Black Panther: The Tragedy of Erik Killmonger

Following the release of Black Panther two days ago, amidst the gargantuan acclaim and outpouring of love, a particular sentiment has begun to emerge. What I’m talking about is, of course, the idea that “Killmonger was right.” I think this little statement of support and identification with the villain of the story is one of the most powerful aspects of the film Black Panther. It’s certainly the one that affected me the most in the theater, especially when it came time for Erik to enter the ancestral plane and meet with his father (a scene I will talk about in greater detail later on). This essay is about the character Erik Killmonger, but I want to take a moment to acknowledge T’Challa. The thing about Black Panther is that there is no hero, there are two sides to warring ideologies. Film Crit Hulk accurately pointed this out in his essay Black Panther’s Right Thing, and while I acknowledge the importance of T’Challa to this entire equation (and I hope to write about him in the near future), I want to spend my time talking about Killmonger.

Erik Killmonger is one of the most complex villain-who-isn’t-really-the-villain that we’ve had in recent memory. In his short moment of ascension, we see Coogler run the entire gamut of Erik’s background, and the brevity with which he accomplishes this characterization is nothing short of stunning. So, shall we discuss the greatest villain of the MCU?

The most important aspect of Erik Killmonger is that, for all intents and purposes, he is “right.” He is correct in his assertion that Wakanda has abandoned its people. On a purely historical level, this is undeniable. He’s also “right” that Wakanda can essentially overthrow the European colonialism that still rules the world and effectively arm the communities of black people around the globe with their superior technology. Killmonger is also “right” in his anger at the son of the man who murdered his father just to enact a hush campaign. Killmonger is “right.” But… Well, you knew there would be a “but,” didn’t you? I wouldn’t be writing this essay if there wasn’t a “but.” This one is a big one, because while “Killmonger is right” is true, “Killmonger is wrong” is also true. Shall we unpack this further?

Erik Killmonger grew up in Oakland. His father was killed when he was a young boy. He ended up joining various military groups. He racked up a massive number of confirmed kills. He was trained by the CIA in how to topple governments. He became a tool of the United States. Not only did he become a tool, but he also became an agent, an active supporter of the colonial government that he now seeks to destroy. This is complex stuff. See, the key to the complexity of “Killmonger is right” is that, while yes he is justified, his methods of solving this perceived problem are themselves the problem. Killmonger was raised in America and trained by the CIA. His tools are those of colonialism itself, methods of toppling governments, radicalizing citizens, arming a population. They are methods that America learned from the British. They are the tools of imperialism. This is all reflected in the inclusion of Everett Ross, his CIA boss, the representation of the interests of the American empire. The issue with Killmonger’s rage is not that it is unjustified (it is so utterly justified that you can’t help but root for him), but instead that his ends will not justify his means.

The history of American involvement in foreign wars is a seriously tricky briar patch to try to navigate. I have neither the knowledge nor qualification to do so here. What I can point out is an interesting pattern when it comes to American involvement in foreign governments: we seem to make things a whole lot worse than before we intervened. More importantly, on the path to making things a whole lot worse, we also seem to kill a whole lot of people. Just look at the history of our wars since and including Vietnam. It’s not a good track record. And these are the methods that Killmonger is planning to use to enact his global revolution? That’s scary stuff. Scary not because a black man has the tools to ignite a global uprising of oppressed people (that I’m all for), but scary because it could lead to the very thing he wants to fight: the codifying of a certain set of beliefs as the Only Way, as the Best Method, the creation of a certain status quo as The Best We Can Hope For. That’s not very optimistic. But that’s all Killmonger knows. And that, right there, is the tragedy of his entire character. I want to wade my way back out of the swamps of tricky political commentary and my even scary attempts of discussing the intricate politics of race and instead switch gears to focus on something I’m more comfortable with: philosophy (written by a bunch of white dudes).

