By TK | Film | February 22, 2018 |
By TK | Film | February 22, 2018 |
Warning: This post will contains spoilers for Black Panther.
One cannot talk about Black Panther without talking about the black experience itself. This superhero adventure is not only set in an African nation, but also is directed by black filmmaker Ryan Coogler, starring a mostly-minority cast, and tells a story that is in so many ways specific to Africa. For me, a South African immigrant who came to America at age 10, this film resonated deeply in ways that I’m still unpacking. But perhaps most striking was its villain, N’Jadaka, A.K.A. Erik “Killmonger” Stevens. Within the Afrofuturistic nation of Wakanda, Black Panther presents a fascinating, idealized version of blackness. But with Killmonger, we see its dark side, the tree’s fruit grown poisoned, so full of anger and hate that it becomes a force for destruction rather than hope.
Michael B. Jordan’s depiction of N’Jadaka is wondrous and multifaceted, full of rage and bitterness, yet alive with longing, loneliness, and sadness. He presents N’Jadaka as a man without a country, watching his people close themselves off from the rest of the world and its suffering. His resentment is bottomless because he’s been robbed of his home, his heritage, and his father. This transforms him into a hateful force of human nature, determined to seize control and reclaim whatever he can of what’s been lost. He is a complicated, intricately scripted character whose layers Jordan and Coogler thoughtfully peel back over the course of the film. N’Jadaka’s full and heartbreaking backstory takes the viewer on a journey where, by the end, despite all the lives he’s taken and the havoc he’s wrought, you don’t want to see him gone. Even stranger—to me, at least—you feel for him.
The story of Black Panther is in many ways the story of blackness, both in America and everywhere. It’s the story of the exploitation and subjugation of black people, the story of their American descent into poverty and crime. But it’s also a story of their hope and salvation, and of what they can offer the world. It’s the story of black power, but also the story of Black Power. It’s both fantasy and reality writ large, a portrait of what Africa could have looked like without the bloody, rapacious scourge of European colonization, juxtaposed against the world as we know it. It’s easy to think N’Jadaka represents blackness outside of Wakanda, but that’s neither fair nor accurate. N’Jadaka isn’t blackness, he’s the dark side of blackness. He’s the rage and anger that wants to give no quarter, that cannot forgive or forget, and doesn’t just want equality. He wants revenge, too. And it’s the “too” that makes the character unforgettable. There’s a sense of hunger, of yearning, that makes him that much more sympathetic. His methods are unquestionably awful, but his wants—a better world for his people, one where they wield power instead of being subject to it—it’s haunting in how tempting it is.
One can’t help but compare Killmonger to Loki in the MCU. Loki—at least, back in the first Avengers and Thor films—was an undeniably compelling villain, though his ubiquity has become a bit exhausting. But Loki wanted to rule the world simply because he thought he deserved to, because he thought he was better than humanity. Loki’s goals were purely selfish. There’s an element of such self-righteousness to Killmonger, yet there’s also a part of him that’s deeply dedicated to his people. He genuinely wants to make the world better for black people beyond the borders of Wakanda. But he is so consumed by his vengeful rage that he’ll break the status quo to do it. To get his better world, he’ll destroy everything around him to get it - no life need be spared, no garden is too sacred, no tradition too revered.
Yet even that revenge isn’t as simple as it seems, because N’Jadaka’s goal isn’t the destruction of Wakanda. Nor does he want to destroy the world. He wants to use Wakanda’s technology to force the world into racial equality. It’s a motivation born of fury and subjugation, of taking all the shit the world has given you and using it to beat and smash the world into the shape you think it should be in. You’ve probably seen some of the wilder corners of Black Twitter saying Killmonger was right (pro tip: he’s not), just like you may have seen some equally bonkers takes from the right saying that Killmonger represents Black Lives Matter. Neither take fully respects the character or the movie. Killmonger isn’t right. But he is understandable.
He’s understandable because he represents the darkness that can shroud the heart of blackness, but also of any of us. Look at any person and take away their family. Take away their nation. Take away their heart, and then give them the rage and motivation and hurt, and you might end up with a Killmonger. Killmonger isn’t just a nickname or a superhero alter ego. It’s a transformation of a man who has lost everything and only the anger remains. Yet buried in that anger is a belief that the world can be better… but only if you take it for your own and make it better.
We cannot fully appreciate T’Challa’s journey without appreciating N’Jadaka’s. Their intertwining stories offer a fascinating examination of blackness and privilege. It’s a part of T’Challa’s journey, moving from wanting to protect his country from the world to using its resources to make the world better. His is a more diplomatic brand of globalism, but it’s what N’Jadaka was pushing toward. And truth be told, without N’Jadaka’s mad plans, T’Challa may never have had that epiphany. It took a battle waged with a man who had lost everything to take him to the end of his hero’s journey. Because of his “villain,” T’Challa understands that Wakanda is more than a place; it’s an idea and a belief in how to make the world better. As he says, “More connects us than separates us — but in times of crisis, the wise build bridges while the foolish build barriers. We must find a way to look after one another as if we were one tribe.”
After two viewings of Black Panther, it becomes apparent that Jordan’s N’Jadaka is not only the best villain in the MCU, but probably its best character, full stop. His persona is so steeped in history and culture, so complex and difficult to fully unpack, yet also so deeply sympathetic in ways no other villain really has been. It’s lamentable that he must die at the end, but it’s also perhaps unavoidable. He goes from unknown N’Jadaka to Erik Watson, to Killmonger, and at the end, to a beaten but unrepentant N’Jadaka once more. He’s unquestionably a villain, but also a revolutionary. His by-any-means-necessary methods take on the imagery of the black revolutionary, of the angry black man. And - through Coogler’s deft writing and direction — turns it into something powerfully compelling. Even N’Jadaka’s final words haunt us. With his dying breath, he asks not for forgiveness or mercy, but says, “Just bury me in the ocean with my ancestors that jumped from the ships. Because they knew death was better than bondage.”
To the very end, N’Jadaka rebels. As such, like so many revolutionaries martyred, his death is almost an inevitability. But as his story is completed, his legacy lives on.