The Tragedy of Erik Killmonger
The revolutionary ideals of Black Panther’s profound and complex villain have been twisted into a desire for hegemony.
The following article contains major spoilers.
Black Panther is a love letter to people of African descent all over the world. Its actors, its costume design, its music, and countless other facets of the film are drawn from all over the continent and its diaspora, in a science-fiction celebration of the imaginary country of Wakanda, a high-tech utopia that is a fictive manifestation of African potential unfettered by slavery and colonialism.
But it is first and foremost an African American love letter, and as such it is consumed with The Void, the psychic and cultural wound caused by the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, the loss of life, culture, language, and history that could never be restored. It is the attempt to penetrate The Void that brought us Alex Haley’s Roots, that draws thousands of African Americans across the ocean to visit West Africa every year, that left me crumpled on the rocks outside the Door of No Return at Gorée Island’s slave house as I stared out over a horizon that my ancestors might have traversed once and forever. Because all they have was lost to The Void, I can never know who they were, and neither can anyone else.
It is also The Void that creates Michael B. Jordan’s Erik Killmonger, the antagonist of Black Panther, cousin to Chadwick Boseman’s protagonist King T’Challa and a comic-book villain so transcendent that he is almost out of place in a film about a superhero who dresses as a cat. Black Panther is about a highly advanced African kingdom, yes, but its core theme is Pan-Africanism, a belief that no matter how seemingly distant black people’s lives and struggles are from each other, we are in a sense “cousins” who bear a responsibility to help one another escape oppression. And so the director Ryan Coogler asks, if an African superpower like Wakanda existed, with all its power, its monopoly on the invaluable sci-fi metal vibranium, and its advanced technology, how could it have remained silent, remained still, as millions of Africans were devoured by The Void?
“Two billion people all over the world who look like us whose lives are much harder, and Wakanda has the tools to liberate them all,” Killmonger scolds the Wakandan court. “Where was Wakanda?”
Killmonger has come to Wakanda as a conqueror. His father N’Jobu facilitated the theft of vibranium in an attempt to arm black people all over the world against their oppressors; N’Jobu is killed by T’Challa’s father T’Chaka for his insubordinate attempt to end the centuries of isolation that have kept Wakanda safe. T’Chaka abandons Killmonger in Oakland, California (the birthplace of the Black Panther Party), leaving Killmonger literally and figuratively an orphan, who sees in his lost homeland a chance to avenge the millions of black people extinguished in The Void, and those who still suffer in its wake.
Killmonger’s stated purpose, to liberate black people all over the world, has sparked a lively discussion over whether he is a bad guy to begin with. What could be so bad about black liberation? “I fist-pumped in the silent, dark theater when he was laying out his plans,” writes Brooke Obie at Shadow and Act. “IT’S A GOOD IDEA!” That Coogler’s villain has even inspired this debate is a testament to how profound and complex the character is.
“In the end, all comes down to a contest between T’Challa and Killmonger that can only be read one way,” writes Christopher Lebron in a well-argued piece in Boston Review, “in a world marked by racism, a man of African nobility must fight his own blood relative whose goal is the global liberation of blacks.”
This is not actually what happens in the film. Killmonger’s goal is, in his eyes, the global liberation of black people. But that is not truly his goal, as Coogler makes clear in the text of the script and in Killmonger’s interactions with other characters. Like Magneto, another comic-book character who is a creation of historical trauma—the Holocaust instead of the Middle Passage—Killmonger’s goal is world domination. “The sun will never set on the Wakandan empire,” Killmonger declares, echoing an old saying about the British Empire, to drive the point home as clearly as possible. He sees no future beyond his own reign; he burns the magic herbs Wakandan monarchs use to gain their powers because he does not even intend to have an heir.
It is remarkable that many viewers seem to have taken the “liberation” part at face value, and ignored the “empire” part, which Jordan delivers perfectly. They are equally important. Killmonger’s plan for “black liberation,” arming insurgencies all over the world, is an American policy that has backfired and led to unforeseen disasters perhaps every single time it has been deployed; it is somewhat bizarre to see people endorse a comic-book version of George W. Bush’s foreign policy and sign up for the Project for the New Wakandan Century as long as the words “black liberation” are used instead of “democracy promotion.” Killmonger’s assault begins in London, New York, and Hong Kong; China is not typically known as a particularly good example of white Western hegemony in need of overthrow.
There are other Wakandan characters who wish to end the kingdom’s isolation for reasons of their own. Lupita Nyong’o’s Nakia is seen at the beginning of the film rescuing people from a Boko Haram–type militia, and later urges T’Challa to take in refugees; T’Challa refuses, citing Wakanda’s tradition of isolationism. Killmonger seeks more than aid or revolution—he seeks hegemony. Here, there are echoes of the breakdown of the original Black Panther Party in its later years, as radicalized chapters sought a direct armed struggle to overthrow the U.S. government—a plan that most of the Party’s established leadership saw as folly. In so doing, the film’s conflict symbolizes, as my colleague Vann Newkirk writes, an old argument over “the nature of power and the rightness of its use” that has long “dominated black thought in the United States,” and even beyond.
