Black Panther, the latest movie into the MCU, has been greeted with the crazily hyped anticipation that its arrival will no doubt 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.
One thing that the film supposedly proclaimed is black empowerment to effectively go against 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 such a pity that Black Panther film that is unique for its black star power and its many thoughtful portrayals of beautiful, proud and 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 African country, a wonder beyond all wonders. The nation’s unbelievably richness and technological advancement goes beyond anything the folks in MIT’s labs could ever dream of. The source of all this wonder is vibranium, a substance miraculous in ways that Black Panther movie does not bother to explain. But so far as we know, it is a great source of energy 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 conceal its great fortune, the nation acts the part of a poor, third-world African country. 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 victorious lore—the vibranium and the inhabitants of Wakanda’s secret heritage and superiority—are far more than imaginative window-dressing. They go to the heart of the mistaken perception that Black Panther is a movie about black liberation.
In the film, T’Challa (played by Chadwick Boseman) has risen to the crown of the nation Wakanda. We know that his father, T’Chaka, the late king, was assassinated in a bomb attack. T’Challa looks up to his father for being wise and great and wants to follow his footsteps. But a heartbreaking revelation will sorely go against T’Challa’s idealized image of his father.
Black Panther film’s opening action scenes revolves on a criminal partnership between arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (played by Andy Serkis) and Eric Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan). Both of the two look for vibranium but for different reasons: Klaue is attempting to profit from Wakanda’s wonder-material while Killmonger is attempting to make his way to Wakanda to challenge for the crown. He truly thinks he is the rightful ruler of Wakanda.
As it turns out, Killmonger is actually 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 realized that N’Jobu was sent to the US as one of Wakanda’s War Dogs, a division of secret agents that the reclusive country sends out 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 learns that his people have the potential to help all black people, and he plans to develop weapons using vibranium to even the odds for black Americans. This is radical stuff; the Black Panther (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 doesn’t want to help any black folks anywhere; for him and the majority of Wakandans, what is first is the nation of Wakanda. 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 the poor side of Oakland, he matures to turn into a ruthless soldier to make good on his father’s radical scheme to use Wakanda’s power to liberate black lives everywhere, by force if necessary.
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 view of international black solidarity who are enlightened to use Wakanda’s wealth to emancipate all black lives.
These imaginings could be made to reconcile, but the movie’s director and writer (with Joe Cole), Ryan Coogler, makes viewers choose. Killmonger comes back to Wakanda and brawls with T’Challa’s claim to the reign 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. He is the revolutionary willing to claim what he asks for by any means necessary, but he doesn’t have 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 huge number of evidences of his efficacy does not regard Killmonger as a good or bad guy so much as a receptacle for tropes of inner-city gangsterism.
It ultimately all ends up a fight between T’Challa and Killmonger that can only be read one way: in a world strike with racism, a man of African nobility must battle his own blood relative whose aim is the global liberation of black lives.
In a showdown that takes an unexpected turn, T’Challa lands a deadly blow to Killmonger, lodging a spear in his chest. As Black Panther film uplifts the African royalty at the expense of the black American man, every crass principle of modern black respectability politics is upheld.
In the year of 2018, a world that is home to both the Movement for Black Lives and a president who sees white supremacists as good people, we are given a film about black empowerment where the only redeemed blacks are African nobles. They protect virtue and goodness against the menace not of white Americans or Europeans, but a black American guy, the most lethal person in the world.
Even in a comic-book film, black American men are dwindled to the lowest rung of political status. So low that the only white leading character in the film, the CIA agent Everett Ross (Martin Freeman), gets to be a hero who helps protect Wakanda. A white dude who secretly trades and deception is given a greater turn than a black guy whose father was killed by his own family and who is left by family and country to languish in poorness. That’s racist.
Who could dream of that this era of black heroes represents thoughtful commentary on U.S. racism instead of the continuation of it? This film is not the first prominent attempt to diversify the cinematic white superheroism and so not the first to let people down.
After Netflix’s Daredevil affirmed the firm TV market for heroes, the media company moved to develop series for other characters that populate the comic. Jessica Jones, about a white female hero, was a huge success. It handled its tough female protagonist intelligently. That series introduced us to the character of Luke Cage (played by Michael Colter), an invincible black dude. When Netflix announced that Cage would have his own series, the anticipation was crazy: an indestructible black man in the era of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown? And he would wear a hoodie and start messing with police? We instead got a tepid depiction Harlem poorness.
This is in some parts the outcome of institutional racism but more closely related to the greed expressed by two of its major black villains, Black Mariah (Alfre Woodard) and Cottonmouth (Mahershala Ali). But that was not the worst part. The ultimate baddie in the series’ first and only season is Willis Stryker (played by Eric Laray Harvey), another black guy whom Luke Cage must take down. Stryker is not only a black bad guy, but also Cage’s adoptive brother.
Cage must beat his brother to a pulp, just as Black Panther must eliminate his cousin. The offenses don’t end, though. If one asks the MCU, one finds that the main baddies—even those far more dangerous than Killmonger—die infrequently. They are mighty and hard-to-be-beaten enemies who live to challenge the hero repeatedly.
A particularly prime example is Loki, Thor, the God of Thunder’s evil brother. Across the Thor and Avengers flicks that have him featured, Loki is single-handedly responsible for incalculable misery and destruction; his power play leads to an alien invasion that almost 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 chance to turn good guy in the newest installment, Thor: Ragnarok. Loki gets countless, unearned chances to redeem himself no matter what damage he has created.
Sadly, Killmonger will not show up in another installment. He does not get a second chance. His black life did not matter even in a world of cars that can fly and miracle medicine. Why? Maybe Killmonger’s ultimate dream to free black lives everywhere rightfully earns him the fate of death. We know from last Marvel films that Killmonger’s desire for revenge is not the necessary condition to kill him; Loki’s seeming permanence is proof.