We hear the voices of a father and a son talking to each other over a black screen (accompanied by soft string music), in the very opening moments of Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther (2018, Marvel Studios). But we don’t see them. This is what they say:

– Baba?
– Yes my son.
– Tell me a story.
– Which one?
– The Story of Home.

At one level this is an origin story, part of the Marvel Comic Universe (MCU). At another, it signals a recurring dynamic of desire between fathers and sons, which fundamentally structures the larger political conflicts in Black Panther. The father as oral story-teller begins his story:

Millions of years ago a meteorite made of Vibranium, the strongest substance in the universe, struck the continent of Africa… (The image of a hurling meteorite cuts to a map of Africa).

We identify the speakers much later on in the film, and then, only through our own ability to recognise the qualities (pitch, texture, timbre) of the voices. There is the possibility of not recognising that the story is in fact told by Prince N’Jobu of Wakanda to his son Jadaka, linking the cosmic and the terrestrial, the mythical and the real, a father and a son in a perennial act of storytelling, in the prologue to this film signalling its epic scope and ambition.

The voices continue:

– Do we still hide Baba?
– Yes.
– Why?

The father does not reply but the unfolding film defers and then offers an answer to this fraught question. However, deferred answers, oblique or evasive responses and unanswered questions are an essential part of the rhetorical structure of the film, a sign of its political creativity and aesthetic daring. In this essay I will explore two aesthetic devices of the film, which imaginatively focus our attention on the relationship between fathers and sons and on the very act of storytelling. The first pertains to unanswered questions, their variants and implications. The second consists of the idea of the Shamanic Ancestral Plane where, at critical threshold moments, sons commune with their dead fathers, across the abyss of death. The poetic idea of the Ancestral Plane enables an exploration of the notion of a paternal legacy and of its role in forming the subjectivity of the sons and a sense of home and homeland. And in so doing the fraught relationship of African Americans to Africa is also explored and reinvented. Examination of the paternal legacy, including its absence or its refusal, is a recurrent concern shared with Coogler’s two previous films, Fruitvale Station (2013) and Creed (2015), as well.1

Unanswered Questions, their Variants and Implications

The film appears to end with the death of the antagonist Jadaka/Erik Stevens/Killmonger, the many-named African-American son of Prince N’Jobu and nephew of King T’Chaka, the restoration of social order and reunion of the royal couple, King T’Challa and Nakia of Wakanda. But instead (a lap dissolve, sparingly used), takes us from Wakanda back to the basketball court in Oakland, California where the film began. Standing there, King T’Challa (the Black Panther), explains to his tech-genius sister Shuri his plans to establish a Wakandan outreach program for the development of Oakland and of the role she will play in developing its science and information program.  Seeing their hovercraft, a young boy comes up to him and asks “What! Yo, who, who are you?” The Black Panther, standing dressed in a stylish long black coat, responds with a silent soft smile. By now we know that these seemingly simple questions do not incite simplistic reponses. So while the African-American kids in movie theatres might gleefully call out, “It’s the Black Panther, stupid!” we adults might remember, in excited reverie, from recent Hollywood films we’ve enjoyed that this is Chadwick Boseman, who played the iconic African-American roles of Jackie Robinson, James Brown and Thurgood Marshall, who each in his own brilliant way helped him in the formidable task of becoming the Black Panther and King T’Challa of Wakanda, the Afro-Futurist Country in Africa.2 We know that an actor may carry within himself (or herself) vital traces of the roles s/he has embodied and that these can act, in a flash, as memory images for the audience (and perhaps as subconscious muscle memory for the actors), and here in the case of Boseman, delineating an enabling, vital, exemplary African-American cinematic male lineage. It is pertinent to note here that Michael B. Jordan, who plays the role of the antagonist Jadaka/Erik Killmonger also appeared as the main character in Coogler’s two previous films, Fruitvale Station and Creed, centred on two African-American youth, the first on the real life murder of an unarmed and handcuffed Oscar Grant by the police and the latter about a boxer who seeks to emulate his unknown dead father by being mentored by his opponent Rocky Balboa (played by Sylvester Stallone). Some of us are hoping that the Coogler-Jordan youthful collaboration might in time develop a singular African-American body of work in Hollywood in the way that the De Niro-Scorsese collaboration did with Italian-Americans.

