By Liz Brazile
Spoilers ahead, proceed with caution.
If you’ve consumed any media within the past few days, you already know that “Black Panther” is lending itself to many conversations in the wake of its opening weekend. The much-anticipated Marvel feature is jam-packed with socioculturally significant topics like anti-colonialism, pan-Africanism, feminism, and Afro-futurism and black folks everywhere are discussing their takeaways from the film.
I went to see “Black Panther” Friday night and by Saturday, a friend added me to a group chat dedicated to pontificating and debating about the movie. One of the discussion topics was the ambiguity regarding who the true hero of “Black Panther” is: the more obvious choice, King T’Challa, or the seemingly apparent villain, Killmonger. Some folks made a case for T’Challa as a young king, learning the ropes of leadership and trying to navigate global affairs in the best interest of Wakanda. Others dubbed Killmonger the real hero, citing his pro-black worldview and radical mission to facilitate black global sovereignty with Wakandan resources.
As an extremely part-time Marvel stan, my character analysis begins and ends with the “Black Panther” film. I can agree that T’Challa’s fortitude as a king is questionable, and his initial complacency with black oppression across the diaspora most certainly warrants criticism. But while parts of Killmonger’s quest to liberate black people look noble on paper, we can’t ignore his violence.
Revolutions don’t often come without violence—this I understand. History tells us that oppressors cannot be reasoned with or cajoled out of their repressive ways. At some point, it becomes a necessity for the oppressed to meet their oppressor with the same energy, lest they become total punching bags. But history also tells us that the black “conscious” community is more than willing to glorify a man’s pro-black charisma while conveniently overlooking the harm he does—particularly to black women. Killmonger has a penchant for brutalizing women, yet his supporters are willing to turn a blind eye in the name of restoring power to the people. This Marvel Universe occurrence mirrors the real world indifference often displayed toward black men’s intracultural violence.
While the Black Panther Party did great work in implementing health and education initiatives in black neighborhoods during the 1960s and ‘70s, the organization was riddled with problematic male leaders. Huey P. Newton, co-founder of the Black Panther Party talked a good game when it came to the inclusion of marginalized black people in the movement. He publicly expressed a desire to join forces with feminists and gay rights activists. Yet, he sanctioned the brutal beating of Panther Liberation School administrator, Regina Davis and was alleged to have murdered a teen sex worker, Kathleen Smith for calling him “baby’. Eldridge Cleaver, another prominent Black Panther Party leader, was a self-confessed serial rapist.
I completely sympathize with folks’ hypothetical resentment towards T’Challa and Wakanda’s failure to lead any large-scale liberation effort on behalf of their brothers and sisters across the diaspora. I also understand that some of the best heroes ever created are characterized by their moral ambiguity. But heralding Killmonger as the antihero of the “Black Panther” is too gracious of an endorsement; he is a villain. The romanticization of Killmonger is a reflection of our cultural tendency to revere black revolutionaries for their personas more than we care to hold them accountable for their actions. If you don’t see T’Challa as the hero of “Black Panther”, that’s fair. But there are other, more qualified candidates like Nakia, who acts upon her concern for the state of black diasporic communities in a non-toxic, humanitarian fashion.
Art is said to imitate life. Perhaps if we were more discerning about our real-world heroes, we wouldn’t be so conflicted about the heroes and villains in “Black Panther”.