I dedicate the following editorial to my late friend David, the single biggest comic book fan I’ve ever known. I wish you were here today to debate this topic with me. Miss you bro.
Immediately after Black Panther hit theaters nationwide in the United States on February 16th, I went to the local cinema with my wife to take in the latest addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Very early into it I experienced a moment of sheer joy as the movie took us to “Oakland, 1992” and in a moment of period accurate authenticity played a song I remembered vividly from my high school days – Too $hort’s “In the Trunk.” To this day it remains one of my favorite Short Dawg songs and its name is fitting as hell if you have a good pair of subwoofers in your ride – the whole block will hear what’s “in the trunk” as you drive down the street.
What I’m about to say next may be SPOILERS if you haven’t seen the film yet so consider yourself duly warned. The whole point of this scene is to set up a flashback for the film’s villain later on, as his father was murdered in cold blood that day in Oakland. He swore he would avenge his father’s death by seeking out his people (from the fictional country of Wakanda) and killing the king to claim the throne “in ritual combat.” This served two purposes: first revenge for King T’Chaka killing said father (his own brother) for betraying the Wakandan people, and secondly to fulfill his father’s own goal of supplying Wakandan technology to oppressed people of color around the globe.
With this superior technology, based on the ultra rare fictional element known as vibranium, the tables would be turned on the oppressors in mere seconds and would make the conquered the new conquerors of the globe. Wakandans had always hidden themselves from the world in fear their technology would be used for evil but Erik Killmonger, the son of that traitorous Wakandan, believed his slain father to be not a traitor but a visionary. He grew up in Oakland after all, a place where he could see black oppression on a daily basis, and he took that mission of liberation as seriously as he did violently. He had himself trained by the CIA to be a killing machine, marking a scar on his body for each life he took, meaning by the time T’Challa (son of T’Chaka and the new Black Panther) is anointed king of Wakanda, his whole body is covered in bumps like a crocodile’s skin.
The whole movie builds up to the collision between Black Panther and Erik Killmonger, cousins by blood but enemies by birth due to their upbringing and personal philosophy. The moment I walked out of the theater and checked my phone I could see what I suspected would be the response had already begun – crazy amounts of people on Facebook and Twitter asking if Erik Killmonger was the REAL hero of the film or at the very least an “anti-hero” who means well but achieves his goals in such a ruthless manner that he/she leaves a trail of bodies in their wake. Anti-heroes always justify this by saying the sacrifice of the few is needed for the “greater good” of saving the many. If it turns out they are right then they truly are heroic in some ways, but if they have sold themselves and others a false bill of goods simply to justify a lust for bloodshed, they don’t deserve any “heroic” label whatsoever.
The question then is whether the ends would have justified the means if (SPOILER) Erik Killmonger had succeeded instead of suffering the ultimate defeat at the film’s end. The problem we as moviegoers have investing in Erik’s vision of liberation is his unbridled anger justifies his every move and every murder he’s committed in his lifetime. We can sympathize with the pain and loss he felt at a very young age, having been left orphaned with his father was slain, and we can even understand his desire to avenge his death. The problem is that no amount of revenge is enough and that no amount of murder sates his lust. His noble purpose of liberating the oppressed is not a false narrative in any way, but his methods would increase global suffering on a massive scale. We’ve seen what happens in one war-torn nation after another when powerful weapons are dumped into the hands of children, teenagers, and those who are just barely legal adults – decades of bloodshed follow. Each side avenges the insults and murders of the other in a never ending cycle of violence. Grudges are handed down from generation to generation. Killmonger’s scheme for liberation comes not from a place of justice but from a place of vengeance, and he would pass those values down en masse to his armies, creating a never ending world war around the globe. The new conquerors would have a short lived era of triumph, while an underground resistance would quickly learn to adopt Wakandan technology and improve on it to gain their own liberation. The cycle would just repeat over and over as violence begets violence.
“The ends justify the means” will be the counter-argument for many who think about and debate this subject. After all “the colonizers” as they are so aptly named in this film showed no moral compass when they raped and pillaged the African continent for centuries, extracting wealth in both material goods and manpower, enslaving generations of men based solely on a false narrative of superiority endowed by a philosophy of racism. Why not take an eye for an eye? The Earth of Black Panther is not so different from our own. At some point our shared history diverges with the arrival of superheroes, genetic mutants, and even extraterrestrial immigrants, but comic books have always served as a way to reflect a mirror on our own world by taking real life events and viewing them through a fictional lens. “Getting even” may be enough for some. In the end T’Challa realizes that his cousin has a point, albeit a misguided one, that Wakandans have hoarded their wealth and technology while people of color have suffered around the globe. He chooses a different method to right this wrong – building outreach centers in neighborhoods like Oakland to SHARE their wealth and technology peacefully. His method will be much slower and take much longer than Erik Killmonger’s, but King T’Challa believes that liberation can be achieved in a truly revolutionary way – through the power of knowledge and not at the end of a gun barrel. Is that a naive philosophy? It may be. It’s also not a bad place for the real Earth to start because in the end, an eye for an eye will leave us all blind.