Understanding T’Challa’s Decision to Open Wakanda to the World
Elektra D. Mercutio
Okoye: When you said we were going to open Wakanda to the rest of the world this is not what I imagined.
T’Challa: And what did you imagine?
Okoye: The Olympics, maybe even a Starbucks.
As the opening narration of Black Panther establishes, Wakanda had always been an isolationist nation, refusing to get involved in the world’s business for one simple reason: vibranium, the mysterious, precious substance that structures every aspect of Wakandan society. Thus, by opening to the world, things will change dramatically. So why does T’Challa decide to open Wakanda to the world at the end of Black Panther?
T’Challa reasons that “We must look after one another as if we were one single tribe.” Morally, T’Challa made the right choice. But the morality of T’Challa’s decision isn’t as interesting as his reasons for making the decision. Think about it. T’Challa was raised in Wakanda with Wakandan traditions. He was groomed to be the king and the Black Panther. And, when the issue comes up, no one in Wakanda (except Nakia) wants him to share vibranium and Wakanda with anyone. So, why does he? What compels him to help Bucky Barnes in Captain America: Civil War or the Avengers in Avengers: Infinity War? What makes him decide to save Agent Ross in Black Panther? Why does he want to heal Killmonger (the man who tried to kill him, seized the throne, and nearly committed a global white genocide) at the end of Black Panther? Why does he fundamentally change Wakanda and put Wakanda’s existence at risk?
In the MCU we first meet T’Challa in Civil War as a prince who immediately becomes a king. We see T’Challa hold his father’s lifeless body and then, while sitting on a bench next to Natasha Romanoff, T’Challa deep in thought, fiddles with his father’s ring. But it’s in Black Panther, during T’Challa’s first trip to the ancestral plane that T’Challa’s pain becomes clear in in the dialogue:
T’Chaka: What is wrong my son?
T’Challa: I am not ready, father.
T’Chaka: Have you not prepared to be king your whole life? Have you not trained and studied, been by my side?
T’Challa: That is not what I am talking about. I am not ready to be without you.
T’Chaka: A man who has not prepared his children for his own death has failed as a father. Have I ever failed you?
T’Challa: Never. Tell me how to best protect Wakanda. I want to be a great king, Baba. Just like you.
T’Chaka: You’re going to struggle, so you need to surround yourself with people you trust. You’re a good man with a good heart. And it’s hard for a good man to be king.
It’s telling that T’Challa’s instinct is to hug his father and then immediately kneel before him, saying “I’m sorry,” to which his father replies, “Stand up, you are a king.” T’Challa is clearly struggling. During the challenge with M’Baku, T’Challa nearly failed, getting wounded by M’Baku, who taunted T’Challa, calling him a “boy” and questioning his fitness to lead. As M’Baku states to everyone present at the ritual:
We have watched and listened from the mountains. We have watched with disgust as your technological advancements have been overseen by a child who scoffs at tradition. And now you want to hand the nation over to this prince who could not keep his own father safe. We will not have it.
It’s a low blow meant to rattle T’Challa, and it works because T’Challa is still reeling from his father’s loss. More importantly, it helps illustrate T’Challa’s crisis, which is not only focused on his father’s loss, but on Wakanda, a nation that T’Challa is unsure how to lead.
In existential-humanist psychology, the concept of presence allows us to understand the full range of our experiences so that we can work to heal more holistically. Presence, as Michael Price explains, is an “entering into a heightened awareness of yourself, opening yourself up to learning what truly matters to you and experiencing in the here-and-now the barriers to and opportunities for change.” This seems to be what T’Challa has been doing ever since his father was killed in Civil War. It’s significant that he is able to exist introspectively, contemplating his life, while remaining engaged in the present, contemplating the realities he faces in his multiple roles. More plainly, he wants to be a great king and he wants to keep Wakanda safe, but he’s not sure how to achieve either of those goals. To his credit, he doesn’t sulk (because self-reflection isn’t sulking), he acts – choosing to pursue Klaue, choosing to help Agent Ross, choosing to accept M’Baku’s and Killmonger’s challenges, and choosing to open Wakanda. With each decision he moves himself away from his father and closer to the king he needs to be. As Nakia tells him, “You can’t let your father’s mistakes define who you are. You get to decide what kind of king you are going to be.”
T’Challa’s existential choice, with the assistance of Nakia’s encouragement, might be extended in its message for victims not to fixate on past events. But the conversation on how the oppressors and oppressed ought to come together, or whether they should at all, is only beginning. Black Panther, as a movie created by, for, and about black people, demanded that this dialogue commence and resonated with universal appeal.
Black Panther’s core message is that all of us are in this together; that is, that everyone is part of a single community called humanity, what T’Challa calls “one single tribe.” If this is so, then perhaps T’Challa’s decision to open up Wakanda to the world helps Wakanda as much as it helps the world. After all, maybe it isn’t just that Wakanda has something to offer the world, but that the world has something to offer to Wakanda.
Elektra D. Mercutio Ph.D., MBA is a neurodivergent psychological researcher specializing in existential, humanistic, and transpersonal approaches to psychology. Her primary scholarly interests center on applying transpersonal perspectives in addressing existential concerns and the juxtaposition of existential thought with popular culture.
Michael. Price, “Searching for Meaning,” American Psychological Association, November 2011, at https://www.apa.org/monitor/2011/11/meaning