Lovers of the Zoo.
My loves. My friends.
It’s been a long time since we’ve talked here. Too long. And to be honest, it’s been a particularly wild year already–even though it’s only February.
All that said, I’m back. At least for the interim and we have much to discuss–starting with the premiere of Black Panther. Have you ever felt elated and but exhausted all at the same damn time. But in the best way? Good. Keep that feeling because that’s exactly what I felt upon the premiere of Black Panther roughly two weeks ago.
I don’t know about y’all but viewing the film was akin to a spiritual experience. I laughed, I cried, and I felt incredibly seen. Ryan Coogler stuck his foot in this movie and managed to weave so many complex topics in the film that I felt simultaneously validated and called out. And it’s because of his direction that we got the most well-written and nuanced MCU villain to date in Erik “Killmonger” Stevens.
The interesting thing about this is that Coogler makes sure that Erik is so complex, so relatable, and so intrinsic to the struggle of Black Americans (and the spirit of Oakland) that some Black folx are finding it hard to refer to him as a villain or an antagonist. In fact, some have downright refused to refer to him as such and are throwing around words like anti-hero, or the hero in a different POV.
Still. While I deeply empathize with Erik and his story, I vehemently disagree with this. Erik, while tortured, is a villain. He’s not one in the base, White liberal sense of “violence is bad = anyone using violence for liberation is bad too” or even in the sense that he is clearly semi-unhinged due to both his expertise in (and affinity for) murder. But, he still is one.
And here are a couple of reasons why:
1. He is willing to sacrifice and disregard Black women on the way to “liberation”.
However much one empathizes with Erik, it cannot be denied that he is highly misogynistic and shows zero regard for Black femmes in this film. This is enough for him to be vilified and is not accidental considering Ryan Coogler’s treatment of Black women in his previous works (which has been A1 and explains why any “villain” in his work with do the exact opposite), but it gets worse when you realize that his goal for Black “liberation” not only saves very little space for Black femmes, but it also presumes to know more than them in this regard and leaves little room for dissent from them.
To elaborate, while Erik is an indiscriminate murderer, the majority of the violence and disregard he carries out onscreen (in the present) is against women. Obviously, this is probably the case because many of the principal characters in this movie are in fact women. However, I noticed that this violence against women had an undertone of aggression and disregard (and sadism) that’s not really present with other characters
Case in point, he does not hesitate to kill his girlfriend, Linda to get to Klaue. Literally. Erik goes to kill Klaue and Klaue takes Linda as a hostage. And not only does Linda apologize for this (I won’t get into how Pick Me-esque) this is, but Erik then says it’s going to be okay and then shoots her to get through him. So essentially, (through violence), he shows complete disregard for a Black woman who he is supposed to care about and uses her and her body as a sacrifice to kill Whitey.
If that’s not problematic enough, after he usurps the throne from T’Challa and goes to the ancestral plane and returns, he tells the spiritual advisors present to burn all traces of the heart-shaped herb that is the source of the Black Panther’s supernatural power (and the door to the ancestral plane). When the lead shawoman hesitates, he chokes out her out, telling her “when I tell you to do something, you do that shit!” This is wildly concerning because the whole reason she hesitates is that “burning it all” would be the equivalent of burning away tradition and heritage–and he doesn’t seem to care. It also demonstrates his disregard for the elderly and his inability to handle dissent, hesitation, or criticism from a woman without using violence or ignoring her completely. It is also incredibly counterintuitive and selfish considering that Erik wants to make this grand Wakandan Empire. Heirs are needed to maintain an empire, but Erik can’t even get his head out of his own ass long enough to see past his own reign to acknowledge. So, yeah, of course, he wants to burn it all.
