Dream Work: Fantasy, Desire, and the Creation of a Just World
or Killmonger’s Step-Children
by Stephanie Batiste
I took a photo with the Black Panther poster at my local movie theater months before the film was released. I couldn’t wait until it came out and saw it twice in the week after its opening. The film is as satisfying as Marvel gets. The Black Panther is a gorgeous and extravagant fantasy on par with every other Marvel film of this century, all of which I have seen.
Even Black folks who are not fans of superhero movies are feeling Black Panther. My sister who has seen none of the franchise loved it. Her favorite line was King T’Chaka’s admonition to his son T’Challa in the ancestral realm, “Stand Up, You Are A King.” The other thing she loves is how it has our people feeling themselves. I love that she noticed this. Everybody is walking around with their version of a Nigerian, Ghanaian, or South African accent depending on their favorite character. The admonition for self-love and powerful display of calm nobility resonate with pleasure and play. Families are talking about it and developing opinions about characters, images, actors, and storylines. We are tired of seeing Forrest Whitaker die, but thank him for his bold representational service. Daniel Kaluuya from Get Out got swole! How can I get an Okoye skull cap—Okoye’s transcendent love—and oh, also, her undetectable retractable spear? I love the fearsomeness of the embedded Jabari tribe, with its problematic in-your-face emblem, as an even deeper figment of unabashed Black power vying for dominance.
In an openly white supremacist political moment in the U.S. where racism exudes from the highest office, where Republicans have escorted or beaten Black men and women out of political rallies, celebrated openly racist violence, and then appointed a Black person to stand behind 45 to hypocritically verify his lack of racism, it is very nice to see Black people loving themselves. At a time when a simple statement “Black Lives Matter”—coined to rebut the violent action of taxpayer-funded police to the contrary—becomes controversial, it’s very nice.
Everybody wants to go to Wakanda, to believe in Wakanda, and thus to believe in the beauty and power of ourselves. Black Panther not only serves up Black representation, but like Black writers of fantasy and science fiction including Octavia Butler, N.K. Jemisin, Steven Barnes, and Nnedi Okorafor, it also offers an exciting and dramatic play on the future. We are there. And, by the way, withholding our ability to truly run this piece.
It is beautiful to reconstruct our memory of a great Black continent holding in its heart a secret treasure, an invaluable cache of a universally powerful substance so volatile that it must be protected by the virtuous Wakandans from humans’ evil nature. But of course this is not so far off the historical truth where for 500 years Africa was mined for precious resources including, but not limited to gold, uranium, jewels, wood, oil, ivory, etc. and, of course, people to grow the wealth of the imperial West.
Folk who watch the movies, but know less about the comic books, might not realize that most Marvel comics are political. They address and allegorize their contemporary moment. But because of its Blackness, the Black Panther film remains political where the other films look more like impossible fantasy in which a hero/ine fights to save the city, nation, world, galaxy, and so on from an impossible threat. On this planet here, where the African continent and its nations were actually mined for metals, minerals, and flesh, telling the story of “The Black Panther” is inalterably a political one.
Let us not forget either that its title is taken from a radical political movement founded in Oakland to establish the freedom of Black people in the United States and in the world. In the 1960s the Black Panthers created and ran real community centers to feed and teach Black people and the poor without the unlimited secret resources of a great nation. Rather they dedicated their own love, defiance, and volunteer hours to feed children and create a presence of Blackness that transformed the image of Black people in the world forever. The historical analog for a Black Panther is, of course N’Jobu, who becomes “radicalized” by the pain he sees in urban Oakland and steals vibranium to try to free the people. The film gets confused here in its celebration and demonization of the hope and legacies of the Panthers, taking both its hero and its villain from the same historical ground. Here in the midst of Black wonder, we see the impact of mainstream ambivalence towards Black freedom dreams and their revolutionary potential. Revolutionary desire is both demonized as dangerous radicalization, fearsome when unchecked, and exalted as the deep secret fueling responsible feudalism as a foundation for royal rule.
The consequences of the long history of colonialism and slavery open the story we encounter on the screen. With the abandoned childhood of Erik Stephens we see the impact of the rupture from “Africa” on a “child” left behind, not stolen or sold away. But, of course, the analogy is barely veiled. In fact my same sister felt like a “message” block of the kind in Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood could have appeared every time Erik Stephens/Michael B. Jordan spoke. (I love her willingness not to get sucked in by the movie magic in real time. But to see clearly its ideological thread in the fabric of its wonder.) This righteous rage, however, with which we are so familiar, is precisely what makes “Killmonger,” probably, the most sympathetic and justified villain in all the Marvel Comic Universe. (Perhaps he is a key to villainy, in which films root villainy in experience while rooting heroes in our best hopes for our better selves.) Killmonger is the boiled-down rage of half a millennium of slavery, genocide, rape, diabolical violence, theft, and legalized oppression and dispossession that has scourged Black people on this planet since the beginning of the triangle trade.
