The Many Dimensions of Black Panther

The Many Dimensions of Black Panther

The Marvel blockbuster refuses to flatten its characters into simple heroes or villains—and that’s exactly what makes it so refreshing.

Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) and T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) face off in Black Panther (Marvel Studios)

Note: This article contains major spoilers.

The novelist Ralph Ellison was once asked: “Did you think you might write stories in which Negroes did not appear?” There was, Ellison explained, never a time when he thought of writing only about black people or whites, but he nevertheless felt compelled to reflect on the “American Negro experience” specifically. For him, African-American life is filled with resources that speak to and beyond it.

Failure to notice the tie between the beautiful and the terrible of black life comes at a cost. Too many of us, he explained, overemphasize “the sociological approach” and accept “a statistical interpretation of our lives.” We become mired in the brutality exacted on black life, haunted by those statistical abstractions of the jailed, dead, homeless, unemployed, and parentless. Those wounds easily become attachments that constrain how we imagine not only ourselves, but our creative productions. We demand that our art speak to the statistical fact of our lived brutality and release us from it. Complexity, texture, and ambiguity escape us. The landscape is flattened; heroes are clearly distinguishable from villains, and the ethics and politics that emerge before us either support our efforts or frustrate our aspirations.

Enter Black Panther, the box-office-topping latest production from Marvel Studios. The film has elicited a wide range of critical reflections, faulting it for everything from devaluing black American men to failing to offer a politics of liberation, and instead aligning revolution with madness and death. It is, in Christopher Lebron’s formulation, not the movie we deserve. For Steven Thrasher, it “reinscribe[s] patriarchy and respectability in disappointing ways” and grants “a kind of absolution of American imperialism.” Despite its amazing success, many commentaries are forcing it to bear a burden that is not its own.

Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther is based on the 1960s comic-book character from Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. The movie is set in the imagined African country Wakanda—a land that not only has been untouched by the darkness and deformations of colonialism, but is home to limitless supplies of vibranium (the strongest metal on the planet, bearing a variety of supernatural properties). Although masquerading as a developing country, Wakanda is obviously the most technologically advanced civilization on the globe. As Lupita Nyong’o (who plays Nakia, both humanitarian spy and the love interest of T’Challa) remarked in an interview on ABC’s The View, Wakanda is “a reimagining of what would have been possible if Africa had been allowed to realize itself for itself.”

The film centers on T’Challa, played by Chadwick Boseman, who returns to Wakanda to assume the throne and spiritual status of Black Panther after the assassination of his father, T’Chaka. Consistent with his country’s traditions, T’Challa is an isolationist who intervenes in the world only to protect Wakandans and their precious vibranium. T’Challa rejects both Nakia’s humanitarian interventionist wishes and his chief of security’s proposal for expanded military involvement beyond Wakanda’s borders. Wakandans assume an unspoken superiority over all, and T’Challa is not prepared to risk it by exposing his country’s secret to the world.

The movie is a fantastic cinematic display. It is full of action and technology that makes “cutting-edge” sound dull. But a tension sits at the movie’s core. The narrative at first appears to be driven by a quest to catch Ulysses Klaue, a rogue weapons trader in search of Wakandan vibranium. But we soon discover that the true plot involves a longstanding scheme to challenge the throne in Wakanda. Erik Stevens (nicknamed simply Killmonger), played by Michael B. Jordan, appears in the beginning of the movie as an accomplice to Klaue. This is a ruse. Killmonger’s actual strategy is to kill Klaue and use his sought-after dead body as a passport into the kingdom.

After he enters Wakanda, stirring strife among those who see T’Challa as weak for not killing Klaue himself, we learn that Killmonger’s ambition is driven by vengeance. In a critical scene, as Killmonger prepares to do battle with T’Challa, he removes his shirt, revealing his self-inflicted scarred body, with each scar denoting a life taken: “I lived my entire life waiting for this moment. I trained a lot. I killed in America, Afghanistan, Iraq. . . . I took life from my own brothers and sisters right here on this continent . . . all this death just so I could kill you!” This makes all the more sense as we learn that Killmonger is the abandoned cousin of T’Challa, left to suffer in poverty in Oakland after T’Chaka kills his father (N’Jobu), T’Challa’s uncle. N’Jobu had sought to harness Wakandan technology to arm the poor and oppressed for an international uprising, and Killmonger is hell-bent on finishing what his father started.

He succeeds in taking the throne from T’Challa and sets about arming spies around the globe with vibranium-based weapons to right the wrongs of colonial dispossession. By this point, most viewers find themselves at a proverbial fork in the road. How shall we identify? Do we stand with the militant Killmonger, whose view of global plunder and black misery is one we can sympathize with? Do we side with the refined and isolationist T’Challa, loyal to the promise of an independent and untouched black nation? The movie decides for us. T’Challa pushes a spear into him, and although this need not be a mortal wound, given Wakanda’s technology, Killmonger chooses death over imprisonment: “Just bury me in the ocean with my ancestors that jumped from the ships. Because they knew death was better than bondage.”

How should we understand the arc of the film? How should we read this final pivotal moment? Are these distinctions as clean as they appear? Is Killmonger the villain we are made to hate, and T’Challa the hero we cannot help but love?