The best scene in Black Panther is the scene I mentioned before: Killmonger has usurped the throne and has drunk the flower that will give him the powers of the Black Panther. He has been buried in the ground, and like T’Challa earlier in the film, he has been transported to the ancestral plane. Except his ancestral plane is different. It’s not a vast savannah bathed in otherworldly light. No, it’s a small, cramped apartment in 1992 Oakland, California. Killmonger opens a secret compartment in his wall and takes out a journal. He starts reading and then hears a voice. His father is there (sidenote: is there anything Sterling K. Brown can’t do? What an actor!), and they talk. His father asks why he didn’t cry for him, and Killmonger, transformed into the young boy he was at the beginning of the film, walls himself off from the emotional torrent that clearly roils beneath the surface, and says in coded language that he had to “get tough.” We cut back to his father who tells a story of the beauty of Wakanda, and then as we cut back to Killmonger, who is now an adult again, we see the floodgates have finally opened: he is crying. This is the single most emotional scene in any MCU film to date. This is one of the best scenes in any movie ever made. This scene is the one that finally made the theater I was in, a theater filled with white nerds (I a say this lovingly) ready for their comic book movie, finally, shut up and just watch. This scene is the movie. But there is another crucial aspect to this scene that I didn’t mention: outside the apartment windows, we see that same lilac sky, those ethereal colors that overwhelmed T’Challa’s time in the ancestral plane. And here is where we come to the philosophy.

Philosophy is kind of my thing (it’s pretty much the only thing I’m qualified to talk about with authority), and the philosophical layers with which this scene hit me were multifold. On the one hand, there was no way to escape the in the moment tragedy of Erik Killmonger’s life. On the other hand, I couldn’t help but see the intricately layered philosophy at work. This is the philosophy of conceptual schemes. The term most people have heard, and frequently use, regarding conceptual schemes, is “paradigm shift.” This term was coined by a philosopher named Thomas Kuhn in an extremely popular book he wrote called “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.” To paraphrase the thesis of that book, Kuhn essentially argues that when massive advancements in science occur – when for example, Newton came up with Newtonian Physics, or when, Darwin exploded the scene with Evolutionary Theory – a “paradigm shift” occurs. The significance of the philosophy that Kuhn argues is this: that because of our shift in thinking, our shift in paradigm, that the human capacity to perceive the actual world shifts in response; that the thought processes affect the perception of the real. I want to try to avoid tricky philosophical arguing, so while this is a simplistic version of what Kuhn is saying, I’m going to leave paradigm shifts at this stage. The concept that Kuhn is discussing, in a more broad sense, is that of conceptual schemes. Conceptual schemes are the literal way in which individuals render the world around them recognizable. There has been continued philosophical debate about how precisely conceptual schemes work, whether there are multiple conceptual schemes or whether there is a single one that is infinitely refracted; a debate between pluralism and monism. This is all, again, tricky stuff, but the key here is the underlying supposition that your conceptual scheme defines the way in which you perceive, organize, draw meaning, and engage in reality. In effect, conceptual schemes are your reality.

How the hell does all that relate to Black Panther? Don’t worry, I’ll explain. See, the second layer of beauty that I saw in that scene of Killmonger in the ancestral plane was that of the perfect definition of a conceptual scheme. Killmonger was raised in a small apartment in Oakland, his father died young, he grew up in America: his world came to be defined by these conditions. He is a product of his upbringing. No matter where he went in life – and as we know he went all over the planet – his whole world, everything that defined his vision of reality since he was a small boy, was that apartment, was that block, was that city, was that country. The ethereal sky was relegated to the scenery outside his apartment, a possibility residing outside what was real to him. Killmonger’s conceptual scheme was that of a black man in America. The complement to this scene is the earlier moment with T’Challa in the ancestral plane. A conceptual scheme defined by privilege, defined by boundless potential (note the parallel between the physical size of their locations and the scope of their thinking), a world in which T’Challa was able to roam free. They come from different worlds. And the thing that is so perfect about this depiction of conceptual schemes is that it comes to define their central conflict, as well as Killmonger’s tragic end.

