Marvel’s recent movie, Black Panther, has been successful among audiences of all backgrounds. The movie tells the story of T’Challa, a newly crowned king in the fictional African country of Wakanda. T’Challa has superhuman powers and advanced technology at his disposal, allowing him to fight as a superhero by the same name as the title of the movie.
As this is the first Marvel movie featuring a black lead superhero, the movie was especially championed by the African American community, and by the social justice movement in general for purportedly being a milestone in the fight against “white privilege”.
However, while the representation of the black race in the movie is a credit to the social justice movement, the politics of the movie tell a very different story. In fact, the movie daringly sheds light on controversial problems within the African American community, and critiques several shortcomings in the approaches of their social justice movements, such as Black Lives Matter.
If you have not seen the movie, be warned that there are major spoilers ahead.
T’Challa is first introduced in the movie to be crowned as the new king of Wakanda, as his father, the previous king, recently passed away. T’Challa undergoes ritual combat with a contender to prove himself worthy of the throne, and wins. He then undergoes a ritual whereby he is lulled into a dreamland where he may communicate with the soul of his deceased father. The bond they share is demonstrably loving, supportive, and close.
However, after the ritual, the priest reveals to T’Challa that his father held a horrible secret; he killed his own brother, who was sent on a mission to Oakland and betrayed him along the way. Moreover, T’Challa’s father left the son of his dead brother behind without taking responsibility for the child. This greatly upsets T’Challa, who feels disappointed in his father and sorrow for the misfortune his family burdened his long-lost cousin with.
This segment is absolutely genius. One of the most pressing but least-discussed issues facing the African American community in North America is the rate of fatherlessness which perpetuates generation after generation. In the US for example, roughly 3/4 of black families are supported by single mothers. The responsibility of rearing one’s children is frequently abandoned by black men, and thus the mother is left having to support her children on a single income while struggling to apply twice the parental responsibilities.
Movements such as Black Lives Matter claim that African Americans fail to succeed mainly due to institutional racism and structures of white privilege, despite being unable to point to a section of the legal code to backup their claims, having programs such as affirmative action, and presenting mere anecdotes of individual racism.
Yet when issues that affect their community appear to be perpetrated from within, they remain silent. The high rate of single motherhood in the black community is not caused by white people. It is caused by irresponsible black men. Not only do children under these conditions face poverty, but they also grow up far more likely to commit crime and shirk responsibilities (such as raising their own children) due to a lack of fatherly discipline in their lives.
And this is precisely what we see in the movie. T’Challa’s long lost cousin arrives in Wakanda, now a man, with a personality plagued by anger, belligerence, and a self-righteous victim complex. He calls himself Killmonger, a name fashioned for himself as a result of all the lives he has taken in military combat. Given the conditions of Killmonger’s upbringing, the movie shows him grudging on white people for the crimes of their colonial ancestors, dividing the world between two groups: oppressors and oppressed, and using his hatred and anger to blind him from his own moral shortcomings.
He arrives in Wakanda to scold the royal council for remaining neutral for centuries while black people all over the world have suffered, and decides he will challenge T’Challa for the throne so that he can use Wakanda’s army to get revenge on the alleged oppressors. He says he intends to use their own weapons and tactics against them, so they know how it feels. All of this, from his perspective of course, is in service of the oppressed; he believes he will be making the world just and righting a historical wrong.
Killmonger is the embodiment of the militant angry social justice activist, both of which have grown so bitter over injustice that they themselves have become the unjust.
The sense of entitlement which often comes from militant social justice activists is portrayed in the movie as well; Killmonger walks into Wakanda for the first time thinking he would make better king than the current one, with the sole qualification of knowing what it is like to be a victim. T’Challa has been groomed his whole life for the position, having learned to respect tradition, cultivate virtue, inspire the love of his people, and work harmoniously with the institutions and structures that underpin Wakandan society. But none of that appears to matter in Killmonger’s eyes, in light of the fact that there is inequality and oppression happening around the world, and he has lived it.
Meanwhile, T’Challa sits frustrated with his father’s mistake, feeling ashamed, angry, and confused all at the same time. He is comforted by another lead character and close friend of his. In this scene, she speaks the most important message of the movie, which is something along the lines of “You cannot let your father’s mistakes define who you are. YOU decide what kind of king you are going to be”.
This statement is precisely what sets T’Challa apart from Killmonger. Killmonger believes himself the revolutionary for breaking Wakanda’s traditions and mobilizing them to “colonize the colonizers”, but really he is just more of the same. Killmonger defines himself as a victim of his past circumstances, and thus perpetuates the same anger, violence, and lack of responsibility of his community’s previous generation.
To make matters worse, he obsesses so much over the oppression he sees that he becomes the very thing he claims to be fighting against. Finally, he takes no responsibility for his position or personality; he lets his father’s mistakes and his social circumstances define who he must become.
