“A movie unique for its black star power depends on a shocking devaluation of black American men.”
Black Panther, the most recent entry into the Marvel cinematic universe, has been greeted with the breathless anticipation that its arrival will Change Things. The movie features the leader of a fictional African country who has enough wealth to make Warren Buffet feel like a financial piker and enough technological capacity to rival advanced alien races. The change that the movie supposedly heralds is black empowerment to effectively challenge racist narratives. This is a tall order, especially in the time of Trump, who insists that blacks live in hell and wishes that (black) sons of bitches would get fired for protesting police violence. Which makes it a real shame that Black Panther, a movie unique for its black star power and its many thoughtful portrayals of strong black women, depends on a shocking devaluation of black American men.
To explain my complaint, I need to reveal some key plot turns: spoiler alert.
Wakanda is a fictional nation in Africa, a marvel beyond all marvels. Its stupendous wealth and technological advancement reaches beyond anything the folks in MIT’s labs could dream of. The source of all this wonder is vibranium, a substance miraculous in ways that the movie does not bother to explain. But so far as we understand, it is a potent energy source as well as an unmatched raw material. A meteor rich in vibranium, which crashed ages ago into the land that would become Wakanda, made Wakanda so powerful that the terrors of colonialism and imperialism passed it by. Using technology to hide its good fortune, the country plays the part of a poor, third-world African nation. In reality, it thrives, and its isolationist policies protect it from anti-black racism. The Wakandans understand events in the outside world and know that they are spared. This triumphant lore—the vibranium and the Wakandans’ secret history and superiority—are more than imaginative window-dressing. They go to the heart of the mistaken perception that Black Panther is a movie about black liberation.
“The change that the movie supposedly heralds is black empowerment to effectively challenge racist narratives.”
In Black Panther, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) has risen to the throne of Wakanda. We know that his father, T’Chaka, the previous king, died in a bomb attack. T’Challa worships his father for being wise and good and wants to walk in his footsteps. But a heartbreaking revelation will sorely challenge T’Challa’s idealized image of his father.
The movie’s initial action sequences focus on a criminal partnership between arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) and Eric Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan). They both seek vibranium but for different reasons: Klaue is trying to profit from Wakanda’s wonder-material; Killmonger is trying to make his way to Wakanda to make a bid for the throne. He believes he is the rightful king.
Killmonger, it turns out, is T’Challa’s cousin, orphaned by T’Chaka’s murder of Killmonger’s father and T’Chaka’s younger brother, N’Jobu (Sterling Brown). Why did T’Chaka kill his brother? N’Jobu was found with stolen vibranium. The motive for the theft is where the tale begins—and where the story of black wonderment starts to degrade.
We learn that N’Jobu was sent to the United States as one of Wakanda’s War Dogs, a division of spies that the reclusive nation dispatches to keep tabs on a world it refuses to engage. This is precisely N’Jobu’s problem. In the United States, he learns of the racism black Americans face, including mass incarceration and police brutality. He soon understands that his people have the power to help all black people, and he plots to develop weapons using vibranium to even the odds for black Americans. This is radical stuff; the Black Panthers (the political party, that is) taken to a level of potentially revolutionary efficacy. T’Chaka, however, insists N’Jobu has betrayed the people of Wakanda. He has no intention of helping any black people anywhere; for him and most Wakandans, it is Wakanda First. N’Jobu threatens an aide to T’Chaka, who then kills N’Jobu. The murder leaves Killmonger orphaned. However, Killmonger has learned of Wakanda from his father, N’Jobu. Living in poverty in Oakland, he grows to become a deadly soldier to make good on his father’s radical aim to use Wakanda’s power to liberate black people everywhere, by force if necessary.
“This is radical stuff; the Black Panthers (the political party, that is) taken to a level of potentially revolutionary efficacy.”
By now viewers have two radical imaginings in front of them: an immensely rich and flourishing advanced African nation that is sealed off from white colonialism and supremacy; and a few black Wakandans with a vision of global black solidarity who are determined to use Wakanda’s privilege to emancipate all black people.
These imaginings could be made to reconcile, but the movie’s director and writer (with Joe Cole), Ryan Coogler, makes viewers choose. Killmonger makes his way to Wakanda and challenges T’Challa’s claim to the throne through traditional rites of combat. Killmonger decisively defeats T’Challa and moves to ship weapons globally to start the revolution. In the course of Killmonger’s swift rise to power, however, Coogler muddies his motivation. Killmonger is the revolutionary willing to take what he wants by any means necessary, but he lacks any coherent political philosophy. Rather than the enlightened radical, he comes across as the black thug from Oakland hell bent on killing for killing’s sake—indeed, his body is marked with a scar for every kill he has made. The abundant evidence of his efficacy does not establish Killmonger as a hero or villain so much as a receptacle for tropes of inner-city gangsterism.
