Editor’s note: Multiple spoilers ahead.
After this blockbuster weekend, we’re all talking about Marvel’s Black Panther. We’re talking about the powerful women of the Dora Milaje and the scene-stealing M’Baku (Winston Duke), and we even got a new handshake to share with our folk.
But as excitement reached its peak after our first look, or looks, at the blockbuster, so have cries of #TeamTChalla—better known as Black Panther—vs. #TeamKillmonger (Michael B. Jordan). But as hell-bent as Killmonger seems to be on black liberation, support for anti-hero/villain Killmonger (Wakandan name: N’Jadaka) may be misplaced, because it clearly comes with a side of toxic masculinity.
During my first—and second—viewing of the film, I was undeniably moved by Killmonger. He spoke with the pained voice of black America, a voice that’s been disconnected from its African roots and stifled and silenced by centuries of oppression. One of his first lines in the film is to ask the white female curator of an African art exhibit: “How do you think your ancestors got these? You think they paid a fair price for it? Or did they take them, like they took everything else?”
In my theater, a cheer rose from the audience of mostly black folk. When he later pointed out that Wakanda has just been chilling on the sidelines while billions of black folk around the world were suffering, I heard more than a few folks say, “Yasss” and “That’s right.” He definitely had a point: Black liberation has always been a debate between tactical resistance and revolution by any means necessary. So it’s not surprising that as more and more think pieces emerge, many are split between #TeamKillmonger and #TeamTChalla.
But after viewing the movie a second time, I noticed Killmonger’s hella problematic approach to liberation (shoutout to Oakland, Calif.). In a movie that otherwise unabashedly celebrates black women, his actions express a deep misogynoir that begins with the killing of his nameless girlfriend and extends through his scoffing at his aunt, the regal Ramonda (Angela Bassett); choking a female elder/shaman; murdering one of the Dora Milaje; injuring Nakia; and nearly killing Shuri.
Killmonger repeatedly expresses his desire to demolish white European supremacy in favor of a black empire. His analysis of the European oppressors who stole, raped and pillaged their way across the world is not inaccurate. Black people all over the world (except the fictional Wakanda) have had their asses kicked by colonialism. But even with expansive technology and wealth at his fingertips, the only way Killmonger can think to correct this is by mimicking the behavior of the colonizer. He is not merely desiring justice but is lusting for revenge. He’s not on a mission for liberation; he wants annihilation. His brutality is the very embodiment of toxic masculinity.
In a movie where no character uttered the n-word and black womanhood was centered, Killmonger’s violence toward women—black women in particular—was stark and pronounced. Is this what we think of black American men? With a black American man helming the movie, it would be troubling to think that Killmonger could be read as unilaterally representative of black American male consciousness.
Erik Stevens, later Killmonger, is a black male character raised in America—in Oakland, to be precise, the birthplace of the actual Black Panthers. He is a fictional black child whose mother we never see on-screen, who then grows into a black man who has seen violence both personal (the murder of his father) and political (the Rodney King verdict and the Los Angeles riots).
Stevens has presumably watched and taken notes on the political realities of America; two years after his father’s death, President Bill Clinton would sign the 1994 crime bill that exponentially increased the black prison population. He escapes that fate by attending the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, joining the CIA and becoming a political mercenary. He is a product of his upbringing, and his rage is justified.
But Black Panther presents another path to global black freedom for its audience to consider. Instead of #TeamTChalla or #TeamKillmonger, why aren’t we #TeamNakia?
From almost her first appearance in Black Panther, the character of Nakia told T’Challa about himself and Wakanda, that their country couldn’t idly sit back and watch the world annihilate blackness. She, embracing an arguably more Afrofuturist mindset, wanted restorative justice and liberation for black people across the world—not with guns but with the blessing of Wakandan aid—through their expansive technology and wealth. While it’s true that sometimes revolution requires that we be armed, Nakia’s point of view argued that we cannot rely solely on military might to accomplish our collective goals.
Comparing Nakia’s and Erik’s visions for liberation invites us to examine our values when it comes to revolution. And while I don’t agree with everything in TaLynn Kel’s article “An American Monster in Wakanda,” she does have a point about the complicity of everyone but the character of Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o):
Nakia knew it wasn’t enough, which was why she could not stay. Would not stay and in the end, should not stay. Wakanda was complicit in the genocide of millions while looking at those suffering not with compassion, but with dismissal. Wakanda Forever really meant Wakanda first and only. Ignoring genocide doesn’t exempt you from responsibility.
These two visions of how we get free also ask us to take a look at our views about gender and masculinity—and how our own silence often equals violence. As 45 percent of ticket buyers during Black Panther’s opening weekend were women, there is also a call for us to bear witness to the ways in which we—especially as black women—are complicit in toxic masculinity in our social movements.
In a poignant moment after they both believe that T’Challa has been murdered, his general, Okoye (Danai Gurira), and Nakia confront each other. Okoye pledges to serve the throne unconditionally, while Nakia wants to save the country (and black people), but not in service to Killmonger. It’s reminiscent of the ways in which some black women will unconditionally support and protect black men who are obviously dangerous to our communities (R. Kelly, Bill Cosby, etc.) in favor of protecting the idea of blackness.
But liberation cannot come on the backs of black women. We have to resist glorifying the character in the story that represents a problematic bag of liberation goals. It is not enough to claim a desire to free black folk, all while murdering, assaulting and disposing of black women. It is not enough to fight for justice while undergirding it with vengeance. Liberation must be for all.
I need to be clear: I love Black Panther for so many reasons, including the way that it’s pushing us to have some much-needed conversations. So much of the film resonated with me, even Killmonger’s poignant last words: “Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors that jumped from the ships. Because they knew death was better than bondage.” Those words burned me to my soul.
As a character, Killmonger reminded me of the oft-quoted James Baldwin: “To be black and conscious in America is to be in a constant state of rage.” But I also know that when rage is directed solely into vengeance and not justice—at the expense of black women and in the form of blind violence against them—then who are we, if not mirroring our oppressors?