It took a few weeks, but I finally got down to the movie theater to see Black Panther. My partner and I go to the movies pretty often actually, but the last time we went, a week after Black Panther‘s release, we weren’t in a political or a Marvel mood and decided on Game Night instead. (We’re suckers for Jason Bateman.)
Black Panther turned out to be as disappointingly good as everyone says it is. There was one huge surprise though, at least it came as one to my date and I: the character N’Jadaka, a.k.a. Erik “Killmonger” Stevens, played by the obnoxiously dashing Michael B. Jordan (no relation to the G.O.A.T.). Leaving the Brenden Theatres at the Palms, my wife, who is also a sucker for Michael B. Jordan, shared the shock she received when her on-screen crush was revealed to be the archvillain of the film. “I thought Michael B. Jordan was supposed to be the good guy?”
I was shocked too I must admit, which means I also must own up to knowing nothing about the Black Panther comics. I didn’t read comics as a kid — I didn’t read much of anything as a kid, in fact — but I did watch X-Men: The Animated Series back in the nineties and got into trading Marvel cards for a bit; so I knew of Black Panther, just not his story. Hence my wife and I were both heartbroken when, instead of being the guy who saves the world at the end of the movie, Michael B. Jordan’s character, N’Jadaka, is first feared, then hated, and then slain in an epic battle by the real hero, T’Challa, played by Chadwick Boseman.
The film ends on a hopeful note, with King T’Challa restored to the throne of Wakanda, and the audience is supposed feel relieved by the fact that N’Jadaka was defeated and thus unable to carry out his diabolical plan: using Wakanda’s might and technological superiority to provide for and defend black people all around the world.
For the past few days I’ve been thinking about N’Jadaka and my date’s comment. What makes Michael B. Jordan’s character the bad guy and T’Challa the hero, at least as they appear in the film, I don’t know. After all, once he kills his so-called enemy and resumes his role as king, isn’t the policy King T’Challa adopts for Wakanda merely a softer version of his dead cousin’s plans — the same policy advocated less forcefully by the humanitarian Nakia, played by Lupita Nyong’o?
N’Jadaka is the enemy, we’re led to believe, because he kills people, and the good guys don’t kill people — a maxim more typical in the DC Universe than in the Marvel one. That heroes don’t kill is a sweet things to tell children sucking down Slurpees, but most adults know it simply isn’t the truth. Heroes do kill, and oftentimes the more they kill, the more heroic they grow.
Achilles isn’t the ur-hero of Western culture because he loved his mom and was loyal to his friends, though such traits certainly don’t subtract from his heroism. No, Achilles was a hero because he killed a ton of Trojans, the Greeks’ early enemies. His heroism became the historical definition of a hero: a person who defeats his enemies, or the enemies of his people, by the most effective means. Whether he is victorious or not doesn’t seem to matter, so long as he wipes out enough of the other guy before he gets wiped out himself. Leonidas, Alexander, Hannibal, Caesar, Charlemagne, Saladin, Joan of Arc, Túpac Amaru II, Cromwell, Washington, Tecumseh, John Brown, Grant, Lee, Red Cloud, the Red Baron, Buenaventura Durruti, Mao, Yitzhak Rabin, Fidel, Che, Moses, Muhammad, and the most popular hero of them all, God — all are known to us (or some of us) as heroes for smiting their enemies or, in God’s case, promising to do so any day now.
Killing is what heroes do; not all, but enough of them. Killing is what the U.S. government does, not merely in terms of capital punishment (which much of the developed world rightly views as barbarism), but in the number of enemy combats and even civilians killed by the U.S. war machine. Former President Obama will likely be remembered as the most popular president at least since Reagan, but he also killed, by his count, up to 116 civilians through drone strikes in Somalia, Libya, Yemen and Pakistan during his eight years in office — on top of the up to 2,581 enemy combatants he says he killed from the sky during roughly the same period.
I wasn’t able to count the self-inflicted scars on N’Jadaka’s body indicating the number of men, women and children he killed for the opportunity to become the Black Panther, but Obama surely has him beat, and by a long way too. Of course, Obama had the power of the U.S. presidency at his disposal, therefore making him all the more lethal, but still, the fact remains: Obama is a hero to a lot of people, and he has killed a lot of people.
The battle between King T’Challa and N’Jadaka, on the screen and in our minds, is a familiar theme: the black peacemaker versus the black militant. I needn’t draw the analogy out any further; the name King is right there. And just as back in the sixties polite society wanted black people to embrace King and abandon Malcolm, along with the actual Black Panthers, now liberal Hollywood wants today’s young activists in the Black Lives Matter movement to follow T’Challa’s lead and make N’Jadaka their enemy — not because N’Jadaka is the enemy of black people (he isn’t; he’s one of them), but because N’Jadaka is the enemy of the global system on which liberal Hollywood relies.
Michael B. Jordan must understand all of this himself, since he told AllHipHop News that, in preparing for his role as N’Jadaka, he “was listening to a lot of Pac” — whose parents were Panthers and whose “godmother” is Assata Shakur, the former member of the Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation Army, now on the FBI’s Most Wanted list and living in Cuba. Rolling Stone says the actor “drew from real-life figures for Killmonger”:
Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, Huey P. Newton, Fred Hampton, Tupac Shakur. ‘This young black man from Oakland, growing up in systemic oppression, not having his mom and dad around, going to foster care, being a part of this system,’ Jordan says. ‘With [Killmonger] being African-American like myself, I understood his rage, and how he could get to the point where he had to do what he had to do, by any means necessary.’
For Boseman, Killmonger and T’Challa are two sides of the same coin. Not quite Malcolm and Martin – because T’Challa is down to fight, too – but something similar. Radical versus diplomat, revolutionary versus peacemaker. ‘Those ideas, that conflict – I’ve been having that conversation almost my whole life.’
What, I ask, are the young N’Jadakas of the world to do when faced with such widespread and deeply entrenched social and economic oppression? Should they suffer peacefully, as King wanted them to? Should they write their congressmen and hope the ink in their letters outweighs the growing mountains of corporate dollars dumped on Congress every election cycle? Should they march or rally, making sure not to damage property or otherwise disrupt the normal functioning of their communities? Or should they just make art, hoping against hope that they can create enough beauty to mask all the ugliness facing them?
Killmonger made his choice. When he learned of the greatness and richness of Wakanda, a proud black nation living in seclusion somewhere over in Africa, and looked around his community in Oakland (or Harlem, in the original story) and saw black people living the lowest of lives, he decided that the enemy of his people wasn’t only the global system of oppression, but the black people who had the power to change things and did nothing except watch from afar. A person with the power to end any amount of suffering who doesn’t lift a finger is the definition of a bad guy. Wakanda was the enemy of black people, just as liberals tend to be the enemy of radicals and revolutionaries, demanding change while toeing the line at the same.
Now, I’m not saying N’Jadaka was right to try to kill T’Challa and then lead all black people in a war for global liberation — but I understand.
Featured image: King T’Challa of Wakanda, played by Chadwick Boseman (Miguel Angel Aranda/Flickr)