Warning: this post contains spoilers for Black Panther.
This is the first post in an ongoing series on the portrayal of child soldiers in works of fiction.
Whether explicitly acknowledge or not, child soldiers commonly appear in works of fiction, some speculative like Black Panther or the Hunger Games, some historical like books on the Second World War. Child soldiers are often portrayed across a spectrum of sometimes conflicting roles, whether as heroes, victims, villains, or children caught up in the events of their world.
Black Panther portrays child soldiers both as victims of adults waging a war, worthy of being saved from their circumstances, and as heroes necessary to the defeat of the movie’s villain.
Early in the movie, T’Challa, the king of the fictional African nation of Wakanda, and known as the Black Panther, attacks a convoy of militants driving through the forest and easily dispatches them. Just as T’Challa is about to kill the last militant, the Wakandan spy Nakia, who had been posing as one of a group of kidnapped girls in one of the trucks, stays his hand, as the final militant was a child soldier kidnapped at the same time as the girls.
The location is specifically identified on screen as Sambisa Forest, an area in northeastern Nigeria that until recently was the stronghold of the very real armed group Boko Haram, infamous for their use of child soldiers and child suicide bombers. The dress of the militants and of the girls they are holding captive, and their use of child soldiers, along with the location, indicates that they are in fact supposed to be Boko Haram.
This scene realistically depicts child soldiers as we often think about them in the real world: children forced or coerced into fighting or carrying out other tasks for an armed group, who deserve a second chance even after they have been given a gun and put into battle. With some useful, if last-minute, intelligence from Nakia, T’Challa is able to avoid killing one of the child soldiers, who can now return home with the kidnapped girls.
It should be noted though that leaving the children to fend for themselves in the forest, rather than first taking them to the appropriate child protection authorities before returning to Wakanda, was probably not in their best interest.
Later in the film, we see a different portrayal of a child soldier, one who is a hero and only fights because of the circumstances she is pressed into. T’Challa’s sister Shuri is a genius who leads Wakanda’s technological development, and is 16 in the movie. During the final battle with Killmonger, the movie’s charismatic villain, she joins the fight with some of her technology, firing on Killmonger before he almost kills her.
These differing portrayals of child soldiers in the film illustrate the complexities of the use of child soldiers in the real world, across different motivations, ages, and roles. Children can be forced or coerced into fighting, but also choose to do so, whether for survival, protection, or supporting a cause. They take on a variety of roles, some involving fighting, some in support. Some are quite young, others are older teenagers, and many view themselves as adults, as Shuri likely does due to her significant responsibilities.
These tropes of child soldiers as either heroes, villains, or victims are quite common in Western literature and cinema. In some works, one or more is used simplistically or uncritically, while in others they are woven together with more nuance. While Black Panther does not dwell on these issues as much as movies they are central to, such as the Hunger Games series, it draws in very real-world scenarios and complexities with Boko Haram, and portraying a very politically engaged and important child who comes to fight through necessity.
Photo from European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.