A final unanswered question is posed to King T’Challa after he addresses the United Nations in Geneva, in a scene embedded within the credit sequence. When he announces to the UN assembly that Wakanda will end its isolationist policy and contribute its knowledge and resources to the global community, a delegate responds with the question – “What can a nation of farmers offer the rest of the world?” Instead of a verbal response, once again the Black Panther smiles enigmatically, concluding the film. Therefore the response to this final unanswered question is up to each one of us, as its not dished out by the film. I think that the “nation of farmers” has given us abundant food for thought, and this essay, written from within cinema studies, is my considered Sri Lankan-Australian response.

However, in addition to these diegetic questions, there are also the recurrent set of troubling questions which many general viewers and scholars have asked: “Why is the African-American character (Jadaka/Erik Stevens/Killmonger) yet again criminalised? Why does he have to die? Why was he not redeemed?”3 When these questions, or different versions of them, were posed to Chadwick Boseman and Michael B. Jordan, they said that the debate about the African-American and African identity of Killmonger and T’Challa, will continue after the film, that there should be a conversation about them.4 The film requires – incites – the audience to figure out why Killmonger had to die, or rather, more accurately, why he chose death. Thereby the film also becomes in a sense a “film for discussion,” not unlike some political activist films of the 1970s! This is amazing given that it’s a Marvel Superhero movie addressed largely (though not exclusively) to children, with thrilling action and the latest CGI special effects, a genre of film which doesn’t usually provoke impassioned, complex, intellectual debate.5

Bertolt Brecht had a thing or two to say about the creative pedagogic importance of “unsatisfactory endings” of this kind, which leave the audience dissatisfied and saddened by the lack of a redemptive narrative. He thought that the answers to the questions posed in a play should not happen within the play itself, but rather should be a matter for rational discussion after the play ends. He would certainly have approved of an informed conversation like the one suggested by Boseman and Jordan. The unresolved ending of his epic play The Good Woman of Szechuan is a case in point.

If we actually listen to the magnificent last words of Killmonger, words saturated with longing, profound sadness, and sense of realism, addressed to his antagonist, T’Challa, we might understand, why he chose death over life. This is what he says:

Pop said, Wakanda was the most beautiful thing you’d ever see. He promised he would show it to me one day. Do you believe that? …to run around with you in a fairy tale!

T’Challa then helps drag the dying Killmonger onto the edge of a cliff overlooking a magnificent vista, to see the famous Wakandan sunset that his father N’Jobu had promised to show him. On seeing it this is what he says:

“It’s beautiful!” Quickened by the intense expansiveness of nature and sentiment T’Challa offers to heal him. Killmonger’s response is a firm refusal and in its refusal heroically affirms life beyond bare existence. These are their words:

– Maybe we can still heal you.
– Why? So that you could just lock me up! Nah! Nah! Just bury me in the ocean with my ancestors that jumped from the ships, because they knew that death was better than bondage.

In this way the historical narratives of slavery and of incarceration are starkly brought right into the fantasy world of Wakanda through Killmonger’s refusal of the enchanted life offered by T’Challa. It is a decisive rejection of a “fairy tale” resolution. Another explicit take on Wakanda as a “fairy tale” occurs when CIA Agent Everett Ross wakes up in Shuri’s laboratory after having been “magically” cured of a near fatal injury by her use of Vibranium powered technology. In amazement he looks around at all the brilliant technological innovations and asks her, “Is this Wakanda?” and without skipping a beat she comes back lightly with, “No, it’s Kansas!” So where is Oz then one might ask or rather is Oakland drab Kansas to the Oz of Wakanda? Through this word play the film situates itself within a longer cinematic lineage than just the Marvel Comic Universe and seems to suggest that Black Panther might be for African-American kids what The Wizard of Oz has been to generations of white American kids, and also to others internationally. This, despite the fact that Kendrick Lamar’s wonderful soundscape of rap music has no sing-along tune quite like Some Where Over the Rainbow!

