‘Black Panther’ Is A Documentary
It may be a comic book movie, but latest installment in the Marvel Universe is one of the most resonant cinematic depictions of what it means to be African-American today.
‘Black Panther’ spoilers ahead. You’ve been warned.
The last time someone asked me where I’m really from, I was standing 1.6 miles away from the hospital in which I was born. “I’m really from Fort Collins,” I wanted to say, but I knew exactly what this woman meant: What is someone like you doing in a place like this?
I usually tell these people that my parents are from Los Angeles, which quells their intrusive curiosity. It apparently makes more sense for a black woman to be from L.A. than from a majority-white college town in Colorado. But every time I’m confronted by the question of my heritage, I’m struck by a yearning that bores deeper into my heart: It’s a longing for not just a history, but for a home I may never know, one that was traumatically ripped away from my ancestors.
Perhaps naively, I wasn’t expecting this particular sadness to crop up during Black Panther, the latest and possibly the most successful cinematic installment in the Marvel Universe. Much of the film takes place in Wakanda, a fictional African country untouched by colonialism and thus allowed to thrive on its supernatural resources, isolationist geopolitics, and technological prowess. T’Challa — the titular Black Panther played by Chadwick Boseman — is Wakanda’s heir apparent. His status comes with access to the heart-shaped herb that gives him his superhuman abilities.
We’re first introduced to T’Challa’s nemesis, Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), eyeing African artifacts in a London museum. “How do you think your ancestors got these?” he asks an important museum employee, gesturing toward the glass cases. “Do you think they paid a fair price? Or did they take it, like they took everything else?” It was bit on the nose, but that’s beside the point. The image of a young black man being approached by important white people in a pristine museum was enough to make my muscles tense. What is someone like you doing in a place like this? From that moment, I knew Black Panther wasn’t going to be like any comic book movie I’d seen.
Killmonger’s rage is less an innate character flaw than a natural progression of his trauma — of our trauma.
We later learn that Killmonger’s father N’Jobu (Sterling K. Brown) was killed by his own brother T’Chaka (John Kani), who is T’Challa’s father and the prior king of Wakanda. N’Jobu had been living as a Wakandan spy in director Ryan Coogler’s native Oakland during some of the city’s most turbulent years. With a front-row seat to African-American hardship, N’Jobu rejected the idea that T’Chaka let their distant relatives of the diaspora suffer while Wakanda flourished in isolation. When confronted by T’Chaka, N’Jobu threatens to defect; the ensuing confrontation kills N’Jobu and leaves young Erik orphaned. In an instant, Erik goes from being Wakandan nobility to a fatherless black boy in Oakland.
From here stems the rage that makes Killmonger one of the most — if not the most — complex villains in the history of comic book movies. The existential pain of being robbed of a family and a home resonates with African-Americans who, like Killmonger, exist in what The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer brilliantly describes as The Void: the “psychic and cultural wound caused by the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, the loss of life, culture, language, and history that could never be restored.” Killmonger’s pain is so familiar that, outside of his reckless disregard for life, he doesn’t seem like much of a villain at all. His bloodthirsty desire for world domination is not only understandable to, but also cathartic for people who are continually robbed of their global citizenship and humanity. As such, Killmonger’s rage is less an innate character flaw than a natural progression of his trauma — of our trauma.
In my family, that trauma is embodied by the color of our skin—an assortment of light browns and tans because of the slave owners who raped my enslaved ancestors. It’s traced by my great-grandparents’ migration from Texas and Georgia to California to escape the cruelties of the Jim Crow south. It followed my grandparents’ relocation to Colorado where they built a successful business, only for my grandpa to be called a nigger by his so-called friend on the country club back nine. It’s me, standing blocks away from my exact birth location, being asked where I’m really from.
Black America’s tenuous standing in the United States is illustrated by how quickly — and perhaps, by how inevitably — we went from electing a black president to electing a president who is idolized by white supremacists.
Being asked where I’m “really from” confirms what I and so many other black Americans know to be true: We’ve never been fully embraced as Americans, and there’s a chance we never will be. Nothing has made that more clear than Donald Trump’s election.
Trump first gained popularity by questioning the legitimacy of Barack Obama’s citizenship, and he won the presidency by promising to “Make America Great Again;” it was quite clear that a “Great America” did not include black people (or any POC, or the LGBTQ community, or women). Black America’s tenuous standing in the United States was further illustrated by how quickly — and perhaps, by how inevitably — we can go from electing a black president to electing a president who is idolized by white supremacists. Even as Nazis chant “blood and soil” on soil bled upon by our African ancestors, we’re told we should be grateful. That, in return for our conditional freedom, we damn well better bend the knee to the stars and stripes; that we should shut up and dribble.
In another flashback, young Killmonger learns where he’s really from when he discovers a box of his father’s Wakandan artifacts. He wasn’t opening a 23andMe DNA test to learn that he could be from any one of 54 African countries. Killmonger learned he was from Wakanda: not just a country, but a kingdom with a language untouched by colonizers, a culture not rejected as “primitive” by Westerners, a religion not used to justify their bondage, and a history that was revered rather than dismissed.
The scene brought me to tears. That experience — learning where we come from — is one that many black Americans dare not dream to have. Most of us can only look back so far in historical records before our foremothers and forefathers become items in an inventory. I’ve looked. Furthermore, black Americans know that going “back to Africa” is a superficial option at best. Jelani Cobb of The New Yorker discovered as much on a trip to Africa:
“[A] Senegalese guide casually informed us that we were neither their siblings nor even distant kin to Africa, implying that the greetings in the market had been merely a clever sales tactic directed at gullible black Americans who travel to the continent in search of roots, as if they were abused foster kids futilely seeking their birth parents. ‘You are Americans. That is all,’ she said.”
Killmonger does make it back to Wakanda, but it’s not for the average pilgrimage. He wants to — and temporarily does — conquer T’Challa, gaining access to the heart-shaped herb that gives him Black Panther powers as well. Killmonger immediately commandeers Wakanda’s resources to enact his plan for global insurrection, thrusting all of Wakanda into a brief civil war. The women protagonists manage to end the infighting on the battlefield, but it becomes clear that the fight between the two Black Panthers will be to the death.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that ‘Black Panther’ and ‘Get Out’ deal with blackness so effectively in allegory, because what it means to be black in America is so much more than a culmination of tangible, historical events.
As heroes do, T’Challa wins this fight — but not before offering to attempt to save Killmonger’s life. After all, they’re family. Knowing he’ll likely be imprisoned in Wakanda for his actions, Killmonger rebuffs: “Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from ships, because they knew death was better than bondage.”
And so, overlooking the picturesque African savannah, Erik Killmonger dies as he lived: in The Void, the gap that defines what it means to be African-American, which is to be neither African nor American. It’s an existence that can only be materialized by someone who’s lived it. The only other time I’ve seen the black American experience portrayed so viscerally is in Jordan Peele’s Get Out. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that both of these films deal with blackness so effectively in allegory, because what it means to be black in America is so much more than a culmination of tangible, historical events; it’s the generational trauma, the micro-aggressions, the one-thousand cuts and gunshots that chip away at our collective psyche.
Yet we remain. And as tragic as it was, seeing Killmonger’s story — our story — portrayed so authentically was healing. Unlike most films featuring black people, Black Panther wasn’t designed to make white people feel better about our treatment throughout history; it was designed to make us feel better.
And it did.