Understanding that the film is about Killmonger it was the second viewing of the film that revealed what I propose is the key to unlocking the secret of this profoundly complex movie and it happens very early on and in fact does not include Erik Killmonger young an old. I found myself preoccupied with the scene that involved the Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) infiltrating Nigeria in order to bring his love interest Nakia (Lupita Niyong’o) back to Wakanda for the funeral of his father that is T’Challa facing ritual combat to become the Black Panther and King. The King is Dead. Long Live the King.
Important side note here that necessitates cuing the Marvel Geek side of this thinking and something that has bothered me since the appearance of the Black Panther in Marvel’s 2016 Captain America: Civil War.
Wakandan lore does not provide for there to be more than one king at a time and as far as I can tell there can’t (shouldn’t?) be more than one Black Panther at a time. That means that when T’Chaka, the king of Wakanda was killed in the explosion during Civil War, it is hard to understand how T’Challa spent and entire film “Black Panthering” when he was not yet the king and hadn’t returned to Wakanda to deal with the pathway to that mantle.
Anyway, we can suspend that problem but it is important to recall that the speech T’Chaka was giving during Civil War was to assert that Wakanda would no longer allow the world to be without its assistance and would extend itself, peacefully, to assist Fanon’s wretched of the earth.
This is important, because that means that the decision to terminate the isolation of Wakanda that several critics have proposed represents a type of elitism and black respectability politics was already over before the first frames of Black Panther.
The notion that Wakanda is hermetically sealed is not true and returns me to the moment that I propose establishes the Rosetta Stone to translating this film.
As I mentioned above, Nakia has infiltrated into Nigeria and is being held “captive” in a Boko Haram caravan of kidnapped and enslaved Muslim women. The critical moment for me is after the Black Panther assaults the caravan and T’Challa “freezes” having seen Nakia after a period of separation when a member of the terrorist group points his rifle at T’Challa. Nakia prevents him from killing the gunman and asserts that he doesn’t know what he is doing and has been kidnapped and is not operating based upon his own will. After the captives are liberated Nakia instructs the women to return him to his people where he can implicitly re-enter society as a positive, productive individual. This prescription is explicitly related to the women returning this wayward man to his society not him doing so on his own. My reading of this brief encounter is that it frames the problem that will attend the arrival of Killmonger to Wakanda.
As I mentioned, the movie is “about” Killmonger. To add some meat to that statement, what I am proposing is that the film is substantively wondering about the potential damage that acculturation in an all-male environment that is overlaid with the military training of a nation that uses coercive force as a substitute for diplomacy can do to the possibility of participating in a society that does not privilege violence.
This question moves us to the central tension of the film: the fact that Killmonger’s father (Sterling K. Brown as N’Jobo) has been sent to America (Oakland) as a spy for Wakanda but turns against his state by assisting outsiders to steal vibranium. His death at the hands of T’Chaka and the subsequent abandonment of his son rather than returning him to Wakanda has served as the flashpoint for criticism from a variety of critics of the film that frame the killing as murder and the abandonment as exemplar of the callous disregard of the Wakandans for less fortunate diasporic Africans. I don’t buy it; at least not all of it.
T’Chaka killed N’Jobo because he was going to kill the young Zuri (Denzel Whitaker) which seems like something different than murder but the abandonment is more problematic and speaks to the important fact that the Wakandans, even the king, are human and make mistakes. In this instance leaving the young Killmonger in Oakland is what T’Chaka admits to T’Challa as “the truth I chose to omit.” This was clearly the wrong thing to do but I choose to read this as an important element of this brand of storytelling that refuse the possibility of viewing Africa as a place without flaws.
This thinking is interesting as a framework to contextualize critique of the film that endeavors to situate Erik Killmonger as the “true” revolutionary against the isolationism and potential complicity of the Wakandan elites in the misery of colonized people all over the planet.
I find this difficult to square with the actual text of the film or the applicable theories of radical politics.
What I mean is that the character of Killmonger is steeped in a context of Black Radical Politics: the locus of his childhood in Oakland and most particularly the artifacts that adorned the walls in his father’s apartment: Huey Newton, Public Enemy, etc. The concern here is that it seems difficult for me to locate the moment when Black Revolution included the employment of the ideology of American and European imperialism to the point of the US special operation trained Killmonger asserting that; “The sun will never set on the Wakandan Empire”.
If we are prepared to allow for this style of international intervention on the part of the newly crowned Killmonger there are several important questions advocates of this as the logic of a revolution on the part of African people need to answer.
They include questions like: What happens to the people of these “liberated” states who endeavor to form their own political independence from Wakanda? Would they be attacked and brought to heel and become themselves colonies?
The answer is in fact clear from the words of Killmonger who is not reticent to assert that he has himself killed many Africans in his progress to returning to Wakanda. This is odd because it appears that all he really needed to do is head to Nigeria hook a right and show the nearest tribesperson the inside of his lower lip. Basically, what I mean here is that it is difficult to square the notion that employing the terms and conditions of western imperialism from Wakanda wouldn’t recreate the same structures of systematic marginalization that radical politics rails against.
Wakanda, in this film, again forces the viewer to abandon the normative way of viewing things: power, force, gender and ultimately death assert that the exhortation: “Wakanda Forever” is not just a claim to futurity but a way to understand that Wakanda has always been free of having to consider the colony (pre or post) as a way of being and there is no reason to embark on a project of liberation from that base of isolation that amounts to an African based neo-colonialism.