Major spoilers ahead for Black Panther.
Cultural critics have had a lot to say about how Black Panther’s Erik Killmonger is a sympathetic villain, and how black viewers can identify with his point of view. He’s a casual murderer with a lengthy kill list literally carved into his own body, but Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) isn’t just fighting for personal reasons. He’s avenging his father and his lost childhood, but he identifies with other black people who’ve grown up in poverty, and he wants to use Wakanda’s advanced technology to liberate people of color who’ve been oppressed by Western imperialism. His goals have real political weight, and they’re more interesting than those of a lot of superhero-movie villains, who are often motivated more by that generic, vague standby sentiment, “I am evil and I want to destroy the world.”
There have been media takes discussing how Black Panther protagonist T’Challa sends a bleak message to black viewers by killing his rival. The message, some critics say, is that black liberation is only a dream, and only obedient, peaceful folks can expect tolerance and survival. In this reading of the film, that makes T’Challa the enemy. And Chadwick Boseman, the actor who plays T’Challa, agrees.
“I actually am the enemy,” he says during a discussion with castmate Lupita Nyong’o and Marvel comics writer and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates at Harlem’s Apollo Theater on Tuesday. (The comments were transcribed and reported by The Atlantic and Rolling Stone.) “It’s the enemy I’ve always known. It’s power. It’s having privilege.” He characterizes T’Challa as “born with a vibranium spoon in my mouth.”
This reading of T’Challa as born into a higher caste, while Killmonger and his father are considered outsiders, is significant. Killmonger and his father N’Jobu (played with an eye-watering performance from Sterling K. Brown), are essentially shut out from Wakanda’s Afrofuturistic utopia because they want to share it and extend its freedoms to other people of color around the globe, instead of hiding the country’s prosperity from the world.
Boseman, who hails from South Carolina and graduated from Howard University, says that like Killmonger, he’s felt the same sense of not fully connecting with African culture and history. He had to search for his own heritage like Killmonger did, and going to Africa for the film had been a chance for him to “reconnect to what I lost.”
Boseman also says Killmonger has elements drawn from Ryan Coogler’s personality. The writer-director researched the film in part by traveling to London to visit African museum exhibits, just as Killmonger does in his first scene in the film.
In the scene, Killmonger strolls into an African museum exhibit, poisons a museum guide, and steals back a Wakandan treasure, declaring, “Don’t trip. Imma take it off your hands for you.” When the guide says severely, “These items are not for sale,” he responds, to audience cheers during the initial French premiere, “How do you think your ancestors got these? You think they paid a fair price for it? Or did they take them like they took everything else?”
The scene plays more like a heroic heist than a theft, and it would have been, if the film wasn’t based in such a good-and-evil-focused comic book world. To many commenters, the sides in Black Panther aren’t so clear cut. Both Killmonger and T’Challa are simultaneously heroes and villains. But Boseman’s acknowledgement that he sympathizes more with his character’s adversary is still a startling admission for a leading man in a superhero movie.
“I don’t know if we as African-Americans would accept T’Challa as our hero if he didn’t go through Killmonger,” he says at the event. “Because Killmonger has been through our struggle, and [T’Challa hasn’t].”
Nyong’o and Coates also speak about the representation and the complicated politics Black Panther tackles, according to Rolling Stone. Nyong’o says the film’s main characters paint a picture of Africans and African-Americans together as a family, in a way that feels “healing.”
Nyong’o, who identifies as Kenyan-Mexican, grew up listening to The Sound of Music and watching Elizabeth Taylor on screen. “We, too, have been plagued with these unfortunate images that diminish us and paint us as only needy,” she says, describing Africans’ experience with their representation.
Coates, who has written Black Panther comics and his own spinoffs, agrees, saying, “I didn’t realize how much I needed the film, a hunger for a myth that [addressed] feeling separated and feeling reconnected” to the African continent.