I, like many others, proudly purchased a one-way ticket to the afrofuturistic wonderland of Wakanda, to bask in the cinematic glow of the film Black Panther. From its casting choices, all the way down to its costume design, Black Panther can be seen as the on-screen actualization of an untouched/un-carved technologically advanced African potential, unchained from the grim realities of colonialism and slavery.
Yes, I too was drawn to the blockbuster comic-film crafted by black director Ryan Coogler, accompanied by a narrative, unfamiliar to Hollywood, that placed a black superhero as the lion-hearted protagonist. But with every great hero protagonist for the viewing audience to empathize and ultimately cheer for, there comes a super-villain antagonist for the viewing audience to vilify and lust for their defeat. In the case of Black Panther, that character was Erik Killmonger Stevens, played by Michael B. Jordan.
I have read several pieces focused on Killmonger as the quintessential super-villain. As Mike Sholars writes, “Erik Killmonger Stevens is the best villain in Marvel movie history … People are calling him the best on-screen villain since the Joker in The Dark Knight. Possibly ever.”
I refuse to see Killmonger as a super-villain. I see him as a super-victim of systemically oppressive forces, forces that forced him into a hyper-awareness of his dueled unwanted status in Wakanda and in America, due to having the blood of his mother, who was a descendant of black folks forced into the United States via the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade. This two-pronged othering serves as the source of his super-power. His super-power did not derive from radioactive spider bites like Spider Man, or mythological alien strength like that of Superman. Killmonger’s character harbors a super-power more potent than the fictive mineral Vibranium, housed exclusively in Wakanda: Killmonger is the possessor of un-tempered black rage.
It was James Baldwin that framed the pervasiveness of black rage when he said that, “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious, is to be in a rage almost all the time.” William H. Grier and Price M. Cobbs, both psychiatrists whose book, Black Rage, informed readers that, “Blacks bent double by oppression have stored energy which will be released in the form of rage — black rage, apocalyptic and final”
The black rage of Erik Killmonger Stevens was on full display, in its purest form throughout the film, illuminating various core concerns of both black people living as the descendants of the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade throughout the African Diaspora, as well as himself, living as a black man raised in Oakland, California.
The black rage of Killmonger was cultivated in the hellish conditions suffered by black folks in America, rendering those like the real life Oakland native Oscar Grant (whom Killmonger actor Michael B. Jordan played in the critically acclaimed Ryan Coogler film Fruitvale Station), consistently killable by police with virtual impunity. Killmonger, was raised in the backyard of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, who put their lives on the line to give power to the people suffering in black communities, while watching the Wakandan Black Panther hoard power for himself, and the people of his nation. Unlike T’Challa (played by Chadwick Boseman), Killmonger was not concerned with the preservation of traditional nobility, he was concerned with accountability, forcing both the outside world and Wakanda to confront their roots and continuous contributions necessary for the existence of the black rage, which was smoldering in the soul of Killmonger in the first place.
I understand the black rage of Killmonger, because I too have it burning in my chest.
How can one truly vilify Killmonger, whose mission was to, by any means necessary, atone for the history of slavery, of colonization, the carving of Africa, the racialized systemic oppression plaguing those throughout the African diaspora and avenging the death of his father? Killmonger is un-tempered black rage and a cinematic manifestation of centuries of both historical and contemporary anti-blackness and loss, exploding out of one black body.
Killmonger’s black rage is my black reality, and I cannot see Erik Killmonger Stevens as a villain because it would mean seeing myself as a villain as well (and as a black man in America, I have been vilified enough). It would mean that some of my real-life super heroes, like, Malcolm X, Patrice Lumumba, Stephen Biko and Huey P. Newton, who lost their lives fighting anti-black systemic oppressive forces, were villainous for allowing their warranted black rage to serve as the needed fuel when traveling the road paved with a longing for liberation.
As I watched Killmonger die at the close of the film, I did not see the death of a villain. I saw a warrior taking his own life on his own terms, akin to Japanese samurai committed to taking their own lives by way of hara-kiri, as a sign of atonement, demonstrating enormous psychological courage, which was a way of winning back some measure of honor, even in defeat. When he chose death before the dishonor of incarceration in his father’s home nation, at the hands of his own cousin T’Challa, he let the world know that he belonged with those of the middle passage that chose to jump from the slave ships, before accepting the inhumane conditions that come with bondage. Killmonger also left T’Challa with the repugnant reality that he, his own flesh and blood, treated him with the same fear, criminalization and contempt, as the oppressors of black folks throughout the diaspora that Killmonger died trying to defeat.