And then there is his general disregard for the Dora Milaje and chiefly Okoye, their leader and general. Besides the fact that he murders a member of the Dora Milaje when they try to get him to stand down at the revelation that T’Challa is still alive (and therefore still king), he also disregards Okoye’s sage advice during the climactic council meeting in favor of W’Kabi’s (a man) fuckboi advice about opting to be “conquerors” instead of the “conquered”. This stood out to me because while Erik is not shooting her or strangling her, he makes it a point to basically say that her voice and opinion doesn’t matter by taking Wahala’s–I mean W’Kabi’s undercooked counsel over hers–even though Okoye is A GENERAL. Like, she definitely and absolutely outranks W’Kabi, so what the hell?
And finally, we see him going out of his way to attempt to kill Princess Shuri. Seriously. While surveying the battlefield, he sees Shuri, points one of his grubby swords at her, almost murks that ass until T’Challa intervenes. And to me, this was perhaps the most disgusting because that matchup was far from fair, seeing as he was much bigger, stronger, and faster than Shuri (he ate the herb after all) and him being geeked to kill her despite that showed how dishonorable he was (and how he was totally unfit to be king).
All of these instances may be excusable to some—most likely those that either harbor misogynoir or internalized misogyny in their hearts–but most certainly shouldn’t be. Because not only does Erik use and dispose of Black women habitually, but he does so for his own gain and pretends that it is in the name of liberation. This is particularly awful considering how pivotal women are in Wakanda and considering the fact that the film makes it known that there is a better way to go about this plan for Black liberation AND restoration and that a woman is behind this plan (via Nakia and her indictment of Wakanda’s isolationist foreign policy and her willingness to save others who are NOT Wakandan–like the Nigerian women at the beginning of the film).
And this is particularly repulsive considering that this type of disregard for Black women is something we’ve seen in the civil rights movement and other social justice resistance movements. Men like this have always been considered a danger to women and the idea of liberation. So, why is it suddenly okay for Erik to adopt these methods? Is that some of us are anti-women as well? Or is it that are we okay with turning a blind eye to mistreatment of women (and by extension, other marginalized folx) in the name of consequentialism (“the end justifies the means”) and hypocrisy?
Which brings me to my next point:
2. Killmonger’s plans, while seemingly noble, ultimately would result in Black people replicating systems of oppression.
This idea of “the end justifying the means” is an idea that, even if this two-hour movie can’t fully explain, seeks to introduce to the conversation in regards to the global Black struggle and liberation. I say this because while Erik’s initial plan to put a twist on “by any mean necessary” (the irony of perverting Malcolm X’s words–who was a KNOWN anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist, and advocate for Black women–does not escape me) sounds like a pretty sweet deal on the surface, it is so much more sinister than meets the eye.
You see, Killmonger’s plan is less about liberating all Black people and more about making Black folx the top of the food chain. I mean, consider W’Kabi’s comments about wanting to be “conquerors” over being conquered. Or, a more disturbing quote, Erik’s comment about “the sun never setting on the Wakandan Empire”.
Now, who does that remind you of?
If you guessed the greatest imperialist country to do it, America’s Baba—aka Britain – you’d be correct! And Britain used everything at its disposal (the three Cs—colonialism, capitalism, and Christianity—and other weapons) to brutally acquire AND maintain that empire.
In short, Erik is seeking to do exactly what White colonizers and imperialists did before him, only this time, he wants to place us at the top of the White supremacist food chain. This is so aptly punctuated by Erik mentioning that he “knows how to think like [his] oppressors” and is problematic…to say the least. Empires brimming with genocide, capitalist exploitation, and imperialist thought got us here. And if these are the same things that Erik wants us to use to pave our way to liberation, we must keep it 100 admit that we are not seeking liberation. No. We would merely be seeking to replace our oppressors’ faces with our own.
Which just so happens to lead me to my last point:
3. Killmonger’s dream for Black liberation stops short of including a plan for Black reconstruction and exposes his thirst for revenge.
Discussing imperialism and exploitative intervention by foreign powers is nice, but it would not mean anything if I didn’t discuss their roles in Erik’s plans.
