The Trouble With Hero Worship: Is #TeamKillmonger Also #TeamToxicMasculinity?

Michael B. Jordan as Erik Stevens/N’Jadaka/Killmonger (courtesy of Marvel Studios/Disney)
Michael B. Jordan as Erik Stevens/N’Jadaka/Killmonger (courtesy of Marvel Studios/Disney)

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.

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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.

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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.

Courtesy of Marvel Studios/Disney
Courtesy of Marvel Studios/Disney

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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

Courtesy of Marvel Studios/Disney
Courtesy of Marvel Studios/Disney
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

S. D. Chrismon is a masculine of center writer, Afrofuturist and pop culture junkie.

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DISCUSSION

rewind4thatbehind
Rewind4ThatBehind

http://blackmannobody.blogspot.com/2018/02/black-panther-kilmonger-is-among-us.html

I wrote this piece because honestly, we all know a Kilmonger. They’re easy to create simply because of your Baldwin quote:

“To be black and conscious in America is to be in a constant state of rage.”

If I were to take it all literally, yes Kilmonger on screen was a combination of an actual Black Panther Party member and the ashiest of hoteps. He was a one-man army that literally brought down a whole kingdom to its knees. The only thing that stopped Kilmonger was Kilmonger, because his hatred saw everyone as the enemy towards his goal. Once again, YOU KNOW A KILMONGER. They may not be able to actually get things done the way this fictional character did, but you’ve read their words, heard their anger, and shook your head at their sentiments.

The first thing I brought up in conversation with other folks is he’s the only character in the movie to kill two women. I get the implication of his actions and honestly his attitude from the beginning of the movie was that everyone disgusted him, so everybody could get it. No value for life for anyone who isn’t on his mission.

Nakia & Kilmonger are two sides of the same coin but the movie made a very good point: whether you agree with Nakia or Kilmonger, both would have run into the same problem. Their followers would at some point question their motives and debate whether their leader is either doing too much, or too little (If Nakia got her way through humanitarian means, how long would that have taken to create effective change if you save a life one at a time vs. if Kilmonger got a full revolution, how long until each group turn amongst itself for supremacy of all?).

It reminded me there is no easy answer to the question of how do we create a better world. The heroes of yesteryear we adore all were problematic in their own way. The heroes of today tend to be quelled by the voices of the angry masses. The nuance for how everybody views what will be the toll of revolution is so massive yet we tend to act as if good thoughts or focused anger will be the key. I’m taking a cue from the movie that there are many lessons to be learned, many more questions to ask, and regretfully many lives that will pay a price if the wrong decisions are made once again.

Because like I said, we all know a Kilmonger, and unfortunately those are the types who will not change for the better without tearing others down first.