Black Panther’s villain isn’t my villain at all. He’s my hero.
Here there be spoilers.
When I went to see Black Panther, I didn’t think it would make me sad. I didn’t think I’d dislike Wakanda for its imaginary role in the real-world continued oppression of Black people.
I should be able to divorce reality from fiction, and yet, the narrative hit so close to home that I found myself weighted by it, almost to the point of tears. Knowing the horrors my ancestors survived as part of the slave trade, which Wakandans in this fictional universe could’ve fought to end, horrors that led to my existence — I’d gladly never live if it meant none of that ever happened.
I didn’t expect to walk away imagining a world where the transatlantic slave trade never happened, and resenting the fuck out of Wakanda because it did.
I didn’t expect to mourn Erik Killmonger, the villain who wasn’t MY villain. He was my hero. He was the me I wish I could be — the brutal, ruthless freedom fighter who built himself from nothing to free Black people from the colonizers. He was the hero I needed, not Black Panther, inert instead of dedicated to change, and that was a realization I was not expecting.
I didn’t expect to mourn Erik Killmonger, the villain who wasn’t MY villain. He was my hero. Click To Tweet
After the movie, I left the theater to the chants of “Wakanda Forever,” feeling unsettled and displaced. If Wakanda were a real place, I’d be Erik; I’d be the American monster in Wakanda because I couldn’t love a country with the means to end the transatlantic slave trade that instead chose to hide and pretend it wasn’t their problem. A nation that only fights when absolutely necessary and did not think the kidnapping, torture, murder, rape, abuse, dehumanization, and destruction of millions of people made war absolutely necessary. A nation with superior education, technology, creativity, and the financial ability to help that instead turned its collective back on those who lived outside its borders. Black people, like them. Because they were not Wakandan.
I came out of the theater angry at Wakanda.
I know it’s not a real place. I KNOW it’s not real. It’s a flawed fantasy that doesn’t align with the reality of the history of my family, my people. Still, to watch a narrative where the person with the power to change the world opts to murder his brother and desert his nephew to the poverty and oppression faced by so many Black people, all to maintain a separatist, non-interference policy, while spying and learning the atrocities endured by millions and doing nothing to stop it?
That’s a hard pill to swallow.
And to watch a narrative where the supposed villain is a man who learned the savagery of his oppressors and became a better monster than them, completely willing to sacrifice everything to change the fate of millions, while Wakanda watched and claimed that letting Black people suffer was the greater good?
How could I see this as the actions of a villain at all?
I understood Nakia, the Wakandan warrior who knew her nation wasn’t doing enough, which was why she could not, should not stay. Wakanda was complicit in the genocide of millions while looking at those suffering not with compassion, but with dismissal. Wakanda Forever really meant Wakanda First and Only. It meant pretending that ignoring genocide can exempt you from the responsibility to stop it. It meant upholding traditions that work inside a bubble, while sacrificing everyone outside of it.
I watched the judgement and disdain Wakandans had for Erik, a man who was ruthless because he had to be and merciless because to take power, mercy has no place — as demonstrated by T’Chaka taking the life of his own brother — and I thought, He is not who you should fight.
I could not love Wakanda. And, after learning more of its history, neither could T’Challa.
For if Wakanda was the marvel it is written to be, how could it have let the transatlantic slave trade happen? How could it have allowed the magnitude of suffering that continued in the many years after?
And so I was left with a bitterness I didn’t expect, and a sadness, as I wished for a past that can never happen. I was left knowing that in my heart, I am Erik Killmonger — that I, too, would want to force Wakanda to take a stand to help more than themselves.
Watching Black Panther, I had to accept that I would be an American monster in Wakanda. And like Erik, I’d want to burn it all down if that meant improving the world for Black people.
Originally published at talynnkel.com.