Allegory of the Ancestral Plane and Male Subjectivity

The Ancestral Plane is a brilliant poetic allegory and perhaps a variant of the “praise meetings” where African slaves would gather together to evoke through song and movement their ancestors and an ancestral landscape as a way to imagine freedom.6 The Ancestral Plane in Black Panther creates a sense of kinship with the dead, and thus a male lineage and tradition for the boy-child. It crafts an affective exploration of the father-son relationship set within the fraught, dual, African and African-American lineage. The African T’Challa, the exemplary son of King T’Chaka, has an unbroken genealogy that extends into mythical time. He inherits a deep tradition and this connection he has with the past gives him strength of character and knowledge of how to govern and conduct himself ethically for the general good. In contrast, the African-American Jadaka/Erik Stevens/Killmonger (son of Prince N’Jobu and an American woman), is left abandoned, homeless, as an orphaned child in Oakland, after the murder of his father by his brother King T’Chaka. Therefore his link with the past is tenuous. While T’Challa has a loving, strong and beautiful mother, Ramonda, Erik Stevens’ American mother remains nameless and absent from the film. Known variously as Jadaka/Erik Stevens/Killmonger, his identity is spectacularly fractured, indicated by the dizzying improbable variety of names and identities attributed to him, some of which he claims for himself, in the course of the film. Across the duration of the film his identity is continually redefined and confined in the following way:

  1. Erik Stevens is the African-American name given to Jadaka, N’Jobu’s son with an American woman.
  2. Killmonger is the name given him during combat in Afghanistan, for killing like he was in a video game.
  3. “Did he reveal anything of his identity?” asks T’Challa when Killmonger arrives in Wakanda incognito.
  4. “An outsider!” says Shuri.
  5. “No, he is a Wakandan!” says Okoye.
  6. No, he’s one of our’s” says CIA agent Ross, expanding on Killmonger’s past history – Graduated from Annapolis, MIT Grad School, becomes a navy SEAL and fights in Afghanistan, turns black-ops assassin (with CIA links), …destabilising democratically elected governments.
  7. “And to think I saw you as some crazy American!” says the dying South African arms dealer Ulysses Klaue who realises that he is Wakandan when Killmonger reveals the concealed War Dog tattoo on his inner lip.
  8. He is Boy-Friend to the black female accomplice who he shoots dead.
  9. Dressed coolly, perhaps like an art school student at the Museum of Britain, delivering a Post-Colonial denunciation of colonial plunder of African artifacts by European Powers.
  10. “He has a War Dog tattoo but we have no record of him” says Shuri.
  11. “Jadaka, son of N’Jobhu, grandson of Azuri…” declares Erik/Killmonger, as claimant to the Wakandan throne, using a fragment of the African language Xhosa.
  12. He appears as loving child and adult son to N’Jobhu as father, on the Ancestral Plane.
  13. He identifies with the enslaved body of his African ancestors in his dying words: “Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors that jumped from the ships. They knew death was better than bondage”.
  14. He identifies with the incarcerated body of African-Americans.
  15. He appears as sovereign black icon of pure potential, strength and dignity, negating all of the above identities.

The unbearable burden of this spectacularly schizophrenic variety of identities attributed to Killmonger, populating the body of this African-American man, invites an allegorical reading of this persona. As well, it seems to me that he is also conceived aesthetically as a fragmented allegorical embodiment of the plethora of contradictory abstract meanings attributed to him. While he looks, moves and speaks like an actual contemporary African-American youth with an energetic style and hip hop swagger, he also functions, I think, as a 21st-century allegorical emblem, demonstrating and negotiating the fractured psyche of young African-American male identity. The scope for abstraction is greater with allegorical characters and their world of Wakanda than with a realist conception of place and character. Place and character in this film operate on two registers at the same time, one realist and the other allegorical. This doubling is what allegory does, implied by the Greek etymology of the word: speaking as other or veiled speech. In this way Coogler is able to explore the interplay between psychic, cultural and political themes with a higher degree of complexity and abstraction. The allegorical form enables him to widen the terms within which he can situate the exploration of father-son relationship in African-American and African life. He is able to shift between the allegorical and the real in paradoxical and supple ways unavailable to realist modes of construction. These allegorical powers are evident in the three following scenes.

