(Spoilers ahead. Beware)
So, Friday February 16th, 2018 will go down as the day my Togolese soul was blessed by the dopeness that is Marvel’s Black Panther.
I can write many, many pages about all the things I loved about this movie. The gorgeous world-building; the the pristine afro-futurist aesthetic; the uplifting of women of color; choreography (Like, Okoye threw her freakin’ wig in a fight. BRUH!); Shuri being one of the best characters in all existence. The list goes on. All the praise to Ryan Coogler for turning a Marvel movie into a worldwide phenomenon for the Black diaspora.
Still, there was one aspect of the movie that, after several days of reflection, really disappointed me.
One of Black Panther’s central themes was how people, on an individual and societal level, grapple with the deeps wounds caused by colonialism and slavery. And yet, the movie falls into a problematic pattern of suppressing revolutionary thought and praxis in favor of a more socially palatable answer to addressing black suffering. In both Erik Killmonger and Nakia, we find potential schools of revolutionary thought that are sabotaged by the narrative.
So, I’d like to say Killmonger was right but…nah. You can’t be out here killing girlfriends and choking aunties and still be right. There’s really no defense that can made for that, especially when you’re targeting the people who you claim to be fighting for. So yea, Killmonger was wrong.
That he has constructed in this way in the first place is where the problem begins.
The one character in this movie actively calling for retribution for all the centuries of brutalization black people have experienced is the one whose core traits make him unstable and unsuitable for carrying out that vision effectively. He is too angry, too sexist, too proud.
And so, Killmonger’s ideological battle with T’challa is doomed from the start. Not because Killmonger was necessarily wrong about sabotaging governments build on slavery/black oppression and arming black folks as a means to fight back, but rather because he was targeting his own people in the process. This makes me wonder how different a movie Black Panther would have been if Killmonger was pushing for the same revolution while having a better temperament; if he didn’t attack and threaten his own people. Would we still have seen him as a villain? Would people still have rooted for T’challa?
I’ve seen people argue that Killmonger’s upbringing and suffering made him the monster that he is now. The problem is that he didn’t have to be. This upholds the problematic trope of the radical too consumed by his own rage to function as a reliable, compassionate leader. They almost always fail as a result of some character traits that sully their philosophy while making the audience less willing to support him. The sheer frequency of this representation sets a dangerous rhetoric that denounces the need for violence in a revolution.
There’s no question that Nakia is a much more promising leader. We see her on the grounds, bringing about real change in the world and protecting the people who Killmonger only claims to want to protect.
I would have loved to have seen a version of her plan to help outside African peoples on a larger scale. But the movie never allows us to see that.
Instead, we have T’challa set up his own path to helping the outside world and…i don’t know…it gave me some “all-lives-matter” vibes. This dude goes to the UN of all places, talking about how he wants to share Wakandan technology, wealth, and insights with everyone. Not black people exclusively. Everyone. No caveats about African people getting first dibs or anything. Nope! In T’challa’s eyes, we’re all one people.
I mean, it’s like Meryl Streep said, “We’re all Africans.” Right? RIGHT??
There’s a chance that Nakia supported his plan because, at the end of the day, Wakanda would be taking an active role in helping outsiders, like she wanted. But I can’t help but think that she’d approach change in a more circumspect manner (She’s a spy, after all). I don’t think she would have put her trust in an outside institution, as T’challa has. So in that sense, we get some version of Nakia vision that’s diluted by T’challa idealism and willingness to trust the world.
It’s important to note that both Killmonger and Nakia influenced T’challa to reveal Wakanda to the world. And yet his approach lacks the most powerful qualities of both his influencers.
Judging from the post-credit scene, T’challa’s approach to liberation lacks the steadfastness and ferocity of Killmonger’s plan, along with the subtlety of Nakia’s. Only time and future movies will tell if theres more to T’challa plan, and I hope there is. But what I saw from that scene rubbed me the wrong way.
Reaching across the aisle to work with the same system that profited off black people’s suffering?
Black Panther falls victim to that ‘noble ending’ we see so often, in which the protagonist rejects violence in favor of love and harmony. We can’t slap an ending that black and white to every movie; the context matters. Such a message promotes a faith in the world that black folk really can’t afford to have, when their liberation is in mind.
This isn’t to say the T’challa methodology is without its merits. But his vision of liberation only ‘wins’ as a result of the other two visions never having a fair chance to oppose his own. Killmonger’s radicalism was undermined by the stereotypical character flaws/limitations he’s given, while Nakia’s radicalism has such limited exploration that it is subsumed by T’challa’s.
I love and appreciate Black Panther for what it is. It was groundbreaking in so many ways, so I just wish it had broken the mold of storytelling in this was as well. I would have loved a movie this BLACK AF to champion an approach to black liberation thats something other than brokering peace with colonizers.
With all that said, I can say without a doubt that this is one of my favorite movies of all time, if not my favorite (I’m not sure, but I’ll let y’all know after my 2nd and 3rd viewing).
P.S – Man, fuck that 2nd post-credit scene. Sorry Bucky, but we don’t need more white men in Africa. Just saying.