Let’s continue what we’ve left of in the previous review of Black Panther, shall we?
By saying that Killmonger’s black life does not matter, I don’t mean it is not hyperbole. In a macabre scene meant to be touching, Black Panther carries Killmonger to a plateau so that he might see the sun set on Wakanda before dying. With a spear stuck in his chest, he completes his wish to embrace the splendor his father depicted, when Wakanda appeared a fairy tale.
T’Challa offers Wakanda’s technology to save Killmonger’s life—it has saved the white CIA agent earlier in the film. But Killmonger remembers about his slave history and tells Panther he’d rather die than live in oppression. He knows the score. He knows that Panther will incarcerate him (as is disproportionately common for black American men).
The silence that follows seems to last an eternity. Here is the opportunity for the film to redeem its racist sins: T’Challa can be the good one he dreams of being. He can understand that Killmonger is in part the product of American racism and T’Chaka’s cruelty. T’Challa can learn that Wakanda has been keeping its resources from the outside and come to an understanding with Killmonger that justice may need violence, if as a last resort. After all, what else do comic-book heroes do but dispense justice with their armored fists and laser rifles? Black Panther does not flinch. There is no reconciliation. Killmonger yanks the spear out of his chest and dies. The sun sets on his corpse as it set on Michael Brown’s.
It is fair to wonder whether the movie merely reflects the racial politics of the comic books that serve as its inspiration. Yes and no. In the film, Killmonger’s connection to T’Challa is as the comic-book issues portray it. Killmonger is a deadly killer in the comics as in the movie, but he is also extremely intelligent, studying at MIT to understand the technology he goes on to deploy. In the film, Killmonger’s sole skill is killing; if Coogler wanted to make Killmonger a hood-born genius, he has awfully failed.
In the comics, Killmonger also dies at Black Panther’s hands. But KIllmonger falls long after he has come to reside in Wakanda, albeit under a veil of deceit, before trying a coup. The comic thus opens (but ultimately rejects) an opportunity to save Killmonger to fight for another day, just as Loki is repeatedly saved. The film utterly forecloses this good chance, which is strange since we can all be fairly sure that there will be a sequel.
What alternative story-lines might have satisfied?
I couldn’t help think of Ulysses Klaue, a mainline villain in the comics who lives a long, infamous life. He would have been a neatly brilliant villain to motivate the film’s attempt at wokeness. In the comics, there is bad blood between the Klaue clan and Wakanda’s royal lineage (Klaue’s Nazi grandfather died by the hands of Chanda, an earlier Wakandan king and Panther). In Klaue, we saw a white bad guy whose bloodline is fused with the sins of racism.
Ramonda, portrayed by the legend Angela Bassett, is temporally misplaced in the film. In the comics canon, T’Challa takes the mantle of the Panther while Ramonda, T’Challa’s stepmother, is being held captive by a white magistrate in apartheid South Africa. If Coogler had at all been invested in making Black Panther a symbol of racial reparation he could have easily put Klaue in South Africa, even post-apartheid, and the rescue of Ramonda—with Klaue in the way—could have driven the narrative.
Ramonda is prominent in the movie, but she does not animate the movie’s central drama. Rather, Black Panther is put on a course to eliminate his cousin in his first arc, indicating yet another racist trope, the fractured black family as a microcosm of the black community’s inability to hold it together.
You will have noticed I have not said much about the movie’s women. They are the movie’s highlight: the black women of Wakandan descent are entirely independent, strong, fierce, smart, inventive, resourceful, and ethically determined. I take it that a good deal of this is owed to Ta-Nehisi Coates’s success at elevating the franchise’s women to core characters with influence and power that turns more on their thoughts and integrity than their bodies. T’Challa’s younger sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright), is sufficiently outstanding to make the Q character from James Bond movies feel a clever child with some interesting ideas, while Nakia (Lupita N’yongo) is the ethical center of Black Panther, thoughtful and missing any stereotypical hysterics or emotional gloominess that so many films use to savage the intellect of leading women.
Thus Black Panther movie deserves praise for its gender politics—save in relation to the only black American woman. The character, Tilda Johnson, a.k.a. the bad guy Nightshade, has, by my count, less than fifteen words to say in the film, and is sadly killed off by Killmonger as Klaue is using her as a shield and Killmonger just don’t got time for that. The lone American black woman is disposed of by black-on-black violence. She is also invisible and nearly silent. In the comic books, her character is both a genius and living just fine.
Black Panther film presents itself as the boldest black experience of the year. We are meant to feel emboldened by the images of T’Challa, a black man clad in a powerful combat suit tearing up the bad guys that threaten good people. However, the lessons I learned were these: the villain is the black American who has rightly regarded white supremacy as the reigning threat to black lives; the villain is the one who believes Wakanda is being selfish in its secret liberation; the villain is the one who will no longer stand for patience and moderation—he believes liberation is many, many years overdue. And the black hero snuffs him out.
When T’Challa makes his way to Oakland at the film’s conclusion, he makes a gesture at all the buildings he has bought and promises to bring to the distressed youths the preferred solution of super-rich neoliberals: educational programming. Don’t get me wrong, education is a mighty and liberatory tool, as Paulo Freire taught us, but is that the best we can do? Why not take the case to the United Nations and charge the US with crimes against humanity, as some countries attempted to do in the early moments of the Movement for Black Lives?