T’Challa and Killmonger quite literally see different worlds. T’Challa perceives the freedom of Wakanda, its independence, as essential. Killmonger perceives the evils of American and European colonialism, the damage of growing up in a country that allows black boys to be killed and then lets the murderers off scot-free, lionizing their racism and destroying a community, as the ultimate evil. They are unable to see the same world, and thus, they are doomed to fight over what they are both, in all fairness, “right,” about. It’s often said that to truly understand someone, to truly empathize, that we should try to “walk in their shoes; see through their eyes.” This is an effort in paradigm shifting, albeit temporarily. It’s an effort to effectively get outside the confines of the reality that is so personal to us and to understand the truth of another, which is so valid. T’Challa and Killmonger fail to do this with each other, even up until the very end.

Killmonger’s final line is haunting. I’m still thinking about it, mulling it over, considering all the implications. He paints the full picture of the slave trade working its way all the way through history to modern day incarceration. It’s a condemnation for the way that we as an American society have never really gotten rid of slavery, a condemnation for our acceptance of the broken prison system that we abide in. But it’s also the most beautiful, and most tragic, mea culpa for Killmonger’s story. Killmonger quite literally cannot see any possible path for himself other than incarceration. Whether in Wakanda or in America, bars are bars, and he refuses to allow himself to be “alive” but to really be dead. To be rendered inert. To be turned into a laborer under the guise of “correction” and “rehabilitation.” To be one among the many black men locked behind bars for the rest of their lives. And that is the tragedy.

The thing is, Killmonger might have been wrong. T’Challa might not have thrown him behind bars. I can’t help but think that at that point, at the point at which they have literally come to blows over their warring ideologies, that T’Challa must have seen, must have glimpsed, if only a little, the world through Killmonger’s eyes. To understand that Wakanda was never a reality for Killmonger, that it was always a faraway fantasy (reinforced by the staging of his death scene with the city far away in the background). I can’t help but believe that T’Challa would try to work with Killmonger, that he would try to understand him, try to come to some sort of commonality between their two valid, “right” views of the world. That he would try to work with him on the united front of two dichotomies transcended and integrated into a single view; one conceptual scheme. But the tragedy is that Killmonger couldn’t see that possibility. He couldn’t see this as the future, just like he couldn’t see the ancestral plane as anything more than his tiny apartment from his youth in Oakland. Killmonger was the victim of a worldview defined by a country that destroyed the history, the heritage, the identity of an entire people. Killmonger was a victim of the history of American colonialism and slavery despite being born far after they “ended.” And therein is the beauty of Black Panther. Because it hasn’t ended. Colonialism and slavery never went away, we just codified them in our laws, we hid them in our revisions of history, we defended them through our invention of an Africa that needed to be “saved.” Colonialism resides in the “white man’s burden.” And the victim of all this lying and stealing and destruction? The victims are all the young men and young women like Erik Killmonger, who grew up in worlds defined by these boundaries. Who grew up with absent fathers. Who grew up on rundown playgrounds. Who grew up in tiny apartments that separated them from that lilac sky. Who grew up in asphalt jungles made to contain and separate the people that America wants to use but refuses to acknowledge, to value. And there is nothing that best encapsulates America’s relationship with its African American citizens than our prison industrial complex. Killmonger knew that. Killmonger knew it is so well that he chose death over it.

Black Panther is a call for shifting worldviews. It’s a call for a paradigm shift. It’s a call for the recognition of what has gone unsaid, unaddressed, and unrepresented for far too long. Black Panther is a clarion call for the people of the world to take a real hard look at their worlds. To seriously examine reality. To dig deep into the definitions of their conceptual schemes. To look with eyes unclouded by the lies of colonialism, the lies of slavery, the lies of the white definition of the world, and to see for the first time the truth of others. It’s more than timely; it’s a long-awaited necessity.

