Why Erik Killmonger is the real hero of ‘Black Panther’

By now, I’m assuming, most readers have seen Marvel’s “Black Panther.” If you haven’t… well, read on anyway! As a comic book fan since I learned to read, I have been fascinated by the hoopla over a movie centering on a comic book character who has been around since 1966. Indeed, there are many reasons for the excitement, which are too extensive to cover here, but one is the impressive and nuanced villain, Erik Killmonger.

While heroes are important, there are no great movies in this genre without a fascinating villain. The ones without a good bad guy leave us wanting. Several Superman movies have fallen short because directors continuously cast terrible Lex Luthors. The best Luthor wasn’t in theaters at all. That prize goes to Michael Rosenbaum for his portrayal of the bald baddie on the small screen in the CW’s “Smallville.” The absolute worst Luthor by far is the latest, Jesse Eisenberg, who is almost impossible to watch. The somewhat disappointing “Justice League” movie would have benefited from a less convoluted script as well as actually introducing Darkseid rather than the lesser-known and one-dimensional Steppenwolf.

Riveting villains made Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight Trilogy” magnificent. Liam Neeson was masterful as the ageless Ra’s al Ghul. Heath Ledger’s maniacal take on the Joker may be unsurpassable. Though they had tough acts to follow, Tom Hardy and Marion Cotillard held their own in the series finale as Bane and Talia al Ghul.

In “Black Panther,” Chadwick Boseman continues an impressive run of choosing impactful roles with his cool, swag-filled T’Challa. But for all he brings, it is Michael B. Jordan’s entrancing and brutal Erik Killmonger who drives the story into its most important territories.

In his original comic book iteration, Killmonger is actually born in Wakanda and later exiled to America where he resides in Harlem. In the film version, he is born in America never seeing Wakanda until adulthood. Director Ryan Coogler also switches coasts and deftly places him in Oakland, California — probably not coincidently, the city where the “Black Panther Party for Self-Defense” was founded in 1966. UofL African historian Tyler Fleming sees elements of Zulu King Shaka worked into Killmonger. He is not of royal blood in the comics. In the movie, he is a displaced, unrecognized prince who destroys a path for traditional successors just as Shaka did. In battle, also like Shaka, he shortens a spear, rather than use the traditional longer weapon.

Most significantly, Killmonger presents an ideological quandary that prompts many to empathize — and maybe even root for him. For all his positives, T’Challa is the leader of a nation that has given in to bourgeois isolationism. Wakanda lacks a global perspective. In fact, Killmonger’s father is killed because he devises a plan to help diasporic blacks who are suffering under the hegemonic boot of America. T’Challa is not a leader rooted in concern for anyone outside his nation at the outset. Killmonger brings that. In this way, he is more a “man of the people” than his royal cousin.

To be sure, many are repulsed by Killmonger’s willingness to use seemingly unbridled levels of violence. He is definitely not a character given to turning the other cheek, or unwilling to sacrifice a few to fulfill his master plan to liberate the many. While T’Challa is, in many ways, traditional, Killmonger is the true revolutionary. T’Challa is diplomatic, well-behaved, and functions within pre-established moral boundaries. Killmonger is none of these things. He is Malcolm X’s “by any means necessary” rhetoric transformed to action. After attending Annapolis, and becoming a Navy SEAL and a CIA black operative, he is Sam Greenlee’s “Spook who sat by the door” in vibranium armor.

Ultimately, Coogler plants seed after historical seed in “Black Panther.” He also forces us to wrestle with a few real-world ideological questions. Most people who actually study history know that Europeans did not grow to dominate the globe because of greater intelligence, technology or ingenuity. Neither were they chosen by God to rule, as once often argued. The reality is they were willing to use violence at levels many other populations throughout the world could not imagine. The Black Panther poses the question, what type of leader could ultimately make black liberation a reality — a restricted moral diplomat or one willing to meet force with greater force?

At the end of the day, Killmonger makes some viewers shudder because he is not the type of hero we’re used to seeing. But, in the end, it is Killmonger who drives T’Challa out of his closed, royal shell into engaging the rest of the world. Like his tactics or not, it is Killmonger who cares for all black people, not just a few. For many with more revolutionary tendencies, it is Killmonger who is the film’s real hero. Agree or disagree, who could dislike a guy who goes out saying, “Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors that jumped from the ships. Because they knew death was better than bondage.” That’s solid!

Would it be too much or is it too soon to ask for a Killmonger prequel and resurrection for sequels? •

Dr. Ricky L. Jones is chair of Pan-African Studies at UofL. He is the host of “The Ricky Jones Show with 12 Mr. FTC” on 93.1 The Beat FM and iHeart Radio. Visit him at rickyljones.com.