldn’t help but feel like she was throwing herself completely into the work to block out memories of her brother and how she couldn’t save him.
I could almost hear her mind going: “If only I tried this or done that, maybe I could have saved him.”
In the grief process, this is the classic third stage, “bargaining.” It attempts to postpone through a flurry of activities and rationalizing, the sadness, confusion, and deep hurt that continues to plague the person in grief long after the loss of a loved one.
Stage #4 Depression
We first met the love of T’Challa’s life, Nakia, in the first BP film.
Though born and raised in Wakanda, Nakia spent most of her time outside, defending the rights of impoverished blacks everywhere while serving occasionally as a counterespionage spy and assassin for her people.
When T’Challa passed on, she refused to return to Wakanda for the state funeral but stayed away in Haiti where she spends most of her time.
After being recalled by Queen Ramonda to rescue Shuri from her kidnappers, she returned to Wakanda after successfully completing her mission. There, she caught up with some of her close friends, including Okoye. When the latter asked why she didn’t return for T’Challa’s funeral, Nakia confessed that it was too hard.
To the people of Wakanda, T’Challa was their beloved King and Protector. But to her, he was “everything.”
Staying away from Wakanda and everyone the past one year to privately mourn was the only way Nakia could deal with the loss without falling completely apart.
Stage #5 Acceptance
One tradition that Queen Ramonda passed on to Shuri involved burning ceremonial funeral robes that were don for family burials. She taught Shuri that this was the way to bring to a close the period of mourning, accept the unbearable loss, and move on.
This was something Shuri struggled to do, even one year after her brother’s death.
But by the time it came to repeating the ritual after Queen Ramonda lost her life fending off an enemy, Shuri appeared more circumspect and composed.
Despite the impossible emotional weight of losing her two closest kins barely a year apart, Shuri had finally arrived at a stage of acceptance towards the end of the movie.
Sitting on her own by an open fire at a beach in Haiti, she calmly performed the ritual of burning the ceremonial robes she wore at her mother’s funeral. And as she did, flashbacks to scenes of her brother from the first BP film were played out.
And in that moment, she (and us the audience) wept.
Finally, Shuri was allowing herself to grieve T’Challa. And to say goodbye to him, and to her mother.
Stage #6 Meaning — the final stage of grief
In the movie’s final credits, Nakia appears before Shuri on that Haitian beach to introduce her son, T’Challa’s heir. Also named T’Challa, the young boy had been deliberately kept out of sight by Nakia and King T’Challa for several years in order to protect him from the pressures of the throne.
The look of surprise, revelation, and dawning realization on Shuri’s face was enough to signal that she was seeing not just an end to her grief, but the start of a renewed sense of hope and promise that all was not lost. That she’s no longer alone in the royal family.
Instead, she now has renewed meaning in her life! To mentor her nephew who must one day ascend to the throne of Wakanda and take on the legacy of the BP.
Yes, BPWF is truly a befitting tribute to Chadwick and a perfectly-executed reel-life study into the six stages of grief.
For me, this has to be one of the most memorable films I’ve seen and reviewed in 2022!
I can’t wait for it to take its rightful place in the suite of MCU offerings on Disney+ TV so I can relive these life-learning moments of the movie again and again.
[An edited, more spiritual version, of above post, was published on 6 December 2022 here]