T’Challa, despite being the poster boy for tradition and the social order, is the one who truly introduces revolution, and breaks the perpetual chain of misfortune. This is because he understands that the situation pertaining to his race, his community, and himself will only improve through his adoption of personal responsibility. Before blaming the outside world, T’Challa looks inside himself and asks if he contributes to the problem. He knows that only after getting his own house in order can he hope to improve the situation for others.
Thus he confronts Killmonger, trying to explain he knows of his childhood, feels empathy for him, and wants to find a productive way to address these issues. Killmonger does not want to talk, he just wants to fight. He blames T’Challa, Wakanda, colonialism, and all its descendants for making him miserable, and will settle for nothing less than revenge – or in his eyes, justice (it appears the two are meant to be interchangeable as he sees it). Killmonger defeats T’Challa, throws him over a waterfall, and becomes the new king of Wakanda. Those most loyal to T’Challa flee into exile.
Killmonger, as one might predict, does not make a good king. Dividing the world into a black and white binary of oppressors and oppressed, his identification as the latter makes him blind to his own moral failings. This new station thus brings out the tyrant in him. He intimidates his subjects, rejects their counsel, and most importantly, he burns their traditions to ash with no regard for the consequences.
All three of these points demonstrate a critique of contemporary social justice movements, but the final one is the most crucial. These movements often claim Western civilization is founded on white supremacy, sexism, and classism, and as such it must be destroyed so we can rebuild anew.
However, those who argue this fail to anticipate just how much they take for granted under our civilization; how many of their rights are actually predicated on the structure of Western civilization, even if it does (as every civilization does) have a dark history of discrimination. This is highlighted when Killmonger burns the only tree which produces the elixir to authenticate the Black Panther’s power; he is destroying tradition at the expense of all his future people.
As Killmonger mobilizes Wakanda’s army to wage war on the arbitrarily labeled “oppressors of the world” as his targets, T’Challa returns with his loyal subjects, and many others join his side upon seeing his arrival. Some remain to fight alongside Killmonger however. One of them explains his reason for doing so by saying that one can be an oppressor or the oppressed, and it’s better to be the former.
This is included in the movie to echo the philosophy of the modern social justice paradigm, and to indicate that simplistically dividing the world as such inevitably leads to a bad place. If these are our only two options, our disempowerment can only be mitigated through force. Furthermore, anyone we find ourselves at cross-purposes with will instantly be judged as an oppressor with no nuance to their identity. And in turn, we of course shall identify ourselves as the “good guys” who fight the “bad guys”, incapable of seeing our own shortcomings and why we might be partially to blame for the situation in the first place.
The two sides battle for the climax of the movie and T’Challa defeats Killmonger for good, showing him sympathy and offering to spare his life. Killmonger gets the last word, saying he would rather die like his slave ancestors who jumped ship on their way to America, because they knew death was better than a life in chains. He then takes his own life, demonstrating that he is finally consumed by his resentment entirely, and nothing remains of him any longer.
However, the movie does not end here. T’Challa feels pity for Killmonger, but he also learns from him. Particularly, he remarks that Killmonger was right in that Wakanda shouldn’t remain uninvolved in the world’s affairs when they have the means to help the suffering.
Let us be fair in our assessment; it is true that modern society has problems which take an unnecessary toll on people, and we should work towards remedying the issues we can feasibly fix without risking the collapse of the whole system. Our world can be a better place and we should strive to improve it where possible.
Thus some points that social justice movements make are indeed fair ones, and we should not shy away from considering such issues seriously. Where we often diverge is implementation; the solutions to these problems must be very carefully considered because they can have unexpected impacts on the societal landscape that severely upset the balance.
Thus does T’Challa find the middle ground where he can admit his society has problems and he should work to solve them, without impulsively burning the whole thing down in the process. True to his responsibility as a good and virtuous king, he finds a way to help the world, but outside the “oppressor and oppressed” dynamic of his naive and unreasonable cousin.
Wakanda is rich in wealth and resources, and so he finds himself back in Oakland, funding development and infrastructure where his father left Killmonger fatherless as a child. He is approached by a kid on the basketball court who asks him a question, and the movie ends with T’Challa smiling at this boy, seemingly in contemplation of the resemblance between him and Killmonger as a child.
Thus the movie ends with T’Challa closing the circle of black impoverishment that his own father started, both literally and figuratively, by taking on the responsibility to be his own king. He is not a repeat of his father. In this way, his character wins over Killmonger’s character.
The overall message of the movie, then, is “be a T’Challa, don’t be a Killmonger”. In other words, we are told to take responsibility for our lives, look in a mirror before blaming the outside world, earn our power through merit, think twice before demolishing the structures of our society, and strive to self-determine despite our circumstances. We are told not to fancy ourselves as blameless victims of a wholly oppressive order, to use impulsive and emotional force as a means to fix society’s problems, to throw the baby of tradition out with the bathwater, and to shirk responsibility for our actions, integrity, and identity.
This movie offers a much needed critique of the social and political landscape, and empowers people with a message that is scarcely found elsewhere in popular culture today. It is an absolute must-see for everyone fascinated by or involved in the culture war which currently sweeps the Western world!