Apologia for Killmonger

17th February 2019

Warning: The following text is a discussion of the film Black Panther. It contains several spoilers for the film, so if the reader is yet to see it, they are urged to do so before reading on. The author is a white male residing in London and is not familiar with Igbo, Xhosa, nor Shona, which form part of the composite languages used in the film.

The purpose of this text is to analyse the political subtexts contained within the film Black Panther. Its genesis was in the course of a debate held between the author and two friends originally from Zimbabwe who held a different perspective on the merits of Killmonger. The author wishes to posthumously exonerate Killmonger, one of the most sympathetic villains seen on screen (possibly exceeded by the “carpetbaggers” depicted in “Gone With the Wind” or “Birth of a Nation”). In the context of Marvel films, the Vulture as rendered by Michael Keaton in Spiderman: Homecoming is resoundingly trounced as a memorable foil to the protagonist. The Vulture varies between lackadaisical and conniving, conforming to the strictures of what Hollywood anticipates a unionised worker to be. This reading of the character of Killmonger is taken solely from the films, Killmonger as depicted in comics appears to have had a quite distinct origin story and motivation.

It will be beneficial to delineate some characters discussed within. The eponymous character, “Black Panther”, or “T’Challa” was portrayed by Chadwick Boseman. The character was first introduced in the Marvel cinematic universe in “Captain America: Civil War”. Boseman’s love interest “Nakia” was played by Lupita Nyong’o, the chief of his personal security (the “Dora Milaje”), “Okoye” is played by Danai Gurira, the chief of the Border Tribe, “W’Kabi”, was played by Daniel Kaluuya, “M’Baku” (in the comics, “Man-Ape”, helpfully excised as a title), Black Panther’s initial rival for rulership of Wakanda, is played by Winston Duke, his initial target for reprisal for the killing of the former ruler of Wakanda, “W’Kabi”, “Ulysses Klaue” was played by Andy Serkis, a CIA agent interloper, “Everett K. Ross”, was played by Martin Freeman, Letitia Wright played the Black Panther’s sister, “Shuri” and Michael B. Jordan portrayed the Black Panther’s eventual antagonist, “Erik Stevens” (Killmonger). Nabiyah Be also had brief, though captivating, appearances as Erik’s partner in crime.

Before launching into the political reading of the film, a few acknowledgements can be made. The film veers clear of being propaganda for the prevailing order. It is an entrancing tale, carefully woven, incorporating idyllic pastoral scenes along with technological colossi in a panorama encapsulating the pinnacle of African society. The spectacle is beautiful and appealing to a global audience. However, even in the most innocuous scenes, ideology creeps in at the periphery. Early in the film, in a discussion with Nakia, T’Challa stops outside of a city market – we’ve established that  what’s described as the most advanced civilisation on the planet relies internally on trade. The economy of Wakanda appears to be based on a combination of agricultural cultivation, artisinal handicraft and technology which would appear to be the fruition of an accelerationist’s fantasy. The necessity of exploitation seems to be elided with the plot device of “vibranium”, which powers and enables the automation of the complex emergent society (without eliminating the presence of a “merchant” tribe, unfortunately). A market unaccompanied by shanties and unharangued by state forces seems to approximate a synopsis for the society. Internal dissent seems limited to the Jabari, the mountain tribe led by M’Baku. The Jabari can be interpreted as the “anti-civilisational” dissident faction who disapprove of the current technological direction of the leadership.

Gender is handled carefully within the film. There are impressive components, with the Dora Milaje, modelled in part on the Amazons of Dahomey (described by Walter Rodney in “The Underdevelopment of Africa” and elsewhere), being remarkably competent fighters. Nakia is portrayed as being a potential combatant in the trial by combat to determine the ruler of Wakanda and a stalwart figure throughout. Shuri is depicted as being instrumental in the development of several technical elements of contemporary society, including their transport system – in contemporary society black individuals are among the most under-represented in fields such as engineering and computer science (and Letitia accomplishes this with levity, flourishing a gesture befitting Proverbs 6:13). However, there are unexamined aspects of Wakandan society which are fairly repressive – tribal succession replicates hereditary monarchy based on male primogeniture, with precedence given to an adult male heir rather than to a surviving wife (most likely due to the tradition of trial by combat). In the opening narrative, such a tradition appears to receive its sanction from an ancient God – a deo Rex, a Rege lex. The Jabari tribe is portrayed as predominantly patriarchal. Most tribes have active participation from women, but the Jabari emerge as a solidly masculine bloc to challenge T’Challa for succession to the throne. Winston Duke does provide a masterful performance as M’Baku for the brief screen time he’s allotted, transforming from languor to ferocity with alarming alacrity and providing the audience’s biggest laugh during a bathetic moment involving T’Challa’s family imploring M’Baku’s aid.

