African vs African American: The Divide Explored Through T'Challa And Killmonger
This feud is deep-rooted
The highly-acclaimed box office hit Black Panther has markedly created a platform for Africa and its American diaspora, to engage in a much-needed intimate exchange. That such a conversation was even granted a place in large on the silver screen, backed by the multi-million dollar Marvel Studios, is a testament to just how far the pendulum is swinging within Hollywood and mainstream filmmaking in general. Even Lupita Nyong’o who plays Nakia, tells of the astonishment she expressed to the director upon first reading the script - “is Marvel/Disney really allowing you to do this?!”
The film introduces us to titular hero T’Challa played by Chadwick Boseman alongside his antagonist, Michael B Jordan’s Erik Killmonger. The complex family ties that exist between the two forms the arc for the film, albeit deviating slightly from the backstory of the original comics. This also sets the table for the deeper themes not commonly explored in mainstream cinema, least of all a Marvel superhero movie. We have the highly talented director Ryan Cooler to thank for what has been described as a ‘love letter’ to black people everywhere.
The level of introspection that Killmonger is ultimately able to bring not only to T’Challa but Wakanda and its age-old principles is honestly refreshing to witness; and a move from the usual cookie cutter Marvel villain. One scene in the film enacts the comic cliché ‘villain reveals his evil plan’, which surprised audiences, in that many were actually able to experience a sense of affinity with his controversial intentions. With particularly African American audiences expressing this moment of relatability, exclaiming ‘Killmonger actually has a point!’ T’Challa eventually too seems to recognize this overarching point (something that is interestingly also expressed earlier by Nakia), with an instrumental foreign policy decision taken on behalf of Wakanda by the film's end. Wakanda will finally open its borders and share its resources with the world, the resulting consequences of this are left to be seen in the future Marvel universe.
The exchanges between T’Challa and Killmonger throughout the film are reminiscent of the wider experiences of Africans and their African American counterparts. One group is viewed by many Africans as the ‘Lost Tribe’ whilst the other maintains the luxury of a tight hold on the cultural traditions of old. This estrangement is gingerly reflected in the level of abandonment that Killmonger experiences at the hand of his own uncle. Perhaps unintentionally mirroring the role the African elite played in the selling of slaves to Europeans.
As it is later revealed T’Chaka is behind the death of N’Jobu played by the phenomenal Sterling K. Brown (and well worth the cameo), father of the disillusioned villain. The film’s auxiliary villain Ulysses Klaue further exemplifies this separation, as he scoffs to Killmonger that Wakandans won’t accept him even in light of the traditional markings Killmonger has chosen to adorn his body with.
It is this acknowledgment that causes me a certain level of sadness well beyond the film. The historic moment of The Middle Passage would establish, unbeknownst to the chained Africans at the time, a deep chasm between Africans on the continent and the displaced African Americans. A severing of ties so deep, that we are still able to bear witness to it today.
Whether intentional or not the film further demonstrates this severance in Killmonger’s audacious disregard of the weighty importance of African tradition. When he abruptly orders for the burning of the ‘Heart-Shaped Herb’, he makes a monumental decision that will affect the future lineage of the Black Panther.
Upon his death, Killmonger is seemingly unaware of the wider impact he has made in the country that he so desperately wished to call home. In his climactic last words, he asserts to his despondent cousin T'Challa; “Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from ships, ‘cause they knew death was better than bondage.” Chilling, yet powerful words from this complex anti-hero. A memorable Marvel villain who blurred the lines between the Disney-style notions of good and evil.
The film signals the developments that are occurring within the diaspora. This cinematic ‘black love letter’ of sorts speaks to the growth that we all still need to make. In coming together to understand our differences but ultimately connecting through our overwhelming similarities. This is all marked with the rise of African Americans taking ancestry tests to learn of their ancestral roots, increased visits back to the continent and the adoption of traditional clothing such as the Dashiki and Kente cloth. Hopefully, deep wounds can heal, unlike those of Erik Killmonger. As in the words of director Ryan Coogler reflecting on his time on the continent, we are all still very much one in the same.