Jadaka at the Museum of Britain

The autonomy of Killmonger’s action from his narrative role allows him to function allegorically as protagonist (rather than antagonist) in several scenes. This dynamic is evident in the brilliantly conceived heist scene at the Museum of Britain, where appropriated/stolen African artifacts are exhibited. Bespectacled, looking cool in a distressed denim jacket, like a hip Arts School student, he forcefully elicits a mini-lecture on their provenance from an uneasy white curator. After which he delivers a thrilling, intellectually cogent post-colonial denunciation of colonial plunder of ancient sacred African ritual masks and objects. In this scene Killmonger is doubled, becoming an allegorical guide for the kids in the cinema to understand the presence of African art in a Western museum. His African-American identity allows him to translate African concepts into a Western context, thereby enabling African-American kids to play with their cultural heritage, to make of it what they will in an urban American context.

On arriving incognito in Wakanda, Killmonger is shown handcuffed, standing behind a one-way mirror. The camera at eye level moves from mid-shot to medium close-up, making small but dynamic adjustments between the observers and the observed. Unblinking, Killmonger stands strong looking directly ahead while his body, embedded in a digital technological field, is scanned. It is this imprisoned image of Killmonger that Okoye, Shuri, T’Challa and Agent Ross try variously to identify, which, in an allegorical instant recalls African-American, anonymous mass incarceration. And yet again there is something quietly unyielding and powerful in this singular image (without pathos), of Killmonger. The camera moves around the group observing him and then brings T’Challa and Killmonger together in a medium two-shot drawing a link between the two and ends on a large close shot of the latter, magnifying his stature. The sensory surplus of this allegorical image stirs the imagination, makes one sense some power and affect other than its excessively clear narrative meaning of imprisonment. Without a trace of attitude, Killmonger appears iconic, powerful, unshackled, despite being handcuffed, examined and scanned. To grasp the differences between allegorical and realist representation, one has only to compare this image with that of Oscar Grant in Fruitvale Station, handcuffed and thrown down on the railway platform, rendered abject by the police. In this scene, the image of this African-American man allegorically incarnates strength, dignity and pure potential, an iconic sovereign African-American body. If we do not respond to this unique affective creative instant of the film’s image construction, its temporal aesthetic, we deplete it of its semantic richness. If we can’t perceive and sense it, then we are left with only a one-dimensional narrative meaning, “imprisonment”. Here, one must insist theoretically (following Raul Ruiz),7 that the allegorical image has a non-human cinematic agency and power. Further, Chadwick Boseman’s startling comment that T’Challa and Jadaka/Erik Killmonger are “two sides of the same coin” and that he as an actor identified more with the latter, now makes sense.8 He adds that his character “T’Challa was born with a Vibranium spoon in his mouth” and that without his affective link to Killmonger he would not be a credible character to African-Americans. From what transpires in this scene, it would appear that T’Challa is also an allegorically conceived character. While he is credible at the literal realist level as a King, his essential African purity and unshakable ethical personhood signal abstract principles proper to allegory: virtue personified. Both these characters operate on two levels, the literal/realist and the allegorical, simultaneously. While the literal-realist configurations of these two characters make them credible and highly watchable, in addition, their allegorical conception offers food for thought. This is so because the characters now have the flexibility to shape-shift between levels unexpectedly, which keeps us alert trying to decipher who or what they are.

 

Killmonger behind a one-way mirror with T’Challa

Here is a final example of the allegorical figuration of character. The scarification on Killmonger’s body, resembling tribal initiatory markings, is in fact a set of allegorical signs of a very different kind of psycho-physical violence than those collectively mandated by traditional tribal society. Each fleshy nodule flaunted on his body is a sign for a man he has killed, and thereby allegorically incarnating unbridled violence of a weaponised body. Killmonger is profoundly alone even in the army and certainly in the world; homeless, and left yearning for the lost homeland.

