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I've re-written this review about three times because I'm having so much trouble reviewing the movie while highlighting the socio-cultural context it takes place in. Let me just get this out of the way though; watching Black Panther was the happiest I've ever been watching a movie. As a black man in America, this movie shared with us a view of pan-African futurism I didn't even know I wanted. Black folk living their best lives, unencumbered by the history of oppression and systemic racism and classism the rest of the world has to deal with, Black Panther offers up a post-scarcity techno-utopia that I think is very much within our actual grasp if we could find it within ourselves to actually try for it. It's not without flaws. It's not the best film I've seen. But what it made me feel and let black and brown people the world over experience is something extraordinary.
Spoilers, Major and Minor Ahead, Probably (I’m not checking.)
Every scene set in Wakanda was created out of pure love, respect, and reverence for Africa and everyone sitting in the theater could feel it. It was a joy to watch and experience. Seeing so many non systematically oppressed black people on the big screen is a rare sight. I hear representation matters thrown around a lot, and I have got to say I agree. Everyone needs to see themselves in media, whether it be books, movies, or music.
I want to shout praise from the rooftops for all the brilliant, beautiful black women who carried this movie to the next level. All of the Dora Milaje showed out and gave us incredible, charming, powerful performances. All of their fine ass spear work touched my soul and made me immediately want to go buy a spear to play with (It is obviously the best melee weapon, fight me).
Angela Bassett and Lupita Nyong’o brought the grace of Michelle Obama to the role, which if you know me at all you know is the highest compliment (imagine having to deal with Obama’s slow talking, dad-joking behind for a couple of decades). Angela’s Queen Mother Ramonda rocked the white dreads reminiscent of Storm of the X-Men and gave us a taste of modern African royalty.
Lupita’s Nakia was the real hero of the film, hands down. While T’Challa was doubting himself and his ancestor’s decisions, Lupita was making moves, protecting Wakanda and the world from devastation. I only wish we had gotten to see her fight more with those dual chakrams.
And of course I would never forget Princess Shuri, the only Disney princess that really matters. Letitia Wright gave us competence porn on steroids, developing the most advanced weapons in the world while simultaneously apparently being the world’s greatest surgeon. I’m here for it. Give me more.
You know what else set my soul on fire? The dancing. Every step and twerk and slide felt so authentic that I was utterly impressed. It is amazing to see a line connecting African culture and customs across the Atlantic.
Erik Killmonger is the most compelling Marvel villain yet to see the screen and is the first one I can remember who isn’t just an evil caricature of one variety or another (with the exception of Vulture, I suppose). A little bit about myself: I don’t watch movie trailers. Like, at all. I didn’t see any promotional material for Black Panther except for posters and people’s comments saying it was amazing. I did hear a while back that the villain was named “Killmonger” which obviously sounds like a generic murderous C-list villain, to my ears at least. I’ve never been happier to be wrong.
Still, I think Ryan Coogler missed an opportunity. Crazy, I know. Hear me out.
The pairing of Killmonger with T’Challa—cousins separated by tragic circumstance—displayed the age old conflict between passive activism, maybe even elitism, and a more militant version of activism and action that seeks to take on oppression head on. In our world, Killmonger’s philosophy is doomed to fail. The power structure is too ingrained and too powerful. The weapons of resistance are too weak and too few. The ability to organize in secret and with success is too hampered by the surveillance state and its technology.
In Wakanda, though, these concerns are nonexistent. Sheltered from the colonialism and oppression of the last few centuries, Wakanda developed into an advanced African nation, hidden, with abundant resources, advanced technology and weapons, and an educated, cultured populace. The MCU allowed Killmonger, by right and by law, the means to bypass all of those considerations. It is at this point in the movie where Killmonger really starts to resonate with people who have certain histories and where Michael B. Jordan’s performance really shines.
We haven’t seen a villain like this.
Killmonger is compelling.
Death. Destruction. Chaos. That’s what Killmonger wanted for the world.
