I traveled for business and pleasure for eight days before the the east coast premiere of Black Panther. On the final days, I struggled against my unreliable international phone service in a chilly airport terminal to excitedly book my tickets to see the film. As I did, I tried to remember if I’d ever been as excited about a film before. I hadn’t. The feeling in my gut told me that this experience would be important for my son, and I was determined that he was going to see it on opening day. As I navigated the stream of sluggish traffic on the 45 minute drive from Virginia to Bowie, I thought about the implications of him seeing a film like this as a child, especially since I never had the chance back then. Even though I got to see Eartha Kitt as Catwoman and Nichelle Nichols as Uhura when I was a kid, I can’t help but wonder if it would’ve been different for me if I had grown up playing with Dora Milaje dolls instead of black Barbies which back then, disappointingly enough, were simply Barbies made in brown.
I saw Black Panther twice on opening weekend. Once with my son, and again during a screening I co-hosted that Saturday. It was heartwarming to watch children in attendance run and take pictures in front of the promotional cardboard cutouts. Couples showed up in all types of African garb, and I had an impossibly good time watching people file in with proud smiles plastered on their faces. There was so much joy in the theater each time.
Ironically, the reason we
love him empathize with him is the same reason we dislike him. His plan to conquer–though I strongly disagree with most of the details of it–would have been effective because he was a sociopath, just as many conquerors throughout history have been.
Wasn’t chattel slavery carried out by an unfeeling batch of crazies who whipped and castrated men up until the moment it was illegal, then put sacks on their heads and continued to tortured people even after it became “illegal”? Didn’t Qin Shi Huang wage a long, bloody war for a unified China? Didn’t Cortez pull up on Mexico with his young, wild ass and order them to burn the ships? Did the crusades involve friendly knocks on doors with pamphlets about Christianity? No. Before we built our pretty buildings to the sky, people got wiped out. Trampled, enslaved, with their villages pillaged, and plundered by sociopaths who made sure that they didn’t let the ink dry on any peace treaties until enough blood dried on the soil they wished to claim. The founding fathers of most of the world’s empires launched conquests that made Killmonger’s plan sound a tad lighthanded in comparison.
So really, I retract; who we actually feel for is the Erik-N’Jadaka hybrid he was before he became Killmonger. We mourn the boy who could’ve possibly become someone better with more intervention. But what we feel for the man, Killmonger, is a little different.
We do understand his choices–however uncomfortably–in this unsettling way:
We know that it would take someone as evenly attached to violence as they are desensitized by it to upend this enduring colonialist round table in a drastic way, because throughout history, the restructuring of power hierarchies has been established by those who had access to the best weaponry and the gall to use it in an unrestricted, unrelenting manner. Though Killmonger’s brand of villainy was crafted as cinematic hyperbole, and thus designed to be despised by the audience, I think he manages to stir African American audiences because we still ache for relief from the adverse affects of colonialism and know that if Killmonger existed in real life, he’d be the type of person to even the playing field. And that idea will always trouble us because our gut tells us that a better world wouldn’t require a sociopath to balance the scales. Sure, his actions would be viewed as brazen and wrong, sure, but he’d undoubtedly be successful because he would employ methods that have, quite honestly, never failed.
Then, all his followers would have to do is rewrite history in his and their favor, gradually erase the ugliness of his deeds through media propoganda, assasinate or neutralize any leaders who formed movements that were an affront to what he stood for, and crush any other subsequent uprisings through systematic control of the newfound government and its armed forces. Then, voila. The descendants of those involved in his revolt would continue to benefit. Whole thing would take a few hundred years, tops. Sound familiar?
No one’s saying he would’ve been right; rather, history shows us that his methods would’ve been…effective. So, to be clear: We like some of that shit he was talking, but no one wants to gain anything at the expense of becoming a diabolical oppressor themselves.
Like I said, it’s unsettling. If you think about it too hard, your mind will spiral off into a dark place. So let’s switch gears.
A more uplifting angle to focus on is the fact that seeing ourselves in the mainstream media as we’ve seldom seen ourselves before has the potential to spark another kind of revolution. Seeing a young woman of color run the tech lab and manage the transportation and infrastructure demands for a whole nation is major, and one day we may see that many little girls ended up in STEM fields because of their exposure to this film. That theory’s sound, too. I interviewed a black robotics engineer and she told me that she’d been inspired by watching Bionic Woman as a kid
The scene where we witness the most moving ceasefire to ever grace the silver screen was also crucial for people of color to see. When W’kabi drops to his knees in front of the fierce Okoye as a gesture of peaceful surrender, I didn’t care in that moment that it was fiction. What’s more, I realized that I’d ached for a scene like that without knowing it. I’ve yearned to see black love tested and then reaffirmed onscreen, and I still need more of that…preferably with M’Baku as the love interest.
Did I mention that the Wakandan god is female? Yep. Bast is indeed a feminine, war mongering, cat-goddess. Marvel’s feminist streak is still under scrutiny, but it’s looking better after this film.
A tactful, media-based revolution is never a pointless one. Representation will always matter. Observing and learning gender and caste roles through anthropomorphic actors–whether they’re drawn from fiction or an existing pantheon– has been a big part of childhood development in many cultures for hundreds of years (think folklore, oral tradition), and will continue to be. For example, the reason British children’s literature is still studied and dissected so heavily, from Kipling to Newbury, is that strict rules about gender roles and class boundaries are coded into actions of the white lions and pigs our children grow to know and love. The first popular, eurocentric children’s literature aimed at teaching little boys that they were conquerors and heroes, and teaching little girls that if they worked hard enough, a man would marry them.
The latter theme was from Newbury’s The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes, which was written in 17-fucking-65, yet popular media is still running game on little girls and women today. So ask yourself, if representation in media isn’t something we should focus on, why is the stain of misguided imagery still so prevalent today?
We need our Shuris, Okoyes, Nakiahs, and T’Challas. We even need our Killmongers. It’s a spectrum…so it’s okay to savor our villains, too.
Really, I see Black Panther trolls as a good thing because it means that the film poses questions that demand further discourse. Even as harsh critiques of the film are doled out by those who feel that the film insults the legacy of the actual Black Panthers, and that Killmonger’s relationship to T’Challa is a slight to African Americans’ relationship with their estranged African brethren, it’s worth noting that having round, debatable characters to celebrate of villafy versus the flat, one-dimensional ones we’re so used to seeing is a gigantic step forward.
After all’s said and done, thanks is due to directors like Coogler and Duverney. But also, a preemptive thanks is due to the countless indie creators of color who undoubtedly see their work as an inspiration to create and direct more like it.
Most of all, thanks is due to the scores of indie black comic book creators and the unrecognized one who work for the Big Five. They’ve been quietly toiling behind the scenes to bring us diverse content. Hopefully these blockbuster successes will help creators like Robert Jeffrey, Robert Crowson, Tee Franklin, and Roye Okupe get their work optioned for t.v. and film now that the doors have been blown off the box office hinges.
Meanwhile, I’ll be waiting patiently for someone to release the Dora Milaje
dolls action figures. I’ll position mine next on my mantle next to my Killmonger action figure. T’Challa will be up there, too. If they make one of Angela Basset with the silver braids, that would definitely be major–because I’d just put a Storm outfit on her.