Black Panther and the Motherless Child

I need to say a few things about the movie, Black Panther. I honor the imagery and the cultural aspect of the movie as envisioned by Coogler. The Afrofuturistic aspect is obviously near and dear to my heart. After watching the movie twice now, there are some things I can state about the movie uncategorically.

Africa, as the mother continent of All Humanity, is the star of the film. The envisioning of Wakanda is masterful and is a potpourri of continental colors, beats and languages. The city blends high-tech wizardry and village quaintness in a perfect melding of today and tomorrow; the citizens of Wakanda, a brilliant array of hairstyles and skin tones.

As evinced by the movie poster above – which evokes the Triple Goddess moon imagery – the movie was heavily influenced by the feminine principle. The Maiden, Mother and Crone aspects of her incarnation were among the most powerful characters in the film. At every point, most of the male figures in the tale were respectfully subordinate to the feminine principle, from T’Challa’s love for his mother, sister and lover to M’Baku’s promise to keep the King’s mother safe. Throughout the society, women held dominant positions, from the Queen-Mother to the ancient tenders of the heart-shaped flower.

This preoccupation with feminine power and ascendancy mirrors Africa’s traditional recognition of the Matriarchy as a valid expression of duality in cultural consciousness. The ascendancy of Ramonda as Queen-Mother after the death of T’Chaka – the King in a previous storyline – frames the entire movie within the context of Woman Power. In addition, the most intelligent person in the kingdom, Shuri, provided her brother T’Challa with the technological “keys to the kingdom” and even world domination, if he so chose it.

Evoking Amazonian streams of mythological importance, the Dora Milaje, a band of warrior-women led by General Okoye, are the heart and soul of Wakanda, fiercely dedicated to its protection and traditions. And then, there was Nakia. Pictured below, she was T’Challa’s muse and the ideological driver of the entire storyline. She is the goddess evoked, the movie’s moral and ethical avatar. It is her vision of Wakanda’s future that is ridiculed by T’Challa at the beginning of the movie and her view that subsequent events force the King to recognize and begin manifestation of by the end.

But only after recognizing the necessity of doing so by way of a fateful and transcendent encounter with his lost American 1st cousin, Erik Killmonger. Perhaps orphaned at a young age – we cannot know, as his mother is never seen or her absence explained in the movie – Killmonger graduates from college at 19 and becomes a government assassin seasoned in the ways of Empire. Enraged by his father’s murder by his brother, King T’Chaka, Erik spends his life honing his sociopathic skillsets in preparation for his first visit to Wakanda. But more disturbingly, along the way, Killmonger displays an unreasoned hatred and disrespect of the feminine principle that defines the movie’s very essence.

The audience bears witness to Killmonger’s hatred of women through a number of different events. He poisons the resident Africa expert in a London Museum, then murders his black American girlfriend who helped him achieve a number of aims. He then disrespects his “auntie” – addressing her with an unearned familiarity – the Queen-Mother, while claiming the throne of Wakanda then chokes out one of the shamanistic, matriarchial tenders of the heart-shaped flower. He then fights the Dora Milaje and kills one of them before menacing Shuri, T’Challa’s genius sister who is barely rescued by the Black Panther leading to the movie’s culminating encounter between hero and anti-hero.

Meanwhile, Okoye subdues her rebelling lover – W’Kabi, leader of the Border Tribe and former advisor to the King – asserting matriarchial dominance and the absolute supremacy of the nation to all personal concerns. His tribe surrenders to her and M’Baku, protector of the Queen-Mother and new ally of King T’Challa. The intense battle scene is sharply defined by the vision of the Border Tribe’s men fighting women, so it is noteable to recognize that the Jabari Tribe warriors, who saved the day for the Dora Milaje, were both male and female, representing balance.

As per Marvel lore as the evocation of the Hero’s Journey and after many paradigm-shifting trials and tribulations, T’Challa the Black Panther prevails in battle over Erik the Black Jaguar, the whole and kingly African defeating the broken and degraded black American. Witnessing and experiencing the material effects of Erik Killmonger’s existential pain and rage had literally brought T’Challa back from death with a new mission to redeem the African Diaspora by way of Nakia’s vision. The King rejected the vision of his predecessors, including his father, transcending the fear which had kept Wakanda hidden for centuries in favor of a new, public stance and technological outreach to the world beyond its borders.

The greater themes of this movie were transcendent and disturbing, its envisioning of the black American zeitgeist an existential horror show comprised of ghettos and broke-down basketball courts, apartments with weapons caches and a small boy’s pain at the loss of his father. The total absence of effective black American women beyond the lover Erik murdered and the primacy of the violent, psychopathic, patriarchal perspective in the form of Killmonger and the mild-mannered-but-extremely-powerful CIA Agent Ross, represented yet another overt and devasting attack on black American intergenerational pain and suffering.

And yet, beyond the dramas of the human element, Mama Africa beckons. Wakanda represents the febrile, Afrofuturistic dreams of a so-called lost people, homeless upon this earth and desperate for a vision of glory to take them beyond the mundane suffering of marginalization and the ceaseless, genocidal attacks upon their very right to exist. Africa, in all of its aspects, represents the feminine principle, the fabled and lost home, the greater corpus of unconditional love and acceptance, a place where the barriers diasporic African-descended folk erect against the daily depredations of racism and hate can finally be dropped and we can rest, comfortable and at peace, against her loving and accepting breast.

It is telling that Erik Killmonger’s last moments were spent looking out over the land of Wakanda, his most beautiful place, as according to the stories his father used to tell him as a child. It is also telling that he rejected T’Challa’s offer of life-saving technology – and, Mama Africa – in favor of death and a burial at sea, alongside the ancestral spirits of the Maafa, the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. In his final moments, the Motherless Child, Erik Killmonger, chose to remain lost rather than be found and perhaps even redeemed. He chose the solidarity of the “Lost and the Damned”, over a return to the “Great Mother”, Africa. A familiar choice to diasporic African-descended folk. One that this tour de force of a movie, Black Panther, has brought to the surface, for all the world to see.


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