Putting it bluntly, there is something unsettling about Erik being gung-ho about dropping a bunch of high-powered weapons in the hands of oppressed Black people all over the world, but making no suggestions of what their strategy is for these weapons or what happens next after the weapons are used and blood is shed.
Erik mentions their spies abroad, but there’s no discussion on how to mobilize folx in these regions or whether the people will even fall in line (because remember—Blackness is not a monolith AND not all skinfolx are kinfolx) to begin with. Without proper leadership, will they truly be able to win? And if they do win, what happens afterward? What about restoration? What about rebuilding?
I hate to be that bitch, but as much as I daydream about liberation, I have to question Erik and his motivations because we have too many examples in history where powerful nations with hidden agendas supply warring factions of people with weapons to win their respective conflicts…only for the countries involved to be destabilized right after. This has been the case with the US and various countries in the Middle East. And during these times, the US always claimed to be doing this in the name of freedom and democracy, when in actuality it was for the purpose of exploiting the regions’ resources. Which is not dissimilar here. Erik claims to be doing this for liberation’s sake, but only has plans to tear down and destabilize, not build or restore—mostly because of his thirst for vengeance. Vengeance is key here, because it fuels the anger behind his plan. And you can attempt to temper this by bringing up his father, N’Jobu, and how he may be trying to honor his legacy (rather than avenge it), but even that defense starts to fall apart when you consider that despite shedding a singular tear at seeing his dad again, he is mostly unmoved and still dead-set on this violently unsound plan.
This lack of reflection (inward or otherwise) makes his plan half-baked and extremely short-sighted. And it highlights that Erik is merely used to killing and warmongering and nothing else. Literally. Like it’s quite frankly in his nickname and is highlighted in the fact that Erik was a soldier and a very willing participant in America’s imperialist machine (just so he can get back to Wakanda and reclaim his vengeance). Ross lays out his murdering imperialist credentials too. His state-sanctioned war crimes in Afghanistan. Iraq. Most likely countries in North Africa (hinted at by Erik mentioning killing Black people on the African continent).
Someone like this, like Erik, would have no idea how to go about healing these nations he ushered into war afterward. He would be grossly incapable of doing so and has shown that he has no interest in being taught either (he mentions literally genociding any and all dissenters and I assume he would choke out any [female] council member who tried to tell him otherwise ). And as the potential king of this “Wakandan Empire”, there’s no way that trouble, destruction, and heartbreak wouldn’t be waiting him and his new subjects at the end of this path.
And this is perhaps the heart of Erik’s villainy. Because he is skinfolk, (because let’s be honest, if we strip his Blackness and message of neo-imperialist liberation and replace it with Whiteness and White genocide, we would be calling Erik everything but a child of Bast), we are all too ready to validate his plan, despite the sure destruction it would bring. We are not willing to—or perhaps not ready to—admit that he is lashing out in his anger, relishing the chaos that it is causing, and dressing all of that emotional baggage up as revolution…with no real sense of ideology or hope for rebirth or restoration.
In short, his anger is an indictment of both Wakanda’s abandonment of him AND the fact that any of us could be him. That a lot of us are one really bad day (or traumatic event) from becoming a villain like him. Think about it. He’s not a robot born out of a rich White man’s hubris or guilt. Nor is he a White-presenting royal who was given everything and simply wanted more. Nor is he some weird puppet stand-in for the cause (and effect) of terrorism.
He is a Black kid from Oakland who used anger as a coping mechanism to survive and let that same anger consume him from the inside out…to the point that any plan for liberation spearheaded by someone like him (someone who is unwilling to unpack their toxic masculinity and emotional baggage) was always destined to fail.
And if that’s not a cautionary tale, I don’t know what the fuck is.
Catch me, Lex Luther (aka Clarkisha Kent) on the internets for more discussions on all things Black Panther and more!