Black Panther is nothing short of miraculous. It is a film with so much going on so many levels that I was just able to write over 2500 words about a single character and not even touch on the rest of the cast. It’s stunning in its scope, and it’s masterful in its intricacy. My favorite scene might be the one in Killmonger’s ancestral plane, but nearly every scene in the film can be dissected with the same complexity. Ryan Coogler has done something monumental with this film, and more specifically, with the character of Erik Killmonger. Black Panther makes all the other MCU movies pale in comparison. I can’t wait to see what Coogler does next, and I hope Marvel takes the right lesson from this film. There are few things quite as powerful as the tragedy of a villain who is “right,” but is unable to see just how his methods are wrong.

Here’s hoping that Killmonger finds his peace in the ancestral plane, in the familiar boundaries of that small apartment, in the warmth of a father he lost too soon.

 

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19 Comments

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  1. Hey Malik,

    Really enjoyed reading your piece, it was very insightful. It only makes me want to experience the film again, and see it with your work and precise wordsmanship in mind. Looking forward to a piece on T’challa’s character.

    Best regards,

    C-lo

  2. This is one of the best pieces I’ve read on Killmonger and his motivation and the flaws that ultimately led to his downfall. When I saw theacestral plane outside the window, I really didn’t get it at first. You broke it down perfectly. Well done!!!

    • Thank you for reading! I’m glad you enjoyed it. It’s funny because it took me a moment to connect it, but once I did, at least with my interpretation, it felt like the whole scene hit me all over again.

  3. I think that your article about Erik Killmonger is totally right; I feel he was right for wanting blacks to get the upper hand and fight off their oppressors but wrong in the simple fact that killing them would solve the problem, and how they could get away with it because no one would see it coming or the fact no whites could do anything to prevent it or justify it. Killmonger didn’t realize he would’ve become the very thing he hated and wanted to destroy, as well as neglecting the fact the skills he learn in the military were also stolen; and the fact that he jumped to the conclusion that T’Challa was going to imprison him without even trying to maybe see if that was what was going to happen. So he killed himself all he knew was if someone does something bad even for the “right” reasons they could be jailed for it for life; he thought that way because that’s how he was raised that’s how he was taught or what he saw or learned over the years, so when faced up with it again he decided to reject making his death all the more tragic. I also loved how you brung up the reason that their planes looked different is because they were cut from different cloths therefore changing their point of views making their disagreement all the more emotional and important; as T’Challa wanted nothing more to protect his own (but when we see how infuriated he was with T’Chaka after finding out he left the boy (Erik) for his kingdom and blamed himself for the reason Killmonger is over his own head, and although its great he wants justice for the previous colonizers he uses their skills himself and based off his overall opinion or ideas what he wants to destroy is one of his various tactics.) But Erik who not only was prepared to kill T’Challa also felt that even though he was a King that he would reject all blacks who weren’t Wakandian and a sort of sense he was “right” but it was because a King (well a good one anyway) protects his own like a mother or father would do their children before anyone else; but the real reason T’Challa said no because he believed Wakanda shouldn’t engage in war, because he didn’t want to risk having an enemy but also because he didn’t want his country being the cause of deaths or to kill the innocent. Which is what Erik was prepared and was preparing to do he didn’t want justice for the white colonizers but revenge for what hteir ancestors did and in his opinion in order to do that they would have to die, the fact that Erik had the nerve to say “but didn’t life start on this planet so ain’t all people your people” but want to kill the colonizers (whites) made him “right” as far as it is true but wrong in the case he would not hesitate to kill all people, I also feel Erik felt if he was not able to complete his “mission” then it was better off if he was dead I feel even though his last line was a real kicker that it was suppose to be more sad then meaningful as the slaves that jump off the ships never though what if God delivers me and I am released from bondage like Erik Killmonger never thought what if T’Challa isn’t going to imprison me what if he tried to fit my shoes or see it from my perspective then I truly believe Killmonger wouldn’t have killed himself. Plus the best MCU villain are always the ones you can relate to as Falcon from Spiderman Homecoming reminded me of Erik Killmonger as even though Erik’s job like Falcons wasn’t getting him paid-off or making it harder to provide for his family; so he decides to sell much like Erik advanced alien like technology to people who needed to keep his family safe and well cared for, so thank you for your article because now I’ll watch Erik Killmonger’s plane once more knowing what you taught and shown me about making it better.

