- Issue March 18, 2018
Black Panther Review
"One of the ideas that is emphasized by Michael B Jordan’s character—Killmonger—is the tension between Afrikans and the Afrikan diaspora."
By Portia Uwase Zuba and Brenda Umutoniwase
You probably know that Black Panther was, arguably, the most anticipated movie of 2018. You probably saw on social media how everyone wore their best African outfit when they went to watch Black Panther at movie theaters. You probably know that Michael. B. Jordan is the most desirable gentleman (at least based on the memes and social media posts) after his portrayal of Eric Killmonger. You probably heard the statement “it feels good to be black” from black viewers after they watched Black Panther. One might wonder if Black Panther was worth all the elaborate outfits, social media buzz, and near ostracization by friends if one didn’t watch it within two weeks of its release. The honest answer is YES. The obvious reasons are: gorgeous black actors with serious acting chops, stunning visuals, and a hip hop album that has become critically acclaimed in its own right sans Black Panther’s fame. While those were the reasons that took me and Brenda to the theaters, we were surprised by how complex and meaningful the film was. We will elaborate on the ideas that were dominant in Black Panther.
One of the ideas that is emphasized by Michael B Jordan’s character—Killmonger—is the tension between Afrikans and the Afrikan diaspora. Killmonger basically represents the African-American and how they see themselves versus the world and vice versa. Killmonger and his father live in Oakland where his father has settled as a spy for Wakanda. Later on, Killmonger’s father is killed by king T’Chaka on grounds that he is a traitor to Wakanda. Killmonger grows to fend for himself in a world that does not welcome him. King T’chaka knows of him but does nothing to bring him back home. As some characters in Black Panther say, “ he is the forgotten child of Wakanda”. Killmonger grows up filled with a lot of anger which later translates into a thirst for vengeance. He is not only angry at Wakanda, but angry at the world for not accepting him. His reality of blackness is different from that of King T’Challa. As a matter of fact, King T’Challa is just Wakandan, and although Killmonger is Wakandan by ancestry too, he can not exercise the privileges that come with it because he can not truly identify.
Killmonger has attended a prestigious school(MIT), joined the army, and technically “made it” as a black child, but he isn’t contented because it takes more than that. He wants “justice” for the entire black race. While King T’Challa is similar to Killmonger in that he is black, and has attended a prestigious school(Oxford), he is contented with the fact that he has a loving home to go to at the end of the day and a duty to fulfill as a successor to his father. Killmonger on the other hand, has a home, that is notorious for systematic oppression of his kind. Killmonger bears the burden of constantly proving himself to the world, while T’Challa does not. To paraphrase an idea from E. Dubois in his piece “Of Our Spiritual Strivings”, Killmonger struggles to break free of the double consciousness he has developed as an African-American. “A double consciousness that is caused as a result of looking oneself through the eyes of others, measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused pity and contempt.” Killmonger’s first scene is of violence and trickery in a museum; using force and going against the rules to make things happen. And while in T’Challa’s community they have battles to challenge the king, it is their way of life. In Killmonger’s world he has to bend the rules, while in T’Challa’s world the rules and the gods are in his favor.
Wakanda is T’Challa’s world but for Killmonger, it is somebody else’s world that he has to fit himself into. T’Challa lives in a bubble of favor, belonging, support, and royalty while Killmonger lives in the wild trying to tighten loose ends. Two different kinds of blacks. You can see the difference between Killmonger’s and T’Challa’s character and their origins but who is to blame for Killmonger’s turnout and everybody that he represents? Is it Afrika that has forgotten her lost/sold children? The world that is cruel to them? Or both? Or even the children themselves? What if Killmonger had come as a lost child of Wakanda in need of a home and a culture, would they have accepted him? Were the people of Wakanda against Killmonger as an individual, or his anger and propaganda? Killmonger as a child has a conversation with his father and expresses worry that the Wakandan’s might not accept them if they ever go back, which is why one can assume Killmonger never goes back earlier. Killmonger’s first search for vibranium and coming later with it to Wakanda, his strong thirst for power, and change of rules including burning the purple flowers which were a strong ritualistic aspect of their politics all demonstrate his priority, which is sadly not Wakanda. He is for global black revolution using Wakanda’s technology and resources. While, Wakanda is definitely part of that global black community, Killmonger’s deliberate ignorance about Wakandans, their needs, and their way of life shows that his propaganda wouldn’t primarily benefit Wakandans. This leads to the question: how is Killmonger different from the colonizer, in some aspects? Is he aware of what Wakanda might lose in such an interaction with the external world, and does he even care? While Killmonger’s ultimate plan is well meaning, it is irrational and dangerous. Distributing guns to the black population and waging war against the world is not the solution to the suffering of the black population.
