Cheers to the villain. Was Killmonger really the villain? That question has been on repeat from some of the young men I work with that have seen Marvel’s Black Panther. If he was the bad guy, then why are so many people conflicted over the character whose personal conflict created chaos as an answer to the crushing cruelty he’d experienced?
Michael B. Jordan, brings life to the antagonist of the blockbuster Marvel movie, Erik Killmonger. Part of the success that Black Panther has garnered lands squarely on the shoulders of it’s villain. To wrap your mind around the tension black people may feel regarding Erik Killmonger, you have to know him, his background, and the life shaping events that have molded his view of the world.
Once we know Erik’s heart wrenching plight, we begin to understand his vehement bitterness. His upbringing would suggest that he’s faced injustice and the systematic cruelty of growing up as a marginalized young man in another country. A foreigner, in more ways than one, whose home morphed into a murder scene. Did the police got involved? How long did they look for the killer? Who took care of Erik? Was he put in the foster system where chances of adoption for a young black boy are as slim as the children that can't eat on the streets? Either way, he was left there. Alone. To reconcile the death of his father. At the hands of his uncle. The protector of an advanced society that had sequestered itself away from the struggle of others, and turned their back on one of their own. Our understanding of his turmoil makes it difficult to condemn his actions. We agree that he has faced injustice. We grieve at his confusion once we know what he knows, that his family stranded him, while living in the lap of luxury. We can logically trace the hardening of his heart towards those that are uncaring toward his situation in life which they in large created. In Killmonger’s mind the greatest hope for marginalized people had been the ones that were callous; he was simply doing what needed to be done to right the many wrongs that he had survived.
The Man in the Mirror
This is why it is difficult to quickly and easily call him the bad guy. Because when we are honest, not afraid to dissect our own motivations and fears, we see that Killmonger lives among us. Killmonger lives within us. To admit he is the bad guy, is to admit our own villainy. We struggle with the same anger, hopelessness, and longing for justice. We desperately desire things to be fair. We seek justice when we’ve been wronged because when justice is served we know that we matter.
Where there is no justice, there is no value. We want to be valued. Seeing the value of animals, weapons, and preferences fought for, but nothing on your behalf when you're surrounded by struggle the silence is deafening unto madness. There is frustration with the status quo. With the systems that are supposed to bring justice and protection, but at best sit idly by feigning ignorance and at worst pervert the very cause they are meant to support. Killmonger was filled with rage, hate and vengeance. Things we can all relate to. We want someone that can relate to us, understand us, and will fight for us.
King T’Challa, the hero of the movie, was at one point filled with rage as well during his first appearance in the Marvel Universe in Civil War after his father had been killed. At the outset of the movie we are introduced to a blood thirsty Black Panther, hunting for vengeance. An eye for an eye. Before the movie ends however, he observes the soul shattering ramifications of revenge, and decides he is done being consumed by rationalized rage seeking to quench a righteous desire for justice through unrighteousness means. When there is no hope, no champion for the just cause, then pain speaks to us, for us. Killmonger had only one voice to comfort and motivate him. The voice of wrath. Killmonger believes he will bring whatever justice there is, because no one else has and he believes no one else will. But when you’re seeing red, those that are neutral, and even allies, can’t be distinguished.
"[T'CHalla] . . .observes the soul shattering ramifications of revenge, and decides he is done being consumed by rationalized rage seeking to quench a righteous desire for justice through, unrighteousness means."
During their last fight scene T’Challa sees through the armor of anger and tells Kilmonger that he has become the very people he hates. Killmonger seeks to oppress white people through power and position just as had been done to him. To that end he is even willing to kill those that help him, and harm those that he claims to be standing for. Killmonger is blind to the reality that his actions will create another Killmonger. Only this one would be White, or Asian, or Tongan, or middle eastern, or whoever he oppresses.
Both characters were “broken”, both lost their fathers, both were re-built, but differently. One with rage and vengeance, the other hope and love. Who or what we look to in moments of need define what we believe, and who we will become. Christians have a hope to hold onto for justice. The just, and good God of the Bible.
"Who or what we look to in moments of need define what we believe, and who we will become."
Vengeance is Mine
God says vengeance is mine (Rom 12:19, Deut. 32:35). That’s not a typo. God will avenge all wrong doings, to all the people that have perpetrated evil. That eternal punishment should rest on us as well. As angry as we get at the sin of others, we neglect committing the same sin. It is easy to want justice without demanding it from ourselves at all times. But God is not like man. He doesn’t balance out good acts with bad. He doesn’t rationalize and mitigate sin. Instead, because He is good, he punishes. His wrath is either consumed on the cross in Jesus Christ, who came to take the punishment we are all due because of our sin and hypocrisy, or He will take it out on individuals that have refused to receive His loving mercy for all of eternity.
While we wait, we must continually hope in the reality that God is not sleeping, or ignoring any of our plight. Our question of “when Lord,” is answered in Revelation 6:9-11, where the saints are told to be patient. Though the burden is heavy, your God sees, and will not allow it go unpunished. Regardless of what it looks like in the world, God has promised he will repay. His justice alone is lasting, untainted, and sure. His justice is so committed that He made a way for sinners to come to Him. And he so valued those made in His image that he sent his own Son to die in their place, and resurrect that they may have eternal life with him. In the face of anger, betrayal, and questioning our value, God cups our face in His promises and lovingly reminds us that He will repay, and that our pain has not gone unnoticed. God says, “I got you.” Don’t worry, don’t hate, trust, and believe.
"God says, 'I got you."
We seek our own justice when we believe there will be none from anywhere else. God says vengeance is his. In the film the Wakandan spy, Nakia, demonstrates an evenhanded desire to right wrongs without murder, and eventually wins over T’Challa as well. It is not wrong to seek justice or take up righteous causes, but vengeance is focused on making people pay for what they have done to us to appease our own anger. When people sin against us, they ultimately sin against our Maker, our Father, God. This righteous and holy God that will justify his children, and recompense all according to their deeds. When I am aware that I am loved, seen, and valued by God, I can rest in the reality that no one is getting by. Psalm 73 illustrates how intimately God knows us, and that we are not alone, as the psalmist has the same inner struggle when seeing the wicked prosper. The Psalm encourages us to see God when seeking justice, while reminding us of our final reality as we seek His will on earth as it is in Heaven.
The Killmonger among us, can be killed by the cross, and reassured in Christ. Justice isn’t blind. Someone has come, and Someone is coming that values us enough to bring justice.