Tuesday, March 20, 2018
March 20, 2018: Black Panther Studying: Erik Killmonger
[Few pop culture texts have exploded into our collective consciousness more than Ryan Coogler’s film adaptation of Black Panther. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy this film phenomenon, starting with an older post on the comic and moving into a handful of other contexts and connections!]
On the fascinating debate over and layers to the film’s most American character.
To say that Erik “Killmonger” Stevens, the Black Panther villain played to complex perfection by Ryan Coogler’s longtime collaborator (and to this AmericanStudier forever The Wire’s lovable and tragic Wallace) Michael B. Jordan, has inspired debate and controversy would be to severely understate the case. In my experience, comic book and film supervillains are hardly ever particularly sympathetic, and their plans even less so; that is, even if a supervillain has a backstory that makes us understand their rage or pain (such as Spiderman 2’s Doc Ock), they tend to turn those emotions into plans for world destruction that are designed to produce audience opposition just as much as superheroic resistance. Yet with Killmonger it’s the exact opposite—while the character himself is pretty unlikable, his political perspective and plans are not only understandable and sympathetic, but for many progressives feel far more in line with racial and global realities than does the perspective of the film’s superhero protagonist T’Challa (at least for the majority of the story).
It seems quite likely to me that at least some of that agreement stems from Killmonger’s status as the film’s most American character (rivaled only by CIA agent Everett Ross, on whom more tomorrow). Long before he became Killmonger, young Erik was an African-American kid growing up on the streets of Ryan Coogler’s own hometown, Oakland in the early 1990s. Although we only see a couple brief moments of that childhood, Coogler’s own prior films, among many other cultural sources (such as the aforementioned link of Jordan to the character of Wallace, a young man just as smart and charismatic as Erik Stevens) and historical contexts, give viewers—especially American viewers—plenty of ways to imagine and understand the broader contours of that setting and those experiences. I’m not suggesting that Erik necessarily or at least solely has to be defined in relationship to the American cultural archetype of a boy in the hood, but I’m not sure there’s any way that a culturally literature viewer could entirely separate him from that longstanding pop culture type and trope. And unless that viewer is a racist, such an association makes it almost inevitable that he or she will sympathize with Erik’s perspective and worldview.
Yet that’s only the first of two ways in which Erik Stevens can be defined as particularly American, and the second significantly shifts the narrative and our sympathies. The nickname of Killmonger, as T’Challa and the audience eventually learn from CIA agent Ross, originated from Stevens’ extensive and especially brutal service in the Black Ops special forces, where, as he himself puts it, “I trained, I lied, I killed just to get here. I killed in America, Afghanistan, Iraq … I took life from my own brothers and sisters right here on this continent [Africa]!” This global record of killing might make clear Stevens’ propensity and even preference for violence (certainly his actions in the film reflect such a preference), but it also marks him as profoundly American. And not primarily in villainous ways—the current crop of TV shows about Seal Team Six and other special forces units are only the latest in a long line of cultural celebrations of this particular brand of American abroad. What those special forces do, however, most consistently and purposefully, is kill, in settings and ways that lay bare the limits of international law or human rights concerns when it comes to protecting American interests. Which means if Erik Stevens is an American villain, he’s one complicatedly connected to some of our most celebrated national heroes.
Next Panther post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Takes on the film or its contexts?