King's Dead

All hail King Killmonger.
SPOILERS for Black Panther. Go see it before reading this.

Black Panther is a movie that both tells a straightforward cinematic adventure story but also has a lot going on beyond the tale of T'Challa officially becoming king and protector of Wakanda. There are going to be articles about this movie and the themes and aspects of it written by people smarter than me, who can comment academically on these things. Maybe they'll touch on the Jabari's outsider role in Wakanda or the strength presented in the Dora Milaje, gender issues in Wakanda and how good or bad it was presented. (I thought it was good but I'm sure it could have been done better somehow) Maybe someone will talk about the missing Infinity Stone and the possible but not yet verified Wakanda connection or the erasure, purposeful or not, of the lesbian Dora Milaje story line in the most recent comic book run by Ta-Nehisi Coates that did not occur in the movie. There will definitely be something written about the quality of the movie overall and "what it means" to the movie world. I have heard the term "sea change" at least twenty times this week.
They have my face when I hear "sea change."
I choose instead to focus on the character of Erik "Killmonger" Stevens and his role as the villain in this movie.

Before I can get to that, we have to discuss the idea of  motivations of a villain. Like the hero, the villain can have various reasons behind the actions they take. Most villains in the superhero narrative seem to me to fall into four different groups. The first kind is in it for some sort of profit from themselves, like Ulysses Klaue and his arms dealing and thievery in this movie. The second kind wants to sow chaos for the sake of having chaos, a la The Joker in The Dark Knight. The third villain type wants destruction. They may say they have a goal but destruction is really it at the end for them. They can overlap with the fourth and final villain type but the fourth type has something different than the third. The fourth type of villain has a mission that they fully believe in that makes them think they are the good guy in their heads. Their missions usually are destructive but it's for the purpose of disrupting the status quo. They want to enact change to a problem they observe on a minor or major scale and the problem is most of the time an issue of oppression facing a group they belong to or care about. This is my favorite type of villain because they aren't necessarily wrong in their beliefs but they are flawed in the measures they take to achieve victory. This type of villain makes the hero who opposes them evolve if written correctly. They remove the fake reality the hero inhabits and show them the real world that everyone else lives in.
Cool mask, bro.

Killmonger definitely fits into this slot.

As I explained in my last blog post, Killmonger's reasons for his actions are complex and comes from years of hurt and living a non-royal life in the United States. His father was taken from him when he was a child in a violent act. His background is only known from what little his father was able to relay to him and a journal his father left hidden behind that Killmonger found.

Killmonger excels as a soldier with the dual missions of gaining revenge on his family that left him fatherless and gaining the technology and weapons to combat what he sees as oppressive forces around the world. Killmonger hasn't lived in isolation like the people of Wakanda. He wasn't protected by a high tech barrier from the outside world. Killmonger knows the world fully and the conditions of people who look like him in it. He has been a weapon of enforcing that condition. Killmonger wants to give what he views as "his people" globally a chance to rise up. Using vibranium to gain justice/revenge  is the correct course of action in his eyes. Wakanda has so much and its people live in comfort that they can sacrifice a bit to elevate the conditions of others.

As I watched Killmonger once he arrived in Wakanda with the body of the murdering thief Klaue, a thought flashed in my mind. I get Killmonger. I've been close to empathizing with other villains before but I REALLY got Killmonger. Did I agree with everything he did? No. Did I understand? perfectly.

Killmonger is the African-American living in the world.

Erik Stevens can be be precisely described as a first generation child of an immigrant. I can definitely see the case for that being made and easily. His father was from another country and he has a name from his father's country of origin besides his Anglicized one that he goes by- N'Jadaka. It's all there but I think Erik can represent the condition of the African-American, with regards to our position in the world and in the African diaspora. 

Erik is often told he is lost, mostly by the people he encounters in Wakanda. This reminded me a bit of this NSFW Mike Yard comedy clip on the relationship between Africans and African-Americans at times. To be black in this country is often a search for your origins with little access to full and accurate records of your ancestors. This is Erik's condition perfectly. He has to decide early on who he is in this world and decide if he'll accept both what was taken from him and what is put upon him by the world. 

