Black Panther is a film that centers on two clashing ideologies—maybe even two ways of achieving the same end goals. One of those perspectives is represented by Erik “Killmonger” Stevens, and a lot of digital ink has been spent on how his radical politics clashes with T’Challa’s desire for the isolation and defense of his homeland of Wakanda. Killmonger’s ideological opposite, however, is not the titular character himself, but Nakia: the spy, the War Dog, the revolutionary.
It is important to get this part out of the way: #NakiaWasRight.
Nakia is almost always right.
The women in Black Panther are given room to be a multitude of things. They get to be confident and hard-working, they get to be committed to their duties without sacrificing healthy relationships, they get to possess real agency in their personal lives, and above all, they get to be consistently right. When Shuri jokes that her older brother’s old tech is outmoded and dangerous in the field, she is right. When the Elder of the Merchant Tribe notes that Wakanda does not need a warrior, but a king, she is right. When Queen-Mother Ramonda begs her son not to accept a challenge from a stranger who admits to wanting little more than to kill him out of misplaced vengeance, she is right. Even when Okoye tells T’Challa not to freeze, she says it because she knows things that even the man who would be king refuses to know about himself.
So let’s just confirm this up front. Let’s repeat it if people don’t know by now: Nakia was right.
Nakia was so right that if people just took her advice in Act One, half the battle of the movie would be working through the process of solution-building before we even see Ulysses Klaue’s new prosthetic hand.
Black Panther is really intensely focused on confronting the theme of nationalism versus globalism in really sharp, considerate ways. Even when people come to the debate armed with dubious assumptions and stereotypes (like W’Kabi’s legit unhealthy, bordering on the alt-right insistence that “when you let the refugees in, they bring their problems with them, and we become like everywhere else”), they do so from very clear, well-established personal desires and worries. They come to it as people, flawed, impatient, and often with very little experience in the ways and woes of nation-building.
This is the kind of emotionally-driven, character-based logic that makes Killmonger such an interesting villain, but let’s be sure—it does not make him right. It does not mean that his arguments are valid, or that he makes a good point. And in a discourse that is currently flooded with false dichotomies and ignorant assertions of Wakanda as an alt-right paradise cut from the same cloth as a neo-Nazi ethnostate, it’s vitally important to note what Killmonger has actually become in the film. When T’Challa tells him that he’s become that which he despises, he means it—he means that Killmonger talks with the braggadocio and malformed lack of strategy of certain current world leaders, and fights with the cruelty and desire for instability reminiscent of a certain country’s foreign policy.
Not once does Killmonger even pose the question of how arms will get into or remain in the hands of the disenfranchised, or what a black market for vibranium will do to his revolution. Not once does he second-guess the moral value of selling the tools he needs for his revolution to a white arms dealer without any supervision. He hasn’t beaten Western capitalist imperialism at its own game, because that game was a cruel and witless one from its outset. In more ways than one, Killmonger never learns that the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house—whether the physical structures that continue to marginalize the black diaspora, or the structure of his own imagination which crafts his ideology from a Western military framework.
Contrast this with Nakia’s experience. Nakia been out here, doing this work. She’s been doing it all alone, with no backup, even insisting on not being disturbed as she trots about the globe, righting capitalist neo-imperialist wrongs through her own wits. Nakia sees the value of providing a more lasting sense of peace for the disenfranchised, and knows that the late stage of that goal requires the commitment of Wakanda—not to wage war on other countries, but to seek out the downtrodden and lift them up and out of struggle. In her first scene in the film, she even has the empathy to see a child soldier as a boy first and an aggressor second, preferring to send him back home than to fight him.
In that sense, T’Challa is not actually Killmonger’s immediate foil. He learns to be, but the role is not truly ascribed to him from the start. It’s ascribed to Nakia. In a film that can be broken down ideologically into a row of voices all vying for the ear of a new king, competing for the chance to make the ultimate decision about how Wakanda is seen (or why it will remain unseen) by the world, Nakia and Killmonger want the same thing, in different ways, for different reasons, and Nakia is wiser on both fronts. If, as so many recent thinkpieces have asserted, Killmonger is cast in the image of Malcolm X, then Nakia is really the Martin Luther King Jr. of the film.
This is not to say that Killmonger is meant to speak specifically to a kind of national politics, even though he does serve as quite an eloquent metaphor for such. Christopher Lebron in the Boston Review, however, makes a case for what he sees as “the mistaken perception that Black Panther is a movie about black liberation,” arguing that the film renders Killmonger an impotent villain, an uninformed radical, and a gormless denial of the presumably Panafrican ideals of the film’s imagery and themes, all for the sake of tearing down black American men. “Black Panther is not the movie we deserve,” Lebron counters. “Why should I accept the idea of black American disposability from a man in a suit, whose name is synonymous with radical uplift but whose actions question the very notion that black lives matter?” For my money, I disagree with this interpretation with every atom of my being, but I’m also willing to admit my one blindspot is that I’m not African American, even if I am also from the diaspora.