For Lebron, the movie sides with T’Challa, reducing the Americanized Wakandan to a “receptacle for tropes of inner-city gangterism.” At a time when black life is under assault, he argues, the movie traffics in infantilizing tropes about black men as angry, irrevocably wounded, and in need of rescuing at the hands of superior Africans. For others, the movie appears to sloppily tie liberation for oppressed people to the efforts of the murdering Killmonger. This second critique should not be quickly dismissed. In the comic books, Killmonger lives in Harlem, but Coogler sets both his birth and his family’s painful story in Oakland, California—the home of the 1960s Black Panther Party. In doing so, Coogler connects the fantasy of Black Panther with the historic Black Power group—a connection that had not otherwise existed. (Marvel’s Black Panther first appeared in print just months before Huey Newton and Bobby Seale founded the BPP, in October 1966.) This seems to conflate the socialist, liberationist vision of the Black Panther Party with the figure of Killmonger.

All such accounts make the film answerable to the sociological view of black life to which Ellison referred, wherein black identity is so often characterized fundamentally by loss, dispossession, and injustice. This weighs the film down and it flattens its internal complexity. We don’t look at the production for itself—we demand that it serve our ideological needs, so much so that it is Oakland as the site of the birth of the Black Panther Party, rather than Oakland as the home of the director, that becomes central to the analysis. When we only interpret the movie on these terms, the measure of its success is that it becomes a political weapon for the oppressed. When it refuses to fit neatly into the liberationist story we impose on it, it can only appear as an accomplice to oppression.

The art, however, must bear its own burden, not ours. When we examine the movie from the inside, what emerges is a very different and rich narrative. Coogler ask us to see Killmonger not as a stereotype of African-American life, but as a commentary on the wider society from which he comes. The movie demands that we resist the temptation to examine Killmonger through the often distorting and unfriendly American gaze. For those eyes, as we learned so long ago from W. E. B. Du Bois, often look on black people in amused contempt and pity.

Killmonger emerges not as the expression of crude tropes, as Lebron and others suggest, but as a tragic figure with heroic qualities who forces us to see the oppression of others as our own. Killmonger’s vision of the world is animated by loss and abandonment. He seeks revenge, no doubt motivated by the terrible feelings of being left behind by the very people to which he owed his birthright. His resentment comes to be a stand-in for the resentment of an oppressed people without a home. In one of the film’s more jarring moments, Killmonger sneers at T’Challa’s isolationism. When T’Challa tells him that “It is not our way to be judge, jury, and executioner for people who aren’t our own,” Killmonger retorts: “Not your own? Didn’t life start here on this continent? So ain’t all people your people?” Abandoning their own, we are left to think, is what the Wakandans do.

Coogler does not stop there. Killmonger’s feelings of prolonged loss and abandonment are intensified by years of war-induced trauma that personify the dark undercurrent of Western power. This is where his character shifts from the noble to the ignoble, from the heroic to the tragic. Killmonger seeks a version of the very tyrannical rule that he sees as so central to black oppression across the globe. Dreams of liberation for Killmonger, oddly imagined through the prism of empire, set in motion the condition for his ultimate downfall. The desire to liberate is marred by the will to tyrannize, a vocabulary that he seemingly learns from those with whom he has lived. In a moment of irony, Killmonger reclaims Christopher North’s famous 1829 remark about the British Empire—“His Majesty’s dominions, on which the sun never sets”—as a vision for the African diaspora: “the sun will never set on the Wakandan empire.”

Herein lies the lesson Coogler ask us to consider. T’Chaka is partly responsible for Killmonger’s distorted sense of justice in the face of loss and abandonment, but the audience is made to understand and feel that it is the United States and the West that deformed him. It is no wonder, then, that when the Wakandans ask who this man is, sitting at the border of their lands with the dead body of Klaue, they are told (by a CIA agent, no less): he isn’t from Wakanda, he is one of ours.

Here the movie excels, and, with this framing in mind, the final scene takes on powerful meaning. Black Panther is a piece of literature rendered in cinematic form. Coogler does not treat the movie as a pure imagining of the revolution we long to have, but as an allegorical representation of what happens to a vision of freedom when forged through resentment, loss, abandonment, and deformation. This is what we are forced to reckon with.

The common ending to movies of this kind is that when the villain dies, their vision dies as well. Coogler takes a different direction. Sitting on the edge of a mountainside in Wakanda, Killmonger decides he would rather accept the righteousness of death than the devaluation of imprisonment. He pulls the spear lodged in his chest. The scene is both beautiful and tragic—something has gone terribly right and wrong at the same time. T’Challa rolls Killmonger on his back and crosses his arms across his chest, as the Wakandans often do in their greetings. Killmonger is welcomed home in death, but he leaves something behind. Villain and hero, good and evil, are insufficient terms to capture what is in front of us. If you find yourself rooting for “team” Killmonger, if your heart aches just a bit at the sight of his death, it may well be because the tragic and the heroic found each other in him. But at this very moment, we are forced to wonder about both Wakanda’s future and our own. Is there no price to be paid for freedom? This is both Killmonger’s question and his gift to us.

Melvin L. Rogers is associate professor of political science at Brown University.

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