The Black Panther, is known for providing viewers an iconic demonstration of the strength found in black communities. The recent death of Chadwick Boseman has revealed another significant metaphorical layer within the film, the strength of a cancer patient wrestling with identity and death. Boseman was diagnosed with stage three colon cancer in 2016 and began filming The Black Panther in 2017. With this timeline in mind, his performance in this role cannot be separated from the emotional side effects of his cancer diagnosis and its treatments. The Black Panther, addresses questions with which cancer patients wrestle: identity, the experience of death and the afterlife, and the idea of ‘battling’ well. Each of these questions dominate the emotional strength of a new cancer survivor as they do T’Challa.
As T’Challa takes on the new identity of the Black Panther, the ritual requires that he receive a chemical reserved for Black Panthers. This first experience of T’Challa becoming the Black Panther comes as a group of trusted advisors ask him to receive a chemical that will change him. As he receives this substance, the viewers can observe chemicals flow through his veins and a difficult physical response. This scene closely resembles the process of chemotherapy treatments. During chemotherapy doctors, nurses and loved ones surround you. You are placed in a comfortable setting and asked to relax as you receive a substance that will alter your body in unknown ways. As T’Challa receives this formula, he experiences the afterlife in the form of a conversation with his father where he is reassured of his capabilities. Like T’Challa, cancer patients need to be reminded that though they did not expect this moment to come, they are equipped and capable. Cancer patients must also struggle with their idea of death as they consider the possibility of not being strong enough to receive the necessary treatments. Though T’Challa has been prepared to meet his ancestors in the afterlife, most cancer patients are filled with questions of death that become a deep emotional burden.
After receiving the strength of the Black Panther, T’Challa advisors feel the challenge of the title as king is a settled matter. Similarly, when cancer treatments end, cancer’s claim on a patient’s life should be over. In a twist of events, T’Challa later learns of another claim on the throne. This sudden loss of security and confidence mirrors the experience of cancer survivors, like Boseman, who soon after treatment learn the disease has spread. The first confrontation with cancer behind them, they then must find the strength to face a second and more difficult struggle. In T’Challa’s battle for the throne against his estranged cousin, T’Challa loses the fight. He plunges to his death, overcome by the battle. Though we later learn that T’Challa does not die in this battle, his strength has been stripped and his identity lost. He loses his kingdom and even his closest friends shift their loyalty from him. This poignant metaphor parallels the cancer experience. During the “battle” against cancer, your strength and identity slip away until only one’s closest family are at your side. Cancer requires that you become something different than what you once were. While you remain weakened by your first (and second) round of treatment, friends find a new path, positions are filled and identities are lost. Like T’Challa, even if you are later able to reclaim your place, the presence of broken expectations and relationships will remain.
The movie ends with T’Challa choosing to see beyond himself and even his country’s needs. His strength and humility turn outward to focus on building a legacy. When an individual impacted by cancer, especially late stage cancer, has the opportunity, this is often how they reshape their identity. The time for caring for self comes to an end and a season of establishing legacy emerges. An urgency of using the time available to you becomes singularly focused on ensuring the world is made better for someone else.
As the Avenger movies unfold T’Challa as the Black Panther is given the time to be a part of bringing solutions to the world’s problems. Through the technology of Wakanda and the strength of the Black Panther, he works alongside the universe’s best. Then the day comes when death cannot be denied. At the end of a long battle, with the snap of a finger, he slips away, quickly and peacefully, surrounded by friends and family.
Though the story of the Black Panther is an extremely entertaining experience, we must not overlook the emotional journey Boseman, a young black male with a terminal cancer diagnosis, was expressing as an artist when he made these significant films. Wrestling with death and identity are paramount to the cancer experience. Boseman left a powerful legacy as he embodied these questions in the character of T’Challa.