Aidee Tejeda Manzano
April 27th 2018
The Marvel Film Black Panther directed by Ryan Coogler is ostensibly a typical comic book superhero-villain narrative: Killmonger (Erick Stevens) as the murderous villain with no mercy and the Black Panther (T’Challa) as the brave prince of Wakanda. However, these two characters actually represent two opposing conceptions of black identity in the world. Killmonger is an allegory for African American pain and a hero for diasporic Africans. While, T’Challa is an allegory for ancestral privilege and a hero for the Wakandans. But, overall both of these characters are anti-heroes.
Killmonger and T’Challas upbringings were those of an orphan and a prince. Killmonger was stripped of this birthright, he is the son of King T’Chaka’s brother N’Jobu. N’Jobu had taken a war dog assignment in the United States. During his time in the states he witnessed the oppression of his people such as mass incarceration and poverty He falls in love with an African American woman. Killmonger’s father helps Ulysses Klaue steal vibranium from Wakanda in an effort to gain the resources to aid his suffering brothers and sisters. T’Chaka confronts him and ends up killing him. In T’Chaka’s defense the murder was to the save the life of Zuri, when frankly it was to maintain a lie about Wakanda being a primitive country. T’Chaka’s attempt to save a life damned Killmonger’s life. Killmonger is left alone in the hoods of California to survive. By his own merit, Killmonger graduates from MIT and joins the military’s ghost units. In the military he severs the role of a tool to take down governments. Killmonger only knows stories of Wakanda and its surreal beauty. A Wardog tattoo is left to him by his father, as his key into his native land. A native land, that he kind of resents. The land that outcast his father and his people (non-Wakandan Blacks).
T’Challa is the son of T’Chaka, making Killmonger and him cousin, and is the Black Panther. T’Challa is surrounded by support and culture from his family. He wants for nothing, expect for aid in progressing through life without his father. His father who he idealized and worshiped just to find out he was not the man he believed him to be. T’Challa’s ancestral privilege blinded him from seeing the truth and Killmonger’s desire to use Wakanda’s resources to support other blacks globally. This ancestral privilege cuts him off from feeling connected to other black communitys’s worldwide, because he knows specifically what place he is from and what people are his. All of the Wakandans have always been home, as opposed to the black community of diasporic Africans Killmonger is from. In the eyes of the Wakandans presented in the film, with the exception of Nakai, they see only themselves as each other’s people. W’Kabi comments on foreign aid were simply “if you let refuges in they bring their problems,” T’Challa did not appear to oppose this comment (Black Panther). Through darker lenses Wakanda parallels US isolationism with not wanting to be involved with matters that do not concern them, but having spies planted all over the world.
Killmonger as an allegory for black pain was presented in the opening Museum scene. In the British museum scene with the African artifacts, Killmonger is casually browsing the art pieces. He is the only black person present in the scene and the only person being watched by the white security team. He confronts the museum curator by asking about a hand axe, he corrects her on where the axe is actually from (Wakanda). In a condescending tone she does not believe him. It is almost ironic that a white person will not believe a black person on their own history. Killmonger throws in her face that he will just take the artifact back, just as her ancestors stole it on the first place. The women’s face looks appalled as if he had said lies. By using medium and medium close-up shots of Killmonger and the museum curator, the directors were able to establish the tense dialog between the two characters. In this scene Killmonger is showing the desire all minorities have to want pieces of their culture and nation back. Because, if not being able to physically visit a piece of home can be a medium, an especially strong medium if home has never been seen. Killmonger fits this profile, since he was born in the United States and only heard stories about Wakanda. Before making his escape with the vibranium axe, Killmonger spots a traditional mask and says he is “feeling it”, even if it opposes his urban style (Black Panther). His denim jacket, white shirt, gold chain, hipster glasses, and dreadlocks to the side depicted Killmonger as the black community that has lost their connection to their ancestral state and have taken on the common style of their new world.
On the other hand, T’Challa when not in his Black Panther suit is shown in his traditional textiles alongside his family and friends who also embody traditional African culture. T’Challa is presented in his native land first, not visiting a foreign land like Killmonger. Multiple extreme long shots are done when introducing Wakanda, while when introducing Killmonger’s home only a vertical long shot of a apartment building is done in the perspective of young Erik (Killmonger). The extreme long shot of Wakanda shows its beautiful rural areas, its massive waterfall, the busy market place that is a melting pot for all the different tribes, and the high tech buildings. In Killmonger’s home everyone is alike, in T’Challa’s people can be differentiated based of their clothing and physical alternations. T’Challa’s people are all from different tribes, but they give the illusion of a common heart beat after the coronation with the “X” dance which sounds like a giant heartbeat. T’Challa’s home has light, colors, and traditional music from drums. He has the most beautiful sunset in the world, the sun set promised to Killmonger by his father, the sun set that was also his birth right. Just as all diasporic Africans and those stolen from their homelands deserved their sunsets.
