Stemming from a Conversation with my Friend Carlos Brown
After Seeing the Film Together.
Also, I originally wrote this in response to a commenter to whom Killmonger seemed a two-dimensional “freedom fighter” and who, being European, had little experience with the African diaspora and its legacy.
I think pre-T'Challa Wakanda is a metaphor for the real world USA, which does so much less than it could; instead spending disproportionately on defense. And, like Wakanda, has a very limited refugee program.
The moral of the Killmonger character's story line was not about the dangers of “becoming a despot.” He was not a freedom fighter. He was a black youth orphaned by murder who joined the military to escape poverty and abandonment—and that’s not fiction, that’s just America. He then studied, fought, and eventually became a highly skilled and experienced US black ops/CIA asset trained in toppling regimes.
He represents the very real enemies white supremacy in the US (cloaked or otherwise) has made of its citizens. He is the very real feeling that comes to burn in peoples’ hearts when they are oppressed: if the system does nothing but harm me, the system (ie the US) is my enemy and I have no choice but to flip whose neck the boot is on.
And it’s hard to blame him for this attitude — it's a rational response to experience — which makes Killmonger not a villain but a tragic figure. It is also a common, hard-to-blame-people-when-the-police-are-shooting-them-disproportionately, opinion that the realities of life in America has force-birthed in many hearts.
Killmonger is also a warning: white supremacy reaps what it sows.
For that matter, each of the main characters of Black Panther—in addition to being three dimensional persons, exciting to watch, etc.—represents an argument in the dynamic of race and outreach.
In fact, it’s downright Hegelian.
T’Chaka (thesis) = we must fear those who will take all we have, if they only knew. Isolate and hide. The best we can hope to do is protect our own and perhaps, clandestinely, a few others. To try and protect/help everyone would be the death of our loved ones, the end of our existence. This echoes a common Americanism: “We are not the world’s policemen...”
Killmonger (antithesis) = the proper response to the truth that they all hate us and, if they only knew, would take everything we have is not to hide. It’s to conquer them first. We will have nothing to fear if we rule them. It’s bigger than that, but more on Killmonger below.
T’Challa (synthesis) = we can’t do everything, but we must do something. A measured reveal that slowly lets us help those that we can without risking too much is the right approach (outreach, refugee programs, etc). And if the “wise men build bridges not barriers” comment isn’t about the stupid Mexican border wall, then I’m a donkey.
There's your Hegel 101: thesis, antithesis, synthesis; but it goes further. The secondary characters of the film are all various responses to those three policy positions and practically a taxonomy of personality types juxtaposed against the political.
The General = the many is far more important than the one. The rule of law is all, up to and including killing my husband if that’s what protecting the rule of law requires. Also, separation of military and civilian life.
The Husband = policy, shmolicy. All that matters are my immediate emotions of outrage and hurt. I follow whoever meets my emotional needs (ie vengeance on Klaw), whatever the consequences. In the end he _kneels_ to the rule of law.
The Family (Queen Mother, Shuri, Kneela) = policy, shmolicy. Loyalty to family is what matters. In this case, that happens to be the main character, so we cheer. But it might not always be so.
M’Baku = the T’Chaka attitude of real politik that, while it might be influenced by family, emotions, honor, debts, etc., is in the end primarily concern not for the personal but for what will benefit the majority, the people for whom M’Baku is responsible. Recall, he is most bothered that his people are left out of civic life, "No king has visited these mountains..." And he is most persuaded by T’Challa’s argument of “You think they won’t be coming for you next?” This is the pragmatist response that will always be with us.
The Tolkien White Dudes (pun intended if not originally mine) = two different sides of racism. Klaw is obvious and overt: “I’m really more your sort” he says to CIA Bilbo. And “Savages! They’re savages!” he says before he dies—of the people who are more courtly and more technologically advanced than any other nation on Earth! Klaw is all about exploiting them, he wants what the Wakandan’s have. Hell, Klaw deserves his own essay on the way his character represents a certain kind of racism. For example, note that Klaw never calls Killmonger a savage, even as Killmonger prepares to kill him; rather, Klaw takes that moment and says it to Killmonger about the Wakandans. Why? Because Killmonger followed a white-majority-ordained social script (join the military, become our tool of regime destabilization) and therefore gets a pass. In racist terms, Killmonger is not uppity. Really, that relationship alone deserves yet another essay.
CIA Bilbo represents a different brand of racism. Privilege is wrapped up in his character, as demonstrated by his repeated assumption of an authority to which he’s not really entitled—because he represents white America and American policy as only the CIA can represent presumptive, white America. CIA Bilbo assumes he can just order people around in the Casino. He assumes authority left and right.
When M’Baku ape-barks him into silence, that’s not just a funny moment. It is vitally important and utterly pertinent that CIA Bilbo gets ape-barked into silence and told that he cannot speak by M’Baku, as that moment encapsulates/mirrors the experience of so many black people in America who are told to shut up about racism. They are repeatedly barked into silence when, really, they are the only ones who personally and immediately know what the fuck they are talking about. Black people are the experts on racism, not us. CIA Bilbo is a mirror for American racism as exercised, at turns wittingly and unwittingly, by even those who strive to be benevolent and contribute. Only after he admits his own ignorance (about flying the Wakandan shuttle) and shuts up and listens to Shuri can he actually help.
An Additional Note: Carlos pointed out to me how important it is that M'baku says to CIA Bilbo that he cannot speak, NOT that he may not speak. This is an important distinction. In essence M'baku says to CIA Bilbo that he is rendered unto an animal. That his mouth noises are like a gorilla barking, which in turn mirrors the way in which black voices have been treated in America.
But that too really deserves a whole other essay; for example, we have not even scratched the surface of the implications of M'baku's ownership of "ape-ness" given the derogatory role being called “ape” plays in the history of race relations. Think of the way that the word "n!gger" or "queer" or "b!tch" has been reclaimed by the folks against whom it is casually hurled as an insult. M’Baku has reclaimed “ape-ness” in the same way. Again, just that naunce deserves its own essay.
At every turn, I could go on pointing out mirrors and parallels. The narrative structure of Black Panther was brilliant and reflected American race relations (and what those relations have birthed over the centuries) to a T. This film is already being taught in universities.
And Killmonger’s final lines? OMFG, I wept.
“Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from ships, ‘cause they knew death was better than bondage.”
My friend I saw this with, who is black, was shaking, overwhelmed, weeping at this line. It resonates and resonates powerfully for those here who descend from the enslaved, whose parents and grandparents and great grandparents shared the stories of their oppression, who experience racism in America today.
I don’t know how to explain, and frankly I’m unfit to explain, how powerful this is... I’m more like the guy who needs to listen to Shuri before I can be helpful.
So instead I’ll leave you with this as the best I can do: someone else’s words, from The Atlantic