Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Black Panther vs. Killmonger: Who Wins the Argument?

About three minutes after the Black Panther closing credits ended, when my son and I, still in our seats, were discussing the movie, my son said that one reason he'd liked the movie was because the villain, Killmonger, has really good reasons for what he does. 

"It wasn't like he was totally wrong," my son said, and I agreed.  

The reasons Killmonger gives for why he wants to take and use Wakanda's vibranium, the remarkable metal Wakanda has been relying on down through time, 
keeping to itself in their isolated country, have merit.  Because of this natural resource Wakanda alone has, its people thrive. They have the most advanced technology in the world.  It's a green technology apparently because no country ever has found such a balance between technological advancement and natural beauty.  Humans, animals, and plants live in harmony, untouched by ecological destruction. It’s an earthly paradise, an Afro-futurist's dream. And for generations, because of their isolation, they’ve been able to keep their advanced state a global secret.  Good for them and good for their people. Europe has never encroached on Wakanda for slaves or put it through colonial ravages. It’s a country outside history. But history hasn’t spared the rest of the world, and in places like where Killmonger's from - Oakland, USA - people suffer. In particular, black people suffer, and an African country that could help has never done a thing to benefit anyone outside its own borders.  Killmonger has personal reasons for wanting to eliminate T'Challa, the Black Panther, but his statements about Wakanda's selfishness ring true even to a twelve year old.  In essence, the movie does something not all that common in films: it lays out two sides of an argument in its opposing forces, T'Challa's and Killmonger's, and then it works toward a resolution of that argument. 

Wakanda has a monarchical system that is somewhat militaristic.  Picture a country that has a touch of Kuwait (comfort for all purely because of a natural resource granted the country) and a touch of Sparta (the militaristic aspect and the importance of women as warriors). Picture a country, too, that is fully African in its belief systems and traditions but that is science fiction shiny and clean.  Why would such a place, functioning so well, want to interact with the rest of the world?  When one Wakandan says that they should open up and share their technology with the world, another says that would mean letting in "refugees" and being like everyone else. The implication is that everyone else, in some way, is beneath Wakanda.  Its borders are sealed.  The hostility to refugees hits home; the distaste expressed for them is something any number of real-life government figures might say, here or in Europe.  It smacks of nativism.  "Wakanda forever!"  Yes.  And how about adding, "Wakanda first!"  Of course, this isn't the leader of a western power talking, but an African, so on the other hand, given the continent's history with the outside (meaning Western) world, why should they trust that sharing their most valuable resource will lead to anything good for their country?    

Which brings us to Killmonger.  He makes the case, in his righteous anger, that people oppressed for centuries could be lifted up if Wakandans spread their vibranium wealth.  They sit by in their secluded kingdom while Oakland and places like it rot, and he's got no time for their high-mindedness, their sense of themselves as a privileged civilization.  Soon as he gets to Wakanda, he sees to it that he defeats T'Challa in battle. It's important to note that he does this fairly, as prescribed by custom, so his claim on the throne is legitimate.  But if his basic critique of Wakandan's isolationism is correct, his actions to carry out his agenda are not.  He proves himself a tyrant, not the kind of thoughtful and benign monarch, attached to the ancestors, that Black Panthers should be.  He speaks of the oppression that black people deal with in the United States (and his final words alluding to the Middle Passage are powerful ones), but this is a guy who has been in the US military, as a black ops soldier, and for all his rage at Western oppression, he is utterly American in how he behaves.  He has no respect for anything he encounters in Wakanda, not for their belief systems, their tribal system, nothing.  He burns what he has no need for and mobilizes the Wakandan military to distribute Wakandan weapons throughout the world for the uprising of the oppressed he has planned.  In his own mind, he is a revolutionary. He's crashing the gates of the elite and will bring power to those who never had it.  Or would he?  If he got weapons out of Wakanda to those he wants to have them, what kind of leader would he be?  To all indications, a dictatorial one.  And what's more, he doesn't see the irony.  He comes to an African country full of arrogance, spits on its traditions, and wants to exploit its natural bounty for his own ends.  He is enacting the very pattern inflicted for centuries on Africans by white colonizers. Still, underneath it all, he does have that valid point we were talking about. The core of his argument holds.  Wakanda needs to get beyond its adherence to isolationism.

In the end, T'Challa versus Killmonger, in terms of their ultimate physical battle, you know who's got to win.  The conventions of the narrative demand it.  But the arguments each has brought to the combat, where does that stand?  Black Panther provides an ending that represents a blending of the two positions. It's a fusion, you could say, but there is more of Killmonger in the final product than of T'Challa.  The announcement T'Challa makes in the last scene is an acknowledgment that Killmonger's basic point was right. In effect, T'Challa has adopted Killmonger's platform minus the violence and will to power.  This is a story where the villain's ideas help the hero learn and grow, and while that's not unheard of in fiction, it is fairly unusual, especially in a so-called "comic book movie".

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