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.