“To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious
is to be in a state of rage almost all the time.”
– James Baldwin
*** Just so we are clear, this post DOES contain spoilers, so if you haven’t “scene” Black Panther yet, you were forewarned***
In the days, weeks, months…years(?) leading up to Black Panther’s “recent” opening weekend (okay – ya’ll, it seriously wasn’t recent, so if you have been waiting to Redbox it, just go ahead and catch the matinee event on that little kind of ratchet drive-in theater that waits until the last second to show dollar movies at midnight on Tuesday(!) because you can afford it and it deserves a big screen, even an eerie big screen), blackademia, Twitterverse, liberal allies and other social media sites were celebrating it as the event. Which,if you didn’t know better could’ve made you believe in shit like: Obama’s Presidential inauguration ended racism and Trump’s Presidency began it; the decency and the inherent innocence of colorblind rhetoric or that Black Panther would be like a multicultural Kumbaya come-to-Black-Jesus homecoming.
To clarify: this isn’t to say that Black Panther should not be celebrated.
It should. But, I think it is irresponsible and dangerous to celebrate Black Panther’s success without acknowledging that Black Panther provides a prescribed and dangerous prototyped understanding of black rage.
For a short synopsis: the film opens in 1992 at night in Oakland, CA with a group of young boys playing basketball. Police sirens wail in the background and rioters protest the recent brutal assault of a taxi driver. Eerie green lights appear in the sky and, as black boys stand dazed in the ghetto craning their necks to catch a glimpse, the viewer is suddenly transported to Wakanda, a mythical, afro-futuristic, prelapsarian, African Eden. Wakanda is also home to vibranium, a mythical mineral/life force that is a natural resource.
While this movie has been summarized, critiqued and deconstructed in great detail by almost every major news site, blogger and blackademic and argued about in length in the Twitterverse, I wanted to primarily focus on the under-examined problematic symbolism of Erik Killmonger as a villain by suggesting that his character represents unfettered, stereotyped, “Black rage.”
For the casual viewer, Killmonger’s rage may seem analogous with the prescribed villain-hero dynamics. Set in binary opposition and thus, binary visibility (not unlike the black-white binary opposition model), both the “anti-hero” (Killmonger), and the “hero,” (T’Challa…though that remains rightly disputed), share similar traits, backstories and ancestry. Both Killmonger and T’Challa have lost their father (a telling trait for most superhero films), and both of them are struggling with that ever ubiquitous existentialist dynamic that, when deconstructed long enough, often finds roots in the Judeo-Christian biblical figures.
However, where T’Challa is celebrated for his unique identity, his budding feminine-forward ideology and his wisdom, Killmonger is celebrated for his visceral, raw, unfettered, take-no-prisoners, rage. And yet, neither T’Challa or Killmonger have inspired extensive and intentional discussion regarding the dangers of their symbolism.
(Quick side note: First, for the new white visitor to my blog, it is important to note that black people are not monolithic. My opinion is not and should not be interpreted as the “black” opinion. And second, I am not a superhero junkie. I don’t watch a lot of superhero movies, and I must admit that a lot of the cinematic jargon often escapes me. So, this interpretation won’t take into account some of those details which I’m sure enhance and clarify key storyline details).
For the critical viewer, you may have already noted that Black Panther was originally written by two white men, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in July 1966, (quick note: Black Panther Party was established in October 1966 but there was nocollusion association between the two…which is why, fast forward, the Black Panther became the Black Leopard and then, due to negative reactions, the Black Panther again), and Black Panther was the first African-American Superhero which, inherently – and by virtue of being black, makes the Black Panther political.
These two characteristics are fundamentally important to understand when deconstructing Killmonger’s symbolism because he epitomizes a particularly damaging understanding of black rage primarily because the bias is so subtle, wrapped in its ally rhetoric and black celebratory fullness.
And, that’s how it screws you. Because, you didn’t even see it coming.
While, the recent movie was written and directed by Ryan Coogler, acclaimed director of Creed, Joe Robert Cole and Jack Kirby, and this collaboration is predominately composed of black voices, the symbolism of black rage as villainous relies on a narrative which perpetuates a shallow and white-supremacist understanding of black pain and black suffering and appeases white audiences.
Killmonger’s existence relies on his ability to feed his rage and to call bullshit.
So, Killmonger calls bullshit on:
And, these are characteristics that, I would argue, responsible citizens should intentionally name as bullshit.
However, Killmonger’s violent, chauvinistic, misogynistic andmisogynoir vitriol, rage transforms him into the stereotyped black male predator.
Did you even notice it?
Think about it.
His ideology is dangerous. And, his hatred is literally killing him.
Killmonger takes life without exceptions: male, female, Wakandan, Black and White, (flashback to when Killmonger kills his girlfriend) and he marks himself proudly for each kill that he takes. He is proud, egotistical, strong, smart, sassy, unapologetic and, arguably, easily provoked. All of these characteristics, create a “monster,” and, as T’Challa notes, this “monster is of [Wakanda’s] own making.”
