One of the most important thematic elements in Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther is the bond between a father and son. Fatherhood happens to be the very theme that connects Black Panther with Coogler’s other films Creed and Fruitvale Station.
Captain America: Civil War gave us the first introduction to the character of Black Panther. Representing Wakanda, King T’Chaka (John Kani) and his son Prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) attend a United Nations summit that will address a plan to control the Avengers. At the summit, an explosion kills T’Chaka, forcing T’Challa to assume his father’s place as the King of Wakanda. Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther picks up shortly after T’Chaka’s death as T’Challa returns home to Wakanda.
By beginning T’Challa’s story at the precise moment where he loses his father, Black Panther makes a strong statement regarding how his story is intertwined with his father’s legacy. T’Chaka’s abrupt death pushes T’Challa into the position of king earlier than anticipated. As a result, T’Challa carries heavy doubts and high expectations, feelings that are wrapped up in the idolatry he holds for his father.
After T’Challa defeats M’Baku and earns his place as the King of Wakanda, he takes a heart-shaped herb that gives him the power of the Black Panther and he meets with his father on the astral plane. This scene plays an integral role in developing the relationship between T’Chaka and T’Challa.
When T’Challa expresses apprehension for assuming the role as King of Wakanda, his father counters by telling him that he has never failed to give his children the tools they need to succeed. The scene serves to comfort T’Challa, giving him the confidence he needs to lead Wakanda. His relationship with his father becomes the foundation for his strength as a leader.
However, only days after assuming his position as King of Wakanda, T’Challa learns that T’Chaka killed his own brother and abandoned his nephew living in the United States. The reveal of this family secret negatively impacts the veneration T’Challa feels for his father, disrupting the very basis of his strength as a leader. This secret forces T’Challa to reevaluate his father, himself, and by extension, Wakanda’s place in the world.
Coogler digs into this conflict, allowing it to organically foster as a primary motivator for much of the film’s plot. The abandoned nephew, Erik or “Killmonger”, returns to Wakanda to challenge the throne. After defeating T’Challa, Erik seeks to use Wakanda’s resources to arm disenfranchised black people around the world.
However, Erik is dealing with his own problems with his father. That Erik’s father died at such a young age stunted any opportunity Erik may have had to connect with his history and his family in Wakanda.
Whereas a shared understanding of and history in Wakanda define T’Challa’s relationship with his father, Erik’s relationship is defined by an absence – an absence of a relationship with both Wakanda and his father’s real identity.
Black Panther understands how familial relationships, particularly those between a father and son, can have complicated repercussions over time. The conflict between Erik and T’Challa is, at least in large part, a byproduct of the decisions made by their fathers.
Both men carry their fathers’ decisions with them, taking them on as their own burden. While this behavior is certainly not exclusive to the relationship between fathers and sons, it’s a theme that Coogler continues to revisit throughout his work.
Based on a true story, Coogler’s first film Fruitvale Station recounts the events leading up to Oscar Grant’s tragic death at the hands of an out of control police officer. In less than 90 minutes, Coogler gives us a look into Grant’s life, including his relationship with his girlfriend Sophina and mother Wanda, his struggle to provide for himself and his family, and his love for his young daughter.
Although Grant’s relationship with his daughter is only a part of the film, it is a particularly important one. In the minutes we see the two together, we see Grant speak of caring for her, of their future, of how much he loves her. This relationship works to emphasize the tragedy of his death; his murder did not occur in a vacuum and his relationship with his daughter underscores the devastating consequences of his death.
In Fruitvale Station, fatherhood is depicted as a rewarding role to inhabit that is devastating when lost. This tracks with how Coogler’s depiction in Black Panther and it can also be seen in his 2015 film Creed.
Creed functions as a spiritual sequel to the Rocky franchise, but this time focuses on Adonis Johnson, the son of heavyweight champion Apollo Creed. Years after his father’s death, Adonis embarks on a journey to become a professional boxer with the help of Rocky Balboa.
Adonis, or Donnie as he prefers to be called, struggles with his identity, feeling a sort of dissonance between who he is, who he wants be, and who others think he should be. Knowing he is Apollo Creed’s “illegitimate” son, Donnie struggles to find a place where he feels he fits. This problem is compounded by the fact that Creed is dead, so Donnie must come to terms with his relationship with his father on his own.
These problems are not unlike those experienced by Erik, or T’Challa for that matter, in Black Panther. Coogler’s familiarity with these themes gives him a strong upper hand when using them in Black Panther, allowing him to graft a strong emotional landscape onto the film.
The fathers in Ryan Coogler’s films cast long shadows, particularly in both Creed and Black Panther. In both of these films, our protagonists struggle under the weight of their fathers’ legacies. The secrets of their past and the mistakes they kept hidden live on after their death, haunting their sons and defining their identities. It’s a rewarding characteristic of Coogler’s work and one that feels fresh every time we see it.