Writer Tré Ventour reflects on the how the cinematic and social game-changer Black Panther left him feeling…
Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther is a film loved by millions across the world, including those of African descent. From its cast to its music, there are numerous factors that are drawn from the continent and its scattered diaspora, in aid of the fictional kingdom of Wakanda. It’s a technologically-advanced utopia, an exhibition of what Africa could have been had it been allowed to realise itself. It’s a place untainted by slavery, the crimes of colonialism and the greed of European empires.
Many say it’s primarily a film for Black people in America. However, I believe it is as much a film for the African diaspora in the UK and the European continent. It’s as much a film for Black Americans as it is about Black Britons, the Black Dutch, the Black French and so forth, as Europe and the Americas have been consumed in the same cultural question mark of colonialism, a period of history that’s responsible for the existence of so many families in Europe and the Americas today.
Black Panther is an attempt to add clarity to why so many Black people feel like they don’t belong. The Transatlantic Slave Trade is responsible for so much loss of life, and so many pivotal court battles like the Zong Case (1781), as depicted in Amma Asante’s Belle. Growing up in Britain under West Indian grandparents, I’ve always felt in the middle of three peoples – the Africans, the West Indians and the British.
Afua Hirsch’s Brit(ish) talks about that struggle of Black British people trying to find their identity in a land that has a history of showing its disdain for immigrants and people who look like immigrants (people with non-English accents and / or different coloured skin). Black and British: A Forgotten History by David Olusoga takes us through the historical context of what Hirsch touches on her book. The same logic can be applied to America. Are you African or American? Are you American-West Indian? Are you just American? In the UK, perhaps you are British-West Indian, British-Nigerian, etc. In mainland Europe, are you Dutch-Caribbean? Are you French-Ghanaian? Or do you identify as Other?
There are so many different peoples within the African diaspora, within Europe and the Americas. Black Panther attempts to unpack the empty space of non-identity felt within the peoples of this diaspora worldwide. Places like Elmina Fortress in Ghana and Bunce Island in Sierra Leone are examples of where some historians claim the British slave trade began. Gorée Island in Senegal is home to ‘The Door of No Return’, a slave house which was the last thing many slaves saw before being shipped to the Americas and the West Indies.
The void of non-identity in a postcolonial world is what created Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), the “villain” of our story. Black Panther is about an advanced African kingdom that is sitting on tons of vibranium (the material that made Captain America’s shield). Yet, the Wakandan use it for a lot, including medicine, as Everett Ross (Martin Freeman) learns.
Pan-Africanism is at the centre of this film, an ideology that no matter how far we are away from each other, no matter our struggles, we are duty-bound to help one another escape our oppression. Ryan Coogler, via Killmonger, asks the question: if Wakanda existed, with its vibranium, riches, and technology (that makes Stark Industries look like lego), how could they remain silent in times of slavery whilst their fellow people were in bondage? Even in the times of Jim Crow, where Black people across the world are hounded by the police. Even today where there is a need for Black Lives Matter.
“Two billion people all over the world who look like us whose lives are much harder, and Wakanda has the tools to liberate them all,” Killmonger says to the court. “Where was Wakanda?” Indeed, where was Wakanda? Erik may be the villain but he’s asking some relevant questions, and this recurs throughout the film.
Killmonger came to the kingdom as a conqueror or liberator (depending on your point of view). Years earlier, his father N’Jobu (Sterling K. Brown) aimed to arm the African diaspora worldwide with vibranium against their oppressors, what Shuri jests as “Mr Coloniser.” N’Jobu is killed by King T’Chaka (Atandwa Kani) for his attempt to put Wakanda onto the world stage after centuries of isolation (not too different to DC’s Themiscyra) that kept the kingdom safe. Killmonger is left an orphan, metaphorically and physically, seeing Wakanda as a chance to avenge the millions of Black people who died under the colonial regime and those who still suffer in the present postcolonial climate today.
