The Killmonger Compromise: How a CIA Agent and a Black Revolutionary Combine Forces to Preserve the Status Quo in Marvel’s Black Panther

Posted on February 22, 2018


DV_ks9VVAAE3iC7Like many viewers with a general awareness of recent African history, I was shocked quite early on in Black Panther by an inscrutable bit of dialogue. T’chala tells his escort that he has “spotted an old friend who works for the CIA”. The agent is Everett Ross, played by legendary second-fiddle Martin Freeman, and turns out to be a major character in the film. Ross, in fact, plays a significant white-savior role all the way to the end of Black Panther and has a heroic arc comparable to the Wakandan supporting characters.

The CIA’s destabilizing role in Africa is no secret. Viewers with even a passing knowledge of African history—the type that Black Panther seemed to want to attract—will know about CIA covert ops like the assassination of Patrice Lumumba in Congo and the overthrow of Kwame Nkruma in Ghana (and many more).  Thus, it feels odd to see the woke Black Panther we have been hearing so much about referencing a CIA agent so casually. Ryan Coogler’s choice of the CIA as the home for Ross’ character is even more mystifying because of how gratuitous it seems to be. With Marvel’s penchant for inventing interconnecting networks of acronymic intelligence agencies—ARMOR, SHIELD, SWORD, HAMMER—to name a few, Coogler had a range of fake agencies that would’ve gotten across the same relationship. Even weirder, though Ross is an artifact from the comic-book source material, he’s not a a CIA agent there, but a state department diplomat and liaison to Wakanda.

Like the Killmonger-arc and other details in Coogler’s Black Panther, the Ross character was developed in Christopher Priest’s 90’s reboot of the Black Panther. Ross was, in fact, a specifically chartered device for Priest’s story-line, not an accident or walk-on.

As Priest once noted, white-led Marvel was responsible for most of the editorial decisions in his enduring retcon of Black Panther. Priest was one of few Black comic book writers at the time, but still saw very little reason to try to appeal to Black audiences, erroneously believing in pre-social media days, that there was no significant Black audience for comics. Priest believed that BP was off-putting to white readers, and so he created Ross as a point of reference for them.

Priest’s Wakanda wasn’t much different than Marvel’s previous iterations. The mythical African Asgard has always been a normative class-striated technocratic monarchy where wealth and power are embedded in the royal family. But the city-state skyline is always seen a bit distantly and rarely from the pov of the average Wakandan.

In Priest’s Wakanda, it makes perfect sense that Panther has a first-world to first-world relationship with the US. He’s a monarch, he believes in monarchy, he’s arrogant and strident. Likewise, Priest’s Black Panther avoided issues of Black empowerment in the United States. For almost the entirety of Black Panther’s existence, in fact, its been a book about a Black man with super powers, not Black people or Africa–and certainly not African-Americans.

This is where most of the first half of the Black Panther film enjoyably parted company with the source material. When we meet King T’Chala, he reigns over a mellow super-kingdom, a Mt. Olympus for Black people, full of wonders and harmony and good-feels. Coogler’s African kingdom has advanced technology and industrialization co-habitating with subsistence level villages and traditional market plazas. The cinematic Wakanda has more in common with Star Trek’s idealized—but impossible to economically define—neo-artisinal future societies where people grow grapes for wine that no one drinks and live in palatial estates. When we do see some political discord, its only from the Jabari luddites who have no popular support. And though Wakanda doesn’t consider the US an enemy, it has no aid or diplomatic relations to speak of with any country. Given how fantastic the nation is, even the fact that Wakanda gives no aid to neighboring states and won’t take in refugees, as Nakia notes, is not a deal-breaker.

But then the coming of Erik Killmonger really throws all this fantasy world to holy hell and not just in plot terms. Up to the point where we discover T’Chaka’s closet full of skeletons, its been good fun in African spaceships and super-cars. But Killmonger is far too real to enjoy as a fantasy. The very real reality of Killmonger—whose father was radicalized by the brutality of systemic white supremacy—while initially only a bit of a pause from the fun, becomes the central gyre which begins to rip apart the ideal magic kingdom.

Of course, that’s the role Killmonger is supposed to play as an antagonist and its written into the film as such. But given the subject matter, Killmonger presents many ideological problems for Coogler’s story-telling that seems to have created the need for edits.

Killmonger’s arc would have been an unprecedented feat of anti-racist, white-audience scaring narrative if Coogler had pursued it honestly. Coogler did in fact craft some satisfying scenes for the villain played by Michael B. Jordan. Killmonger’s spirit-quest under the effects of the heart-shaped herb and his poignant death speech recalls some of Coogler’s best work in Creed and Fruitvale Station. Killmonger also powerfully ruminates on the emotional trauma and damage that come from a lifetime under white supremacy. And the broad strokes of Killmonger’s revolutionary liberation movement, not just for the pan-African diaspora, but also as he clearly states, “oppressed people all over the world” is truly something else. Going to a Marvel movie, I’ve never felt that any superhero or villain gave a shit about Palestinian liberation until Erik Killmonger. To say this is one of the few thrilling and viscerally resonant scenes I’ve ever experienced in a movie doesn’t do it justice.