Jordan embodies that fearsomeness with size, strength, and charisma. It is hard to see him die. My 9-year-old son cried. I teared up. In a violent world, our feeling of understanding the logic of his goals for restitution and retribution is hard to deny. In fact our filmic training to support the underdog in a denial of tyranny kicks in. As a being and a force, Killmonger is one logical response to what has been heaped upon him in personal, historical, and symbolic terms. He is not irrationally diabolical, nor is he simply the victim of childhood harm. His father is executed, in this case, by the very nation he loves. (More broadly in a larger allegory of historical legacies, here is yet another model of slavery. It is one that seeks to release Europe and America of some of their responsibility for imperial slavery by making African nations and tribes the “castrating father” of a mongrel Black American population. This is perhaps another story. But weren’t those same substitute patriarchs also guilty?)
Killmonger is also the projection and manifestation of the sins and fears of his oppressors. Black people have on rare occasion had the freedom or will to act with the annihilating violence Killmonger manifests. It is his inheritance, having been trained in it by his national “home.” White Brit cum American intelligence agent Martin Freeman/Everett declares, “He’s one of ours.” Killmonger redoubles the violence he has received by marking his murderous personal and nationalistic aggressions on his own body. It is unfair to ask one body to bear the weight of global, historical, misanthropic, and misogynist violence, and then to blame him for it. But isn’t this the way things have been?
Not so ironically, Killmonger’s methods are not unique to him. Instead, like his rage, it is inherited from his instructors in violence. In this, the film gives us nationalist violence and imperial war as the origin of Killmonger’s methods. This might be the closest we’ll ever get to an admission of guilt and responsibility for the impacts of slavery and persistent white supremacist violence.
Perhaps it is for these reasons, the story forces him to choose his own death. Anyone else killing him delivers a spear to the heart of freedom, even on the barest eye-for-an-eye terms of justice that cruelty, aggression, and annihilation can instill. Who could take responsibility for annihilating all that Killmonger represents—who could annihilate the hopes of freedom and self-determination, the rage at brutalization and dispossession accumulated over centuries? It would mean too much, there would have to be change even if only in coming to representational terms with the injustice of race-based oppression and the mechanics of nationalist power. (Notice that it is the American ultimately who downs Killmonger’s weapons shipments to maintain the balance of power in the outside world, not the Wakandans and certainly not a repentant Killmonger.) As a protest–oriented, righteous, independent anti-hero, Killmonger has valid claims against power. Killing him would upend Western claims towards general liberation and enfranchisement that hero movies reproduce.
These binary terms of justice depicted in Marvel are precisely the basis upon which violent nationalisms persist in fantasy and in life. The romance of Killmonger’s childhood visions of an undifferentiated peaceful land by a waterfall (that’s from the cowardly Lion in The Wiz) is precisely the romance of our wishes for return, for a healing within and between ourselves of centuries of apocalyptic violence. Killmonger has longed for Wakanda, dreamed up Wakanda. He serves as the impetus, the fulcrum of this great continuing dream of freedom, autonomy, self-realization and power—even in his archly imperialist and masculinist terms. “Stand Up, You Are a King.”
In a dream towards kingliness, both the hero and the villain embody desires for autocratic strength, one towards a feudal nationalist isolation and the other towards imperialist global domination. These notions of power are both painfully nostalgic for patriarchal rule. Thus Black Panther’s dreams for an Africanist autonomy, for power, retribution, and self-sufficiency are not also magically pure, like Nakia’s dreams of charity and resource-sharing. As exciting as adventure films are in their pull on our senses, this one also recalls and pulls on our sense of loss and wanting, and not always in transformational terms. The cheap reading of Killmonger is that he simply repeats the sins of his white, Western masters, “He’s one of ours,” and thus earns ideological dismissal as a shameful, vengeful violence—one to which we are less apt to hold his teachers. We know much better than to assume such a condescending orientation towards Black insurgency, however. What Killmonger's, T’Challa's, and Wakanda’s ideological failings offer us is a call to be mindful of the terms of our own dreams. It reminds us that our dreams need tending, like the communities we would like to see manifested in our material lives.
Glinda the Good Witch, played by the Fantabulous Lena Horne also in The Wiz, might say, Wakanda “is in your heart, in your mind.…” The dream has us looking in so many directions—in memory and fantasy, outward towards Black nations globally, to the power of our pocketbooks to choose and encourage more satisfying representation, and hopefully to our own varied domestic conditions of physical, economic, legal, ecological, and political freedom. We seem to be our own vibranium. Our powerful resources can craft the better world that the “Wakandans” testify to our desire to make and sustain. This vision is a shared democratic model for benevolent and constructive leadership and social health that we choose. This possibility is embedded in the film’s resolution as the Wakandans return to Oakland to honor and restore the legacy of the historical Black Panthers’ social and political programs in place of the evisceration a spiritually ravenous Killmonger desired in order to quench his cyclonic pain.
This Marvel film borrows the radical dreams of brave social activists to put forth the peaceful equal society towards which all climactic Marvel battles aspire. The Black Panthers make the dream of a better world real, not radical, but simply reasonable; more real, I would argue, than any other Marvel fantasy’s earthbound or galactic present we have seen so far. I am not one to deny that the deck is still stacked against us and that the terms of this imagination need constant tending, but our “Okoye’s invisible spear” is a right our actual ancestors in the U.S. died for—that is, our access to our democratic rights and our vote. Let’s vote with pride and entitlement. Let’s learn, and teach, and volunteer and insist on realizing in the present the worlds of our dreams.