And yet this assumption, while partially true (Wakanda is responsible for Killmonger’s initial abandonment and ensuing nebulous childhood), perpetuates the Killmonger-as monster-narrative by refusing to legitimize his, although dangerously explosive, justifiable rage at the world.
I want to caution this by clarifying that Killmonger’s methods are dangerous, reprehensible and irresponsible.
But, his rage at “The System” is just.
Naming institutions and systems of oppression is venerable.
Nevertheless, Killmonger’s symbolism remains problematic because he primarily illustrates an extremity. Indeed, black rage complicates and personalizes Killmonger’s symbolism partly because black rage is so complex. However, by offering no other stabilized symbolic figure of black rage, the movie suggests that black rage is either extreme and genocidal or baseless.
This illustration is subtle. Maybe you didn’t even pick it up, but the implication correlates with a much darker, deeper contemporary ideology.
As a black woman, I am familiar with rage. I understand how the narrative of the angry black woman both fundamentally works to both destabilize my credibility in both black and white communities and perpetuate my invisibility by capitalizing on the inherent intersectionality of my identities: black and woman. At best, my rage is characterized as emotional and at worst as explosive, baseless and attention-seeking.
I also understand the feeling of justification and, self-proclaimed, “righteous” rage at racism and injustice and oppression that, when I reach for it, has white folks and black folks coming out of the woodwork to tell me to keep that shit to myself or to see a counselor.
See, I too, name and call bullshit on systems which whitewash history and institutions which remain complacent with racism and oppressive ideologies.
And, newsflash: I’m not a genocidal maniac.
Black rage has long been deemed the villainous, arch-enemy of all things white. And the threat of black rage has long been the justification for Neo-Nazi and alt-right campaigns because after all, they surmise, it is just a reasonable expectation that at the end of the day, black people’s ambition is to rob shit, rape and kill white people.
Thus, Killmonger is the perfect villain because he fundamentally represents the stereotyped black monster particularly during a time which was (and arguably still is) embroiled with racism and segregation because he fits the prescribed white nightmare.
So, we swallow this pill because it fits a constructed narrative which we have been taught to believe our entire lives: black men, particularly Black American men, are fundamentally dangerous.
And we don’t ask questions because this is a film that celebrates blackness.
I believe that it is fundamentally irresponsible to watch this film without asking questions because the subtext feeds a narrative which fundamentally rejects the legitimization of black anger by subtly suggesting that black anger is always unreasonable and explosive.
Killmonger’s nameless black girlfriend too fits into this prescribed construction as she too plays a symbolic role: A Jezebel, a sexual plaything which was expendable by both Black American men and White American men.
These depictions of black rage and Black American women (as opposed to and different from African or even African-American women) are equally dangerous when not deconstructed.
Consider Killmonger’s symbolism. His representation remains particularly powerful because it is juxtaposed with T’Challa’s innate goodness. Where Killmonger is impulsive, T’Challa is measured; where as Killmonger exploits the black, female body (and is arguably misogynoir), T’Challa reveres African women. There is no room in Wakanda for black rage, and for Killmonger that means there is no room for Black-Americans. This understanding highlights a particularly knowing cultural and historic and fundamental divide between Black Americans, African Americans and Africa.
Killmonger completes the white nightmare fantasy because he fulfills a familiar historic myth and therefore his rage can never be accepted.
Indeed, Killmonger’s nameless girlfriend also completes a familiar myth. Nameless, expendable, sexualized and shot dead in the middle of a field, she is easily forgotten and overshadowed by the feminine-forward ideology that is Wakanda.
Her body is particularly symbolic because, when investigated, leaves the viewer with an unshakable familiarity that perhaps is reminiscent of the contemporary where other Black and Brown women are left nameless and voiceless…. missing and dead. It smacks of: #missingdcgirls and #MMIW (Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women). It feels like the backs of other women whom often prop up black masculinity, demanding #blacklivesmatter while forgetting their own. It is reminiscent of all the black woman the white women’s movement left behind.
It reminds us that there is always a hierarchy. And that in the hierarchy, the poor black woman has always been last.
If those boundaries require centering black girls and women at all times,
that is not a betrayal of the larger community,
it is a recognition what we, too, deserve unconditional care.”
As I watched, and re-watched (because, let’s be honest…I saw Black Panther twice) Killmonger’s girlfriend die, I couldn’t shake the chill that ran through me because her story was so damn familiar.
And yet within seconds the story line had moved on and there was no resolution.
And, she too was forgotten.
Naming black invisibility and black female expendability too, need to be identified because the inherent ubiquity of these beliefs creates very real, damaging realities. And so I found myself murmuring something dangerous, controversial perhaps, and yet something that felt true and reminiscent of Animal Farm. Something like:
all blacks are created equal but some are more equal
Something that nobody is actually supposed to say out loud.
For me, celebrating Black Panther, not only includes celebrating it as a milestone, but also for recognizing that Black Panther provides uncomfortable social commentary regarding elements within the American Black/ African and African-American community.
And, it is for these truths that I celebrate andfor these truths that I lament.
Shalom, and as always, I would be interested in your thoughts.
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