In the end, all comes down to a contest between T’Challa and Killmonger that can only be read one way: in a world marked by racism, a man of African nobility must fight his own blood relative whose goal is the global liberation of blacks. In a fight that takes a shocking turn, T’Challa lands a fatal blow to Killmonger, lodging a spear in his chest. As the movie uplifts the African noble at the expense of the black American man, every crass principle of modern black respectability politics is upheld.
“Rather than the enlightened radical, Killmonger comes across as the black thug from Oakland hell bent on killing for killing’s sake.”
In 2018, a world home to both the Movement for Black Lives and a president who identifies white supremacists as fine people, we are given a movie about black empowerment where the only redeemed blacks are African nobles. They safeguard virtue and goodness against the threat not of white Americans or Europeans, but a black American man, the most dangerous person in the world.
Even in a comic-book movie, black American men are relegated to the lowest rung of political regard. So low that the sole white leading character in the movie, the CIA operative Everett Ross (Martin Freeman), gets to be a hero who helps save Wakanda. A white man who trades in secrets and deception is given a better turn than a black man whose father was murdered by his own family and who is left by family and nation to languish in poverty. That’s racist.
Who could hope that this age of black heroes represents thoughtful commentary on U.S. racism rather than the continuation of it? Black Panther is not the first prominent attempt to diversify the cinematic white superheroics and thus not the first to disappoint. After Netflix’s Daredevil affirmed the strong television market for heroes, the media company moved to develop shows for other characters that populate the comic. Jessica Jones, about a white heroine, was a critical success. It handled its tough female protagonist intelligently. That show introduced the character of Luke Cage (Michael Colter), an indestructible black man. When Netflix announced that Cage would have his own show, the anticipation was intense: a bulletproof black man in the age of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown? And he would wear a hoodie and fight police? Instead we got a tepid depiction Harlem poverty, partly the consequence of institutional racism but more closely tied to the greed expressed by two of its big bad black baddies, Black Mariah (Alfre Woodard) and Cottonmouth (Mahershala Ali). But that was not the worst of it. The ultimate evil in the show’s first and only season is Willis Stryker (Eric Laray Harvey), another black man whom Luke Cage must defeat. Stryker is not only a black villain, but Cage’s adopted brother. Cage must beat his brother to a pulp, just as Panther must kill his cousin.
“A white man who trades in secrets and deception is given a better turn than a black man whose father was murdered by his own family.”
Killmonger isn’t a hero or villain so much as a receptacle for tropes of inner-city gangsterism.
The offenses don’t end, though. If one surveys the Marvel cinematic universe, one finds that the main villains—even those far more destructive than Killmonger—die infrequently. They are formidable enemies who live to challenge the hero again and again. A particularly poignant example is Loki, brother to Thor, the God of Thunder. Across the Thor and Avengers movies that feature him, Loki is single-handedly responsible for incalculable misery and damage; his power play leads to an alien invasion that nearly levels all of Manhattan. Yet Thor cannot seem to manage any more violence against Loki than slapping him around a bit and allowing other heroes to do the same—even as Loki tries to kill Thor. Loki even gets his turn to be a good guy in the recent Thor: Ragnarok. Loki gets multiple, unearned chances to redeem himself no matter what damage he has done. Killmonger, however, will not appear in another movie. He does not get a second chance. His black life did not matter even in a world of flying cars and miracle medicine. Why? Perhaps Killmonger’s main dream to free black people everywhere decisively earns him the fate of death. We know from previous Marvel movies that Killmonger’s desire for revenge is not the necessary condition to eliminate him; Loki’s seeming permanence is proof.
“His black life did not matter even in a world of flying cars and miracle medicine.”
My claim that Killmonger’s black life does not matter is not hyperbole. In a macabre scene meant to be touching, Black Panther carries Killmonger to a plateau so that he might see the sun set on Wakanda before dying. With a spear stuck in his chest, he fulfills his wish to appreciate the splendor his father described, when Wakanda seemed a fairy tale. T’Challa offers Wakanda’s technology to save Killmonger’s life—it has saved the white CIA agent earlier in the film. But Killmonger recalls his slave heritage and tells Panther he’d rather die than live in bondage. He knows the score. He knows that Panther will incarcerate him (as is disproportionately common for black American men). The silence that follows seems to last an eternity. Here is the chance for the movie to undo its racist sins: T’Challa can be the good person he desires to be. He can understand that Killmonger is in part the product of American racism and T’Chaka’s cruelty. T’Challa can realize that Wakanda has been hoarding resources and come to an understanding with Killmonger that justice may require violence, if as a last resort. After all, what else do comic-book heroes do but dispense justice with their armored fists and laser rifles? Black Panther does not flinch. There is no reconciliation. Killmonger yanks the spear out of his chest and dies. The sun sets on his body as it did on Michael Brown’s.
