The most powerful moment in a movie filled with rich themes and meaning, unbelievable action and futuristic technology came in a quiet and solemn conversation between T’Challa and his deceased father, T’Chaka, as they spoke in the ancestral plane. In that moment, Black Panther collapsed before his baba and confessed that he was unsure of his ability to be king in the absence of his father. That’s when it happened. That’s when T’Chaka spoke to every Black person around the world and quietly said…
Criticisms of Black Panther
The first real criticisms of Black Panther emerged even before the opening weekend was completed. Most of the critiques address disappointment in the role of the CIA and the perceived depiction of Black liberation in the film.
First, Christopher Lebron argues that Black Panther, “in the midst of powerful portrayals of Black women, depends on a shocking devaluation of black American men.” Lebron claims:
…[V]iewers 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 vision of global black solidarity who are determined to use Wakanda’s privilege to emancipate all black people.
These imaginings could be made to reconcile, but the movie’s director and writer… makes viewers choose.
Journalist Leslie Lee, III had, perhaps, the most biting version of this critique:
Black Panther is a deeply evil film. It dangles the idea of global black liberation in front of you, paints that as villainous, then ends in an orgy of the freest black people to ever walk the earth slaughtering each other to protect whites. That shit turned my stomach.
Here, Lebron and Lee have oversimplified the complex narrative director Ryan Coolger presented and reduced it into a “good guy versus bad guy” trope in which lines must be drawn and teams formed: Team T’Challa versus Team Killmonger.
However, Coogler wasn’t asking the audience to choose. Coogler was asking the audience to see ourselves in the blurred lines of heroes and villains where we, the viewers, are both victims and monsters.
T’Challa as Hero and Villain
Wakanda was a xenophobic, isolationist nation led by an elitist monarch focused on maintaining their own ethnostate. In this manner, T’Challa and the people of Wakanda were villains to the world of poor and impoverished people whom, like Killmonger, they abandoned. As we cheered for their isolation to remain intact — even if only for their own protection, we too became villains. The irony of this, of course, is that we — the Black American audience — aren’t Wakandans; rather, we are the abandoned children of Wakanda.
T’Challa and the Wakandans were the heroes of the narrative insomuch as they allowed us to dream of a world untouched by colonialism. They can be considered heroes in that they saved Wakanda and their technologies from being improperly introduced into the world and saved the world from being engulfed in a war that undoubtedly would kill hundreds-of-millions including Black people.
Some may see T’Challa as a hero for his efforts to help “fix the problems of the inner-city” at the end of the movie through “outreach centers.” I do not view this as heroic. I view this as a tired-cliche of elitist efforts to rid themselves of guilt over the poverty that surrounds their unimaginable wealth.
Killmonger as Hero and Villain
Killmonger was a broken and abandoned child of Wakanda forced to fend for himself in a white supremacist society who overcame with nothing more than his own determination. In this way, Killmonger was a hero. He spoke of Black liberation and the plight of Black people around the globe. He properly diagnosed the problem of Wakanda’s isolationism and abandonment of Black people around the world. In this way, Killmonger is our hero.
However, Killmonger was not a symbol of Black liberation despite his words and language deceptively conveying as much. In any event, Black liberation is not a solidified and agreed upon concept amongst Black people in the real world. How could Killmonger, who was created by two white men, ever be the personification thereof?
As in the comics, Killmonger was a psychotic killer. His motivation wasn’t the liberation of black people any more than it was to properly and carefully lead Wakanda. He claimed that the “sun will never set on the Wakandan empire” yet he destroyed the garden of the Heart-Shaped Herb — the mystical plant that grants the Black Panther his superhuman abilities. This meant that, after Killmonger, there would be no other Black Panther to protect Wakanda leaving her vulnerable to an outside world that would now have access to Vibranium technology and weapons.
Killmonger’s goal was to cause the world to suffer as much as he suffered. He was willing to destroy the world along with Wakanda to ensure we all experienced his pain.
Both Victims and Monsters
This is exactly the complex narrative with which the director wanted the audience grapple. Wakanda was as much a part of the problem as they were the heroes of the story. Killmonger was a multi-layered villain with the proper diagnosis of Wakanda’s sins. He had the emotional trauma that reasonably supported his Disney-esque, villainous plot to rule the world but needed to be stopped nonetheless.
