“Black Panther” is the tragic tale of two cousins opposed in ideology and set against each other by fate, a tale that culminates in the death of a would-be conqueror and change of heart of a would-be recluse. “Black Panther” takes to heart the systemic oppression of minorities and people of color and the methodologies of cultural revolution and its intersection with technological advancements. To that end “Black Panther” eloquently and successfully relates these ideas to a wide audience through it’s sympathetic antagonist and fantastical world.
In “Black Panther,” the fictional nation of Wakanda is a black utopia, a nation formed by five African tribes around a meteorite of “vibranium,” a metal with fantastical properties that allows the people of Wakanda to become a technologically superior society. The Wakandan tribes, using the power of vibranium, become an insular people, hiding themselves from the rest of Africa and the world. The main conflict in “Black Panther” comes from a clash of ideology, if and how Wakanda should use its vibranium and its superior technology to change the rest of the world, that is, if Wakanda should come out of hiding. The film opens on Oakland, California in 1992, where then king of Wakanda, T’Chaka, comes into conflict with his brother N’Jobu about Wakanda’s connections to the outside world. Having witnessed the oppression of people of African descent around the world, N’Jobu believes that Wakanda should use its technological superiority to start an armed revolution, saying, “All over the planet our people have suffered because they don’t have the tools to fight back.” (Black Panther, 2018, 1:06:00) King T’Chaka rejects these ideas, believing that Wakanda should remain hidden, and ultimately kills N’Jobu. This conflict is mirrored in the present day of the movie, T’Challa, son of recently deceased T’Chaka, ascends to the throne but is soon after challenged by Erik Killmonger, son of N’Jobu. Killmonger, having borne witness to his father’s death, has followed in his father’s footsteps and is going to use to his military training to destabilize the leadership of Wakanda, take control, and use that control to exact his father’s plans of armed revolution. At first, T’Challa intends to maintain the status quo of Wakanda and remain hidden, but as the movie progresses and T’Challa realizes the pain and suffering behind Killmonger’s motivations, he realizes that Wakanda should use its technological superiority for good, saying, “Wakanda will no longer watch from the shadows. We cannot. We must not. We will work to be an example of how we as brothers and sisters on this earth should treat each other. Now, more than ever the illusions of division threaten our very existence.” (Black Panther, 2018, 2:06:00)
Central to the conflict of ideologies behind sharing Wakanda’s technology is Erik Killmonger. “Black Panther” beautifully portrays the arc of a boy angered by his father’s death, a boy born into the oppressive outside world, a boy who learns of the utopian Wakanda through his father’s stories and journals, a boy who uses that anger and resentment to try and enact his father’s idea of armed revolution to create positive change in his flawed world. To that end, Killmonger’s arc is the reason why “Black Panther” can relate serious ideas of systemic oppression to a wide audience. The focus of “Black Panther” is T’Challa. T’Challa’s arc is understanding his position as the new ruler of Wakanda, questioning how he can best protect Wakanda, maintaining the old ways to hide Wakanda away from the rest of the world, or something new. T’Challa’s growth, and eventual decision to share Wakanda’s knowledge with the rest of the world, is a direct consequence of his interactions with Killmonger. The same growth applies to the audience. As the story unfolds, as Zuri tells T’Challa about N’Jobu’s reasons for betraying Wakanda, the audience and T’Challa empathize with Killmonger’s plight, his reasons for doing what he believes is right. This empathy is particularly notable during T’Challa’s second trip to the astral plane where T’Challa cries for Killmonger as he encounters his father and black panthers past and says, “All of you were wrong! To turn your backs on the rest of the world! We let the fear of our discovery stop us from doing what is right!” (Black Panther, 2018, 1:36:00) Thus, the audience and T’Challa begin to understand that there are deep-rooted problems outside the walls of Wakanda.
From the understanding of Killmonger’s motivations comes the self-reflection an audience needs to understand serious issues like systemic oppression. “Black Panther” is a movie of contrasts. The beautiful, fantastical, vibrant land of Wakanda lies in stark contrast to the dark, dismal streets of Oakland. An audience that understands Killmonger can draw parallels to their real life, either these audience members live in Wakanda, the bright utopia surrounded by dystopic oppression, oppression so pervasive and toxic it “radicalizes” N’Jobu and his son, or they live in Oakland. From this understanding, the outlook of the film is positive. T’Challa has a change of heart and decides to share the bounty of Wakanda with the rest of the world. To extend the metaphor the audience can take it to believe that there is a way to create a better, more equal society, that doesn’t rely on armed revolution. The last scene in Oakland, where T’Challa and Shuri establish the Wakandan International Outreach Center, completes the metaphor. “Black Panther” suggests a fantastical world where futuristic technology would provide the ability for the systematically oppressed to achieve armed revolution, but rejects that notion and suggests that change comes not from the fantastic technology of Wakanda, but the real, actionable, difference that a community outreach center provides. Thus, the audience is lead to believe that in their own, less than fantastic world, they are still able to provide real, actionable change without the use of a vibranium panther suit.
In corollary to Killmonger’s motivations and arc causing a change of heart in T’Challa, so to does Killmonger’s death add to the layer of understanding that the audience and T’Challa have about the outside world. Of note are Killmonger’s belief in “fairy tales” and belief that death is preferable to bondage. Killmonger, after receiving a fatal wound, is reminded of his father’s promise to take him to see Wakanda, and says, “Can you believe that? Kid from Oakland running around believing in fairy tales.” (Black Panther, 2018, 1:56:00) Understanding Killmonger’s motivations, the audience and T’Challa now understand what’s at stake. The kid from Oakland believing in fairy tales represents the severity of the situation, how desperate things are in the outside world. Killmonger grew up essentially believing that Wakanda, or any place where he and his brothers and sisters were anything but systematically oppressed, was nothing but a beautiful dream, a fairy tale. Following this is Killmonger’s refusal to be healed, Killmonger refuses to be put in Wakandan prison because he believes that “death was better than bondage.” (Black Panther, 2018, 1:58:00) From this the audience and T’Challa understand Killmonger’s conviction. Killmonger refuses to be chained in Wakanda, unable to help his brothers and sisters, and he refuses to be chained in the outside world, systematically oppressed, he would rather die. Killmonger’s motivations, conviction, and the severity of what’s at stake paint a picture for the audience and T’Challa of the world outside Wakanda, a world where a boy struggles his whole life to help his people and be free. This tragic end suggests a gravity to the situation that is necessary when discussing serious topics like systemic oppression and is why “Black Panther” is able to achieve audience understanding of a serious issue.
Thus, “Black Panther” suggests a world divided, the fantastic utopia of Wakanda, and the dark, dismal outside world. This contrast represents an understanding of the real-world systemic oppression of people of color and minorities embodied in Erik Killmonger. Erik Killmonger, a man whose motivations, convictions, and gravity lead our protagonist to have a change of heart. This same contrast simultaneously allows the audience to envision the contrast of their own world and ultimately succeeds in conveying complex ideas and understanding to a wide audience.
Author's Note: I wrote this essay in Fall 2018 for my Science Fiction Cinema & Social Criticism class.