This past weekend, the editors of Michigan in Color were given complimentary tickets from the Office of Multi-Ethnic Student Affairs to watch “Black Panther”. After the film, many of the editors in attendance wrote out our thoughts on the movie (we encourage you to read this after the movie, as this piece contains spoilers).
It’s hard to pinpoint the most striking scene in a movie filled with them, but in my opinion, one of the closing scenes fits the bill. Sitting on the edge of a cliff with a fatal wound, Erik Killmonger (N’Jadaka) rejects T’Challa’s efforts to patch him up.
“Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from ships, ‘cause they knew death was better than bondage,” N’Jadaka said before collapsing to the ground.
Even in his dying breath, seconds after his failed attempt to kill the protagonist, it was impossible to completely ignore him. Normally, villains are disagreeable and off-putting, but N’Jadaka, even in his worst moments, wasn’t. He was aggressive, unconventional and outspoken — but he was never wrong. While this ideological conviction eventually led to his death, that’s what makes him such a compelling character. His refusal to change his core values, even when his life depended on it, is a trait we can all admire.
The first time I saw Asians portrayed as purveyors of anti-Blackness in a mainstream blockbuster was in “Get Out.” When a similar characterization appeared in “Black Panther,” I wasn’t surprised.
In Busan, South Korea, a middle-aged Korean woman ushers both the Wakandans and Klaue into an underground bar, where an extended confrontation ensues between the two parties. Though this woman seems insignificant in the greater scheme of the plot, her role in facilitating this standoff is fascinating in the context of social realities where race encompasses more than a Black-white binary.
Asian Americans often fall in a middle ground in which they must navigate survival in a white supremacist system — systems that encourage them to assimilate, deny their identities as people of color and perpetuate anti-Black sentiment. The model minority myth, as well as the conception of Asia and Asian-America as a monolith, contributes not only to the siding of privileged Asian Americans with all things white, but also fuels the silencing of Asian Americans who do not conform to an upper-class, East Asian mold.
In choosing an Asian woman (and, notably, an East Asian woman) to set up the circumstances for a battle between our Black superheroes and white villains, “Black Panther” raises many questions around how Asian Americans navigate racial binaries, as well as how underrepresented Asians are excluded from white supremacist conceptions of Asians and Asian-Americans.
The important pieces of “Black Panther” came from the characterization of the central cast which defied typical gender norms. From Lupita Nyong’o who showed fluttering sensitivity in her personality, while maintaining a hard-shell exterior, to Michael B. Jordan who channeled his anger through the complexities of his insecurities, the cast was simply fantastic. “Black Panther” definitely wasn’t your typical superhero movie, except it almost was in every sense. From predictable plot surprises to a pretty formulaic storyline, the movie definitely wasn’t groundbreaking on a screenwriting front. However, the characters provided in-depth reasoning for why every action was taking place, while also deterring from typical hyper-masculine stereotypes.
That characterization is what elevated the movie. The deterrence of typical gender norms made us connect with each character because, for once, those characters felt real. There was nothing super about T’Challa crying over the repressed guilt of not being able to save his father, yet there was power in that. In the end, we stepped forward from a leading man that always has to be powerful; instead, we have people of color finally showing emotion that was more than the comical side-character and women warriors with no scratch on their reputation.
Though the fight for equality is definitely not over, in “Black Panther” we get to see ourselves finally rushing to battle; that is, a battle against specific gender norms which entraps men to feel the punch and the women to show the tears. A battle for a piece of the entertainment industry which we can feel represented in.
The ultimate anti-villain, Killmonger (N’Jadaka) embodied his goal of liberating all people of African-American descent from systematic bondage by arming all Black people with Vibranium from Wakanda to escape their oppression. In true anti-villain fashion, his goal was good, but his means of doing so were evil by trying to kill T’Challa (the Black Panther), his family, and his allies.
What makes Killmonger such a complex character is his upbringing, as it symbolizes the displacement an individual can feel from their community when they have no connection to their roots, much like many African-descent slaves felt after generations of bondage in America. Killimonger’s character parallels that of Marcus Garvey’s historic time in America as a radicalized leader in the Black community. Garvey’s central mission, “Back to Africa,” sought to create nationalism; however, like Killmonger’s character, his ideas eventually lead to his demise. Garvey was deported from America because of his hostile means of creating a new America, such as allying with a Ku Klux Klan member in 1922 to discuss social inequality within America for Blacks, which only led to his unpopularity.
Much like Garvey’s distorted motives, Killmonger tries to liberate the rest of the world by killing the foundation on which Wakanda stands. Though Killmonger decisively ends his own life, in comparison to Garvey’s exile to Jamaica, it is important to remember that his character was created to highlight complexity of issues within the Black community. This is why his final words, “Bury me into the ocean with the rest of my ancestors … (who) knew that liberation was better than bondage” were so remarkably sobering to all who had understood the depth of his character.
As the dying breath of Killmonger (N’Jadaka) rang out in the near silent movie theater, I sat with the weight of his unresolved feelings of exclusion, loss and trauma. N’Jadaka’s experience as a Black male in the African diaspora, navigating generations-worth of accumulated oppression and trauma, is not a mere plot device. It is a potent reality for African descendants all over the world, including myself.
While N’Jadaka knows his motherland is Wakanda, a seemingly fantastical world where Black civilization sees unyielding prosperity and no colonization, it was a motherland that was denied to him. He grapples with trying to reclaim his roots, steadfast to correct the effects of colonization and, for lack of better words, mass identity theft due to the slave trade. Though N’Jadaka is a fictional character, his turmoil is grounded in reality.
A large portion of the African diaspora has been robbed of the opportunity to have as intimate of a connection to our motherland as we would like. Many of us do not know our country or tribes of origin, nor does our knowledge of our ancestors exceed past a few generations. With no other option, some of us feel forced to identify more with the country of our birth and colonizers than the country of our ancestry. Director Ryan Coogler showcases this complex dynamic with great intentionality, utilizing N’Jadaka’s character to amplify fears of not being accepted and never truly fitting in.
“Black Panther” takes great initiative to mix complex social issues with mainstream action cinematography. I am thankful Coogler showed the complex consequences and emotions regarding the African diaspora and colonization. Coogler makes it clear that while the fear of lost culture is valid, the African diaspora is inherently and inarguably welcome to a home in Africa, no matter our country of birth.
As a person of color, I’m used to seeing my people or other people of color used as plot devices or token characters in almost every major blockbuster. People of color are portrayed from the eyes of a white writer and director and are cast in roles that are caricatured versions of their races. With that in mind, it was extremely refreshing to watch a movie where the white characters played those stereotypical roles. There was no white savior for Wakanda — instead, they saved themselves while the white characters randomly died or fumbled around the set.
One of my favorite scenes was prior to the questioning of Ulysses Klaue. We watch as CIA agent Everett Ross speaks with T’Challa and Okoye. Ross believes he holds all the cards and arrogantly assumes the Wakandans are both uninformed and unequipped to handle the situation. While subtle, the scene showcases how people of color often feel in situations with white people where power dynamics mean white people subconsciously assume the dominant role, regardless of actual qualifications.
We see this role reversal throughout the movie. From Ross’s role as the “token white guy,” to jokes constantly revolving around his race, “Black Panther” subverts the role of comic relief from the Black characters to the white. We laugh as Ross bumbles through his interaction with M’Baku and believes M’Baku will actually feed him to his children (plot twist: they’re vegetarians). For once, people of color drive the plot of the movie and develop as characters.