In “Black Panther,” American Dreams and American Nightmares Clash

“In effect, the Wakandan Kingdom is caught between two bleak visions of America: walling itself off, or potentially imposing on other nations”


Marvel’s lavish, Africa-set superhero adventure opens on the streets of Oakland, California, in 1992. Black Bay Area youth shoot basketballs into makeshift scrap-hoops. Above them, N’Jobu (Sterling K. Brown) code-switches between American and African inflection as Wakandan royalty comes knocking to investigate potential crimes against the crown. The interaction finds the Black Panther, T’Chaka, an African superhero and king, face-to-face with his brother, N’Jobu, an armed revolutionary speaking of Black liberation — on the precipice, no less, of L.A.’s Rodney King Riots, in the nearby city where the Black Panther Party was born.

In Black Panther, directed and co-written by Oakland native Ryan Coogler, history and metaphor are intrinsically linked. The character and the party were named independently of each other, but they both sprung from the same volatile social climate of 1966. The Jack Kirby and Stan Lee superhero creation first appeared in the pages of Fantastic Four, fully formed along with the character’s advanced African “Techno Organic Jungle.” Wakanda may be a realm of Afrofuturism, boasting culture, technology, and Black excellence untouched by colonial influence, but the world it inhabits is the real world — our world. One of military-industrial complexes, of refugee crises, of African-American struggle, and of questions of cultural belonging. Black Panther is a fantasy in concept, but it exists to highlight and hold accountable a harsh reality, to ask a simple yet fundamental question: How do “the wise build bridges when the foolish seek to build barriers?”

The answer lies, in part, in the idea of Wakanda, whose near-limitless supply of the fictional metal Vibranium has given rise to untold advancements in medical science and nanotechnology, but also to arms and ammunitions. The nation’s design, a veritable wellspring of ideas from an alternate reality, centers African aesthetics and artistic philosophies in lieu of their omnipresent Western counterparts. Wakanda is at once a sociopolitical respite and a classic Marvel reversal in the vein of their What If? comic line, only its central question is less about exchanging known characters’ power sets in inconsequential alternate realities than it is about the mechanics of colonial history. What if, the film posits, Africa were allowed to advance on its own terms, without being stripped of resources and people? What would that promise look like? The answer is breathtaking from the moment Okoye (Danai Gurira), leader of the all-female Royal Guard the Dora Milaje, flies T’Chaka’s son and newly appointed successor T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) back to his homeland through a mountainous hologram. “We are home,” she says, guiding both the king and the viewer into a secret world where African culture and advanced technology evolved not only side-by-side, but as one and the same.

Perhaps this is the answer the world has been waiting for, the centering of perspectives and ideas pushed to the margins for far too long. Perhaps this pan-African paradise will stand as a beacon, and as an example for all the world to follow. King T’Challa certainly thinks so, but like his idealistic Ragnarok counterpart Thor, the God of Thunder, he’s unaware of the full scope of his kingdom’s misdeeds. Like Asgard before it — whose whitewashing of violent conquest led to its destruction by the fire demon Surtur — Wakanda too must face reckoning at the hands of purifying flame, albeit on a more personal scale. Wakanda’s great lie is born in an apartment of that 1992 Oakland. To stop Wakanda from being discovered by the world, King T’Chaka murders his brother N’Jobu, a Wakandan spy seeking to arm oppressed African-Americans with Vibranium-powered weapons after witnessing their plight up-close. In the aftermath, the King hides this murder from his own people by leaving behind N’Jobu’s American-born son. Decades later, that son returns to his homeland and not only catalyzes a Wakandan mutiny but seeks to ensure the end of the Black Panther legacy by burning its ceremonial birthright: the mystical Heart-Shaped Herb, grown from soil fertilized by an alien meteor and the source of both the Panther’s strength and his ability to communicate with fallen ancestors.

