WHAT STAR WARS’ DARTH VADER AND BLACK PANTHER’S ERIK KILLMONGER HAVE IN COMMON: besides they both Black!
Nkosi Ife Bandele
The most revealing moment of the Star Wars saga occurs when young Anakin Skywalker (morphing into Darth Vader before our very eyes) approaches a room full of Jedi-Younglins using the force, their natural child instincts, to play with the variety of Jedi-inspired toys that one might find children in reality playing with all over the world today. When greeted by one of the more distressed toddlers looking for his support against impending danger, future Darth swells up with anger and then fires up his light saber for his ensuing slaughter of the innocents. Do you remember what happens then? Well, we know he murders all of the children in the room, every single one including his wistful admirer, but do you recall seeing it? Of course not because the camera immediately cuts away. The director George Lucas knows, as you know, that if you watch Darth Vader murder a room full of kids, you will not be able to accept him as a story protagonist, that you will demand his head right then and there, that he immediately becomes beyond redemption; thus rendering the redemption story of Darth Vader, at the root of the Stars Wars saga, untenable, or more precisely, utterly intolerable.
Prior to this unconscionable act, Darth has already admitted to murdering women and children, and eventually, as full grown Darth, he and cohorts murder the inhabitants of an entire planet (billions we presume) by merely pressing a button. Lucas and his own cohorts choose not to show any one of these acts as it would be implausible for viewers, excluding the similarly profoundly depraved, to accept the redemption of a psychopathic mass murderer. Still, as the “chosen one” (with the prerequisite blue eyes and blonde hair), Darth brings balance to the force, and so at the end of the first trilogy we discover underneath all of his irredeemably ugly blackness a kindly, old white gentleman better understood as misguided youth than genocidal murderer.
(Before I continue, for all you Star Wars devotees, a quick lesson: A movie is a story told primarily via its pictures, i.e., “motion picture.” In Darth’s case, the purposeful omission of his most horrendous crimes, indeed crime against humanity, allows him to be tolerated; in effect, the saga intends for viewers to understand him. To that end, I’ll defer to Shoah director Claude Lanzmann, who holds vehemently in opposition to engendering the character of Hitler and the exact reasons for the Holocaust, insisting, “There is absolute obscenity in the very project of understanding.”)
Fast-forwarding, actually one would be hard pressed to suggest that Black Panther’s villain has a comparable episode, or for that matter claims a death toll quantifiable to Darth’s. Guided by his obscene rationalization rather than something as simple and inane as the “force,” Erik Killmonger starts by murdering a white and female museum curator too naïve or dubious to acknowledge European raiders as the likely sources of African Art in European museums, and to boot she has the unmitigated gall to racially-profile the young African American, treating him as she likely would any other “ghetto” visitor. She pays for all of it, though, her ancestors’ racist crimes as well as her own racist surveillance, as Killmonger poisons her and then mocks her as she suffocates to death. The moment reveals his intelligence and his wit, as well as his out of proportion need for revenge.
Killmonger’s next murder involves a young African American woman, presumably his girlfriend, whose life worth falls short of his larger ambition for revenge, so when challenged to save her life, he proactively shoots her in the face, a no brainer!
His other on-screen murders include a self-sacrificing old Wakandan whom Killmonger callously stabs in the gut and member of Wakanda’s female security force whose throat he slits as she and other security mercifully try to capture him.
On screen, Killmonger murders three young women and a hapless old man. (For the sake of nit-picky argument, he suspiciously does not kill his would-be white male rival “Klaw” on screen, a typical Hollywood move involving ineffectual black male protagonists and their formidable white male opponents.)
Like Darth’s, Killmonger’s epic crimes occur off-screen likewise making way for his subsequent redemption. His enthusiastic murdering of Iraqis and Afghans as a CIA operative in the U.S.’s illegal wars against those countries not only earned him the notches that fully cover his torso but also his rather un-ironic name. It’s not clear exactly if he kills his fellow Africans as CIA, but he proudly cops to it.
Unlike Darth, however, Killmonger’s quest for power possesses a supposed element of compassion, which perhaps makes his redemption more tenable. His revenge mission includes liberating African and/or oppressed people (presumably from the Whites) by arming them with weapons made of Wakanda’s potent vibranium metal. Yet, his compassion, indeed, fails to make it onto the big screen, rendering it of the most suspect variety. Besides himself, to whom does Killmonger display even a hint of compassion? So, then, how are we to believe his revolutionary flight of fancy to be anything other than self-serving rationalization? That’s precisely why the end of the movie rings so maddeningly false. Similar to Darth removing his gladiator helmet to reveal his Mr. Rogers’ face, when Wakanda’s pathetic king (who couldn’t even beat the movie villain fair and square, geez!) meekly offers to save Killmonger and he holds that he would rather die the ‘noble death’ than rot in jail by conflating it with his African ancestors heroically leaping off decks of slave ships, this marks the height of obscenity. The enslaved Africans may have jumped for any variety of reasons, heroism and defiance as implied, absolute bewilderment or utter exasperation, or just plain fear.
Obversely, mass murderers such as Killmonger routinely opt for death rather than face the full consequence of their actions, we imagine, because they do know what they have done and why.
This all leads me to wonder why Hollywood, as the U.S.’s main propaganda wing, regularly offers us these sympathetic villains while shamelessly attempting to redeem them in story. Do those whose psyches they represent realize what they have done and why as well? Moreover, if “black” fantasy continues down the same path as white, in effect mimicking the good, the bad, the and the downright ugly, then, as James Baldwin once famously questioned under similar circumstances, “What will happen to all that beauty?”