Who speaks for me in Black Panther? It’s Erik Killmonger. For me the anti-hero is the voice of the African diaspora. Watching the movie in Toronto, on Wednesday night, in a packed theatre, I was full of anticipation for the film to roll. And when it did, it was mesmerizing. This was Afro-futurism in action.
The mythical East African country of Wakanda is full of technological marvels, while still deeply rooted in traditions. In its futuristic cities the skyscrapers that glittered in the night are modern versions of the Great Mosque of Djenné, Mali, which was built almost a millennia ago. When the shephard-warriors fling their capes – brightly coloured African fabrics with abstract designs – they transform from cloth to an energy wall that deflects bullets. Beautiful.
I spent the first half of the film immersed in the story, laughing at the sly jokes, and while trying to capture all the references to historical and contemporary events. And then Erik appeared. A beautiful man, among other beautiful men, his brooding heart spoke to mine.
As a boy in a parking lot in Oakland, California, enclosed by fences, shattered dreams and broken buildings, Erik saw the future and became an orphan in the same instance. Erik (Michael B. Jordan) comes to Wakanda to find family and to find home.
Erik crossed the Atlantic Ocean in a reverse African migration. The first outward journey was made by his ancestors 500 years prior. On this homeward voyage, Erik finds that you can go back there, but you can’t go back then. That first voyage was both a rite of passage and a site of rupture.
Wakanda, secretive and inward looking, hides its advance technology in plain sight, by pretending to be just another poor Third World country. The pretense kept the colonizers at bay for hundreds of years. Until the betrayal. Vibranium is a magic mineral that powers Wakanda’s technology. When King T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) drinks the mineral he gains superpowers and becomes the Black Panther superhero. A handful of vibranium is more powerful than a nuclear bomb and worth more than a bucketful of diamonds. The fight to protect Wakanda is also the fight to keep control over the mineral.
In a typical superhero films, women usually play two roles – the corrupt or the innocent. In other words they are powerful witches until they fall or the proverbial damsel in distress waiting for the superhero to rescue them. Black Panther turns this expectation on its head. The women are warriors, a queen, spies and a scientist. It is amazing seeing so many Black women who are dark, beautiful and confident. Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) the super spy has the king’s heart. She makes it clear that he has to respect her choices. Their romance is a lovely subtext of the film.
But, to what extent do the women in the film play on another stereotype, that of the strong Black woman? Not all of us are strong, and not all of us are as brave as warriors. The film does not give space for the women to be soft and messy humans with all the vulnerability that it entails.
In Wakanda Erik reconnects with family, the throne, but is never at home. His vision of the future is one where he alone rules as emperor of the world. His futurity depends on spilling blood and destroying traditions. Erik is an expert at war from his years as a special operative in the USA army in Iraq, Afghanistan and a few African countries. Wakanda’s vibranium-powered defenses and weapons could make him invincible. It is easy to dismiss Erik as just another despot or dictator believing that he is a god. Or that he represents a thug from the inner-city ghetto. But I think he is more complex than that. Erik was made by his society. His life chances were already prescribed before he took his first baby step.
Erik wants change. He wants a just world where the poor have a chance to be somebody, and a chance to taste the good life.
Erik uses the only method he knows – violence. His whole life has been about living with violence or the consequences of it. In Erik’s world love makes a man weak. And yet in his visits to his father in the after-life, the tears roll down both men’s faces as they talk. It is the only love Eric has ever known. And it was snatched away from him.
Back in the world of the living, Erik forces Wakanda out of its isolation. He sparked a revolution whose roots went back decades to that one night in the parking lot. This revolution will not be interrupted, even if it costs him his life. High on a mountain plateau, Eric watches the sunset over the cities and valley of Wakanda, propped up by his cousin King T’Challa.
“Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from the ships, because they knew death was better than bondage.” Erik’s last words made the audience gasp.
Wakanda will share its technology with the rest of the world. Standing in the parking lot the rightful rulers of Wakanda vow to rebuild the area turning it into a new campus for their international technology centre. The Africans have crossed the Atlantic Ocean again, this time as captains of their own ship. They have come to civilize the world, through peace.
“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 single tribe,” said King T’Challa.
Black Panther is a blockbuster that lives up to its hype. The film has broken box office records on its opening weekend. So far it has made $426 million. It is on track to be in the top ten most popular films of all times. Black Panther is one of those cultural moments, when years from now people will be talking about how they felt when they saw the film. When Roots came out it was followed by a whole generation of children called Kunta Kinte. Something similar will happen with the names from Wakanda.
Black Panther is a story written by Black people for Black people, directed and staring Black people. The film industry justified its exclusion of Black people by stating that Black films don’t sell. The success of Black Panther shines a spotlight on the racism underpinning that claim.
In the last few years a trickle of Black films have smashed records and stereotypes. These include Selma, 12 Years A Slave, Hidden Figures, Dear White People and Girls Trip. These films show that the Black experience has universal appeal. It always had. It is only now being given the chance to shine. In the USA the push for change came from the Black Panther Party and the Civil Rights Movement, and now from Black Lives Matter. Different eras, but still the same struggle for freedom. The film Black Panther echoes all of these legacies in its futuristic scenes.
A lot of my friends have seen the film three or more times. I will join them. The film has so many layers that it takes more than one viewing to enjoy and appreciate all of them.
As the credits rolled, I thought of Erik Killmonger. Sleep in peace brother, cradled by the ancestors and lulled by the ocean waves. You sacrificed so that I might find life.