“You want to see us become just like the people you hate so much,” T’Challa tells Killmonger during their climactic battle. “I learn from my enemies,” Killmonger retorts. “You have become them,” T’Challa responds. That the climactic battle in Black Panther is a bloodbath between Wakandan factions is no accident; it is Killmonger putting the never-colonized Wakanda through a taste of colonialism in microcosm. In one of many sly references to the Black Panther Party, it is Wakanda’s women—Nakia, Danai Gurira’s General Okoye, Letitia Wright’s Princess Shuri, Angela Bassett’s Queen-Mother Ramonda—who sustain Wakanda through its darkest moments. Where T’Challa cannot survive or triumph without Okoye, Shuri, or Ramonda, Killmonger is alone. His African American mother is absent from the story; Killmonger kills his own lover the moment her body stands between him and his ideological ambitions.
The following distinction is crucial: Black Panther does not render a verdict that violence is an unacceptable tool of black liberation—to the contrary, that is precisely how Wakanda is liberated. It renders a verdict on imperialism as a tool of black liberation, to say that the master’s tools cannot dismantle the master’s house.
Yet because Killmonger’s plans are rooted in a recognizable idealism and a wounded soul, the audience is supposed to empathize with him, even care for him. Viewers are meant to mourn him as T’Challa does when he dies, invoking his ancestors who chose to be consumed by The Void rather than toil in bondage. When T’Challa goes to the spirit world, he sees his ancestors. When Killmonger goes, in one of the most moving scenes in the film, he sees only his father; the rest of his ancestors have been lost to The Void. He is alone in a way T’Challa can never comprehend. So like his father N’Jobu, Killmonger is radicalized. “We can rule over them all the right way,” N’Jobu says during a flashback.
Killmonger himself is a kind of avatar of the BPP’s deterioration in its latter years, when rebelling against white supremacy gave way to internecine bloodshed. He embodies the Black Panther Party’s revolutionary possibility and noble intentions, but also its degeneration into fratricidal violence, and a sexism that persisted despite party doctrine. The film’s title thus has a double meaning, an indication of the gravity of Killmonger’s character—a Black Panther against the Black Panther. In one of the many subtle touches Coogler adds to a film in a genre not known for them, Black Panther ambiguously refers to either of them.
It is also a mistake, to, as Lebron does, view Killmonger as “as a receptacle for tropes of inner-city gangsterism.” Killmonger is not a product of the ghetto, so much as he is a product of the American military-industrial complex. Here too, the script is explicit. Noting Killmonger’s technical background (he studied at MIT) and his war record (tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, even in Africa where, he acknowledges, “ I killed my own brothers and sisters on this continent”). The CIA agent Everett Ross says of Killmonger, “he’s not Wakandan, he’s one of ours,” later observing that Killmonger’s coup is what the U.S. government “trained him to do.” The part of Killmonger that makes him a supervillain is not the part of him that is African.
Ross’s inclusion is perhaps the weakest part of the storyline—the history of the CIA in Africa is a history of the suppression of democratic movements like the African National Congress, the backing of brutal dictators, and opposition to racial equality in the name of anti-communism. Shuri hints at this history when she derisively calls Ross a “colonizer.” Nevertheless, Ross’s heroism in the film, even in a fantasy, feels like a kind of propaganda.
In spite of his ambitions for global domination, Killmonger does something remarkable and perhaps unprecedented for the superhero genre—he wins the argument. When T’Challa learns that his father killed N’Jobu and abandoned N’Jadaka (Killmonger), he is horrified: The truth shatters his faith in his father and in his father’s infallibility. On the spirit plane, T’Challa declares to the manifestations of his ancestors, the previous Black Panthers, “You were wrong. All of you, you were wrong.”
Where was Wakanda? Wakanda failed. Killmonger was right. He is blinded by his pain to the evil of his own methods, but he is correct that Wakanda abandoned its responsibility to use its unmatched power to protect black people around the world. They could have stopped the endless march of souls into The Void. They did not.
After defeating Killmonger, T’Challa ends Wakanda’s isolationism and, beginning in Oakland, starts to deploy Wakandan capital toward an international social-service project focused on impoverished black neighborhoods—again echoing the legacy of the Black Panther Party. Killmonger is dead, but he has changed Wakanda forever, ended the isolationism that defined its existence for all time, and unleashed a powerful new ally to oppressed black people all over the world. Is this inadequate? Too little, too late? Maybe. But it is folly to think that Killmonger’s preferred plan of Wakandan world hegemony through massive bloodshed, using a method that has never once worked as intended, is a preferable outcome.
Lebron laments that “Killmonger ... will not appear in another movie. He does not get a second chance. His black life did not matter even in a world of flying cars and miracle medicine.” On the contrary, Killmonger’s ascension and death is the event that catalyzes Wakanda’s redemption from its greatest failure, and his death ensures that unlike Loki, Thanos, the Red Skull, or any other of Marvel’s endless stable of world-conquering despots, the pathos of his tragic end cannot be infinitely repeated as farce. His death not only matters, it is also why he matters more than all the rest of them.
Shortly after he is crowned King, during his vision on the spirit plane, Killmonger sees N’Jobu and recalls a moment from his childhood, when N’Jobu expressed the fear that should Killmonger return to Wakanda, they would not accept him, but instead see him as lost. “Maybe your home’s the ones that’s lost,” a young Erik tells N’Jobu.
And thanks to Killmonger, now they are found.