Editor’s note: There are spoilers here.
I admittedly missed a couple of key details during my first trip to Wakanda. Something about a nerdtastic property holding such cultural significance put me in a state of bliss. So I made a return trip, you know, to make sure I didn’t miss anything. (Yeah, sure. That’s the only reason.)
During the second viewing, something occurred to me regarding Erik “I Shouldn’t Like You as Much as I Do” Stevens, aka Killmonger. I hesitate to call him a villain. A villain drudges up images of some huge, purple-skinned menace trying to fetch some mystical stones, a threat so powerful that the next Marvel installment, Avengers: Infinity War, must be divided into two parts.
Killmonger is more of an adversary, an antagonist you feel for because his motives are all too real. Black folks can relate to being done with the world’s bullshit, and I can guarantee that some of us left the theater wondering what we’d do if we had access to all of Wakanda’s resources. Klaue? He can go die in a fire for stealing our stuff and calling us “savages,” but you not so secretly hope that Killmonger and T’Challa will come together, especially when you realize that Black Panther isn’t just peak Afrofuturism; it’s also revisionist history.
Marvel is no stranger to telling a story within the context of actual historical events; just think (“O Captain, My Captain”) America, with his patriotic shield and penchant for punching Nazis. It adds a fantastic layer to these otherworldly stories—the knowledge of some grand superpower existing during our darkest hours. That’s what Captain America stood for; even before the super-soldier program, Steve Rogers was full of heart and optimism, a little guy who wanted to help the little guy.
But it’s much easier for an all-American white soldier to take a chance than for an African king. This time around, I peeped them slave ships in that opening narration, so don’t expect the Black Panther to jump at the chance to help the good ol’ U.S. of “Aye, we’re gonna enslave your people and take them to this stolen land—we mean, shared equally with the natives—happy Thanksgiving.”
Still, that’s Killmonger’s entire beef with the Wakandans. They’ve had every opportunity to help black folks, but chose to stay hidden. King T’Chaka was so set on this that he killed his own brother—and Killmonger’s father—N’Jobu. That is classic revenge motivation, but it becomes more complex (and tragic) when you realize what was happening back in 1992, the year Killmonger was orphaned by his own people.
Aside from the fact that it’s close to director Ryan Coogler’s hometown of Richmond, Calif., on the surface, Oakland, Calif., in 1992 doesn’t seem too significant. During my first viewing of the movie, I thought they were simply pulling a Civil War, which recalled the date when Tony Starks’ parents were killed.
But while the opening of Black Panther is a variation on this theme, when Zuri later tells the story to T’Challa, we see N’Jobu pleading with his brother to help their black American brethren fight violence and over-policing, everything we, the people of 2018, know to have been a harsh reality for generations.
Something about “over-policing” and “1992” stuck with me after my second viewing of Black Panther, so I relied on my good friend Google to uncover what was in the back of my mind.
1992 is when the Los Angeles riots took place. Rodney King, y’all. Yes, in addition to everything else, Black Panther went there.
Of course, the riots didn’t take place in Oakland, but you best believe the character of N’Jobu would’ve heard about them. Leaving your black utopian society to learn about the police, the supposed protectors of the country you’re surveilling, beating the shit out of a black man? And getting away with it? N’Jobu was in America during one of the most well-publicized atrocities toward the black community.
Imagine living in Wakanda, a world where black folks are treated with love and respect, then being sent out and bearing witness to Rodney-fucking-King. The riots could easily have been the tipping point, the moment N’Jobu decided that his people needed to do something. It was certainly better than the alternative: the riots happening after his death, leaving his son—who would ultimately become Killmonger—alone to deal with it. It certainly makes little Erik’s line about everyone dying around them more heartbreaking, especially since he sheds no tears.
As a man, however, Erik Stevens/Killmonger does cry, because he realizes what he’s become as he sits in the ancestral plane with his father. And even among all that violence and death, N’Jobu still had dreams of showing his son life as it could be in Wakanda. He wanted to bring his son home—or, perhaps, he wanted to create that home in our country. Witnessing the power of Vibranium in this narrative, that single stolen vial could’ve started a revolution.
So here is your villain/anti-hero: Erik Killmonger, left fatherless in a world full of so-called protectors who abuse his brethren. He’d grow up to see more men, women and children go through the same ordeal as or worse than Rodney King’s, only to become social media hashtags. He’d grow up hearing us tell wistful stories of “the Motherland,” while simultaneously dealing with white folks telling us to “go back to Africa,” as if we chose to be here in the first place.
And yet Killmonger would also know that his family in that far-off prosperous land would kill one of their own to keep their land and resources safe, only to later sign the Sokovia Accords to police those with superpowers. So he decided that he’d create “the Motherland” for himself and for us. Villain or not, Killmonger was willing to start from the ground up to let them know who we are. It’s so understandable that even T’Challa snapped at his ancestors to tell them they’d been wrong.
The idea of us being one tribe, as T’Challa says in the midcredits scene, works both ways. The betterment of our people will resonate with us all, but that also means that the brutality against our people connects us. No one knew that better than Killmonger. I imagine that T’Challa respected his cousin’s wishes to bury him in the ocean, but I hope his influence will live with the Black Panther legacy for generations to come.