killmonger mother

Killmonger’s Wakanda, Killmonger’s America

N’Jdaka/Erik Stevens, T’Challa’s American cousin, is Wakanda’s forgotten son. His father N’Jobu sought to use stolen Wakandan weapons to help oppressed African Americans rise up in Oakland — Ryan Coogler’s hometown, and the birthplace of the Black Panther Party — but he was subsequently murdered by T’Chaka for his mutiny.

This left Erik to grow up fatherless and on streets where death was common, cast out by those who ought to have taken care of him. Erik returns to Wakanda during its handover of power in order to take advantage of its vulnerability, in the hopes of overthrowing its king and waging war on other nations. Everett Ross, a CIA officer, ascribes this ruthless M.O. to the tools of U.S. military imperialism, which Killmonger learned as a black ops soldier. For once, a Marvel movie explicitly frames American foreign intervention in an honest light — the film’s heroic framing of Ross, however, leaves a sour taste given the CIA’s real-world involvement in coups, political arrests and assassinations in African countries like Ghana, Congo, Chad, South Africa and Angola.  

Killmonger hopes to reverse the effects of colonialism by helping Black people worldwide murder their oppressors, but there’s a conservative, paradoxical streak to the way his politics are framed, just as there is to the ways Marvel at large approaches western power. For instance, U.S. military funding has a significant effect on the stories of Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Captain Marvel, which were subsequently locked in to military-approved scripts.

The film’s conflation of militant liberation with violent imperialism is a strange mixed metaphor, as the two are often at odds in the real world. A white CIA officer playing a heroic role in stopping Black revolution is in poor taste at best; at worst, it’s another example of Hollywood’s CIA propaganda. There are, of course, no publicly-released documents to corroborate this yet — would they have signed off on Shuri calling Ross a colonizer, I wonder? — but given Marvel Studios’ relationship to the U.S. government for more than a decade, this approach to the film’s CIA character is not out of the ordinary.

The CIA’s Operation CHAOS also targeted members of the Black Panther Party (most prominently, co-founder Huey Newton) between 1967 and 1974. Those optics aren’t particularly great, since the film frames its distinctly American problems through fantasy metaphor, while its only American hero is a white CIA officer, yet its villain is an African American militant.

Black Panther does, at least, attempt to have other characters describe Killmonger’s plan as the re-creation of imperialism itself, rather than liberation, but this framing doesn’t quite land with the intended impact. Not only because centuries of colonial structure can’t be reversed overnight, but because we never actually see what’s at stake outside Wakanda’s borders, in the event that Killmonger carries out his plan and Wakanda’s foreign sleeper agents are armed. Dramatizing this would have meant portraying the wider Black suffering Killmonger refers to, which feels like a step too far to the left for even the most ostensibly “progressive” Disney product.

But while these literal aspects to Killmonger are muddied, Killmonger in the abstract is one of the most powerful elements in a Marvel movie, or any mainstream movie from 2018. He feels distinctly like a Ryan Coogler creation; he may as well be responding to police killings of unarmed Black men like Oscar Grant, whom Michael B. Jordan plays in Coogler’s Fruitvale Station. From the moment Killmonger is introduced, his rage is clear and justifiable; he is the fallout of an empire like Wakanda sowing death and instability to protect its interests, not unlike America.

Killmonger highlights the white lens through which stolen African artifacts are displayed and preserved in western museums, calling into question the idea of cultural ownership in a postcolonial world. Though, while he was cut off from his African roots like most African Americans, his personal motivations run even deeper. Killmonger is defined by a moment of violence from his childhood. Where T’Challa is able to access the wide-open plains of the afterlife, Killmonger’s walkabout in the ancestral realm is limited to a single room: the apartment where he found his father’s body. As a Black man in America, his inheritance is pain.

His spiritual vision reduces him to a child once more. He was never given the kind of love, guidance, freedom or opportunity T’Challa was so frequently afforded. This forced him to turn to violence. The structures of American government that had failed him subsequently took advantage of his rage, granting him his ruthless nickname because of his willingness to kill for them.

michael b jordan producing the liberators

Doing the Right Thing

Whether or not the storytellers were willing, Black Panther was likely unable to approach violence, or violent liberation, with more nuance. The film is, after all, the product of a conglomerate unlikely to alienate a white customer base. The lethal violence of Killmonger, aimed at white oppressors, is framed as a wholesale wrong; conversely, the narrative continually justifies T’Challa’s lethal actions— as is the case with most Marvel films — like his freeing of Muslim women from a disposable Boko Haram analogue, a group of Black militants (Though, Nakia does at least stop T’Challa from killing one young soldier who doesn’t know any better).

This dichotomous approach to violence is questionable, especially for a film so steeped in racial politics. Referencing Black oppression, rather than showing it up close, may be more palatable to some viewers, but it makes for a less challenging narrative, given that Killmonger’s motivations are rooted entirely in liberation from white supremacy. The film takes structural whiteness to task, but quietly, implicitly, and far off-screen.

Regardless, Killmonger is still partially right, in that Wakanda ought to use its resources to help those in need. Eventually, Nakia’s more empathetic methods are adopted by T’Challa, but only after Killmonger re-orients his perspective.

Killmonger and T’Challa inherit their fathers’ legacies, grounding Marvel’s usually abstract paternal disappointment — General Ross, Howard Stark, Hank Pym, Odin, Ego, and so on — in an explicit sociopolitical ethos. T’Chaka’s lies didn’t just keep a fictional kingdom secret. They resulted in the refusal to help an over-policed, over-incarcerated African American citizenry, resulting in the realistic hardship of an orphaned Black child.

As much as Wakanda is a fantasy, it’s a grim reflection of America itself; Erik Stevens, a young Black boy, is punished for his father’s crimes. In the end, T’Challa needs to right this wrong most of all. His decision to start outreach programs in Oakland — starting with Erik’s old neighborhood — feels particularly meaningful. Not only does it help Wakanda confront its fictional sins, but the decision is also similar to Coogler’s real-world desire to bring film business to Oakland as an alternative to crime. And so, T’Challa being approached by a young, awestruck Black boy in Oakland, not unlike Killmonger all those years ago, is the perfect culmination.

Black Panther comes down on the side of foregoing the rigidity of borders and helping those in need, regardless of their origins. It pushes unequivocally for positive change in the status quo, rather than falling back on westerns norms as defaults that must be defended — as has been the case in almost every Marvel movie, especially those subsidized by the U.S. military.

T’Challa’s father T’Chaka used the Black Panther mantle to strip away a child’s future. In turn, that child attempted to use the Black Panther as a tool of oppression. T’Challa on the other hand, uses the Black Panther to help and inspire, just as the film itself is likely to catalyze change, and show young Black filmmakers and other young artists of colour what’s possible in cinema.

***

Expanded from an article published April 25, 2018.

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