(Warning! This piece contains “Black Panther” plot spoilers!)
Most of the intellectually interesting — and heated — discussions about “Black Panther” have been about whether the film’s representations of black liberation, internationalism, and imperialism are empowering, or regressive.
This specific strain of “Black Panther” debate has been hit by a category-4 flood of man-takes, with mostly male critics responding to each other about Black Panther And What It All Means For Black People. For a number of of my commentator brethren, the film’s treatment of the Wakandan American villain Killmonger is highly problematic. His thuggish ways and death in the end implicitly symbolize that black liberation is neither desirable nor possible. Writing for the blog Africa is a Country, Russell Rickford says “Killmonger is a revolutionary,” but that “as a political device, however, he plays a much larger role, for his character exists to discredit radical internationalism.”
But this male-centered debate has missed the forest for Wakanda’s two big man-trees — T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) and Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan). It fails to see that it’s the collective power of Wakanda’s women who offer the real vision what black, radical internationalism could look like.
As a black woman and the daughter of West African immigrants, the most tragic and scary part about Killmonger and his imperialist vision is that he does not hesitate to sacrifice black women in pursuit of it.
In his blood-soaked quest to seize Wakanda, he leaves behind a trail of dead and injured black women, both American and Wakandan. He kills his African- American girlfriend and partner in crime. He chokes the female priestess of the purple heart-shaped herbs that give Wakanda’s rulers spiritual access to the ancestors. Later in the film, he slices the throat a member of the all-female royal guards, the Dora Milaje. And, if it wasn’t for T’Challa’s intervention in the grand battle scene, he might have killed T’Challa’s younger sister Shuri, the genius responsible for Wakanda’s technological achievements, including the same vibranium-powered weapons that Killmonger wants to ship to oppressed black peoples around the world.
In a literal scorched-earth approach, he burns Wakanda’s heart-shaped herbs (flowers are often a representation of femininity and beauty). He literally deflowers, rapes, Wakanda in his selfish bid to control it.
Killmonger would likely try to kill me or any woman who dared to question or critique him. His rage, selfishness and misogyny ensure he would likely be an authoritarian despot who would try to cling to power for life and squander Wakanda’s human and natural resources. Let’s not forget that Africa has seen more than its fair share of (CIA-supported) egomaniacal dictators like him. Besides, the only character Kilmonger frees in the film is a white man, the South African arms dealer Ulysses Klaue, who thinks Wakandans are ‘savages’.
I find it tragic that so many would want to champion Killmonger at the expense of black women. But perhaps it’s not surprising. After all, we cannot ignore that black women suffer just as much from sexism and violence at the hands of black men as we do from the racism of white society. As Princess Weekes noted at The Mary Sue: “From the works of Zora Neale Hurston to Ntozake Shange to Alice Walker and modern-day black feminists, they have brought to light the ways in which black men absorb and emulate white patriarchy in order rebuild and reassert themselves as men from the trauma of slavery.” Historically, the rape and abuse of black women by white men in power helped to uphold systems of slavery and colonialism.
And this is the true tragedy of Killmonger — in his trauma-fueled quest for dominance, he does not represent black liberation — rather, he symbolizes the internalization of white patriarchy — which manifests in his external violence against black women.
But we know what the world looks like when black women are empowered. Our votes saved Alabama (and the country) from Roy Moore. From #BringBackOurGirls in Nigeria to #BlackLivesMatter in America, African and black women have been drivers of global campaigns for pressing for social change and racial justice.
Indeed, “Black Panther” offers a radical vision of what black national power and internationalism could look like, if we trusted, respected, and elevated black women — especially in male-dominated fields such as the military and international diplomacy.
In “Black Panther,” as in real life, black women be saving ev-ery-body, white or black.
We first meet Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) as she is saving captives kidnapped by terrorists in Nigeria. She saves Everett Ross, a white CIA operative, after being shot. She also saves the one remaining flower after Killmonger’s seizure of the throne. Then, as the embodiment of diplomacy and international ethics, she decides to lead a small expedition to the mountains to engage the Jabari Tribe in diplomacy, in order to convince their leader M’Baku (Winston Duke) to send an army to help defend Wakanda.
T’Challa’s mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett) represents the power of the knowledge of tradition and nature; she helps save her son’s life through her knowledge of traditional medicines.
Shuri (Letitia Wright) is the representative of technological power, as she is the mastermind behind not only the vibranium-powered suits worn by T’Challa and Killmonger, but for the design of the subterranean passageways, in which T’challa and Killmonger have their final fight. I mean, think about it: While the black men of the film are fighting over their competing visions of the true path for black freedom, it’s a young black girl who designed Wakanda’s underground railroad.
The spear-wielding General Okoye (Danai Gurira) is the fiercest warrior in Wakanda, and understands that military might must be used “only when we have to.” Though her dark skin and red outfits are reminiscent of Oya of Yoruba, the female warrior-orisha of spiritual traditions, she uses the power of love to help win the day. She convinces her lover W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) to surrender in battle by putting her body in the path of his charging rhino. Indeed, throughout the film, we often see the female characters working together, fighting side by side with each other and with men. Even the Jabari Tribe has a female warrior who engages in combat alongside male soldiers.
Wakanda isn’t patriarchy-free. After all, it is T’Challa, not his mother, who ascends the throne after his father’s death. Wakanda’s tradition of ritual combat to challenge for the throne advantages male brute strength. Still, no matter where you look, “Black Panther” offers a representation of the wisdom, power and resourcefulness of the black female collective working in concert with one another. In the end, T’Challa taps Nakia and Shuri to help build out global education centers, to help free the minds of people– beginning with young black kids in Oakland, California.
The vigorous debate around “Black Panther” shows that black people are still looking for our true revolution. But in that search, we should be careful not to celebrate or replicate regressive Western patriarchal approaches that condone the destruction of black women. The black feminist writer and poet Audre Lorde said, “The future of our earth may depend on the ability of all women to identify and develop new definitions of power.” What “Black Panther” does is expand our imagination about the power of black woman, and is a reminder that true black liberation cannot, and should not, happen without us.