Black Panther spoilers ahead.
Every superhero movie has a supervillain. The archenemy who is the counter to the hero. They’re supposed to make you hate them and love the hero; to create the tension that you’ll be relieved to see resolved; to give you a shadow that the hero can shine brightly against. They’re not generally made to make you think.
And usually, it’s the acting range, costume and makeup, or catchy one-liners of the actor playing them that raises them above the average “Captain Evil”: Nicholson’s Joker, Stamp’s General Zod, Jackson’s Mr. Glass. But Black Panther’s Erik Killmonger touched a different nerve, and many people left the theater not hating him but rather mourning him, identifying with him, even idolizing him. This may seem strange until you consider that Killmonger isn’t the villain in this movie—America is.
We’ll come back to that point. First, some history.
Erik Killmonger was first introduced in Jungle Action #6 in 1973 as a major adversary for T’Challa’s Black Panther. His comic-book origin has some similarities to the movie, but the motivations are slightly different. In the film, Killmonger’s father is a spy for Wakanda who decides to go rogue because he feels Wakanda isn’t doing enough, forcing his brother, King T’Chaka (the Black Panther at that time), to kill him to save another. In the comics, he is press-ganged into service for Ulysses Klaw—Ulysses’s father anglicized the family name from Klaue in the comics—when Klaw attacks Wakanda and dies in the fight; Erik and his family are exiled and ended up in New York, instead of the movie version of his being abandoned in Oakland and having to fend for himself. Both versions of Killmonger want to take over Wakanda. However, where the comic-book version is more self-serving, in the movie version, it’s part of a different overall goal: black liberation.
And there’s the rub. Killmonger’s stated goal in the movie is freedom for the oppressed people in the world, whom he feels the Wakandans have neglected or abandoned by standing by and watching history happen when they could have been arming them, fighting alongside them, crushing the oppressors—but he does this violently, aggressively, and strategically. It’s a view that many viewers, especially black and brown people, can understand, appreciate, and even sympathize with: who would not want to go back in time and stop American slavery, South African apartheid, or colonization in Australia? Imagine the global society that could be created with Wakanda’s technology and knowledge. Is it so wrong to want to share and save the world? And if not, shouldn’t you accomplish that “by any means necessary”? After all the oppression that white people have perpetrated against black people on a racial or cultural basis, the notion of being able to right the scales—to mete out justice and become the Wrath of God—feels so right.
And that’s where many people stop. They don’t go beyond that to consider the moral and ethical effects of a “might makes right” philosophy—or maybe they do, but they don’t agree or care. And that’s something that we have to look at honestly, because that’s the damage that has been done to black people all over the world and especially in America. That is the impact of over 400 years of oppression and subjugation. That is the wealth that has been passed down from generation to generation in the black community: pain and degradation. I’m not saying that I agree, or even that it’s right, but I definitely do understand, and some days, some days . . .
But at the same time that there are people praising Killmonger for his philosophy, if not his methods, there are other people who are angry that the only representation of a black American in Black Panther is the villain. The frustration comes from the viewpoint that you have an all-star, almost exclusively black cast, and within that black cast, the one black American character is singled out to be the villain. At a time when, especially in America, black lives are not consistently valued the same as others, having the main antagonist be the only black American representation in a film sends a message they feel reinforces the idea that black lives don’t matter. And they juxtapose it against white American Everett Ross being part of Team Black Panther—forgetting that at the beginning, Ross was pretty dismissive and condescending, and it wasn’t until he was blown away by everything the Wakandans have accomplished (including saving his life) that he came around. Their view is that the only black American in the movie should not be the villain.
One of the fascinating things about this movie is that you can look at it through several different lenses and it changes what it means. Sure, you could look at the Killmonger as the only black American in a superhero movie involving a fictional country with a fictional rare metal and a fictional rare herb that provides superpowers and decide the message is that a kid from Oakland went “bad” and became a supervillain, and since he’s the only black American, that is an indictment of black Americans as a whole. But I think you have to also accept the message that through sheer force of will he was able to climb out from under the weight of his trauma, set his course, and let nothing deter him from reaching his goal. He killed his way to the top, discovered his undiscoverable homeland, and used the American military, his American colleges, and the CIA to develop the skills, connections, and resources he needed to get there. Through his ingenuity and resourcefulness, he captures Klaue when T’Challa could not. He defeats T’Challa when M’Baku could not. And in the end, he gives T’Challa the wake-up call that he needed to change Wakanda’s traditions and give back—which makes Killmonger not a traditional bad guy or a negative image, but a catalyst. And it communicates not that black Americans are bad but rather that we are the most resourceful on the planet, because, despite all the setbacks and disadvantages that one kid from Oakland had, he was able to achieve what no one else could. If there’s any indictment there, it is not of black Americans as bad people, but as underachievers.
If you’re going to make the leap that Killmonger represents all of black America, then his accomplishments would, if anything, raise the question of how come all black Americans are not this self-determined! You and I, dear reader, know that it’s much more complex than that, and that reason, the answer to that question, is the real villain: America.
Or you can consider that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and maybe that the people in the movie transcend geography. Maybe they represent ideologies and beliefs instead of individual homelands. Maybe all of the characters can be seen as a commentary on how our society is not unified and that the only way to move forward is to actually recognize the mistakes of the past, a full account of what that impact has been, and what our responsibility is to each other to make our world better.
Viewing Black Panther through this lens, it’s evident the villain does not have to be a person but rather is a country. A country that has birthed, raised, and molded the anger, frustration, and pain that we see represented in Killmonger and that lives in nearly every black American today. (Nearly—Clarence Thomas is cool with the way things are.) What we see in Killmonger is a social commentary on what America does to black people, especially black men. What is reflected in Killmonger is the impact of systemic racism on black men, juxtaposed against what happens when we are given the chance to thrive (the success of the Wakandans, and specifically T’Challa). This movie holds a mirror up to our society to show not only the impact but the inevitable outcome, as Killmonger grows beyond the CIA that trained him. He is the chickens coming home to roost.
Consider for a moment that black lives are so undervalued that the moment you proclaim that they matter, opponents suddenly rush in to say that “All Lives Matter” or “Blue Lives Matter”—but notice almost no one chimes in with “White Lives Matter.” Why? Because it doesn’t need to be said; it’s a given.
Americans of color are incarcerated at a disproportionate rate: one in every 15 African American men and one in every 36 Hispanic men are incarcerated in comparison to 1 in every 106 white men. As of 2014, only 41% of black families lived in owner-occupied housing, as compared to white families, which come in at 71%. Since January 2000, the employment rate for black American men has been 11 to 15 percent lower than the rate for whites in every month. The estimates for the death toll of American slavery ranges from 6 to 150 million, depending on the source; black lives were so undervalued that we cannot account for all the people thrown overboard, chained to boulders, because supplies were running low, or beaten to death because they were “uppity.”
Police killed 1,147 people in the U.S. in 2017. Black people were 25 percent of those killed despite being only 13 percent of the population. Black people are three times as likely to be killed by police as white people, and in 2014, less than a third of black people killed by police were armed and accused of a violent crime. It’s when statistics like these come out that people proclaim, acknowledge, and insist that black lives matter—and this is countered with “blue lives matter”?!
Do you see the disconnect?
Can you understand the frustration that comes from knowing that in this article we have only scratched the surface of the disparities, maltreatment, and oppression of black Americans? Can you perhaps understand where Killmonger is coming from?
Killmonger is a phenomenal adversary for T’Challa, but he is an even greater indictment of America and the need for the country to seriously start casting aside the evils of bigotry. I’m not saying I agree with his methods, but I do understand.