There is definitely a familial bond to the people of Wakanda and a blood connection to T'Challa but time and hurt and oppression has given him a different view of the world than his cousin. They can both see the realities of the world but Erik dealt with it while T'Challa lived in royal conditions in an Afrofuturistic land. This isn't an exact one to one with the real world relationship between African-Americans and Africans but Africans definitely have concrete histories stretching back centuries that they can easily connect to. This point is even illustrated in who and what T'Challa sees when he visits the Land of the Dead versus what happens with Erik. T'Challa connects with his ancestors and the vastness of Africa while Erik only has his dad in the Oakland apartment where he lost his life. The disconnect is there. He can't connect because he wasn't given the full knowledge of his history and his adversarial opinion of the people he feels, and rightfully so, abandoned him in the wilds of America.

Erik is given pain for large portions of his life starting with living in this country as a black person, continuing with the brutal murder of his father, the betrayal of his "Uncle James" aka Zuri and the denial of  having a full family history. He took all of this hurt and formulated a plan to return it to the world and the people who have hurt him and his people. Every scar on his body was earned, in both the service of completing his grand plan and in serving the oppressive forces he wants to overthrow in the future. His birth country sent him to places to subdue and disrupt people that looked like him. Erik just wants to return that hurt to them and if he can get rid of someone he feels took a portion of his life in the process, even better.

I get his rage. I do not support the actions he takes but I understand that rage. You are mad at how the place that you are from treats you. You get frustrated in the images the world puts out there of who you are. You try to fit in and it results in you having to suck things up or, worse, tread on other people who are in the same/similar struggle as you. And that's the real world conditions. Add to that that there is a country where you are basically a prince that possesses technology that can liberate and support others and they do nothing? The rage is understandable.

You can't let the fire consume you.
The downfall of Erik's plans and what will probably make T'Challa more successful in improving the world is that he is embracing the ways of the people who hurt him. He thinks it's what necessary for him to win. Erik is trying to "use their tactics" on them because he learned from them in their military and their wars. Erik is working from a position of anger not realizing that using the ways of a cruel conqueror can make you become a cruel conqueror. He has to break out of his ways of thinking he learned growing up here and step back and change his rage into something else. Wakanda can be either a conquering army or a leader of all the tribes of men to a better future. T'Challa understands this by the movie's end and he learns it from Nakia and also his cousin Erik. Erik's method are too extreme but there is validity in what he is saying. Erik just was unfortunately caught in the midst of the maelstrom of humanity's evil and couldn't escape his feelings of rage. His rage was justified but it led him on the wrong path. Erik embraced and saw the history of his mother's side and this is good but he let the negativity of what happened bring him down when he combined it with the power of his father's country. 

The key to making the MCU a better place for T'Challa and all of us in the real world is to see the world with clear eyes. To lead you have to see all the bad things in the past and the present and make sure that they don't happen in the future. Revenge is the way we always want to go and people DO have to answer for crimes but we can't let that rage consume us to the point where we hurt our families or become like those people who keep and kept us down.

It's hard for a good man to be king. But you have to still try.
I get Erik's rage. I feel it pretty much daily here in the world in general and in the United States in particular. This place can break you. I'm not sure if I would have been that much different from Killmonger if I lived his life but I would hope I would see a different way to a better tomorrow like Nakia, Shuri and now King T'Challa. I'm not sure but I hope I would.

Sean Fields is an aspiring writer and has been in the education field for more than a decade. He works mostly with teenagers nowadays which both keeps him well informed on pop culture and makes his hair turn grayer daily. He has a few blogs but is currently focused on this one and this other one. You can also find him on TumblrTwitter and Instagram, if you want to be entertained or infuriated.
King's Dead King's Dead Reviewed by SeanFields on Thursday, February 15, 2018 Rating: 5
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