T’Challa’s Ancestral Plane

T’Challa accesses his Ancestral Plane on two occasions, one after his ritual combat and victory over N’Kabu the leader of the Jabari Mt Tribe and the other after his defeat by Dajaka/Killmonger, in a similar contest for the throne. After the victorious combat T’Challa’s wounds are attended to as he rests on a ritual bed of red earth-like material substance with which he is covered. He ingests the magic heart-shaped purple herb wafting him on to the Ancestral Plane, which is outside human spatio-temporal coordinates – a collective dream-time conceived allegorically. Dressed in a long white ceremonial African tunic, he wakes up in the Ancestral Plane: a sunlit vast African landscape with a central tree of totemic black panthers perched on it. One of the panthers leaps down from the tree, morphing into T’Challa’s father dressed in African garb, and embraces his son. Deeply moved, T’Challa kneels down to honour his father in the traditional manner, and says “sorry”, perhaps because he had not been able to save him. T’Chaka admonishes him to stand up and declares that he is now King, with swelling music accompanying this solemn moment of paternal authorisation. An urbanely enchanting moment follows, of father and son strolling together, the former speaking in Xhosa (a South African language), and the son responding in English asking him advice on how to rule well. Further, remarkably, T’Chaka asks his son if he has ever failed him as a father. “Never!” is T’Challa’s response, which will reverberate in their next encounter on the Ancestral Plane decisively changing Wakandan history.

T’Challa’s Ancestral Plane

The second encounter on the Ancestral Plane is tragic. Killmonger defeats T’Challa in the ritual combat to the throne and throws his body into a torrent of water. Believing that he has died, his mother, Nakiya, Shuri and Ross go to the Jabari Mt Tribe seeking refuge from its leader N’Baku. There they find T’Challa, who has been saved by fishermen, kept alive by N’Baku in a comatose state, on a bed of snow. After ingesting the magic purple herb brought by Nakia, T’Challa’s entire body and face are ritually covered with the snow. It is through this near death experience that T’Challa enters his Ancestral Plane for a second time, where his father, along with his entire kin group, welcome him saying that it is time for him to join them:

– It is time. The time has come for you to come home. To be reunited with me.
(A long pause)
– Why didn’t you bring the child (his cousin Jadaka who has become Killmonger), back home? Why, Baba?
– He was the truth I chose to omit.

It is worth noting that the question T’Challa asks his father here is a sophisticated version of the child Jadaka’s unanswered question to his father in the prologue. On hearing this evasive response T’Challa reacts with righteous anger towards his once beloved father:

You were wrong to abandon him! All of you are wrong to turn your backs on the world. We let our discoveries stop us from doing what is right. No more! I cannot stay here with you. I cannot rest while he sits on the throne. He is a monster of our own making. I must take the mantle back. I must. I must right these wrongs.

T’Challa’s moral condemnation of his father’s action is disturbingly powerful. His attribution of collective responsibility for Killmonger’s pathology shows how uncompromising a film Black Panther is ethically. While the historical institutional violence against African Americans is forcefully stated by N’Jobu, the film also points to the violence done by T’Chaka to the child Jadaka by killing his father. Therefore T’Challa’s repudiation of the Wakandan isolationism of his father and his entire kin group is absolute. T’Challa opens Wakanda to history and change where cultural links between Africa and African-American experience is consolidated in a gesture of hope. The visionary collaborative cultural enterprise of Black Panther, with its bold Afro-Futurist aesthetic vision (creatively drawing from a variety of African aesthetic traditions and material culture), is the fertile terrain on which this hope is grounded. As one commentator brilliantly put it “the film will fire the imagination of a generation!” I do think this is part of its long-term politics – recognised by the film’s rapturous reception among African-American communities. Its extraordinary box office success both domestically and globally also opens the possibility for greater Hollywood investment in ambitious, daring African-American films.