Perhaps this is why Coogler undercuts Killmonger’s much more politically and emotionally satisfying arc, with Ross, the CIA construct. Ross tells the audience Killmonger’s origin story, transfering all the agencies real-world sins on the continent and the developing world to JSOC. To be sure, Ross briefly links Killmonger’s former JSOC squad to his own agency, but he rarely uses the word “we”. Rather, it’s they, again and again, in reference to Killmonger’s JSOC, “destabilizing foreign countries…striking during election years and deaths of monarchs…committing assassinations and taking down governments”. Ross’ own history in the CIA, given his age and purview on Africa, remain beyond critique. And despite Killmonger’s repeated claim that he is using the enemy’s strategies against them, we never see so much as an impolite comment from Ross or his Western masters.

Coogler goes further, revealing Killmonger to be a psychotic, violent, would-be imperialist. Killmonger is portrayed as self-absorbed and narcissistic. His rhetoric of liberation is revealed to be a sham as he torches the Panther-serum garden so that there can be no other super-liberators. It seems especially important to Coogler, given the film’s nod to Black empowered women, to give Killmonger’s violence a misogynist bent. There are several scenes where Killmonger smiles broadly while enacting extreme brutality on a female character– slitting the throat of a Dora Milaje warrior, then moving on, beaming, in an attempt to kill Shuri, T’Chala’s sister. In fact, whenever he is about to kill a female character, Coogler has Killmonger’s mask dissolve to show, bizarrely, his wide grin. Coogler deliberately portrays Killmonger as indifferent to the lives of Wakandans, and to even his own romantic partner, killing white, Black, friend or foe with equal relish.

Though Ta Nahisi Coates’ Panther narrative has little to do with the film adaptation in the details, Coogler may have looked there for ideological cues, as the rebellion against the monarchy in Coates’ story is exposed as the same sort of delusionally messianic violence and power-thirst. Like Coates, Coogler, conveniently relegates the idea of revolution to the ravings of emotionally-damaged lunatics.

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A scene from Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Black Panther comic, where the state’s greatest dissident chastises the revolutionaries.

And with the failure of revolutionary discourse, the question of Wakanda’s responsibility to the subjugated is left to T’Chala’s own brand of neo-liberalism. The Wakandan king takes Nakia’s critiques of isolationism and resource-hoarding and answers them with the US state department’s concepts of aid and charity. T’Chala gobbles up real estate for his Wakanda foundation initiative in West Oakland, with the intent of creating an ambassadorial green zone. T’chala appears before a mostly white UN analogue and offers to share vibranium powered technology with the very nations Killmonger excoriated as oppressors, and there’s no way to miss a specifically-placed beat for CIA agent Ross, smugly nodding with satisfaction from the back row. Neoliberal Wakanda thus joins the “world” by assuming the rhetoric of a patron state, leaving its class and capital lines intact. Even Zakia’s most salient IRL critique, Wakanda’s failure to take in and house African refugees, goes unanswered.

All of this would be far easier to tolerate, had Black Panther not been the subject of  corporate stoked and facilitated viral marketing from Marvel, whose parent-company is the insidious Disney. Seemingly organic (but not) fund-raisers to take Black and poc children to the premiere sold Black Panther as a cultural touch-stone to Africa. But its all the more cynical, given that the lesson the film teaches is the erasure of Africa’s recent history and the US’s involvement in it.  With the marketing in mind, Ross’ oddly outsized role in the film makes depressing sense—Ross was the answer to Marvel’s fear about Black Panther’s potential to alienate white audiences. Just as Priest specifically created Ross as a bridge for white readers, Ross appears in Coogler’s film to dilute the idea of Wakanda as an anti-Western fantasy. Killmonger plays a joint role, to enact the spectacle of the failure of autonomous revolution and anti-authoritarianism, leaving only King T’Chala’s top-down liberal discourse to answer the very real problems that the film poses, and that everyone already knows about.

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Its arguable that Coogler’s film would have been more strictly enjoyable and far less politically disappointing, if he had simply struck to the apolitical magical kingdom, giving Black and poc audiences the Asgard, Galaxy Far Away and Hogworts denied for so long. And to a large extent Black Panther does this, and I enjoyed it for that reason. But in creating a Black hero that could appeal to white audiences, Coogler had to split the difference between a Black America increasingly losing patience with white supremacy and a white America vested in the status quo. The heavy-lifting super-constructs of Killmonger and Ross may well have been his attempt at an ideological compromise.

Marvel created buzz by baiting growing resistance to white supremacy, but balancing that corporate equation necessitated that the narrative take steps to preserve it, perhaps even against Coogler’s wishes (one hopes). Because the arc of the Marvel Universe bends toward whiteness, law, order and capital, a superhero that didn’t in some way champion them would functionally be a super-villain. This visceral truth, as projected through the flawed vessel of Killmonger, remains Black Panther’s only honest, if accidental, take on the real world of American racism.

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