Further examination of T’Challa’s coronation shows how accepted he was by the Wakandans because of his ancestral privilege. The common heart heat beat was for him and possibly followed his own. A long shot in the perspective of T’Challa after defeating M’Baku shows his people cheering him on and the sun light illuminating him. In the last step of the coronation, T’Challa must be transported to the ancestral plane. In his ancestral plane he is dressed in a white shirt with gold African prints on the collar. He is presented to his father and other ancestors in panther form. His ancestral plane is in a beautiful African savanna with a pink and purple sun set. He gets a positive message on how to rule in his father’s absence.
On the contrary, Killmonger’s coronation has an air of hostility. The Queen Mother, Ramonda, did not believe he had the right to challenge T’Challa for the thrown even after he reveled his royal linage. I was shocked that Killmonger was not received with any sympathy by anyone. These royals probably knew his father and knew what he suffered as a child, yet no one gave him a chance. Zuir who Killmonger knew as uncle James, does nothing in defense of Killmonger but jumps in the defense of T’Challa. This occurred similarly to how black issues are treated in our society. The recent increase in school shootings, emphasized how differently our society reacted to a shooting at a more privileged and white school as opposed to a shooting at a predominantly black school. Since Killmonger was not an original Wakandan they were ready to throw him out as an outsider. It was a great moment when Killmonger introduced himself in his native tongue and not English, I believe that showed his want to be accepted and his vailed connection to Wakanda. It exemplified that he was not some nomad, he has roots but those roots won’t bind him. During the fight for the crown, there were some moments when T’Challa fought hard but Killmonger physically was stronger. T’Challa was driven by his pride to defeat an outsider and Killmonger was driven by the suffering he endured to get what was his. Killmonger is presented as merciless, unlike T’Challa who showed mercy for M’Baku. These two situations cannot be clearly compared, because of the differences in context. Showing mercy to M’Baku would not make T’Challa lose Wakanda but if Killmonger had shown mercy to T’Challa he would have lost his dream.
The dream he wanted so badly he cut himself off emotionally in order to achieve. The dream the sheltered privileged T’Challa was given by birth. After defeating T’Challa, Killmonger says, “is this your king” to the Wakandas enforcing his belief that he is the rightful ruler of Wakanda. Even with his strength he is not accepted fully. The Wakandan citizens, except for the royal and military members, are not present to acknowledge him. He is giving one short “X” or heartbeat, it was given in fear not love. Killmonger’s ancestral plane takes the form of the small apartment in the hood. Instead of being presented in his prime state, he is shown as a vulnerable boy. His father is the only person there, reinforcing that Killmonger has no connection to his ancestor. As a child he tells his father that no tears have been shed for him and that death is common. That is the reality of Killmonger’s life. All he knows is death is a way to survive, unlike T’Challa who’s experience with loss has been limited. Killmonger’s acceptance of death makes it easy for him to want to completely eliminate the oppressor and control the world as a practical solution for his people. He does not care about the lives that will be lost. No tears were shed for his father, so why should he shed tears for the death of others. After returning from the ancestral plane, he forces the caretakers of the garden to destroy the heart shaped herb. This scene was contradictory, Killmonger wants to be a part of Wakanda but he also wants to destroy its past and re-direct its future.
The last scene of Killmonger is a long shot that comes in closer from behind him. All the audience see is the flames engulfing the garden and the king “full of hatred” (Black Panther). The scene that formally introduces Killmonger to his thrown is shot upside down and gradually fixes itself. The shot is accompanied with music by Kinderic Lamar, not drums like T’Challa’s, this scene was the power transition. As opposed to T’Challa’s simple silver “suit chain”, Killmonger is dressed with the large gold chain. Killmonger as the representation of black pain shows how out of its way black pain has to go to be noticed. All Killmonger has done has been exaggerate and he had to be extra in order for his pain to be seen.
His extreme radicalness was necessary to get the point across of how large black pain that a radical solution is the only one. Killmonger had to be radical to challenge T’Challa’s privilege. Challenging T’Challa’s privilege was the only way for T’Challa to be presented as an anti-hero not the perfect superhero. In the final scene, on his “deathbed” Killmonger says, “bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from the ships, because they knew death was better than bondage,” he is confirming that he is the black man, women, and child whose history has been stripped and have been forced into oppression (Black Panther). Heavy is the head the wears the crown, but even heavier are the hearts of those that are chained down.
This spilt in identity in the black community is a shared with other minority groups that experience migration either by pull or push factors. As a Latina who was born in the United States but raised in Mexico for five years, I’ve experience both sides. When I moved back to the U.S. I felt T’Challa’s ancestral privilege. However, after living in the U.S. for several years and then returning to Mexico, I was not accepted. I was considered “white”, my cousins did not speak to me for a week because they did not think I spoke Spanish. As minorities our identities are split, complex, and sometimes unknown to us, however our pain persist.
Black Panther. Directed by Ryan Coogler, performances by Chadwich Boseman, Lupita Nyong’o, and Michael B. Jordan, Marvel, 2018