That left-behind American-born son, Eric Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), stands as a living embodiment of the grim real-world circumstances that make Wakanda a necessary Afrofuturist fantasy in the first place. Eric — a/k/a N’Jadaka, or, as he was nicknamed in the military, “Killmonger” — is a counterfoil to T’Challa and an inevitable outcome of Wakanda’s gilded leadership leaving ordinary people behind when the nation could have done so much more. Where T’Challa inherits the Panther mantle from his father, an unbroken legacy passed down through generations, Killmonger received a much harsher inheritance: lifelong banishment thanks to the sins of his father, left to raise himself on the streets of Oakland and in the American military, cut off from his culture and identity.

When T’Challa consumes the Heart-Shaped Herb — the ingestion of which transports one’s consciousness to the spirit world — he is met with a magnificent ancestral realm: wide-open plains, spanning infinitely in all directions like the promise of possibility. Eric’s spirit-walk under the substance’s influence, however, is confined to the tiny Oakland residence in which he discovered his father’s body. His cultural lineage is limited to a trinket and scribblings hidden behind a secret wall in the apartment. Even if he were to return “home” to Africa, his tribe would likely not accept him as one of their own. Killmonger may not have descended from slaves, but American Blackness is his refuge — the only culture he’s allowed to know, created over centuries as its possessors were stripped of African roots and molded in response contemporary oppression.

There is a devastating meta-text to Michael B. Jordan inhabiting an Oakland-native Killmonger. (In the comics, the character is from Harlem.) In Coogler’s debut, Fruitvale Station, Jordan plays Oscar Grant, a real-life Oakland victim of police violence within a white-supremacist system. In Coogler’s follow-up, Creed, a sequel to and cultural recontextualizing of the Rocky series, Jordan’s L.A.-based Adonis struggles between living up to the legacy of a father he was robbed of and creating a legacy of his own. Killmonger is part of this same continuum — the logical, big-picture extension of Jordan’s Oscar and Adonis, transposed to an action-fantasy setting that remains rooted in the concrete struggles of Fruitvale Station and Creed. Where those films exist within the parameters of real-life and the boxing ring, respectively, Black Panther affords Jordan the opportunity to re-embody similar thematic concepts (systemic brutality, the struggles of legacy) in a newly fantastically expressive way. It’s as if the character exists in direct response to Oscar and Adonis, externalizing angers that, in everyday America, are often forced into silence.

Killmonger is righteous Black rage incarnate. He has witnessed suffering, the kind Wakanda has not, the kind Wakandans cannot if their isolationist dream is to continue. The Kingdom is an African-American fantasy, but it teeters on the edge of becoming America’s worst self, depending on how it chooses to engage with the world. New king T’Challa is surrounded by conflicting perspectives that he must consider as he ascends. There’s the traditionalism of M’Baku (Winston Duke), leader of the Jabari tribe, who dwell in the mountains and worship the Hindu deity Hanuman; T’Challa’s sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), whom M’Baku despises, as she prefers technological innovation and global pop culture over the idea of tradition; and T’Challa’s beau, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), a spy who questions her loyalty to the isolationist state, choosing instead to infiltrate foreign militant camps and employ justified violence to liberate women behind enemy lines. There’s also T’Challa’s friend W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), who insists on turning away refugees to protect the borders; T’Challa’s bodyguard and confidant, Okoye; and, of course, Killmonger himself, the opposite extreme to Wakanda’s prevailing isolationism. Killmonger desires not only to turn the Kingdom into a metaphor for American military invasion through the export of war, but to do so via explicitly American-esque military and governmental methods: destabilizing a vulnerable state during a handover of power, employing foreign sleeper agents to enact political will.

It is amid all these conflicting perspectives, each valid in their own way, that T’Challa must rise to the occasion and decide what kind of king he wants to be. The film’s third act hinges not only on containing the outbreak of an all-out Wakandan civil war, but on stopping Vibranium weapons from leaving Wakanda’s borders, destined to be used on foreign soil. In effect, the Kingdom is caught between two bleak visions of America: walling itself off, or potentially imposing on other nations — the latter the very imperialism it managed to escape. However, there exists a nuanced middle-ground between these warring perspectives. Where Killmonger’s means may be armed bloodshed in the vein of colonial oppressors, his ends — global Black liberation from poverty and state violence — are essentially noble. What separates Black Panther from the rest of the superhero pack is the fact that the film truly agrees with its villain. The hero recognizes the bad guy’s pain, and learns from him.