T’Challa encounters in Killmonger history and contingency, to which he submits. And through this acceptance the film offers a corrective to Hollywood’s Manifest Destiny encoded in its founding white supremacist myth of The Birth of a Nation (D. W. Griffith, 1915). Birth pathologises the emancipated black population of the South as ontologically evil. The only blacks accommodated by the Southern whites are their loyal “good” servants. But those who demand their democratic rights are pathologised and caricatured through blackface and burlesque, defeated and excluded from the fledgling white nation endorsed by the Christian God. In Black Panther Killmonger is not ontologically determined as evil. In fact his monstrous behaviour is the result of a specific set of actual circumstances: of having been abandoned as a child combined with his elite military training, both legal and extra-legal. T’Challa admits a collective culpability in saying “he is a monster of our own making”. Also, unlike Birth’s blackface and horrific racial parodies, Black Panther presents an array of beautiful black actors (from Africa, America and the diaspora), of varied skin tones, shapes and sizes, wearing hair-styles and costumes, which encode African and African-American visual and material cultures in new ways. This is where its cultural politics begins – in its decisive intervention into American film history, one hundred and three years after Birth! “Oscars So White” is only the most recent manifestation of a long history of phobic, pathological racial bias in Hollywood.

Killmonger’s Ancestral Plane

Blood-stained, Jadaka/Erik Killmonger’s Ancestral Plane is the site of a fratricide; the murder of a brother by a brother. T’Chaka has killed his exiled brother N’Jobu in his own apartment in Oakland California. Located in a specific place and time (1992), this modest private apartment functions ironically as both home and Ancestral Plane for Jadaka/Erik Killmonger. The only sign of a link between his Ancestral Plane and T’Challa’s is the brilliant African sky now just glimpsed filtered through the blinds of his dark apartment. Jadaka/Erik Killmonger’s access to his Ancestral Plane, presented in a flashback, is determined by his traumatic history. Jadaka/Erik Killmonger, claiming his right to the Wakandan throne, engages in ritual combat resulting in the “death” of T’Challa.  As is customary he is placed on the bed of ritual red earth-like material to recover from his wounds while the Priest Zuri gives him the heart shaped herb to access his Ancestral Plane. In a flash-back we see the young Jadaka/Erik Stevens arrive at his father’s apartment/Ancestral Plane, to discover his dead body, which he embraces. Then we see the adult Jadaka/Erik Killmonger also enter the same apartment/Ancestral Plane.

 

N’Jobu in his Ancestral Plane/Apartment

This time a poster of Public Enemy is on the wall instead of the iconic Black Panther Party poster hung by his father. So a historical location and continuity of sorts is established, through contemporary urban popular memory (of “Fight the Power” and “Black Power”), across the radical black music of Public Enemy and the black politics of the Black Panther Party. Jadaka/Erik Killmonger takes out a notebook from a cupboard and turns its pages to reveal the Wakandan script alongside English. He finds a chain with a ring dangling from it placed within the book and puts it round his neck as we hear his father’s voice: “What did I tell you about going into my things!” From then on the child Jadaka/Erik Stevens and his adult self take turns to speak with the father in a series of shot-reverse-shots. We see that the child also has the chain round his neck. At first the father and child talk to each other:

– What did you find?
– Your home.
– I gave you a key hoping that you might see it some day.
– The sunsets there are the most beautiful in the world. But I fear you   still may not be welcome.
– Why?
– They will say you are lost.
– But I am right here!
– (Big sigh) No tears for me?
– Everybody dies. It’s just life round here.
– Well look at what I have done. I should have taken you back long ago.
– Instead we are both abandoned here.

The adult son now looks at the father as they both cry. And he says:

Or maybe your home is the one that’s lost. That’s why they can’t find us.

