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Since its release, people have been buzzing about and analyzing Black Panther, one of Marvel’s most successful films. As a blockbuster action-hero film, Black Panther has surpassed expectations in creating an entertaining yet complex movie that effectively addresses politics and race. The plethora of poignant political messages and the characters that creates them are part of the film’s appeal.
“There are over 2 billion people all over the world that look like us, and their lives are a lot harder.” – Erik “Killmonger” Stevens
Understanding the main antagonist, Erik “Killmonger” Stevens, is key to understanding the political overtones in Black Panther because his motives and actions create the political dialogue. His Wakandan name is N’Jadaka, and he is King T’Challa’s first cousin. His father, N’Jobu, is murdered by T’Challa’s father, T’Chaka, for betraying Wakanda and giving a valuable weapon to outsiders. The loss of his father fuels Killmonger’s choices and journey to Wakanda.
Audience members connected with Killmonger and empathized with his pain and mission to rise up and empower the rest of the world to fight back against their oppressors. Even after he challenged and defeated T’Challa—the movie’s hero—in ritual combat, some audience-goers were rooting for him to remain the new king and Black Panther. The ideology he shares with the famous civil rights leader, Malcolm X, are one of the many reasons he stands out as a character.
“I believe that there will ultimately be a clash between the oppressed and those that do the oppressing. I believe that there will be a clash between those who want freedom, justice and equality for everyone and those who want to continue systems of exploitation.” – Malcolm X
As shown in the above quote, Malcolm X believed in actively fighting for and taking back one’s freedom from his or her oppressors. Like Malcolm X, Killmonger believed that force is required to create change, which is why he was angered by the passivity with which Wakanda regarded the rest of the world.
Killmonger’s whole goal of using Wakandan weaponry to start a worldwide revolution and arm black people against their oppressors stems from this belief. Malcolm X also held disdain for the passivity of the Nation of Islam (NOI), the civil rights group he was closely associated with in the ‘50s and early ‘60s. Malcolm criticized and ultimately left the NOI because he felt they were not pushing hard enough for equality between black and white people.
“You can’t separate peace from freedom because no one can be at peace unless he has his freedom.” – Malcolm X
From the moment King T’Chakka, T’Challa’s late father, killed Killmonger’s father, Killmonger began training, fighting, and killing to get to the Wakandan throne. In the film, he was raised in Oakland, CA, one of the most dangerous cities in the nation. Killmonger’s childhood was steeped in violence, hatred, and exposure to those with power abusing those who don’t have it. Similarly, Malcolm X grew up dealing with poverty, violence, extreme racism, and losing his father at a very young age. This shaped his strong political views about race just as Killmonger’s tumultuous upbringing affected his stance on racial equality.
“It is a time for martyrs now, and if I am to be one, it will be for the cause of brotherhood. That’s the only thing that can save this country.” – Malcolm X
Killmonger can be viewed as a representation of Malcolm X because of similarities in their pasts, their ideology, and their motives. Having a fictional character, especially an antagonist, represent such a controversial historical figure, one is bound to run into some controversy tackling difficult issues such as black liberation and responsibility to one’s race.
To start, the murder of another black revolutionary, now on the big screen for all to see, does not bode well for a movie that is centered on black people in positions of power and afrofuturism (the science fiction and futuristic arts that incorporate black culture and history). The black community has had revolutionary leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X, murdered before them for trying to herald change in racial politics.
This connects directly to another political problem the film creates from its choice of antagonist. Why is the goal of freeing black people from oppression and strife given to the villain? The one who is slain by his own people? Having Killmonger champion the black liberation movement in the film and being murdered for it gives the impression that people should not fight for change and simply accept their current social hierarchy.
Journalist Leslie Lee III echoes this sentiment in a poignant comment on his Twitter: “Nothing and no one can explain away why a movie called ‘Black Panther’ made black liberation the central evil plot and had a CIA agent as a hero.” Lee is criticizing Marvel’s choice to portray black liberation in the light of villainy and having Wakandans so readily turn against one another because of the short-lived internal power struggle instead of remaining united.
Nothing and no one can explain away why a movie called “Black Panther” made black liberation the central evil plot and had a CIA agent as a hero.
— Leslie Lee III (@leslieleeiii) February 17, 2018
However, the film doesn’t completely villainize the movement, as YouTuber La’Ron Readus points out. Black liberation isn’t something that’s easily defined as directly battling oppressors for freedom, the movement is much greater than that and comes in many forms—from educating and uplifting, to peaceful protest, to mass exodus back to Africa. So, to say that the whole black liberation movement was created into an antagonizing force is short-sighted. The film focused on the more radical path of the black liberation movement that led to the Black Liberation Army and more armed-and-dangerous actions of the Black Panther Party.
“I want Dr. King to know that I didn’t come to Selma to make his job difficult. I really did come thinking I could make it easier. If the white people realize what the alternative is, perhaps they will be more willing to hear Dr. King.” – Malcolm X
Malcolm X said the above words to King’s wife, Coretta Scott King, while the peaceful civil rights leader was in jail. He meant that by showing white people the uglier, more brutal side of black liberation, perhaps they will instead embrace King’s methods of peaceful protest as a means for change instead of the violent and forceful alternative.
And did Killmonger not do the same thing for T’Challa and Wakanda? In the beginning of the film, T’Challa’s stance on Wakanda standing up for and helping surrounding nations has been “What can Wakanda do about it?” He says this to Wakandan spy and former love, Nakia, when she begs for change when it comes to giving aid to other countries. T’Challa’s viewpoint changes, however, due to Killmonger charging into his life and forcing his hand.
In one section of the movie, T’Challa is on the brink of death, and is brought before his late father and his ancestors. He screams that they are all wrong. Furious, he blames his father’s decision to leave Erik Stevens in the US as a child to fend for himself as the reason why “Killmonger” exists. T’Challa also condemns his ancestors’ collective decision to watch the world fall apart from the shadows instead of uplifting them.
Killmonger’s message leaves a lasting impression on T’Challa, however, resulting in him taking a new position on sharing technology and empowering others. At the end of the movie, T’Challa goes to the apartment complex in Oakland, CA, where Killmonger grew up, and buys said building and the surrounding complexes to start bringing in Wakandan technology and (presumably) money and education.
T’Challa’s approach to black liberation is more subtle but no less effective—bringing resources to turn a down-trodden area into a thriving one. By bringing resources back into these areas, T’Challa plans to empower the people in this area, likely in an effort to uplift African and black communities.
Killmonger’s presence in the film did more than just push Wakanda out of isolation. Due to the hero’s popularity and polarizing message and methods, Black Panther has sparked intense conversations that would not occur if the main villain had been Klaue, a white man trying to steal lucrative resources from natives—a story that has been told over and over. Debates and conversation concerning the film would revolve around the fact that the white man had been made the villain and how that sows more hatred and racism than it resolves.
Such a story is clearly black-and-white. T’Challa would not have had much growth with such a plotline and neither would the audience. Killmonger’s role, despite his brutal approach, did not vilify the black liberation movement, it brought up important political and social issues that have caused worldwide discussion. Some fans hoped that he would live instead of choosing suicide as a way out of imprisonment; however, Killmonger lives on in the conversations of black unity and liberation that he revived.
“A race of people is like an individual man; until it uses its own talent, takes pride in its own history, expresses its own culture, affirms its own selfhood, it can never fulfill itself.” – Malcolm X
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