It is fair to wonder whether the movie merely reflects the racial politics of the comic books that serve as its inspiration. Yes and no. In the movie, Killmonger’s relationship to T’Challa is as the comic-book canon portrays it. Killmonger is a deadly killer in the comics as in the movie, but he is also extremely intelligent, studying at MIT to understand the technology he goes on to deploy. In the movie, Killmonger’s only skill is killing; if Coogler intended to make Killmonger a hood-born genius, he has failed badly.
“If Coogler had at all been interested in making Panther a symbol of racial reparation he could have easily placed Klaue in South Africa.”
In the comics, Killmonger also dies at Black Panther’s hands. But KIllmonger dies long after he has come to live in Wakanda, albeit under a veil of deceit, before attempting a coup. The comic thus opens (but ultimately rejects) an opportunity to save Killmonger to fight for another day, just as Loki is repeatedly saved. The movie completely forecloses this possibility, which is odd since we can all be fairly certain that there will be a sequel.
Black Panther is a movie about black empowerment in which the only redeemed blacks are African nobles.
What alternative story-lines might have satisfied?
I couldn’t help think of Ulysses Klaue, a mainline villain in the comics who lives a long, infamous life. He would have been a perfectly good villain to motivate the movie’s attempt at wokeness. In the comics, there is bad blood between the Klaue clan and Wakanda’s royal lineage (Klaue’s Nazi grandfather died by the hands of Chanda, an earlier Wakandan king and Panther). In Klaue, we had a white villain whose bloodline is imbued with the sins of racism. Ramonda, played by the ever-regal Angela Bassett, is temporally misplaced in the movie. In the comics canon, T’Challa takes the mantle of the Panther while Ramonda, T’Challa’s stepmother, is being held captive by a white magistrate in apartheid South Africa. If Coogler had at all been interested in making Panther a symbol of racial reparation he could have easily placed Klaue in South Africa, even post-apartheid, and the rescue of Ramonda—with Klaue in the way—could have driven the narrative. Ramonda is prominent in the movie, but she does not animate the movie’s central drama. Instead, Black Panther is set on a course to kill off his cousin in his first outing, suggesting yet another racist trope, the fractured black family as a microcosm of the black community’s inability to get it together.
“The movie deserves praise for its gender politics—save in relation to the only black American woman.”
You will have noticed I have not said much about the movie’s women. They are the film’s brightest spot: the black women of Wakandan descent are uniformly independent, strong, courageous, brilliant, inventive, resourceful, and ethically determined. I take it that a good deal of this is owed to Ta-Nehisi Coates’s success at elevating the series’ women to central characters with influence and power that turns more on their minds and integrity than their bodies. T’Challa’s sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright), is sufficiently brilliant to make the Q character from James Bond films seem a clever child with some interesting ideas, while Nakia (Lupita N’yongo) is the ethical center of the film, thoughtful and lacking any stereotypical hysterics or emotional cloudiness that so many movies use to savage the intellect of leading women. Thus the movie deserves praise for its gender politics—save in relation to the only black American woman. The character, Tilda Johnson, a.k.a. the villain Nightshade, has, by my count, less than fifteen words to say in the movie, and is unceremoniously murdered by Killmonger because Klaue is using her as a shield and Killmonger just ain’t got time for that. The lone American black woman is disposed of by black-on-black violence. She is also invisible and nearly silent. In the comic books her character is both a genius and alive and well.
Black Panther presents itself as the most radical black experience of the year. We are meant to feel emboldened by the images of T’Challa, a black man clad in a powerful combat suit tearing up the bad guys that threaten good people. But the lessons I learned were these: the bad guy is the black American who has rightly identified white supremacy as the reigning threat to black well-being; the bad guy is the one who thinks Wakanda is being selfish in its secret liberation; the bad guy is the one who will no longer stand for patience and moderation—he thinks liberation is many, many decades overdue. And the black hero snuffs him out.
When T’Challa makes his way to Oakland at the movie’s end, he gestures at all the buildings he has bought and promises to bring to the distressed youths the preferred solution of mega-rich neoliberals: educational programming. Don’t get me wrong, education is a powerful and liberatory tool, as Paulo Freire taught us, but is that the best we can do? Why not take the case to the United Nations and charge the United States with crimes against humanity, as some nations tried to do in the early moments of the Movement for Black Lives?
Black Panther is not the movie we deserve. My president already despises me. Why should I accept the idea of black American disposability from a man in a suit, whose name is synonymous with radical uplift but whose actions question the very notion that black lives matter?
Chris Lebron is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Johns Hopkins University and author of The Making Of Black Lives Matter: A Brief History of an Idea.
This article previously appeared in Boston Review.