What is remarkable about these exchanges in the apartment/Ancestral Plane, between the father and the young Jadaka/Erik Stevens and his adult self, is their emotional range (including love, nostalgia and melancholy) and the insight into daily routine violence, seen from a child’s point of view: “Everybody dies. It’s just life round here.” The clearly flawed father is not rejected but rather his plight is acknowledged and mourned so he becomes a redemptive figure. This is possible because N’Jobu is able to acknowledge his faults to his son (“Well look at what I have done. I should have taken you back long ago. Instead we are both abandoned here. They will say you are lost.”) In contrast, T’Chaka’s response to T’Challa’s impassioned question “Why didn’t you bring the child back home? Why Baba?” is stilted, unfeeling and self-righteously rhetorical, “He was the truth I chose to omit.” These evasive words drive a wedge between the tradition-bound ideal father and the ideal son. In contrast, by dramatising an affective, flawed and loving relationship between N’Jobu and his son, the film intervenes in exploring the fractured relationship between fathers and sons, which is of urgent concern within African-American communities living under the duress of poverty and historical disadvantage in America. There is an immensely elegiac sense of loss of home/homeland and yearning for it between father and the son, as both child and as adult, heightened by Sterling K. Brown’s richly textured emotional voice and tender and vulnerable facial expression as the father. In contrast, John Kani (the South African actor who plays the dead father T’Chaka in T’Challa’s ancestral plane), expresses uncertainty on his face, his speech hesitant. It is a measure of the film’s political will and daring that it can juxtapose the bruisingly tender sentiments expressed in Jadaka/Erik Killmonger’s Ancestral Plane with a scene of extreme violence. He wakes up from his immersion in this his Ancestral Plane in a violent rage – “like an exposed nerve” – and orders the burning of the entire field of the heart-shaped purple herb, the source of magical Superhero powers. He stands framed by this burning field, his body inflamed. Erik Killmonger has become, in T’Challa’s accusatory words to his father, “a monster of our own making”. The tender loving child and the mournful young adult Jadaka/Erik Stevens have been transformed into the “monstrous” Killmonger by historical circumstance. It is the allegorical configuration of his character and of place that makes such a rapid juxtaposition of extremes possible and credible.

Killmonger in the Burning Field of the Purple Herb

The poetic enactment of the joyful and sorrowful aspects of the two parallel allegorical ancestral planes may also be thought of as enabling an act of mourning. The expression of these somber adult experiences located within a brilliantly advanced Afro-futurist country, combined with Superhero actions and humour, makes this a very special Marvel movie. No wonder then that generous African-Americans rented out entire cinemas right across the country so that children who could not afford it could see this film for free. By now it should be clear that the rhetorical structure of staged questions and deferred answers or their absence is an appealing “epic” pedagogic ploy activating the mind to move in unexpected ways. Similarly, when our minds move between the two parallel Ancestral Planes, moments of convergence between the two emerge in surprising ways as well. This process of kindling the mind is a civilisational legacy of the “epic” form, which Black Panther activates.

Finally, in my exploration of the complex paternal legacy of Black Panther, I would like to mention how Nakia intervenes to heal the wounds inherited from it. As Robyn C. Spencer has pointed out, Nakia has a practical political vision for Wakandan engagement with the outside world.9 She is a girl of action. We see her first saving a group of young women abducted by a Boko Haram-like armed gang. And she tells T’Challa how exactly Wakanda could and should engage with and help the rest of Africa. Her political vision is modest and local, unlike Killmonger’s crazed call to global armed insurrection by the oppressed, in an era of post 9/11 “war on terror” in Afghanistan and Iraq, the very wars he has fought in. I will conclude with an important healing exchange of words between T’Challa and Nakia. This takes place soon after T’Challa forces the priest Zuri to tell him what happened to N’Jobu and his son Dajaka/Erik Stevens because he has seen a ring (just like his grandfather’s ring in his possession), attached to a chain round Killmonger’s neck, and wants to get to the bottom of the mystery of his identity. Zuri, under pressure, shows/tells in flashback how N’jobu was killed by T’Chaka when he pulled a gun on him in the Oakland apartment. T’Chaka kills his own brother N’Jobu to save Zuri. It is his orphaned and abandoned child who has become Killmonger. “What happened to the child?” asks T’Challa and Zuri says, “We left him”. A shot of the little Erik Stevens/Jadaka looking up at the sky accompanies Zuri’s words. Note the power of these plain words, in striking contrast to T’Chaka’s pompous self-justification when T’Challa demands an answer from his father to the same question: “He was the truth I chose to omit.” T’Challa’s shock and horror at his father’s behaviour is first expressed to Nakia his beloved while they are seated overlooking a marvelous Wakandan vista. He says of his once admired father, with a sense of revulsion:

