Black Panther is Not An American Hero
Ryan Coogler and Michael B Jordan are the only men in film who are making movies about and for black boys. Their latest installment in this campaign, Black Panther, is a psychedelic adventure tragedy. At once a stunning Afrofuturist pop-art movie and serious film that captures the tectonic power of black father/son dynamics. It is also a cautionary tale about what becomes of those young men who are denied that bond and left to rot.
This warning bell is not new. There are hundreds of thousands of hours of reportage on this subject, from Gil Scott Heron all the way to Kendrick Lamar. Black boyhood is statistically cut in half, young black men are today five times more likely to be incarcerated than their white counterparts, despite proportionally equal levels of criminal activity. Public education is an object lesson in how to impoverish an entire population's intellect. Adult black male incarceration rates are 20% higher than their white counterparts for the same crimes.
And every black man is a little bit Killmonger for it.
(It should be noted that racial disparities in prison population are declining but that's only because more white men are going to jail so... progress?)
Having lost his father, a prince of the fictional central African nation of Wakanda, Killmonger was left to fend for himself as a child. As he comes up on the streets of Oakland (the original home of the Black Panther Party) he is subjected to all that entails. Drugs, gangs, over policing, police violence, etc. When he is old enough he does what many boys have no choice but to do: he joins the military. This is the genius of the character. Killmonger is a Wakandan, which means he is head and shoulders above his peers. He is naturally stronger, quicker, sharper of sense. Yet it is the American military that hones him into the lethal fighter that he is.
It would have been easy to draw Killmonger as just another street thug who schemes and claws his way to his showdown with the Wakanda hero T'Challa. It also would have been a safer, less politically fraught characterization, that would have played into racial stereotypes. But Srs. Coogler and Cole are astute observers of the contradictions inherent in the American racial experience. They understand the simultaneously abusive and demanding relationship between the white power structure and those caught in its gears. America doesn't just want to abuse you, it wants your loyalty for it.
Killmonger's father (another masterclass of subtle acting from Sterling K. Brown) ventured out of his peaceful, technologically advanced, nation's hidden capitol in a rare engagement with the outside world. His mission was to observe the state of modern society from Oakland but his conscience couldn't stand to sit idle. He also fell in love with Killmonger's mother and voila: Killmonger was literally born of the black freedom struggle. And it is poignant that he earned his nickname dropping bodies in Iraq and Afghanistan--two nations populated with more brown people living in poverty--for the Central Intelligence Agency.
It's what he was trained to do," a CIA agent says of Killmonger at one point. "Go into a third world country and destabilize it in a time of transition."
When his evil plan is revealed there was a part of me that thought: please do. Killmonger has spent a lifetime killing and scheming his way to Wakanda so he can ultimately take the throne. He is royalty after all. But what he really wants is to distribute Wakanda's superior weaponry to the ghettos of the world so they can finally rise up and destroy their oppressors. A moment in which, I'm sure, every fox news viewer felt their stomachs bottom out.
Killmonger is a monster only America could make. He is also a heartbroken boy who has no tools to tame the rage that comes with being black in America.
Ryan Coogler has explored these themes before most recently in Creed. In that movie another black son is raised fatherless and can only communicate with the world through violence. That character, though, was able to create a new father/son relationship with an aging Rocky Balboa. He finds purpose and joy. He even gets a girlfriend.
Killmonger probably won't be filling out any Match profiles in the near future.
While no one usually cries for the bad guy, it's always more fun to play him. Prince T'Challa, played with seriousness and solemnity by Chadwick Boseman, is pretty much a bore. He's noble, earnest, kind of corny and a great fighter. There isn't an ounce of guile in him, which is why when he finally learns that his nemesis was left to rot in the projects of Oakland by his own father, the king, and thereby became the hardened monster he now faces, he can't believe anyone would do such a thing to a child. He feels for Killmonger because he understands that his evil isn't motivated by greed, or a quest for power. He is motivated by injustice and pain and in many ways it is righteous. T'Challa, however, knows he must be stopped, sympathy or no.
Fantastic battles ensue, pitting Killmonger and his allies against T'Challa. And let's face it: the movie isn't called Killmonger. It's called Black Panther. Of course the good guy wins. But it is a bittersweet victory, made sorrowful by the earnestness of Killmonger's final scene. I'll spare you too many details here but ever-gracious in victory T'Challa transports his defeated cousin to a vantage where he can view the gorgeous Wakanda sunset in his final moments. It is a sight Killmonger's father told him about, but one he's never seen. These two men, who only moments earlier were desperately trying to kill one another, are calm, even kind with one another as they take in the beauty. Both of them know Killmonger is about to die.
"We can save you," the prince says, referencing that zero-pay, alien technology Wakandan health plan. Boseman delivers the line with the appropriate amount of gravity and futility.
Killmonger shakes his head, nearly crying. "So I can live in a cage? Nah. Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from the slave ships because they knew: it is better to die than live in bondage."
The best villains are a little bit right, and a whole lot charming. Michael B Jordan's Killmonger will be mentioned in conversation with Heath Ledger's Joker. But where they diverge is the real-world political and cultural relevance they embody. Ledger's Joker is a seductive harbinger of anarchy. He embodies the chaos that society is always resisting. It is an abstract idea and yet universal. Killmonger is far more specific a critique of America itself. He is the truth about the effects of white supremacy on the African diaspora writ large.
If these last few years have made anything plain in the national discourse it is this: white America doesn't want to accept, let alone understand, that black and brown people around the world have every reason to be murderously angry. That is changing for the better in this age of social media and the diversification of voices on the internet. Yet with every police shooting, every racist tweet, every phony outrage, corporate theft of neighborhoods and land, every blackface party, every asshole in a hate group, that anger grows.
However, like Mr. Boseman's Prince T'Challa, the prevailing sentiment isn't violence. In fact violent crime is down. Like the generators of the freedom struggle who understood as early as the 17th century that the human race is now and forever racially entwined, the only way forward is peace and truth. Violence and grief will only create more violence and grief. Replacing one racial-supremacist class with another will only restart the cycle. Love and wisdom are the only way for our species to survive.
But for the black community that work must be taken up by black men saving black boys.
It's no accident that the film ends with a scene between Prince T'Challa, a young black leader, with a child quite literally looking up to him. The Prince and his tech-genius sister have landed in Oakland and they are going to start a community built on education that includes Wakandan technology and culture.
The kid asks him, "who are you?"
The Prince cracks a wry smile. We never hear his answer because we know already.
Nobody sheds tears for the bad guy. This is as close to an axiom about movie making as you'll find. But if Killmonger is what happens to boys who are abandoned by the men who are responsible for them, and left to the claws of a racist society, his death is a tragedy. And it is only when good men intervene that the boys of today become the light of the future.