Michael B. Jordan’s every gaze, his hate, it’s the hate of every black kid who has been mistreated by a cop, gone to segregated, underfunded schools, who knows that the world as it is was designed by white folk for white folk, who has walked a mile from his or her home and seen the pleasures and joys of a modern “first world country” and then goes home to no electricity, lead-laden water, and no prospects for the future.
Killmonger’s rage is recognizable in so many of us. We’ve felt it. We’ve lived it. But we’ve never seen ourselves on the screen in that way before. Killmonger doesn’t look like a standard villain. He doesn’t sound like a standard villain. I can’t remember hearing a villain speak the way Jordan does in Black Panther. We’re used to our villains sounding British or vaguely foreign, putting on airs. Usually they are the utter definition of bourgeoisie. Even blue collar Vulture lived in a mansion and sends his kid to the best schools. We feel pity for him because he was dealt a bad hand. But then he became a run of the mill thief and weapons dealer. Regular.
Killmonger’s accent confused me at first. I thought, “This doesn’t sound right.” It didn’t fit. It took me a several minutes to realize why. He was talking normally. He wasn’t faking it. He wasn’t pretending to be something he’s not for the major movie ticket buying demographic.
But it wasn’t just that. He also embodied the Angry Black Man™ that we’ve all wanted to be every day of our lives but can’t because of social norms, employment, stereotyping, prison, etc. We’re always conscious of being that guy. We learn at a young age how to be non-threatening and “white-friendly” so that we can be palatable to teachers and police and employers. Remember, this is a country that participated in the transatlantic slave trade, segregation, jim crow, countless foreign wars, drone strikes on foreign soil, developed and used atomic weapons—but little black boys have to learn to be non-threatening so police don’t shoot us before we become teenagers. That should enrage us, and it does. But we don’t show it, for fear of reprisals—both short and long term. Jordan’s Killmonger eschews all of that and shows us just what it would be like if we didn’t. And we kind of liked it. Some of us really liked it. It seemed right and just and heroic. Traits we’d love to embody ourselves.
But Killmonger as written is a villain.
Erik Killmonger, Who Tried to Kill His Own Cousin for His Daddy’s Crime
I can’t believe I have to say this: dictators are bad. Angry-murdery dictators are worse. In a movie that already forced to me suspend my belief to accept that this advanced, enlightened country handles succession via trial by combat (that’s a whole other discussion), I’m a little offended at them making me feel empathy with angry-murdery ass Killmonger.
Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman as Agent Ross) says it repeatedly: Killmonger is trained to overthrow governments during successions. We know from old and recent history how that always turns out. Death. Destruction. Chaos. That’s what Killmonger wanted for the world. That path throws change out the window and would certainly lead to war. His plan was thread-bare and the victory conditions would only be wins for him personally. If you could tell me how African Americans would benefit in America if the US government were to collapse or be conquered by angry-murdery superpowered dictator Erik Killmonger who tried to kill his own cousin for his daddy’s crime, I’m all ears.
Wouldn’t it have been more compelling if he actually had a good, nuanced plan?
Coogler missed the opportunity to make Killmonger an anti-hero instead of a villain. Dictators are bad. Revenge against your cousin for a crime he didn’t commit is bad. Immediately killing your cousin the first time you meet him, even though you only needed to make him submit, is really bad. Killmonger sadly feeds into the stereotype of the angry black man in the worst way, honestly. It says that even the best among us, the MIT grad, the decorated war hero—at the end of the day is just another angry black man.
Wouldn’t it have been more compelling if he actually had a good, nuanced plan? Instead he approaches every problem like a barbarian; kill it, create chaos, kill it harder. That’s his whole playbook. Which is fine, for a villain. But Erik Killmonger could have been so much more. Honestly, it feels like the only reason Killmonger was quite so evil was so that the audience could at least have some reason to root for T’Challa.
Thankfully, this doesn’t take too much from the movie. Making Killmonger a non-villain would’ve taken this movie from a 9/10 to an 11/10. That’s pretty much my only gripe, and I’m half-hearted about it because the performance was amazing. I’ve already seen Black Panther twice and I expect to see it at least twice more in theaters. This one is definitely worth your money and if you haven’t seen it yet, you should. Take the kids.
TLDR: Black Panther, 9/10. The bad guy is bad.
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