Critical Corner – Was T’Challa’s Reclamation of the Wakandan Throne Legal?

Patrick Waldrop
In the immensely successful 2018 documentary film, Black Panther, the world received a surprisingly candid and close look at the country of Wakanda. The film follows the newly-crowned king, T’Challa, as he rises to power and struggles to solidify his hold on the throne. Soon after T’Challa’s coronation, a U.S. citizen named Erik Stevens arrives in Wakanda, reveals that he is actually the son of N’Jobu, brother of the late King T’Chaka, and challenges T’Challa to ritual combat for the throne. After Mr. Stevens appeared to win the challenge and was crowned king, T’Challa eventually returns to continue the challenge and seemingly secures the crown upon Mr. Stevens’s death. Because we possess such little knowledge of the laws of Wakanda,it is unclear how much of the final challenge is legal process and how much of it is simply a military coup. Scenes from the movie provide clues as to the overall process of succession, how one could accede the throne, and how such ascension may be threatened.

Details about the process of Wakandan succession can be found in the footage of T’Challa’s initial coronation. The first noteworthy detail is that the coronation ceremony is administered on a waterfall cliff. As the later ceremony involving Mr. Stevens takes place at the same location, it might be the case that coronation ceremonies and combat challenges must take place here. The ceremony is led by a man named Zuri. It is unclear what his official position in Wakanda was, but he also administers the ceremony involving Mr. Stevens and appears to be responsible for overseeing the care of the heart-shaped herb. It may be required by law that the person holding whatever this position is administer the coronation ceremony and any ritual combat challenges. Like much about Wakanda, we do not have enough information at this time to know for sure.

Once the ceremony begins, Zuri administers a drink to T’Challa that removes the strength granted by the heart-shaped herb. This is apparently done so that T’Challa does not have the physical advantages provided by the herb during any subsequent ritual combat challenges. Next, Zuri invites any of the tribes of Wakanda to put forth a champion to challenge the soon-to-be-king to one-on-one combat for the throne and explains that victory is achieved either by the opponent’s death or surrender. At this point, representatives of four of the five tribes are present (the River Tribe, the Mining Tribe, the Merchant Tribe, and the Border Tribe), and each in turn declares that they will not submit a champion to challenge for the throne. After this, Zuri invites those with royal blood to offer the same challenge. The crowd is aghast when T’Challa’s sister, Shuri, raises her hand, but she makes a joke about the ceremony instead of actually challenging T’Challa. Although the challenge isn’t carried through, we can probably assume from how seriously everyone takes Shuri that she was in fact eligible to challenge T’Challa.

After this, it appears that the challenging phase is over until the fifth tribe, the Jabari, arrives and announces that their leader, M’Baku, will challenge T’Challa. T’Challa announces that he accepts the challenge, which begs the question as to whether T’Challa is allowed to not accept a challenge. Another question that one might ask themselves here is whether or not a tribe who was not present when challengers were solicited from the tribes of Wakanda waives the right to challenge. Perhaps the Jabari tribe does not have the right any longer, but T’Challa accepts nonetheless so as to not lose face in front of his future subjects. As the challenge begins, both men don masks and take weapons. Six representatives from the Jabari tribe along with six members of the Dora Milaje then surround the two men in a circle with spears pointing toward them. This might be to prevent competitors from leaving the combat area and to prevent others from interfering, but probably more the former since the spears are pointed inward towards the competitors instead of outward towards those who might interfere. As they fight, the twelve slowly move inward, closing the circle, taking steps in unison. It is not readily apparent when these steps are taken, but one possibility is that they move in each time a competitor is knocked to the ground as the steps do seem to correspond to this.

All of this information is useful to compare with how events unfold when Mr. Stevens arrives. Mr. Stevens uses a ring from his grandfather in addition to a “war dog” tattoo to prove he is the son of the late King T’Chaka’s brother and King T’Challa’s cousin and then announces that he is exercising his “blood right.” This corresponds with the invitation to challenge that Zuri gave to those with royal blood at the ceremony. A significant question here is the same as when M’Baku challenged: does one waive their right to challenge by not being present at the initial coronation? Just like with M’Baku’s challenge, we do not get to find out definitively whether Mr. Stevens truly has this right because T’Challa accepts. In this instance, T’Challa’s mother pleads with him to not accept the challenge. Although this might just be motherly concern, it lends some credence to the idea that T’Challa is not obligated to accept. Once he says the words “I accept” however, she immediately stops pleading with him. Presumably, the king binds himself to a challenge upon announcing his acceptance.

The combat between T’Challa and Mr. Stevens is largely the same as the combat with M’Baku. The ceremony is led by Zuri on the same cliff, and it begins with T’Challa having the heart-shaped herb removed from his system. Differences include the smaller number of witnesses, the lack of masks, and the lack of warriors encircling the two competitors. These differences don’t appear to have any bearing on the legality of the challenge procedure however. The combat ends when T’Challa is presumed dead after being thrown over the cliff.

We of course know that T’Challa was not actually dead at this point. This is the primary factor that seemingly legitimizes T’Challa’s attack on Mr. Stevens later. Upon his return, T’Challa declares, “I never yielded, and as you can see, I am not dead.” Though Mr. Stevens retorts that “that challenge shit is over,” T’Challa raises a reasonable point. From the little we know about the Wakandan challenge procedure, it does appear that a challenger is technically only victorious upon death or surrender of their opponent. T’Challa was certainly unable to continue the challenge after being thrown over the cliff though, so perhaps this would be considered a de facto yield, much like knocking out one’s opponent in a boxing match? It seems reasonable to assume that Wakanda has to have a rule handling what happens when a competitor is rendered unconscious during a challenge. If being unable to continue the fight does mean one loses a challenge, then, right or wrong, T’Challa apparently led a rebellion against the rightful king of Wakanda. One significant factor that points in favor of T’Challa’s argument though is that Okoye tells W’Kabi to stand down when he is ordered by Mr. Stevens to attack T’Challa because the challenge is not complete. While Okoye clearly favors T’Challa over Mr. Stevens for the throne, she does not appear to have at any point seriously entertained the idea of not serving Mr. Stevens completely if he is the rightful king, lending credibility to her immediate analysis of the situation. However, even if the challenge had been technically completed by T’Challa’s inability to continue, perhaps this final challenge is still legal if any person of royal blood may challenge for the throne at any time.

The other details surrounding the final showdown vary quite a bit from the previous ritual combat exercises. Neither Mr. Stevens nor T’Challa have the heart-shaped herb removed from their systems, and the fight takes place largely unmonitored inside the vibranium mine. Though it is significant that both competitors were attacked by numerous people interfering with the challenge, it appears that neither of them sustained serious injuries before their fight. Though the fight may be fair from a physical standpoint, Shuri assists T’Challa from a distance with the vibranium trains. Accordingly, if the only important details of the challenge are that the fight is fair so-to-speak, or if the laws require any of the procedures we witnessed in the first two challenge scenarios be followed, then King T’Challa may have merely pulled off a successful coup rather than won a legitimate challenge.

As Wakanda continues to open itself more to foreign countries, the legality of King T’Challa’s rule will become more clear. Regardless, a crisis for the rest of the world was certainly averted by the swift removal of Mr. Stevens from the throne. Though Wakanda appears to have a lot to teach the rest of the world, hopefully in the future the country will move towards a democratic government that utilizes separation of powers principles that minimize threats posed by extremists like Mr. Stevens seizing power.