December 13, 2018, 23:59

On Killmonger, “Black Panther” ’s American Villain |

On Killmonger, “Black Panther” ’s American Villain |

An early sequence in Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther” mimics the
naturalistic mode of an indie. It is nighttime in Oakland, in 1992, and
a troupe of young boys are passing around a basketball. Police have
beaten a taxi driver to a bloody pulp a few counties over, and coverage
of the ensuing riot is lighting up a television in a house upstairs. A
fleet of gigantic green, glowing discs moving among the clouds breaks
the urban vérité. Black boys crane their necks, dazed. One is
especially moved. The trope of the awed child—our surrogate explorer—is
science fiction’s way of letting us know that the story is entering
another world; moments later, we are swept away to the stunning Wakanda,
a fictional black kingdom on the African continent. The child is left
behind—but only for a time.

Coogler’s film, inspired by the 1966 Marvel creation by Stan Lee and
Jack Kirby, is a stylish study in boundaries—the ones that divide
preservation and insurrection, family and exile, politics and feeling.
Also, art work and real life: think of the young comic-heads cosplaying
as the Dora Milaje women warriors. We have been encouraged to let the
imperial image of Wakanda leak into real timelines, to audacious
political effect. On the cover of the British edition of this month’s GQ, Michael B. Jordan, who plays the villain Erik Killmonger, appears
as a couture Huey Newton.

Wakanda is an Eden in chrome overdrive, undefiled by the original
colonial sin, and the pleasure the film takes in its Afrofuturist
aesthetic makes clear to us that we, the viewers, are being asked to
support the cause of Wakandan peace, the upholding of its borders. The
heir apparent, T’Challa, played by the ageless Chadwick Boseman, is a
staunch isolationist who leaves his kingdom only to neutralize threats
to the country’s secrecy and security. At U.N. summits, the tribal
empire masquerades as a third-world nation, while its happy subjects
secretly wallow in techie pleasures derived from the metal vibranium—the
true Wakanda and its natural resource are hidden behind a fortified
perimeter. The most sensible character in the film is a woman,
naturally: the humanitarian spy Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o). When Nakia asks
T’Challa to consider letting neighboring refugees in on Wakandan wealth,
he scowls, grumbling about the inevitability of war.

The movie is a joyride, but the superhero tale is also the site of
identity construction: Whom would you be in this daydream? (As Ava
DuVernay, speaking to Carvell Wallace, recently mused, “What if they didn’t come? . . . And what if they didn’t take us? What would
that have been?”) “Black Panther” shoulders an outsized assumption that
it will function as feel-good propaganda as well as art—an exercise in
providing confirmation to black people of their essential beauty, their
lost and abstracted lineage of nobility. But Coogler, a chronicler of
the American city, knows that for the fantasy to take hold, he must
create an outlet for the enraged and jaded black id. Killmonger’s
pursuit of the Wakandan throne brings a thrilling ambiguity to the
film’s politics. In the comics, the villain Erik Killmonger lives in
Harlem; Coogler introduces a slip of reality by placing the young boy
Killmonger, and the origin of the film’s power struggle, in his own home town, which also birthed the Black Panther Party. (In
“Fruitvale Station,” Coogler’s telling of the last day in the life of
Oscar Grant, who was killed by police in 2009, Jordan played Grant, and it is impossible not to read a resurrection of that
anguished, dying figure in the villain’s angry gaze.)

With this insurgent, the tragic element of African-Americanness spills
over into Wakanda, and its presence slowly erodes the viewer’s automatic
identification with the conservative fantasy king, revealing what my
colleague Jelani Cobb has described as the “fundamental dissonance in the term ‘African-American,’ two feuding ancestries conjoined by a hyphen.” While T’Challa’s presence is
usually accompanied by maximalist, statesmanlike percussion (Ludwig
Göransson’s soundtrack was inspired by a trip to Senegal), it is the
Fula flute, strange and intrusive, that announces Killmonger’s
entrances. Nineties-esque bass from a more vital world plays in
Killmonger’s Oakland scenes, and, in his globe-trotting sequences, we
hear the voice of Kendrick Lamar—an artist who once called himself the
impossible hybrid of a sovereign enslaved, “King Kunta.” Next to
Boseman’s Mandela-like lilt, Jordan’s American accent is a jolt of
familiarity. So is his biography: as a child, Killmonger wept over his father’s
corpse; and he brags that, as a U.S. Special Forces soldier, he fought
in Afghanistan and Iraq. He satisfies our simultaneous taste and
revulsion for broken men: he is a love object who murders his plaything
and nearly strangles a Wakandan female elder to death, a scorned son who
would gladly kill his own family to get what he wants. Hiding as a
civilian, wearing faddish eyeglasses to make deals on stolen African art
in a British gallery, he looks like a charming blipster.

An antagonist hell-bent on arming all the black people in the world,
Killmonger’s rage and rashness are more coherent than T’Challa’s rote
Edenic promises. Playing the fly in the fantasy’s ointment, Killmonger,
our vector for unfettered bitterness, shows us the limits of the
Wakandan project—the people it leaves behind. Far from an archetypal
nuisance, Killmonger is queasy and immature and beguiling, an Invisible
Man living in a Marvel syntax. Wearing gold grills, he speaks in
Biblical vagaries about “bondage.” His observations about how white
supremacy has brutalized black people in Africa, America, and beyond
are inspired by radical discourse; in one daring tableau, he talks to
T’Challa about the need to eliminate not only the oppressor class but
its children, like some sexified second coming of the extremist Nat
Turner. Killmonger recalls that the other American kids in Oakland
thought he was delusional for believing that a black utopia existed, and
that he was connected to it. As viewers, we have been soothed by the
golden vision of uncolonized black society; still, it’s easy to
understand, considering his vantage point, why the mere idea of Wakanda
has driven Killmonger completely insane.

“I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background,”
Zora Neale Hurston wrote, in her essay “How It Feels to Be Colored Me,”
from 1928. By contrast, it is the black background of a fantastical
ethnic nowhere that leaves Killmonger unhinged. The villain of “Black
Panther” could have been white; for a good portion of the film, we’re
led to believe that he will be. The spectacle of black adversaries,
connected by continent and by blood, takes the film’s struggle to a
deeper register. Killmonger is wrong about many things, but he, like
Nakia, is right that there is suffering around Wakanda. (There may
even be suffering within it; there is, we learn, a history of Wakandans
defecting, and, as the film hardly ever leaves its monarchical perch,
who knows how ordinary Wakandans live?) A more censorious film—ruled by
the politics of respectability, the impulse for narrative tidiness—would
have shied away from such a fiendishly appealing villain, but Coogler
knows that escapism is rarely so pure.


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