    • You pointed out a really good line that I missed, the one where he says “didn’t life start here on this planet, so ain’t all people your people.” The irony is heavily layered on there because, again, while Erik is right that all life comes from there, he is using it to justify the murder of people… who came from there. He sees the status quo he wants, but it’s far ahead of him, and he’s unable to focus on the path in front. Thanks for reading, and thank you for sharing your thoughts as well.

      • You’re welcome, you’re a great writer and your interpretation of Erik Killmonger’s motivations due to his ancestral plane and his up bringing is simply amazing.

  4. Did old white men really create philosophy???? ….Good piece non the less.

    • Well… Western philosophy certainly. Socrates was 71 when he was executed, and he’s the father of philosophy.

      • Socrates studied at feet of wakandans…..oops I meant Egyptians!!! This is a fact and if you can’t fathom this, that is your shortcoming. Go watch the movie again because you missed the entire message being presented when T’challa showed up at the UN willing to offer the world “wakandan secrets”. White people scoffed at him just as you did when I presented you with the truth that Socrates had a teacher that and that teacher was a black Egyptian. Who do you think taught Pythagoras geometry?…He didn’t build Pyramids. Killmonger was the Olmec Jaguar god…blacks also were in America before Columbus and the slave trade….T’challa was the Egyptian Panther god…a panther is only melanistic jaguar…they are one in the same.

        Do you honestly think the western world only took humans, mineral resources, and material wealth? Ancient mystery systems and vast libraries were raped and pillaged. Who do you think founded the first universities? Why do you think secret societies exist?

        And the tools of master house ideology is flawed…..

        If we are comparing apples to apples killmonger was going after vibranium. The western tool that you refer to has always been the gun, not really strategy and warfare.

        Strategy and Warfare have been around since the dawn of time. Guns were the tools used to enforce violence and the oppressor will. If killmonger gets unlimited access to vibranium which in this example for comparison purposes is a better much more advanced tool than the “oppressors” currently have who the hell needs strategy. The world has a new paradigm.

        Again I liked some of the points of your essay but I ask this in closoning why should killmonger consider the reality of some else?

        Why should I consider your reality that Socrates is the father of philosophy because that’s what you learned in a western classroom from White people.

        Why should you consider yourself my reality that civilization started in Africa and that all people came from around the world to study at the school from people who have skin colors the same as Wakandans=

      • The interesting thing here is that I did get that message from Black Panther. In fact, the essay I linked to near the beginning of mine, the one by Film Crit Hulk, actually presents that reading far better than I could ever hope to. I also said, from the beginning of the essay, that this was exclusively about the character of Erik Killmonger, and not about the greater message of Black Panther, which, again, that essay I linked delves into significantly better than I could.

        It’s also true that everything comes from Africa. Human beings evolved in Africa, so in effect, everything we as a species have created comes from there. However, that’s an extremely reductive way to look at what I was saying, and it seems willfully contrarian to dismiss my point about the history of Western philosophy.

        Socrates didn’t actually teach anybody anything other than the methods to question. As most people know, his most famous claim was that he was the wisest man because he knew that he knew nothing. While there were philosophers before Socrates, such as Zeno and Parmenides, my point was that the history of Western philosophy is built on the ideas put forth by Plato (old white dude) based on the teachings of Socrates, and Aristotle (old white dude) when Plato died. Plato represents the rationalistic side of western philosophy while Aristotle represents the empiricist side.

        It’s true that Socrates didn’t come up with the knowledge out of nowhere, but again, much like I said earlier, to continue to regress back and back, we would be left with no one person to credit. The divergences in world philosophy matter and the philosophy I was discussing was that of white dudes.

