Grappling with the legacies our fathers leave us
I liked Godfather Part III. I know, to some, I’m speaking blasphemies, but hear me out. When you remove it from the shadow of the first two movies and look at it as a stand-alone film, it really does hold up. While it shares the same characters as the previous Godfather films, it doesn’t tell the same story. That’s why the director, Francis Ford Coppolla, was so adamant about naming the film The Death of Michael Corleone instead. A battle he obviously lost.
I love the Godfather Part III because it deeply explored an issue I’ve always pondered about but now has taken on a new significance in my life. That is how one deals with the legacy of one’s father. In this case, the movie showed Michael, despite having transformed his father’s “company” into a thriving legitimate business, failing to earn the respect that his father so easily achieved. Michael, much like the movie itself, is haunted by the standard of what came before him and is second guessed when attempts to set out on his own path, away from that tradition.
Whether your father is present or absent, abusive or uplifting, we are all defined by this man’s presence (or lack thereof) in our lives. For me, my father’s greatest influence on me was his “Africaness.” I’ve covered before how his Kenyan heritage has given my name meaning and has fundamentally shaped how I view the world, and myself. I so I adopted the title “Halfrican,” someone who fully occupied that gap between being Black and African. One of the reasons I cherished this identity was because it was a unique identifier that I had never seen fully reflected in pop culture, despite the insane amount of TV shows and movies I’d consumed. That was until I saw Black Panther.
When I talked to most people about Black Panther, I felt like they immediately connected and saw themselves reflected in T’Challa or one of the three amazing women leads, Shuri, Oyoke and Nakia. However, it seemed to me they rarely connected to the villain, Erik Killmonger, in the same way. Don’t get me wrong, people liked the character a lot, but I hadn’t, and still haven’t, met anyone who fully embraced the character the way that I did. Upon leaving the movie theater, I didn’t just see myself as Killmonger, I felt like I was Killmonger. Erik, like me, was the son of an African father and a Black mother. Erik, like me, grew up as a Black child with his mother, but always knew about his other home on the other side of the Atlantic. Erik, like me, constantly heard about his homeland as a kid but wasn’t able to go until he got himself there as an adult. And like me, once Erik was able to go to his homeland, he realized that he wasn’t African, but a Black American with African roots.
When Killmonger used his last words to say, “Just bury me in the ocean with my ancestors that jumped from the ships because they knew death was better than bondage,” it hit something that was so core to me that I couldn’t believe that someone else had written it. That’s because I realized a while ago that as much as my father taught me about his Kenyan heritage, connected me to his family back home, or spoke the language to me, the fact was that I was on a different path. I may be the son of a Luo but I was raised in America, away from the Luo traditions. It’s was a part of me but it didn’t define me the same ways it did him. This is the what both Erik and I found out about ourselves on our first trips to Africa. Fortunately for me, I was able to survive mine.
But life is never static. People change, situations change, and, if you’re doing life the right way, you will change too. I’ve always seen myself as a Killmonger instead of a T’Challa and that was directly due to my connection with my father. That held true until my relationship with my father changed. Recently my father passed away and for the first time since I’ve seen Black Panther, I find myself more connected with T’Challa than Killmonger. But it’s still because of my relationship with my father.
T’Chaka and T’Challa are very different than Donald and Justin. For instance, T’Challa grew up observing and dissecting his father’s personality and traditions firsthand. My parents separated when I was young, so I experienced my father in isolated snapshots during school breaks and important life/family events. Despite that, there are still remarkable similarities between T’Challa and Justin that I find amusing. In a practical sense, we’ve both had similar support structures. Throughout our journeys, we’ve been supported (and ever reprimanded) by our regal mother (Romonda/Sandra), our humanitarian girlfriend (Nakia/Karina) and our STEM savvy, infinitely more entertaining younger sister (Shuri/Jasmine). But what has especially drawn me to the character of T’challa at this time in my life is where he began the movie.
Black Panther begins in the weeks, or possibly even days, after the death of T’Chaka in Captain America: Civil War. What’s important to know here is that T’Challa basically has no time to mourn or reflect on his father’s life before he has to don (no pun intended) his superhero suit. The very same day he sees his father pass away in front of his eyes, he also tracks down the killer, while fending off the other superheroes. The first time we see him in Black Panther, he is in Nigeria extracting his girlfriend (yes I know she’s technically a “former lover” according to the screenplay) from Boko Haram so he can take her back to Wakanda for the kingship ceremonies, where he has to fight for his crown. While I didn’t have to go through international crime fighting adventures and threats to my life in the aftermath of my father’s death, I empathize greatly with the responsibilities that are immediately thrust upon you the second a parent passes away.
When my father died, my mother, sister and I had about 30 minutes to truly mourn before each had to occupy the business mindset of determining where the body would go, notifying family of his death, and determining what we would do with his estate. By the time we finally laid him to rest four days later, I was so physically and mentally spent that I could barely summon any emotion at the ceremony, even though I knew that would be the last time I would see him. When I rewatch Black Panther today, I see a son trying to cope with the legacy his father has left him, (whether physically) with Killmonger claiming his throne, (or mentally), with him realizing for the first time, that his father wasn’t the perfect man he thought he was.
This is where I am at this point. Trying to figure out who my father was and how that affects me going forward. If Godfather III is any indication, I guess that’s a question I’ll be asking for the rest of my life.
Now that the final chapter has been written about my father, I wonder how his legacy will shape how I remember him. After Michael Corleone’s father passed away, he earned a brand-new respect, and maybe even developed some jealousy, for his father. For T’Challa, he found out that his father was not the perfect man he envisioned. What will it be for me? I don’t know, only time will tell.
What I do know is that understanding who my father was, his merits and his faults, will always serve as guideposts for me as I try to become a better man and eventually husband and father. A man whose legacy my children will hopefully one day learn from. In the end, no matter what relationship we have with our fathers, they will always have lessons to teach us. Even after they’ve passed away. As Michael famously says, “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.”