When History Comes Crashing Down on Your Head: Reflections on Erik Killmonger of Black Panther

by Eric M. Washington

Spoiler warning! This post contains major plot details from the film Black Panther.

Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) in Black Panther. (Image by Marvel / Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures / Everett)

Two weeks ago, the highly anticipated Disney-Marvel film, Black Panther premiered. According to a New York Times article published on Sunday, February 18, there was an estimation that by Monday, February 19 the film would gross a record breaking $218 million in North America alone. In a Deadline.com article published last Thursday, it was reported that the film would push past the $500 million mark globally by today. (In fact, as of today, the film has reached $780 million worldwide.) Forbes is reporting today that Black Panther has passed The Amazing Spider Man and will surpass Deadpool in sales tomorrow. In terms of the dollars, Black Panther is a blockbuster if there ever was one.

Beyond unprecedented success at the box office, Black Panther has been a cultural success, especially for the millions of Africans and Africans in the Diaspora who donned their African garb and marched to pack movie theaters. I avoided the masses on the opening weekend to watch the film carefully in a half-filled theater last Thursday, and again, this Thursday. Watching without the hoopla from other movie-goers allowed me to be reflective about one of the characters of the film, the villain, Erik Killmonger; yet as movie villains go he has resonated with African-American audiences. Killmonger has brought to the surface the historic pain, aspirations, and the tensions that exists between continental Africans and Africans of the Diaspora (here I’m primarily referring to the descendants of enslaved Africans). I cast Killmonger as an African-American anti-villain.

Unbeknownst to the viewers, they are introduced to a young Erik Killmonger in 1992 as he dribbled on a basketball court outside of his apartment complex in Oakland, California. While playing basketball on the street something life-changing occurs in his apartment that he shares with his father. His father, Prince N’Jobu, a spy of Wakanda (the fictional African kingdom that is the most technologically advanced kingdom in the world, but has hidden this progress to the world), dies at the hands of his brother T’Chaka, the King of Wakanda. The brothers had argued over the use of Wakanda’s weapons made from the strongest substance in the universe, vibranium, which only Wakanda possesses. N’Jobu had lived in the US and witnessed the oppression of African Americans, and he hatched a plan to arm them with weapons made of vibranium to overthrow their oppressors and rule. It is interesting that this takes place in Oakland, the former headquarters of the Black Panther Party.

In time, we learn that Killmonger desires to put his late father’s plan into action. Upon overthrowing his cousin, King T’Challa, as the new king of Wakanda, Killmonger sets a plan into action that will distribute vibranium weapons to oppressed peoples globally. This plan fails to have the full support of the top brass in Wakanda, who would rather use their weapons to fight against injustice only when necessary. This is where the audience should pause and question Wakanda’s position: you, an African kingdom, hiding this most valuable metal, have chosen to act only in certain situations to aid people, but there are other Africans and Africans of the Diaspora suffering and you refuse to help them and justify this based on your traditional ways? This is a troublesome question, but one of critical importance if viewed from an African Diasporic lens, which Killmonger does.

Though his father was a Wakandian prince, Killmonger grew up literally cut off from that heritage. This reflects part of the narrative of Africans in the Diaspora. Enslavement cut them off from their kin, a process that sociologist Orlando Patterson has labeled Social Death. The history of enslavement, colonization, legalized segregation and disfranchisement came crashing down on young Erik Killmonger as he had to live life without his Wakandian father—his direct link to an African Dream. Yet Killmonger experienced the African-American Nightmare. He witnessed African-American impoverishment, mass incarceration, and death rooted in the history of African-American oppression. African-American audiences know this pain.

Yet there is a thick layer of complexity to Killmonger. His method of liberation is rooted in the system of colonial oppression. As made clear in the film, he is a product of the new style of American imperialism. Killmonger is a graduate of Annapolis; received a graduate degree from MIT; and he became a Navy Seal. Killmonger also participated in supplanting regimes that created power vacuums that allowed for the US to seize influence over new territories. This is what he knows; this is what the US Navy and the CIA trained him to do. He is poised to use this knowledge against global oppressors. It gets even more interesting: Killmonger desires the liberation of oppressed people only to rule them himself in the name of Wakanda. In a solid piece on Killmonger in The Atlantic, Adam Serwer wrote that “Killmonger’s goal is world domination.” Because Killmonger is just as imperialistic as those who colonized Africa and other parts of the world, he is a villain. Possibly.

In thinking through the issues this film unearths, Killmonger remains an anti-villain. It is through his death that I saw the redeeming qualities of his desire to liberate the oppressed. In the most moving dialogue in the film, Killmonger refuses T’Challa’s offer to heal him of his battle wound by saying that he’d rather die free than in bondage as did his enslaved ancestors who jumped off slave ships plunging themselves into the murky Atlantic along the Middle Passage. In the end, T’Challa travels to Oakland and purchases the complex where Killmonger lived as a child to make it into a community center that will help African-American boys and girls flourish. In addition, King T’Challa reveals a new Wakandian way. He states that the kingdom will share its knowledge globally. This sets the stage for Wakandian global leadership based on a clear humanitarian posture. I think this will appease Killmonger’s ancestors.

Eric Michael Washington is assistant professor of history and director of African and African Diaspora Studies at Calvin College. He is primarily interested in studying the African American church from its development in the late 18th century through the 19th century, and individual Christians, primarily Calvinists. He also has a growing academic interest in the growing “Black and Reformed” movement in North America.

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