Erik Killmonger was neither villain nor hero
Like most black people — let’s be honest, all skin folk ain’t kinfolk — I saw Black Panther this weekend (multiple times) and got my entire life for eternity. Or at least until Ava DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time comes out!
After three viewings of the movie, I have some thoughts. I have watched the debate about Erik Killmonger unfold on social with some praising him as the true hero of the movie and others cementing him as the villain. Like Monie, I fall in the middle. Here are my thoughts on the character of Erik Killmonger.
1. He had a right to be angry. He was abandoned, discovered his father murdered at the hands of his own people, and he was raised under a white supramacist system. You don’t witness trauma without being traumatized
2. His anger fueled his hatred of life. He had no problem taking life, in fact he wore it on his body like a badge of honor. And his propensity toward violence spared no one, even the bodies of those who looked like him because his goal was not liberation or freedom, but rather domination.
3. He had no qualms about committing violence against black women. His girlfriend’s love and loyalty was repaid with a bullet. But that’s ok because black women have always been the understood collateral damage of black liberation. Young or old, black women are dispensable in his quest for domination and power. His masculinity was toxic and deadly for black women.
4. He was instructed in the ways of American imperialism and his quest for liberation did not include arming oppressed people to win their freedom and then rules themselves. He wanted them to submit to the throne of Wakanda — his throne and his authority- as he made sure there would be no other kings after him. He established himself as a permanent ruler. That’s dictatorship, not liberation.
5. He has no loyalty to anyone but himself and anyone who challenges his authority is met with death. He is a hurt boy masquerading as a strong man who is infecting those around him with his pain and seeking to visit as much of it on others as possible. Again, this is not liberation. This is an outward manifestation of the trauma Black people in the diaspora and America live with daily because “to be black in America is to live in a constant state of rage.” Pain is only loyal to itself.
6. He was right to call out the black elite who preach assimilation and grit as a means to overcome the trauma of racism and white supremacy. Money does not make you safe. Making yourself palpable for white people does not make you safe. Differentiating yourself from “those” black people does not make you safe. Isolating yourself to protect yourself does not make you safe. Unless we are all free none of us are free and white supremacy by design entraps everyone. Those in power must continue to sink deeper in depravity and those oppressed by it must sink deeper into despair to maintain the system. Despair is dangerous and it breeds monsters. We already know white supremacy breeds monsters.
7. Erik wanted to come home and be accepted. He longed for family and connection so much that he strategized and planned for decades to create an opportunity for him to have a chance at it. He is not unlike most black people in America. We long for a place of connection and home. And like Erik, we rarely find it in the arms of our fellow African brothers and sisters. We are the omitted truth. We were the stolen and abused and forgotten and no matter how much we long for it, there is not a forever home waiting for us. There is a profound sense of unbelonging and unwantedness that haunts you because it affects your ability to be. That desperation can take you to dangerous places. We see it in the drug and violence epidemics in our community. Though not of our own making, they served as a way to create place and belonging and identity.
8. Erik’s last words have been oft quoted and shared on social media and for good reason. “When I die bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from the slave ships because they knew death was better than bondage”. How emotionally poignant are those words? And yet I am very aware that my very existence is owed to my ancestors who chose to live. There is honor in dying for your freedom. There is even redemption in it. But damnit i am happy my ancestors lived. And I carry in my veins the blood of those who endured and survived and I’ll be damned if I won’t thrive in their honor.
I love this movie because it shows how truly nuanced we are. No one is 100% hero and no one is 100% villain. We are a sum total of circumstances and decisions made by us and for us over generations. I can relate to the pain of Erik and the pride of T’Challa and locate myself in the middle. We are not free until we are all free and a good general knows true freedom requires a multi-pronged approach.