I can find a serious rebuttal to Lebron’s premise, however: Killmonger is not truly motivated by radical politics. He may have a radical end goal, but that goal is driven, and corrupted, by a loss—the kind of loss that might make anyone in his position act similarly, I’d say. He lost his father, and in so doing lost all access to a place his father called home. He struggles with the rest of his brothers almost especially because he’s been left out of an escape route to somewhere perfect. Just because he isn’t right doesn’t mean that he isn’t compelling, because the character’s rage is what draws us to him. I am in far greater agreement with Ameer Hasan Loggins, who asks in his Blavity piece for us to imagine Killmonger not as villain, but “as a super-victim of systemically oppressive forces, forces that forced him into a hyper-awareness of his dueled unwanted status in Wakanda and in America, due to having the blood of his mother, who was a descendant of black folks forced into the United States via the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade. This two-pronged othering serves as the source of his super-power… un-tempered black rage.” His rage is, in rare glimpses, aimed at the right source—that is, at Western neo-imperialism—and as both Loggins and Lebron can attest, we relate to him because it is diasporic rage. But we can admit that Killmonger speaks to us on that level without conceding for even a moment that he is right, or wishing that he were.
It should mean more for arguments like Lebron’s that Nakia, a Wakandan who has grown up in the isolationist policies of her nation for her entire life, insists that she wants to reach out to the disenfranchised diaspora. Isn’t that what we are really thinking of when we wish to work together? To know that the continent is thinking of us, to know that we can share resources and knowledge to rise up together? To be reassured that the motherland is the source of our salvation, instead of insisting it’s the other way around? Nakia wants what Killmonger does, what N’Jobu did, but doesn’t it matter that she has emerged from the on-the-ground resistance that Killmonger wants to engage in—the same resistance he proudly admits to discarding entirely just to kill one man he has never met? Doesn’t it matter that he murders his own lover without hesitation just to have a fleeting chance at that vengeance, making all of his further talk of the safety and progress of black people everywhere utterly hypocritical? Doesn’t it matter that a Wakandan spy just as well-versed in combat and infiltration as Killmonger comes to King T’Challa to pressure him into action—not asking to arm those who suffer, but to feed and shelter them?
Which is more radical? To give the suffering a weapon, or to give them a home?
Mind you, it’s more than understandable, on an emotional level, that Killmonger would hate T’Challa on those grounds alone—that he is owed a home, and was robbed of that connection and that birthright by T’Challa’s father. But that is rage. Rage is not the same thing as revolution. That many examples of the latter are built upon the coals of the former, collected in the wounded hearts of decades of people of colour worldwide, does not make the two the same. Sometimes your rage is not radical. Sometimes your rage is misdirected and costly. Sometimes your rage asks you to expend a lot of energy doing nothing but be destructive and regressive. Sometimes you think you’re woke, but you’re just lucid dreaming.
The closing note of Black Panther’s first post-credits scene—that it is wiser to build bridges than barriers—is the film not simply casting aside Killmonger’s entire campaign of violence, but embracing precisely the end result Killmonger claimed to seek. It happens only in part because of Killmonger’s influence, however. Nakia is its real engine, the true architect of its strategy—because Nakia is the only one with a strategy at all.
One should not dismiss the value of righteous, justly directed, undiluted rage. But rage, like any other emotional motivator, is only as good, as critical, or as morally upright as what it drives the body to do. Empathy, as Nakia teaches us, is just as valuable, if not more. Wanting to share the wealth of your home with those who suffer is a high point of empathy. And if T’Challa considered that before blood ever shed, perhaps Wakanda would have been in a better place much sooner.
So let that be a lesson: rage is not revolution. Rage is not a replacement for revolution. And whenever possible, when a black woman says you should think about doing something, don’t dismiss it right away. She is most likely right.
Originally published in February 2018.
Brandon O’Brien is a performance poet and writer from Trinidad. His work is published or upcoming in Uncanny Magazine, Strange Horizons, Sunvault: Stories of Solarpunk and Eco-Speculation, Arsenika, and New Worlds, Old Ways: Speculative Tales from the Caribbean, among others. He is also the poetry editor of FIYAH Magazine. You can find his blog at therisingtithes.tumblr.com or on Twitter @therisingtithes.