Black Panther is not real and real. It is really a black film that has broken box office records around the world. Yet it is about a fantasy African country that, it is argued, could have existed were it not for colonialism. But unlikely as it is, the film has something profound to say about the condition of black people.
A real question the film asks of us is: in order to improve black people’s condition is a conservative approach morally better than a radical one? That question is reflected by the views of commentators and fans on youtube who want to say the film’s villain is real hero. But look deeper and we find that the choice is false. The real issue is to focus on how to restore black manhood.
Unsurprisingly, many focused on the hero-villain question. Wasn’t Killmonger the hero and the Black Panther was the agent of the oppressor? US-born Killmonger’s goal was to defeat, King T’Challa, the Black Panther, take over the isolated African country of Wakanda and use its special powers to violently overthrow black people’s oppressors globally. Killmonger offers CIA training in being devious and kick-ass. What was T’Challa offering? He was sticking with traditional ways, staying quiet, not bothering anyone, looking after his own country and the oppressed was not his problem. In terms of clashing visions, there was no competition.
Killmonger vs King T’Challa: clashing visions
Real Black Panther Party
But there is another side to the villain as hero issue. Wasn’t the fantasy film an attempt to discredit a caricature of the Black Panther Party? The film begins with Killmonger’s father who is an undercover, Wakanada agent in Oaklands, California in the late 70s. Oaklands was the HQ of the Black Panther Party. He identifies too much with African-Americans and is planning a violent struggle against oppression. Then T’Challa’s father confronts him and is forced to kill him.
The film shows that Killmonger, as the representative of a caricature Black Panther Party, is a psychopath. He wants revenge and violence. He kills his girlfriend, starts bullying people in Wakanda, convinces Wakanda tribes to side with him and is the cause of a big battle. And then we find he wants to take over the whole world. The audience is meant to be relieved that T’Challa gathers his forces, including a CIA officer, against Killmonger, and defeats him. We see black people fighting black people and in the end the man who wants liberation is defeated. No wonder many feel the film is reactionary.
To push it further, T’Challa’s Wakanda can be said to represent reactionary, leading black Freemasonry. Wakanda is the privileged life circumstances of top black Freemasons and also their desire not to rock the boat. They wish to hold back and stop the desire for change in the masses of black people. Word is that black Freemasons, for instance, were told not to support Black Lives Matter.
Black Panther Party members including Kathleen Cleaver and Bobby Seale
Killmonger – the fantasy hero
But wait a minute. Why is Killmonger a hero at all? Are black people up for engaging in any kind of violent struggle to defeat their oppressors? No. That approach is not going to happen and if offered, most black people would run away. For black people, he is a fantasy hero. In the real world, the idea that Killmonger is any kind of hero is ridiculous.
This is where we need to look deeper. The film is not a simple issue of good guy versus evil guy. Black Panther actually changes because of his conflict with Killmonger.
Killmonger’s vision forces a rethink in T’Challa. Using mythical powers, he consults with his dead father and tells him he has to reject some of his old ways. He doesn’t actually kill Killmonger. Killmonger is fatally wounded by him and could have been saved. It’s Killmonger who chooses death. While, hero T’Challa failed to kill Wakanda’s main enemy, Klaue, who represents the white imperialists, while Killmonger, using his CIA ways, did. T’Challa also goes through a death-rebirth experience. His rebirth results in him taking on some of Killmonger’s ways.
Real black manhood
The film wants us to rise above both Killmonger and T’Challa. Killmonger in some ways represents the ‘broken black man’ in the diaspora. Subject to the domination of and mistreatment by another race, he is angry, pathological and destructive. Unlike T’Challa, Killmonger bullies women and we see him kill one Wakanda’s female guards. In many ways, the state of black America and black Britain is due to the failure of black men, where, in the US, instead of building, around 30% of US black men go to jail. Nonetheless, Killmonger represents a reality, blames the white man and wants change.
T’Challa represents a manhood black sovereignty could have delivered. He is in a position of authority in Wakanda that is controlled by black people. He has the respect of black women and treats them with equality. He has intelligence. He has tradition and social institutions. He doesn’t blame the white man and doesn’t want change. Unfortunately, Wakanda is fantasy.
Nowhere currently is there a black society controlled by black people that has institutions that develops advanced science and technology, has a viable economy and political system. But Africans did have societies like this in the past. There was Songhay, Mali, Great Zimbabwe and, of course, Axum and Ancient Egypt. Black people need to restore past greatness.
The battle between T’Challa and Killmonger and their black armies represents the internal, psychological struggle that needs to take place in black men and women to restore our sovereignty. At the end of the film, T’Challa goes to Oaklands and offers to black people there, not advanced military technology but advanced science and knowledge. He is seeking to repair the psychologically broken black man. He has to make a fantasy real.