Disclaimer: This article contains serious spoilers about Marvel's Black Panther.
“To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a state of rage almost all the time.”
This is James Baldwin’s prolific quote about being Black in America and the sentiment that genius screenwriter and director Ryan Coogler tapped into when he wrote his version of the “villain” Erik Killmonger in Marvel’s latest blockbuster film Black Panther.
Michael B. Jordan put his whole foot into playing Killmonger, the man whose royal father was murdered by Killmonger’s uncle, T’Chaka, the king of Wakanda. (Seriously, give Jordan all the supporting actor awards.) Abandoned in Oakland as a kid with no father, Killmonger manages to survive and graduate from MIT.
But Killmonger’s “made it out the hood” story doesn’t include him climbing the corporate ladder and “giving back” with occasional charity donations and motivational speeches to youth about how, with hard work, they too can assimilate successfully. Instead, the former special ops soldier hatches a two birds-one stone plan of vengeance that punishes Wakanda for his father’s murder and empowers Black people throughout the Diaspora to fight back and win against their oppressors.
After T’Chaka’s assassination, Killmonger sees a window to go for the first time behind the invisible shields that hide Wakanda from the rest of the world. Seeking to dethrone his cousin, T’Challa, Killmonger plans to use vibranium, the resource that’s secretly made Wakanda the most technologically advanced nation in the world, to equip Black rebels with the weapons they need to destroy their enemies.
Yes, his desperation for revenge has twisted him into a man who loves to kill—hence the name—and who covers his entire body with self-inflicted battle scars for each person he’s ever murdered. And his constant state of rage manifests in bloody action. But it’s the root of his rage that Coogler so deftly explores in Black Panther.
Killmonger’s pain, abandonment and generational trauma touch on the rawest parts of being African American. Sure, the imprint of the continent our ancestors hailed from is embedded in our gums, but our AncestryDNA results don’t exactly lead us into the open arms of our ancestral cousins. We are a homeless people, not welcomed anywhere. If Wakanda is the Black Promised Land, then we are its forgotten children, sold away, left behind, rejected, condescended to.
Swirling in constant reminders of worthlessness, of the specific anti-Black-American toxicity experienced by Black folk in the U.S.A., Killmonger is angry—not just at white supremacist oppressors or systemic racism, but also the Black Elite who left him behind. And he has every right to want vengeance.
T’Challa, on the other hand, doesn’t want revenge, not even for his murdered father. At the end of Captain America: Civil War, where Black Panther is introduced in the Marvel films, he declines to kill his father’s killer, and even stops the murderer from killing himself, opting for a heart-to-heart, instead; seeking justice through the law.
Perhaps, in Wakanda, the legal system works; justice is real. We don’t see too much of the interiority of Wakandan politics in this first installment of Black Panther, aside from king-making rituals. But at the time of Civil War, T’Challa doesn’t know his father is a cold-blooded murderer who abandoned Killmonger in Oakland. One can only assume that T’Challa’s optimism about justice comes not only from his privilege growing up as royalty, but also his privilege growing up in a seeming Black Excellence Utopia.
Killmonger, a soldier from both the streets and the military, on the other hand, knows there’s no such thing as justice for Black folk. The kingdom of Wakanda certainly can’t right the wrong that was done to his family; King T’Chaka is already dead without ever answering for the murder of Killmonger’s father; and no amount of vibranium can bend time and allow Killmonger to grow up enveloped in glorious Blackness within the safety of Wakanda’s invisible borders.
The fact that T’Challa can choose love when Killmonger is consumed with vengeance isn’t so much a testament to T’Challa’s character as it is an indictment of Wakanda. When its king abandoned Killmonger, he never had a chance. Whatever is good in him exists by miracle.
And there is good in him. The vengeance he seeks is not just personal, or he would’ve been satisfied to dethrone T’Challa and kill both Ulysses Klaue who set his father up, and Zuri, who spied on his father for T’Chaka. Instead, Killmonger’s ultimate goal is a global, Black revolution.
I fist-pumped in the silent, dark theater when he was laying out his plans. IT’S A GOOD IDEA! Even T’Challa’s ex-lover Nakia has pleaded with him for years to actually do something to help their struggling brothers and sisters across the continent and the world. But T’Challa is against it. Nakia leaves him and Wakanda to do her own work to help the oppressed, and still, T’Challa isn’t moved.
So, it’s not like Wakandans are ignorant of what’s happening outside their invisible shield. T’Chaka traveled the world as king and set up Wakandans in America as spies, which is how Killmonger came to be born in Oakland; T’Challa got a PhD from Oxford; and most delicious of all, Wakanda’s tech prodigy Shuri calls the white CIA operative Everett Ross “colonizer.” They know what’s up.
At any point in their development, Wakandans could have stepped in, stopped genocide, and equipped oppressed people the world over to rise up. But they haven’t. T’Challa ain't about that life. He’s about tradition, and Wakanda’s tradition has been self-preservation over everything and everyone else.