His purpose, to free Black people everywhere and what could be so bad about Black Freedom, right? But that’s not his true goal, as we see Killmonger interact with other characters. In our current environment of police brutality, white privilege and racism, T’Challa must fight his cousin Erik in order to stop what one could call a White Holocaust – very much spurred on by his bitterness towards the sins of history and contemporary. “The sun will never set on the Wakandan Empire” he says. The British dubbed their empire as the place “where the sun will never set” and the cap fits.
Many viewers have taken the “liberation” idea at face value with no thought towards the “empire” part. When the British were collecting countries, they called it an empire, certainly, but they also believed that the peoples of Africa and India were savages, and by ruling them, they were liberating them of their “savagery”, giving them civilisation. ”Empire” and “liberation” are equally important, almost satirising Bush Jr’s foreign policy. And the antics of the Wakanda elders satirise the American constitution – dated, archaic and bits maybe obsolete but the makers are stuck in tradition and in deep fear of progress.
Erik’s assault starts with three cities: London, New York and Hong Kong, coincidentally all with sanctums (see Doctor Strange) but more importantly, ties to the British – London being England’s capital, with New York and Hong Kong previously being under British rule.
At the start of the film, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) is seen freeing captives from a Boko Haram-esque militia, later telling T’Challa to help refugees; he declines in favour of that so-loved isolationism. Killmonger seeks hegemony which is almost dystopian in the landscapes of this science fiction film. T’Challa and Erik are two sides of the same coin. Had T’Challa been left in Oakland, California (birthplace of The Black Panthers) and not Erik, he may well have been as radical as his cousin.
They exchange some lines during their final battle. A bloodbath has ensued between the factions. Is this coincidence? No, I don’t think so. This is Erik thinking logically; he is putting Wakanda through a microcosm of colonialism that Wakanda had avoided for hundreds of years due to their isolation tactics. He is showing them what the colonisers did. Much akin to the Black Panther Party, it is the Wakandan women that prop up the establishment – Nakia, General Okoye (Danai Gurira), Princess Shuri (Letitia Wright) and and Queen-Mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett).
Killmonger is one man who kills because it’s fun and goes mad with power. With the reign of T’Challa, that means the reign of the family as well. Like the inauguration of Barack Obama in 2008, it wasn’t just about having a Black president. It was about his wife Michelle and the children. In essence, the presidency of Obama was about the Black family.
Black Panther does not force moral judgements on us. It does not say violence is wrong, it simply says that there’s a time and a place. However, it does state that imperialism is not a tool that can be used for the freedom of others. The tools of colonisers cannot be used to help the colonised. Once the cow has been milked, there is no use trying to squirt the milk back up her udder.
Killmonger’s “evil plan” is recognized by the plight of African diaspora everywhere. I empathised with him. I cared for him but I did not want him to succeed. Yet, I mourned him. And he has one of the best finishing lines in any blockbuster ever, “Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors that jumped from the ships because they knew death was better than bondage.”
Even in his last moments, even as homicidal madman, a lot of what he says makes sense. He’s just an impulsive murderer that I couldn’t help but relate to. His introduction is just as excellent, dropping facts on the white museum clerk. I guess it’s no coincidence that I recently came across an article that said the Victoria & Albert Museum are willing to loan artefacts back to Ethiopia, items that were looted by the British centuries ago. What a metaphor for colonialism.
When Killmonger sees his father in the spirit world, he is alone. When T’Challa goes, he is surrounded by his ancestors. I guess that epitomises the legacy of the Slave Trade. We were nobodies, just dollars and cents, pounds and pence, to be sold in the markets of places like Bristol or Louisville, Kentucky. Peoples of the African diaspora, whose ancestors were slaves have every reason to hate the White Man. However, we don’t become Killmonger or N’Jobu, radicalised.
We are alone in this fight and Black Panther shows the ins and outs in the right way – through its nods to history, colourism and the now, as the colonial mentality is still alive and kicking. It’s simply changed forms.