Part of the strength of the film is how it provides a chimaerical version of a culture melding many different African predecessors, particularly evident in the luxurious tableaux of costumes on display. Inspirations range from the lip plugs of the Mursi people of Ethiopia (neatly transposed against a suit) to apparel which could have been derived from the complex masquerades of Nigeria and Sierra Leone or traditional kente cloth. Perhaps one of the detractions of the film is that the disparate tribes are given scant attention, plenaries are dominated by the decisions of T’Challa and later Killmonger – their contribution to Wakandan society appears to be primarily aesthetic rather than material.

One of the most striking visual elements of the film is during the dream sequences where T’Challa and then Killmonger are transported into an afterworld to confront their ancestors. The sky in both instances takes on an ethereal and suitably regal purple tinge as the dreamer becomes appropriately illuminated. Another motif which worked well was the recurring use of drums in the film’s soundtrack, reminiscent of the use of bamboo flute throughout Kurosawa’s oeuvre. It was, however, disappointing not to encounter Run the Jewels after they were tantalisingly featured in the trailer for the film.

The gist of the argument must be prefaced once more: Killmonger is a blemished character, to put it mildly. Jordan inhabits the role with suavity and panache, with a suffusion of menace when required. Several of the actions he takes are unconscionable and would necessitate resistance if encountered in reality. With that said, Killmonger could be described as a better ruler than T’Challa and perhaps more in accordance with the platform of the Black Panther Party. The Black Panther Party had its genesis at approximately the same time as the comic character, leading to the Black Panther briefly being reintroduced as “the Black Leopard” in 1971 with explicit reference to avoiding confusion with the political group. The Black Panther Party’s expanded a point in their ten in their ten point program regarding police brutality and murder (unfortunately still searingly relevant), clarifying that they believe all black people should arm themselves for self-defence. Killmonger merely transcends such a notion by organising a secret society to instantiate an armed insurrection (in a slightly more authoritarian model than Bakunin’s invisible dictatorship). Killmonger elaborates that the insurrection will involve the killing of the children of the leaders of extant states, a position which is fairly indefensible – though Trump promulgated the notion, stating in 2015 that family members of “terrorists” should be killed. Such an approach was a facet of revolutions like the Soviet, as happened with the Romanovs – it was also narrowly avoided in the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381, where Henry the 4th was spared.

Killmonger chooses to assert his dominance once inaugurated as ruler by threatening the cultivator of the grove and bestower of his ceremonial necklace, choking her by the throat. Another way in which Killmonger is demarcated as odious is in his despatching of his working class partner, Linda – after she took part in his Bonnotist escapades with aplomb – merely to more swiftly eliminate Klaue. Klaue in turn is presented staidly, with the writers conjuring a relict of a former colonial administrator without the overtness of Ellis from Burmese Days. There’s a certain subtlety to the intimation that he’s the same “speed” as Ross (it’s caught on the edge of a remark). Few tears were shed when he met his violent end, enabling Killmonger’s accession to the sanctum of Wakanda. One jarring omission on behalf of the writers is the treatment of Killmonger’s past as a participant (in the Joint Special Operations Command) in the Iraqi and Afghani war. Each of these terrains was assuredly as integral to the US imperial project as any CIA objective and combat is still being prosecuted in both countries in order to discipline recalcitrant parties. Yet this revelation is presented as part of the fabric which qualifies him to be a worthy ruler.