Evil Radicals versus the Good CIA Agent?
Sociologist and author, Crystal Flemming, wanted to know how the Black Panther Party for Self Defense would feel about a movie that represents “black radicalism as the ultimate evil and [portrays] the CIA as the friend of Wakanda,” concluding that this portrayal was “offensive and violent on a level that is difficult to put into words.”
Black radicalism was not represented as the ultimate evil; world domination through ruthless violence, even at the hands of Black people, was the evil that the Wakandans stopped. Should we who fight against the evil and brutality of American imperialism now excuse that same brutality and domination simply because its wielded by our brother?
And what of the CIA? Black Panther, along with every other comic and movie in the MCU is an American-centric story. At the core of this universe is both the duplicitous and brutal SHIELD and CIA. In every other Marvel movie, these organizations are venerated — even at times when they appear to be fascistic and authoritarian. In Wakanda, the CIA was reduced to a single character who filled the role that Black people have had to fill in nearly every movie ever created — the hapless, token character who would not survive without the help of the heroes.
If the CIA or SHIELD had to be present in the movie for MCU continuity, I prefer my agents as the useless tokens who we all wondered, “Why is he even here? Why is he speaking?” versus the venerated, authoritative position given in every other MCU movie.
And then there was this critique offered by former Green Party Vice-Presidential candidate, Ajamu Baraka:
This critique is worth mentioning; however, it has been sufficiently addressed in this piece. Black Panther was not meant to represent Black liberation or radicalism. The movie highlighted the problems that exist even in an utopian Black society.
The so-called villain, Killmonger, was heroic in that he exposed the problems of Wakanda and pushed the so-called hero, T’Challa, away from his own extremism of isolationism. Nevertheless, Killmonger was the greater villain in that he sought global, Black domination through the same violence and force we oppose in American imperialism.
Stand Up. You Are a King
What makes Black Panther so revolutionary as a storyline is that Black people could, for the first time on this scale, see ourselves as the hero and the villain without the need to ignore the fact that we aren’t white.
But how we identified with the characters went far beyond race. We could see ourselves having the heart of King T’Challa as he learned to cope with his responsibilities as leader and protector of his people while fighting the imposter syndrome — the feeling that we aren’t qualified for the positions we hold.
Simultaneously, we saw ourselves as the villain, Killmonger, dealing with the trauma of being abandoned and alone to grow up as a Black person in a white supremacist society.
We could see ourselves as the father of T’Challa, T’Chaka, who did what he thought was best for his family and his kingdom ultimately creating the monster that almost destroyed his beloved son. How many generational curses are we passing down to our children?
I especially saw myself in the father of Killmonger, N’Jobu — the character who is awakened to the harsh realities of what it is to be Black in America — desperately searching for a solution that escapes each of our generations.
Ryan Coogler gave us the opportunity to see ourselves simultaneously as Africans as well as the abandoned children of Wakanda — the Black American.
And then, in the midst of identifying with so many different characters and all our fantasizing about the untold riches and technologies of Vibranium, Coogler handed us the most painful gift: a personal canvas onto which a fresh and deep sorrow would need to be expressed because of the realization that there was and is no Black Panther who could save us. There is no Wakandan home to which we can return.
Black Americans were not abandoned in the United States like Erik Killmonger; we were stolen and sold into slavery. There is no Wakanda. Colonialism raped our homeland almost to the point that she was barren, destitute, and impoverished. Neocolonialism is presently extracting the remaining wealth of that continent and we Black Americans are complicit with our diamonds and smartphones.
Out of all the tragedies, scars and wounds depicted in Black Panther, it is still the wounds of our reality that pierce the deepest.
It is in that sadness that the film demonstrates the potential for the greatest impact: There is no Black Panther coming to save us. There is no Wakanda to go home to. And in the absence of such wonderful dreams, we — Black people around the world — must continue to stand up and be the fantasies of which we dream — just as T’Chaka told his son, King T’Challa, as they stood in the solemn moment of the ancestral plane, “Stand up. You are a King.”