Killmonger may storm the Wakandan throne room as an “outsider” and demand ritualistic battle, but hidden in his disrespect are nuggets of truth that unearth the dual sense of longing and abandonment many African Americans might feel toward their African ancestors. While Wakanda represents a fulfillment of that longing, Killmonger’s royal bloodline remains at odds with his American Blackness. This duality comes to the fore in Jordan’s balance of vulnerability and rage, his character caught between wanting to experience true freedom and wanting to punish the oppressors — the internal forces that govern the instincts of the oppressed. Killmonger wears his violence on his sleeve, scarring himself for every life stolen in pursuit of the Wakandan throne. It’s a mission he undertakes to erase the ills suffered by Blackness at the hands of white supremacy, a system Wakanda managed to escape.

And yet, while the problems he hopes to fix are distinctly American, his solutions are distinctly American, too. Born from violence and bred for war, Killmonger’s vision for a peaceful world doesn’t extend beyond imposing his will and using it to create a new colonial empire. Like his father, he wants Wakanda to rule the world “the right way.” He may be right about things our heroes have never considered — Wakanda has ignored global suffering too long — but it isn’t until T’Challa, a man with the political and financial power to enact change, sees the world through Killmonger’s eyes that progress can be made.

In some other story, people like T’Challa and Killmonger could’ve sat down and exchanged ideas and created a better world together. Black Panther, however, is the tragedy of Eric Stevens, and the tragedy of Wakanda, a nation hell-bent on the illusion of domestic peace to the point that it commits violence elsewhere — not unlike the United States. Where Black Panther highlights the problems of Black America, it also highlights the structural problems of America as a whole by injecting them into the fabric of Wakanda. The two nations may be worlds apart, but are they any more disparate in their worldviews than Black America and the American leaders who ignore it? T’Challa and Killmonger could likely never have had that peaceful debate in this reality, not when their very existences were defined by paying for the sins of their respective fathers. Taking Wakanda into a volatile world while having to reckon with its lies was T’Challa’s burden, passed down from his predecessor. Killmonger’s burden was to be the lie itself — a small part of the vast racial and socio-economic problem that’s been swept under the rug by Wakanda’s prior leaders.

Killmonger’s fatalistic, inevitably violent outlook — a byproduct of American militarism and white supremacy — is not presented as the end-all solution. But it’s in listening to Killmonger’s ideas that T’Challa starts to build bridges. He begins with the Oakland residence where Killmonger’s father was murdered, and where Killmonger became a victim of Wakanda’s own form of imperialism. He turns the condemned apartment complex into a Wakandan outreach center for at-risk African American youth, thus transforming a painful memory into an opportunity for healing. (This gesture evokes Coogler’s own desire to bring film business to Oakland as an alternative to crime.)

When the fatally injured Killmonger is offered the opportunity to heal, he responds: “Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from ships, ’cause they knew death was better than bondage.” His ultimate fate, despite his best efforts, is to remain adrift — pushed out to sea by the two Americas that could have cared for him but didn’t. T’Challa’s new mission is stop another Killmonger from ever being created — not through pre-emptive violence, but through kindness.

Eric Stevens was born in Oakland. Killmonger was born under a makeshift hoop, gazing up at a Wakandan airship that left him behind, slipping away in the dead of night as his father was killed. That same royal airship returns to this spot decades later, this time in full view of the Oakland youth, bringing with it the promise of a better future, the kind of promise young Eric Stevens was never afforded. The film’s final moments involve a similar young boy under that very same hoop, his future hanging in the balance. But rather than violence and abandonment, he’s offered the promise of Wakanda — what the fictional fantasy of Wakanda represents, and, by proxy, what America ought to represent at its best: hope, innovation, opportunity, aspiration for Black youth upon seeing Blackness excel. It’s as if Black Panther is speaking about Black Panther itself and all the avenues it has opened. “Who are you?” the boy asks as he approaches T’Challa, eyes wide with wonder. The king only smiles, for he knows the answer is possibility.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on February 23, 2018