Still, despite the apparent flaws, the actor Chadwick Boseman claims he identifies more with Killmonger. The two leaders of Wakandan society enact similar compromises. Neither hesitates to kill nor maim where necessary to accomplish their aims. T’Challa does not fundamentally alter Wakandan traditional practice, whereas Killmonger institutes reforms which would eliminate combative ritual and also make the society more internationalist. T’Challa is willing to collaborate with the CIA, whereas Killmonger would prefer to execute malefactors. The distinction Boseman admires about Killmonger is that he experienced what life would be like for an actual black person in the US living in Oakland, rather than someone living in a life of isolated privilege like T’Challa. Killmonger’s story arc is fanciful, but disbelief can be suspended. As mentioned above, black individuals are presently under-represented in fields such as engineering and furthermore, MIT has a lower black student body rate than US society generally and black graduation rates are lower than other demographics (being raised with one parent dead would put Killmonger at a further disadvantage). With that said, education and lifespan outcomes are amongst the best for black US veterans than for almost any other profession. Black male lifespan in the US in general, despite being substantially lower than that of white males, would still starkly contrast with that of Chad or the Central African Republic which is about 20 years lower – these countries may be prospective neighbours of Wakanda, which cements concerns discussed below.

The central political allegory in the film is a dispute between a form of largely illusory “splendid isolationism” (which perhaps saw some fruition in the administration of Grover Cleveland) and neo-conservative interventionism. These are the two acceptable positions in US discourse, while Nakia’s liberal orientation and Killmonger’s revolutionary authoritarian approach to egalitarianism represent positions which may be comprehended and ultimately discarded. Ta-Nehesi Coates - firmly operating within the framework issued above - wrote two instalments of the Black Panther series, though neither arc appears to be adapted for this film. One exchange in the film contains a microcosm of the entire debate. In a discussion regarding the role of Wakanda, W’Kabi is urging T’Challa to expand to “assist” the populations bordering them, with an implication that Wakanda would be heavily involved in determining their fate – part of an extension of a doctrine which appeared in its most recent guise as “compassionate conservatism”, but could be divined in Hamilton’s assertion that “vacant Western territory” is “common Property of the union” in an essay concerning dissension between states, a claim which could only be countenanced given an earlier campaign of extirpation of the native population by the original occupying force in the region. T’Challa implores W’Kabi to focus instead on the border, arguing that Wakanda would be unable to function with a sudden influx of outsiders, which would leave Wakanda vulnerable to destabilisation – this statement could have earned plaudits from groups as ideologically diverse as the National Policy Institute or the Molinari Institute. “Refugees bring their problems with them” can also only be interpreted as an overt nod to Trump’s nationalistic campaign.  With that said, it’s clearly part of the ineluctable logic of nationalism, where individuals are granted rights as a citizen of a particular country in an attempt to preserve conditions prevailing in a particular region. The ordering of the affairs of a particular group of people manifests in present society in the state, formerly such affairs could be managed at the level of the city or commune.

Nations are omnipresent in present society, with rates of exploitation varying from region to region as capital strains to normalise those relationships. Yet, such a trend merely represents one possible method of ordering human affairs. An alteration in the mode of production whereby all are invited to determine the goods produced and their allocation could render the paradigm obsolete, as conditions would be similar globally – all would be involved in the production process as their capacity allowed and distribution would be primarily aimed at need. Quite apart from the fact that depicting a socialist utopia could perhaps be contrary to the interests of the producers of the film (after all, they are investing their capital in an attempt to make a profit), this may violate one of the precepts of orthodox Marxism, that socialism is not possible in one country. Voluntary interactions between groups not basing themselves on the principle of need must then take the form of equivalent exchange, which is mediated by currency and alienation can insinuate itself (in apparently voluntary relationships of exploitation of those without capital by those with it). With that said, the necessity of global revolution was based on the interdependence of the national economies following rapid liberalisation and industrialisation. Different economic forms coexisted with the rise of liberal capitalism, including feudalism (with slavery persisting in several countries, including India, Pakistan and Uzbekistan) and in some cases what Engels termed “primitive communism”. Wakanda appears to be self-sufficient. Tristan da Cunha formed a society without any formal rulers for a prolonged period of time – so a model for a Wakanda without rent seeking and without preserving the notion of “comparative advantage” already exists.

