The following article contains major spoilers for Black Panther.
Chadwick Boseman knows what many viewers have been thinking as they watch Black Panther—that maybe Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), the film’s ostensible villain, isn’t such a villain after all. That maybe Killmonger’s stated aim, to use the powerful technology and weaponry of the secluded African nation of Wakanda to liberate black people all over the world, is worth taking seriously. It’s an argument that Boseman himself wrestled with while making the movie, one he weaved into his performance as T’Challa, the titular hero and king of Wakanda who opposes his cousin Killmonger and eventually kills him in single combat.
“I actually am the enemy,” Boseman said of his character in a wide-ranging discussion with his Black Panther castmate Lupita Nyong’o and The Atlantic’s national correspondent Ta-Nehisi Coates at Harlem’s historic Apollo Theater on Tuesday. “It’s the enemy I’ve always known. It’s power. It’s having privilege.” Recognizing T’Challa’s limitations as a character, and understanding the personal and philosophical evolutions he goes through in battling Erik, were crucial to the final arc of the film, Boseman said. And that arc is one reason Black Panther has become such an instant global phenomenon—because it’s a superhero movie that bucks a lot of the conventions of the genre, rejecting a simple, binary clash between hero and villain, and instead focusing on the ideological future of a nation.
During the talk, Boseman touched on many of the tensions my colleague Adam Serwer explored in his essay on Killmonger: Here is a character demanding aid and liberation for black people around the world, and chastising the secluded Wakandans (who hide from the public eye to avoid conflict) for their failure to address the many wrongs visited on their African neighbors over the centuries. Killmonger’s methods are often violent and cold-blooded, and he seems stripped of empathy as he displaces the Wakandan royal family. But his motivations are powerful, even if his tactics (as the CIA Agent Everett Ross, played by Martin Freeman, points out) are rooted in the American military’s long history of interfering in foreign transitions of power.
Boseman pointed to Ryan Coogler, Black Panther’s director (Joe Robert Cole co-wrote the script with him), as the man behind Killmonger’s complicated characterization. “He’s an African American and therefore trying to find a connection to his roots in Africa,” he said. “You see that search in the movie. There’s a bit of Ryan in Killmonger, and I feel the same way.” As king of Wakanda, T’Challa is a particularly potent symbol of idealism for a liberated, technologically advanced African nation that was never conquered. But as meaningful as that symbol is, Coogler knows it’s also something that might provoke feelings of alienation or even resentment in the audience.
T’Challa was “born with a vibranium spoon in [his] mouth,” Boseman said, jokingly referring to the fictional rare metal that gives Wakanda its advanced technology and powers the superhero suit of the Black Panther. “Killmonger is trying to achieve greatness … but there’s an expectation of greatness for me,” Boseman continued. “I don’t know if we as African Americans would accept T’Challa as our hero if he didn’t go through Killmonger. Because Killmonger has been through our struggle, and I [as T’Challa] haven’t.”
As an African American (who was born and raised in South Carolina and attended Howard University), Boseman connected to Erik’s message—and realized T’Challa’s true triumph would come from accepting parts of it. As Killmonger dies, he reminds T’Challa of the people that Wakanda neglected: “Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from ships,” he says. “‘Cause they knew death was better than bondage.” At the end of the film, T’Challa decides to open Wakanda to the world, looking to provide aid and technology to impoverished communities (though not to conquer, as Killmonger did).
Nyong’o, who plays T’Challa’s ex-girlfriend Nakia (an undercover operative for the Wakandan government), said she had never seen a blockbuster script wrestle with those kinds of perspectives. “We, too, have been plagued with these unfortunate images that diminish us,” she said (Nyong’o, who was born in Mexico City and grew up in Nairobi, identifies as Kenyan-Mexican). She spoke of the film’s portrayal of Wakanda’s deep traditions, and how radical it felt that they were untouched by colonialism, never besieged by Westerners.
“Their idea of beauty is totally their own, and totally modern and unique, and it’s okay,” she said of Wakandans. “The tradition evolves as the needs of the people evolve.” And, of course, they do—with Wakanda opening its borders while retaining its policy of nonaggression against other countries. Beyond that, Nyong’o said she was thrilled by a world where women have “agency” and her character, though an old flame of T’Challa’s, is hardly defined by their relationship, but by her own skill as a spy and a fighter.
To Nyong’o, Nakia’s relationship with General Okoye (Danai Gurira) symbolized that push-and-pull between tradition and evolution. Midway through the film, both characters think T’Challa is dead, replaced by Killmonger after ritual combat. Nakia decides to go on the run, unwilling to serve Wakanda’s new ruler; Okoye, sworn to the throne, says she has to honor the transition of power. “It’s the crux of what Wakanda is dealing with,” Nyong’o said. “What does ‘serving’ and ‘saving’ look like?”
The “combustion” between the characters, she added, “was about the political and ideological future of Wakanda.” To have a scene like that between two women in a film of this genre, one that often sidelines female characters as love interests or supportive mothers, mattered to Nyong’o. “It’s not petty,” she said.
“Wakanda is a birthplace, a center,” Boseman said, in talking about the varied backgrounds of the actors involved, representing countries including Zimbabwe, Uganda, Kenya, South Africa, Trinidad and Tobago, and, of course, the United States. Wakanda might be a fictional land, but every cast member’s commitment to it feels authentic because of their performances.
There are perhaps a million reasons for Black Panther’s success, including the terrific ensemble and design elements (particularly Hannah Beachler’s sets and Ruth E. Carter’s costumes). But putting Wakanda at the center of Black Panther, and making the dramatic stakes of the film a battle for the nation’s future direction, was incredibly bold on Coogler’s part. This choice demanded emotional investment from viewers in a fictional country they, for the most part, had just been introduced to. The way the film builds out this world, and roots every character in its history, is Coogler’s greatest achievement with Black Panther.
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