Donald Trump has now assembled a cabinet of men that have elevated violence to a supreme virtue at home and abroad.
Men like Mike Pompeo, John Bolton, and Trump himself. They are all firm believers in armed domination.
In this respect, they share an unlikely bond with Erik Killmonger, the villain of the movie Black Panther. He’s an angry orphan who has been rejected by Wakanda, the magical kingdom in Africa that produces superheroes like the Black Panther. His Wakandan father married an African-American woman, plotted an armed uprising in the United States, and died at the hands of the countrymen sent to bring him home.
Killmonger, just a boy at the time, grows up with a love-hate relationship with the paternal homeland that killed his father. He studies at MIT to gain engineering expertise. He joins the Marines and chalks up countless kills in his multiple tours overseas. And he nurses a desire to transform Wakanda into a global hegemon.
At one point in the film, Killmonger laments that Wakanda never supplied African Americans with the guns to overthrow the white power structure. He plans to change all that when he dethrones the Black Panther and takes over as king of Wakanda. He wants to send weapons to help oppressed people all around the world rise up against their neo-colonial rulers.
It might seem odd to call Trump’s national security team – all of them white, right-wing hawks – a group of Killmongers. Certainly, they lack the nuance and complex backstory that make Killmonger interesting.
Still, for all of his revolutionary rhetoric directed against neo-colonialism, at some level Erik Killmonger is an apt stand-in for U.S. foreign policy. He believes that security comes from the barrel of a gun. He doesn’t care about collateral damage. He kills as a means to an end, and that end justifies all variety of violent means. He is the Black Panther’s version of a neocon: an ideologue committed to regime change through violence. Like a neocon, he might articulate lofty aims, but he is, ultimately, focused solely on the assertion of power.
Similarly, the U.S. government believes it essential to gun down terrorists (through night raids or drone attacks) regardless of the number of civilians who die in the process. It’s a comparably grim worldview that the National Rifle Association also shares. Arm the teachers in schools in order to take down shooters and accept the inevitable collateral damage to all the others who die by mistake.
This is Killmonger’s world. He is, as his name suggests, a merchant of death. He is a product of America and America’s wars. And his real-world counterparts have helped turned death into America’s number one export.
Turning the tables
Black Panther delights in upending stereotypes. There are only a couple white characters, and they occupy the roles usually reserved for African Americans: the villain, the sidekick, the extras who don’t have any lines.
The story concerns a country in Africa that has rich resources but has decidedly avoided the resource curse. The generals of Wakanda are women, not stodgy men, and they practically steal the movie. The nerdy genius is also a woman, and she’s a quantum leap beyond Bond’s Q.
It’s thrilling to see so many interesting and powerful African and African-American characters on the big screen.
Erik Killmonger defies stereotypes in some ways as well. He speaks like someone who grew up in the ‘hood. But he also has an MIT degree and a distinguished military career. He speaks on behalf of the oppressed. But he’s mostly interested in acquiring power for himself.
Killmonger is also the only African-American character in the movie. And that has raised some concerns about the film’s representation of Black America – in contrast to the advanced state of Wakanda.
Yes, Killmonger is in many ways an attractive figure – and not just because he’s played by the versatile actor Michael B. Jordan. He has a sympathetic backstory, and he effectively exposes the hypocrisy of the isolationist Wakanda. As such, he’s cultivated quite a fan base on-line.
But – spoiler alert for the dozen readers who haven’t yet seen it – the film sets up Killmonger as the anti-hero determined to defeat and kill his cousin, T’Challa, the Black Panther. It’s the wise African versus the dangerous kid from the American ghetto. Writes Christopher Lebron in Boston Review:
[I]n a world marked by racism, a man of African nobility must fight his own blood relative whose goal is the global liberation of blacks. In a fight that takes a shocking turn, T’Challa lands a fatal blow to Killmonger, lodging a spear in his chest. As the movie uplifts the African noble at the expense of the black American man, every crass principle of modern black respectability politics is upheld.
In 2018, a world home to both the Movement for Black Lives and a president who identifies white supremacists as fine people, we are given a movie about black empowerment where the only redeemed blacks are African nobles. They safeguard virtue and goodness against the threat not of white Americans or Europeans, but a black American man, the most dangerous person in the world.
Killmonger’s vision – of armed rebellion – dies with him. In its place, an African version of the Gates Foundation, providing education and health care the world over, emerges victorious. According to the politics of Black Panther, this is a happy ending.
But is it?
The Wakanda solution
Black Panther offers three alternatives to the current global status quo.
Wakanda could remain in splendid isolation as a prosperous, oligarchical society. The elders have both preserved the ways of the ancestors and created a futuristic society that has leapfrogged over the capabilities of the so-called industrialized world, an appealing combination of Afro-pastoralism and Afrofuturism. It’s a mirror image of a country like Japan, which has largely closed its borders to immigrants in an effort to preserve a similar mix of bullet trains and geisha culture.
But some members of the Wakandan royalty – notably the Black Panther’s sister – are uncomfortable with this isolationism. Spurred on in part by Killmonger’s challenge, the country decides that it must save the world. It even makes a presentation to the United Nations to that effect in a scene that takes place after the credits have begun to roll.
This is an interesting gloss on the usual superhero film in which a single individual saves the world. But it still relies on the paternalistic benevolence of those at the top, not a transformation pushed by people from below.
The third path is Killmonger’s, whereby a group of Black Jacobins takes over with the help of Wakanda’s magical technology. This is the movie’s greatest injustice: to present this third alternative of radical transformation as the narrow vision of Killmonger alone, someone who can’t conceive of any revolution that isn’t violent.
Consider, for instance, how Killmonger misreads history by asserting that Black radicals failed in America because they didn’t have enough arms. That’s wrong on two levels.
More guns wouldn’t have worked for the simple reason that African Americans were outnumbered – and considerably outgunned. The civil rights movement’s emphasis on non-violence was not simply a moral choice but a strategic one – just like revolutions from below in India, Poland, Tunisia, and elsewhere.
But the second reason Killmonger was wrong is that guns actually did play an often-unheralded role in the civil rights movement. Particularly in rural communities outside the media spotlight – as the book Praying for Sheetrock revealed some years ago and journalist Charles Cobb documented more recently in This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed – African Americans relied on guns as a just-in-case deterrent against white racist violence.
So, radical transformation doesn’t require guns. And even when guns have played a role in non-violent movements, they served largely as an insurance policy, as self-defense – not as the means to spark all-out war.
At a time when hundreds of thousands of people rallied against guns and gun violence over the last week, a movement led by many young people of color, America must address the Killmonger ideology that underlies so much of domestic and foreign policy. It must reckon not only with the racist history of gun violence – revealed so powerfully in Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s Loaded – but with how far-right ideologies rely on armed violence today. It must come to terms with the fact that it’s not such a big gap between extremist militias at home and what John Bolton, Mike Pompeo, and Donald Trump want to do abroad.
Erik Killmonger, alas, is all too real, and he is everywhere. But he is not an African-American neocon bent on taking over the world. Rather, you will find him in white Cabinet members, white NRA lobbyists, white militia men, and (mostly) white school shooters. And for better or worse, there’s no Wakanda out there that can stop them.
That job must fall to us, a multiracial movement against violence.