– He killed his own brother and left the child behind with nothing.
– What kind of king, what kind of man does that!
– No man is perfect. Not even your father.
– He didn’t even give him a proper burial! My uncle N’Jobu betrayed us but my father may have created something even…
– Eh! Look at me! (says Nakia firmly, like a mother! And T’Challa slowly turn his neck and glances at her sideways, a bit reluctantly as a child might).
– You can’t let your father’s mistakes define who you are. You get to decide the kind of king you want to be.

These wise words of Nakia (now maternal, who at times is romantic and playful, at other time full of political will, action and fervour), begin T’Challa’s difficult process of challenging the uncritical acceptance of a seemingly benign and yet violent paternal legacy and the idealisation of tradition which founds Wakanda. So now, it would appear that Wakanda needs the drab, less than ideal Oakland, California (where, T’Challa, standing on the basketball court, pointing to a building, unflinchingly tells his sister Shuri, “this is where our father killed our uncle”), to fully actualise its Afro-Futurist vision.

Endnotes:

  1. “Rendez Vous with Ryan Coogler: Discussion with Elvis Mitchell”, Cannes Film Festival, May 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8k5Lhie-3T8.
  2. These are the biopics Boseman starred in: 42 (Brian Helgeland, 2013) on Jackie Robinson, the first African American to play Major League Baseball, Get On Up (Tate Taylor, 2014) on James Brown, the “Godfather of Soul”, Marshall (Reginald Hudlin, 2017) on Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American Justice of the Supreme Court.
  3. Black Panther: Shaping Dynamic Futures”, Brown University Centre for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America. Six interdisciplinary scholars discussed the film from a rich range of perspectives, April 20, 2018, https://www.brown.edu/academics/race-ethnicity/events/black-panther-shaping-dynamic-futures
  4. A discussion with Josh Horowitz, “Black Panther’s Michael B Jordan and Chadwick Boseman on Cultural Impact and Identity.” MTV News, February 14, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PHa7D3t-gGg
  5. “Extended Discussion on Black Panther and why Wakanda Matters” with Christopher Lebron “Black Panther is not the film we deserve”, Carwell Wallace “Why Black Panther is a defining moment for Black America”, and Robyn C. Spencer “Black Feminist Meditation on the Women of Wakanda”, with Amy Goodman in Democracy Now!, March 1, 2018. https://www.democracynow.org/2018/2/28/is_black_panther_the_film_we
  6. Library of Congress Collection. “The Library of Congress Celebrates the Songs of America: Spirituals”,

    https://www.loc.gov/collections/songs-of-america/articles-and-essays/musical-styles/ritual-and-worship/spirituals

  7. See Laleen Jayamanne, “Life is a Dream: Raul Ruiz was a Surrealist in Sydney – A Capillary Memory of a Cultural Event”, Towards Cinema and Its Double: Cross-Cultural Mimesis (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001), p. 171.
  8. Reggie Ugwu, “The stars of Black Panther waited a lifetime for this moment”, New York Times, February 12, 2018.
  9. Ibid. “Extended Discussion of Black Panther and Why Wakanda Matters”.

About The Author

Laleen Jayamanne taught Cinema Studies in the Dept. of Art History and Film, University of Sydney from 1990-2013. Director, A Song of Ceylon (16mm film, Australian Film Commission, 1985). Author of Towards Cinema and Its Double; Cross-Cultural Mimesis (Indiana University Press, 2001) and The Epic Cinema of Kumar Shahani, (Indiana University Press, 2015).