        I appreciate that you read my essay, and I also appreciate that you took the time to respond. Since this essay wasn’t actually about the raping and pillaging of the world by Western society but was actually about the fictional character Erik Killmonger. His character is certainly rooted in those histories, but as I said in the essay, the one thing I’m qualified to talk about is philosophy. In this case, Western philosophy fit my needs far more than Eastern philosophy.

        Lastly, I think you missed the point of the paradigm shifts. While I agree that Killmonger taking over would constitute a paradigm shift, the essay was actually about the way the term paradigm shift could be used to understand the more general concept of Conceptual Schemes, and the way that the filter through which the world is perceived caused Killmonger and T’Challa to literally see different worlds. To answer your point, however, I would argue that any paradigm shift reached the way Killmonger planned is doomed to fail. Those who flourish in revolutions tend to do poorly in the day to day drudgery of actually running a country. This is why often following revolutions against tyrannical governments, the rebels manage to only create more effective tyrannies.

        Again, thank you for taking the time to respond. I hope this response helped.

  5. This. This is powerful. As a writer, I respect not only the way you were able to wrap your words around a world so complex so carefully and skillfully—but also how you made philosophical concepts “ease” to understand. I’m in awe. Everything you said about Erik, his background, motivations, his tragic flaws and the way he was essentially born “fail,” gives me the push to write a piece about Black Panther! Thank you for this. I am now a fan. Can’t wait to read your other pieces.

  6. I just had a conversation with my husband and my 20 year old son, where my husband argued that Killmonger wasn’t the main villain in the movie. My son and I argued that he was. In our debate we touched upon many of the themes you expressed in this fantastic article. Although we were not able to articulate ourselves as eloquently as you did. What we each were able to agree upon was Killmomger’s character was so complex and nuanced that he was not your average “villain.”

    I plan to share this article with my husband and my son, sure that it will inspire us to have further dialogue on this fascinating character. I look forward to you breaking down more characters and scenes with your insightful analysis.

    • Thank you for the read. That sounds like a great conversation to have. I think it’s wonderful that this movie is so complex and well written that these kinds of conversations are even possible. Nothing I love more than a villain that is “right.” I hope your husband and son enjoy the article too.

  7. It’s not easy to relay messages but you have done that here. Especially when it’s been translated from one form to another. Beautiful read. A lot of understanding and meshing of progress is coming out of this movie

  8. Well put,Well written, I found myself pulling FOR Both Men

  9. Dude that article changed me. I got angry and emotional reading that. So true what you said. The systemic physical and psychological imprisonment minorities all over the world are living in is a real thing.

    As a movie, Black Panther was really enjoyable, but as a mirror held up to reflect all that is unjust in this world it’s one of the most powerful movie experiences I’ve ever had. I found T’challa a fairly run of the mill protagonist…privileged man only ever struggles when his privilege is removed and his worth as an individual is challenging and is ultimately found wanting. But Killmonger was so compelling thatched first thing i did when leaving the theatre was to look at my boy and say uncomfortably “Er Is it wrong that I felt killmonger was totally right? And even more surprised when he agreed”

    • It’s great that this film impressed you, I’m not a fan with T’Challa in this film as well (he was a whole better in Civil War); Also I liked how it showed the injustices in this world but I do disagree with both you and your son’s decision and saying Erik Killmonger is “right”. Although I did feel he was wrong for all the “right” reasons which is why he as a “villain” was so compelling to me; even though I feel he was a bit of a supremacist near the ending of the film, all in all I think everyone liked the fact Erik Killmonger had the fueled up anger all wrongfully did blacks have which made his character stand out in my opinion more than the great Loki, thank you for your review and the fact your son agreed mean he didn’t just love the film but understood its message a together which is awesome (after all I’m 15).

  10. Coogler and Boseman said that Klaue himself was the true villain of the film anyone plan on doing an Essay about him?

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