This also leads to the examination of Killmonger’s attitude. Killmonger comes to Wakanda with the body of Klaw, an infamous pest to the Wakandan population, yet T’Chaka and T’ challa had failed to capture Klaw. Immediately, he earns the loyalty of W’Kabi, a Wakandan leader. Also when Killmonger challenges T’Challa to a fight, he takes off his shirt to show the marks of his past fights and victories. In a way, he is communicating that he, and not T’Challa is fit to be king because he has obvious and showy achievements. Killmonger’s character is also representative of the dangers of elitism. Elitism that values past achievements more than other important factors like good judgment, compassion, and humility. T’Challa, as opposed to Killmonger, is a soft, humble, and easy-going character. A character we rarely see in leaders today. In the end, Killmonger’s entitlement that is mostly from his sense of elitism and not the fact that he is also from Wakanda fails to earn him any loyalty.
Killmonger also brought into question the discussion about pan-Afrikanism and its validity. Although we believe in the positive idea of unity among Afrikans and the Afrikan diaspora, we also believe that the idea of pan-Afrikanism is, as Ali Mazrui calls it, “a false memory”. It is a false memory because it is based on “positive” false memory that -Africa was previously one but was divided by colonialism. But truly, Afrikans never identified as Afrikans but as members of the different tribes they belonged to until colonizers made boundaries and gathered people of different tribes together in groups. If you ask some of the Nigerians they may tell you that they identify as Igbo or Yoruba first then Nigerian second. Anyway, we do recognize that pan-Afrikanism is essential as a tool of escaping marginalization in the global system, but when you see something from a wrong perspective, like believing in a past that never was, you also come at it in a wrong way. The “possible” death of Killmonger makes us wonder what it means for the fate of pan-Afrikanism, since he represented it; global black revolution. Did he also come at the problem of black struggle in a wrong way? Does it mean the Afrikan diaspora can never come home but again where is home? Even if they came, would they survive?
Other characters with incredible significance in Black Panther were Nakia, W’ Kabi, and Okoye. Nakia is the ex-sweetheart of king T’ Challa who leaves Wakanda to be a spy, but to also play a role in the outside world by helping those in need. King T’Challa asks Nakia to stay, but she kindly refuses. Closely related to Nakia’s refusal to stay in Wakanda at T’Challa’s request is Okoye’s affirmation that she would kill her husband if it meant protecting Wakanda, when W’Kabi asks her if she would kill him. The irony in this question is that W’Kabi himself is also ready to fight his wife, and if necessary kill her. The fact that W’Kabi dares to ask this question and T’Challa asks Nakia to stay in Wakanda represents how men have historically expected women to make these enormous sacrifices for the sake of their relationships. If it comes to careers, dreams, and duty, women are usually the ones expected to give up those important aspects of themselves. In Black Panther, the partners of Okoye and Nakia are seen compromising with them to reach a situation that is in the interest of the women. In words of Sheryl Sandberg, “women in Wakanda make their partners real partners.”This is the aspect of feminism that has been missing in a lot of movies, where the focus on women identifying as feminists has been on their success and sexuality.
Other important questions that were raised were the following:
Was Killmonger’s role as violent, angry and misogynistic a perpetuation of the stereotypes of Afrikan-Americans? Or was the bigger picture in the movie meant to justify his anger, since King T’Challa himself said to his father T’Chaka, “We made him that way?” Moreover, when Nakia stopped T’Challa from killing Klaw saying, “don’t do it, the world is watching” what did she mean by that? Did she say it as a person with the intention of setting good examples of forgiveness and protection of lives, or as a black person walking on eggshells and being the bigger person because everything we do is used against us? Did she do it to protect T’ Challa from giving the world an opportunity to stereotypically label him a “savage?” Lastly, Wakanda emphasized that integration is possible and crucial. There was representation of various tribes and cultures from Namibia, Sudan, Kenya, South Africa and many more countries with their differences all in one community, but living harmoniously together and most importantly maintaining their different cultural aspects. Is that what Afrika needs? King T’Challa primarily doesn’t feel the obligation towards anyone else but the Wakandans. He doesn’t want integration with the whole world because he believes in self-preservation. In the end, he stands in the UN and smirks when the white guy asks him what a third world country like Wakanda has to offer to the world as a gesture of “You have no idea of what we are sitting on”. But did he take into consideration that globalisation is a give and take relationship? Did he consider that integration with considerably both “developed” and poorer nations in the world might destabilize Wakanda’s economy and political climate? After all, we all know poverty is one of the main reasons for political unrest. What’s to lose and what’s to gain?
In summary, Black Panther is not only a movie but also a movement for LEGIT reasons. It sparks conversation and discusses important issues that are rarely explored in superhero movies. It shows women that they can become badass without jeopardizing their important relationships.It calls out violent nationalism that has been rising in various places in a very subtle, non-biased way. Ryan Coogler is an achiever in making cinema that is: entertaining, complex, and groundbreaking in terms of casting, content, music, and visuals. We think it would be redundant to recommend watching it!
Brenda Umutoniwase is a sophomore at Cornell University majoring in international agriculture and rural development, and minoring in African studies.
Portia Uwase Zuba is a rising sophomore at Lewis and Clark college gearing towards international affairs with a minor in French. She enjoys reading and watching Hindi films. Lately, she has garnered interest in the politics of money and financial prosperity.