An addendum to the above is whether Nakia’s “noblesse oblige” represents a break from the poles of neo-conservatism or isolationism. The domestic practice of liberalism is often obfuscation – in the terms of Adam Smith, the government is to set no restrictions on popular entertainments, as a distracted populace is a content one. As phrased by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a population where individuals are working is one where people will not participate in terrorism (and their horizon beyond work should be constrained to consumption). In practice, “liberal” intervention as experienced by those liberated is often experienced as indistinguishable of that from “conservative” intervention. From Operation Polar Bear to Operation Infinite Reach or from Operation Gothic Serpent to Operation Noble Anvil (supported by Bernie Sanders and resulting in the deaths of hundreds of civilians), it would not be likely for someone subject to such a campaign to scrutinise the motivator for the campaign.  However, as portrayed, Nakia does diverge quite markedly from current imperial powers and their allies such as the US or the UK in her refusal to engage with child soldiers. The UK apparently deployed 22 soldiers under the age of 18 to Iraq and Afghanistan between 2003 and 2010, refusing to endorse the Optional Protocol on the Rights of Children in Armed Conflict. The US likewise appears to have little compunction with child casualties, with Nawar al-Awlaki being one recent example in a litany of other children experiencing “manifest destiny” (her brother, Abdulrahman, was killed at age 16 in an attack ordered by the previous administration). It may be worth querying whether legitimate disinterested intervention into the affairs of other countries can occur – there are a few recent precedents, none of which are incontestable. One civic example would be the TAZARA (or Uhuru) railway running from Tanzania to Zambia and funded by a grant from China. China was, of course, wishing to extend its influence in the region and desirous of other examples of successful examples of resistance to colonialism, but without a financial quid pro quo. China under Xi Jinping is more pragmatic, proferring a $4b loan to fund a Kenyan railway. A potential military example would be Vietnamese involvement in Cambodia after Democratic Kampuchea descended into depravity, though this would be accompanied by their own concerns for stability. Pitcairn Island exemplified a case of intervention with no discernible cupidity motivating it, as the UK government ended the sovereignty of the inhabitants after discovering systemic child sexual abuse occurring there.

What of the central tenet of Killmonger’s program – namely, the arming of oppressed groups throughout the world? One initial objection a Zimbabwean friend brought up is that it proposed an unnecessary racial demarcation which didn’t take into account class position – there are plenty of black people integrated into the bourgeoisie in societies which otherwise thrive on white supremacy.  Killmonger at one point refers to “two billion people who look like us”, but elsewhere notesthe origin of human life in Africa (“aren’t all people our people?”), claiming their program would encompass all oppressed people. While there do appear to be internal contradictions, the wider aspect is reinforced by the fact that one of the destinations for the weapons caches was Hong Kong, which has a notably low proportion of black inhabitants (<%1) in comparison to the US (>%10). This was likely a reference to Dr. Strange’s portals of world influence, but it does undermine the notion of a limited scope of potential for Killmonger’s quest. The more perverse trope is the echo of his father’s claim, after an apt comment about the black population being over-incarcerated that they need to be “ruled the right way”, with Killmonger stating that the “sun will never set on the Wakandan Empire”. This seems to belie the way in which territory is acquired by existing empires. While there is some component of embedded units and complicit natives, it is very rare to successfully instantiate an insurrection while preserving loyalty. It may be a tactic employed by irredentists with contiguous borders for the territory they seek to obtain, or even in the case of Texas, by intentional demographic shifts. Much more common is the practice of overwhelming military devastation using foreign troops and the establishment of colonies, which did not appear to be a facet of Killmonger’s strategy.

Castigating Killmonger for arming the oppressed on the part of the US would be rank hypocrisy. The United States was a country founded on a revolution (arguably sparked by colonial authorities’ extrajudicial killing of Crispus Attucks), with a Bill of Rights enshrining the right to bear arms and a declaration of independence proclaiming that a people may abolish a government destructive of the rights of said people. Slaves in Haiti under the generalship of Toussaint Louveture extended the scope of revolutionary possibility to a far greater extent, overthrowing their former colonial masters and inspiring similar transformations throughout South America. Such an action inspired trepidation in the formerly quiescent United States, with Jefferson instantiating an end to the supply of arms to Haiti and subsequent administrations initiating an embargo against the country, in order to stave off the threat of a similar occurrence in United States. This ought to be viewed as a manifestation of white supremacism, as the federalist papers record principled non-intervention in a Netherlands convulsed by its own internal discord (though this may have also been influenced by more practical obstacles), a meta-awareness that Republics practising commerce may go to war with one another and a knowledge that provisions for standing armies provoke neighbours to inaugurate the same. These would all be sufficient grounding to convince the US to “tend to its own garden” rather than aggressively pursue expansion, yet this was not to transpire. Attempts to stave off slave rebellions were mostly successful, as the slave-holders rebellion did not occur until over half a century later. The cause of abolition was hastened by actions like those taken by John Brown and its eventual formal success was only guaranteed by formidable military action.