Don’t get me wrong; Wakanda’s tradition is reasonable. Europeans have robbed Africa of its people, its resources, its land and its culture for generations. It makes sense for Wakanda to put up an invisible shield, play on the world’s Anti-African racism and protect itself from white ravagers without having to spare any one of their lives in battle. But, there is a cost. Killmonger and the forgotten children paid that cost. Killmonger simply came to collect their due.
“This your king?!” Killmonger growls at the people of Wakanda as he effortlessly beats T’Challa into submission. The implication is not just that T’Challa is weak physically in this moment, but also strategically.
Like Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngzoi Adichie has detailed, “Black” isn’t a concept in Africa. Rightfully, ethnic groups have their own languages, cultures, histories and traditions. Even country borders randomly drawn by colonizers didn’t automatically unify those various groups as one people. “Blackness,” in that context, doesn’t make a ton of sense. But in an anti-Black world, a global identity and unity is necessary for the survival of the whole. With all their brilliance and advancements, Wakandans should’ve been learned that.
So, when Killmonger lifts T’Challa up into the air and throws him down the waterfall, all I could muster was a Kanye shrug and Solange’s warning to “be leery of your place in the world.” It’s T’Challa’s movie, and I’m gonna let him finish, but team #ForgottenChildrenofWakanda all day. Even Kendrick Lamar agrees, or else why would he make the Killmonger anthem “King’s Dead” the hottest song on the soundtrack?
Killmonger then sets about to dismantle Wakanda’s power structure, aiming to render it all but impossible for another king to come after him. “I’m gonna burn it all,” he says. Killmonger is nothing if not forthright.
If they haven’t already, this might be the part where folks start shaking their heads at him, mumbling about crabs in a barrel. But as Bishop Desmund Tutu says, “If you’re silent in the face of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” Maybe only 3 Wakandans knew about Killmonger specifically, but they knew about the plight of Black folks the world over and chose silence. The lesson here is that self-preservation at the cost of everyone else lays the trap for self-destruction.
T’Challa learns this on the long journey down to the bottom of the waterfall. During his near-death experience in Wakandan Heaven, he yells at his father for murdering his uncle and abandoning Killmonger to become what Killmonger has become. T’Challa rejects tradition and finally takes Nakia’s words to heart: “You get to decide what kind of king you are going to be.”
He rises up from the dead and takes back his throne from Killmonger. T’Challa reluctantly kills Killmonger (I think? We don’t actually see him die); after all the destruction Killmonger has wrought in Wakanda, there’s no way Killmonger can survive and he definitely can’t stay in Wakanda now.
But if Killmonger is the avatar for festering Black American pain, his death begs the question: can Black Americans ever go home again? In the creation of Black Panther, the answer is clearly yes: the Diaspora is well-represented in the cast, crew, costumes and soundtrack that make up this gorgeous film. But in the subtext of the script itself, the answer is less apparent. Perhaps Killmonger would have been welcomed had he not come there like a lion, with intent to steal, kill and destroy.
But even if he had come correct, and had been welcomed home, what then? Maybe Killmonger gets on the path to personal healing and doesn’t have to die such a sad, lonely death (though as far as last words go, “Bury me in the ocean, with my ancestors that jumped from the ships, because they knew death was better than bondage,” is friggin epic). But nothing would’ve changed for Black folk in the rest of the world.
The ending of Black Panther doesn’t leave much hope that T’Challa has learned enough or that an end to white supremacy is near. The healed and conquering hero is seen mid-credits bringing a metaphorical folding chair to the table of world leaders. Standing before the white UN, he smirks at the racists who wonder what on earth Wakanda could have to offer the world. Apparently, he’s changed his mind and is ready to use vibranium to help others.
But unless the UN is actually a useful political body in this fictional universe, I’m not sure what confessing your power to the world’s greatest colonizers will do to protect Wakanda or oppressed folks around the globe. We’ll have to wait—and oh, I cannot wait!—to see what answers the sequel will bring as to whether T’Challa is actually doing something worthwhile in this scene.
Thankfully, canon has Killmonger resurrected like a thousand times in different ways for different reasons. Hopefully, Coogler will bring him back in the sequels because T’Challa needs him. The uber-privileged are usually satisfied with their own excellence and benevolence as sufficient revolution. It takes the forgotten children to break the table of the status quo.
Black Panther stars Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong'o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright and Winston Duke, with Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker and Andy Serkis.
The film is directed by Ryan Coogler and produced by Kevin Feige with Louis D’Esposito, Victoria Alonso, Nate Moore, Jeffrey Chernov and Stan Lee serving as executive producers. Ryan Coogler & Joe Robert Cole wrote the screenplay.
Black Panther is in theaters now.
Brooke Obie is the award-winning author of the Black revolution novel Book of Addis: Cradled Embers.