The US, apart from its own history of successful revolution, also actively supplies arms, materiel and training to groups it considers worthy. This, perhaps, also forms the biggest detraction of any attempt to merely arm the populace without also instantiating a program (or the “spiritual revolution” Gerald Cohen discussed). In many cases, the groups the US arms can only be considered “oppressed” in the most tenuous of senses. For instance, the Fuerza Democrática Nicaragüense of the Contrarrevolución was formed of business elites and guards of the former dictator of Nicaragua and were held to be worthy of $19m in US military aid. Various mujahideen groups received several hundred million dollars of support from the US in an attempt to depose the Soviet friendly Democratic Republic of Afghanistan. The US supported UNITA in Angola, a formerly Maoist oriented force. The US has also provided material support to Kurdish groups operating in Syria, including the YPG. This presents somewhat of a conundrum to someone committed to establishing a global egalitarian society. While US intervention for the most part appears to have been primarily only to the advantage of a section of the bourgeoisie in the US and their clients in subject countries, similarly oppressed groups could instigate and carry out programs completely orthogonal to the establishment of a desirable society. Many conflicts can be traced back to colonial administration and the granting of privileges to client groups – directly in the case of the Dutch priyayi in Indonesia or even more drastically with Tutsis in Rwanda. Others may have been exacerbated by colonialism, but it’s difficult to negotiate a settlement which would reconcile the competing desires present in Balochistani, Bangladeshi, Biafran, Khalistani and Tamil independence movements for example. This would also refute a hypothesis sketched by George Jackson in his notes from Soledad – that the European is by nature inherently aggressive and seeking to dominate others (a position shared by Thorstein Veblen). While much of European culture is martial and reverence for the troops is amplified to a great degree in the United States, such a view is incompatible with history and with a material analysis of the world. Assuming all people to have similar capacities which respond differently in different circumstances, it is clear that certain positions in society reward aggression and subjugation to a greater degree. The US is essentially required by reason of its great wealth to marshal the rest of the world and segregate its citizenry from all others. The present states were formed as a result of imperial expansion – one of the most pre-eminent rulers in the world in terms of base acquisition was Musa I, who presided over the Malian Empire. The Han Chinese empire formed independently of colonial aggression from Europeans. Cetshwayo, the leader of the Zulu resisting British aggression, killed five of his brothers in internecine warfare, followed by his mother and subsequently killed followers showing insufficient grief at her funeral. Suleiman Zobeir, rebelling against the colonial government of Britain in Sudan, was inspired to battle by the suppression of slave trading in the region. One way Killmonger may have resolved these contradictions would be to make reference to exploitation rather than oppression – waged employment, renting and domestic duties are far more universal in their scope and much clearer delineations. Heuristics would still need to be used, as the exploited can behave oppressively – in spheres related to privileges they hold, in isolated interpersonal relationships and in contemporary society, by acceding to the ranks of the bourgeoisie (or being lackeys for them, like Human Resources members and bailiffs). Bakunin held the lumpenproletariat, who may not necessarily be exploited, to be the most revolutionary force.

Another stickling point in the prospects for global revolution is the instance of Algeria as documented by Franz Fanon in “A Dying Colonialism”. Algeria accomplished “self-determination” of sorts by throwing off its colonial masters, without resolving internal contradictions. These finally manifested in a military coup following the election of an Islamic party and a civil war claiming the lives of tens of thousands of people. Incidentally, one of the prime exponents of the torture of native Algerians, Paul Aussaresses, would later instruct students in the School of the Americas on interrogation and torture, tactics later implemented in the CIA Phoenix Program against the Vietnamese. The CIA would also allocate $100k for the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, but were  ultimately beaten to it by Belgian operatives. The profound turpitude of the CIA’s involvement in regime change in former colonies juxtaposed against the scene of Ross shooting down a weapons cache aimed at liberation of the oppressed did induce a sense of grim revulsion. Ross being lauded while Killmonger perishes is an allegory for centuries of defeats and recuperations in egalitarian movements. Killmonger’s departure does give the opportunity for Marvel to introduce and fully flesh out other villains from the mythos such as Madam Slay and her assistant Mute, which could be phenomenal if handled well.

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