There is a moment towards the end of "Black Panther" when Erik Killmonger, an orphaned Oakland native who’s honed his fighting skills through several tours in the U.S. military, unveils his vision for the future. “The world’s going to start over,” he tells the Wakandans as he prepares to deliver superweapons to black people around the world in an attempt to set off a violent revolution against the world’s white oppressors. “And this time, we’re on top.”
"Black Panther" is, first and foremost, a film about black experience and black identity that wrestles with the question of what a hyper-advanced, wealthy African nation might owe to the victims of colonialism and the African diaspora. But it is also a film that asks what it means to heal a wound, particularly when that wound is the result of a grievous trauma that spans generations. The solution Killmonger envisions — one in which justice is meted out by placing the once-oppressed in a position of privilege and dominance — holds an obvious appeal for anyone who’s suffered the pain of marginalization and violent oppression. But it’s a solution that, history shows us, all too often comes at a perilous cost.
But when a sense of safety requires the violent oppression of another people, it’s less a salvation than a perpetuation of the same violence that wrought the initial harm.
My grandparents were born at the beginning of the 20th century, their childhoods spent in the shtetls of Eastern Europe. They came of age as Hitler was rising to power in Germany, and their early adult years were marked by horrific violence, loss and tragedy. My grandfather lost his parents, his brother, his first wife and his children; my grandmother survived the horrors of being imprisoned in a Nazi work camp. At the end of the war, they met in a displaced persons camp; two survivors of an atrocity who joined together to rebuild their lives.
A few decades after my grandparents left Europe, I was born in Israel, a country founded as a kind of reparation for the survivors of Europe's attempted genocide. Although Israel’s creation was mediated by those in power (rather than forged in a violent, vibranium-fueled revolution against them) there was, nonetheless, a Killmongerian aspect to the nation’s founding. A long suffering diaspora was given a home, and a national identity was strengthened through mandatory military service. At least in this one corner of the world, Jews were finally on top, shedding a history of victimhood in exchange for a display of militarized strength.
But 70 years after its foundation, the story of Israel is less a triumphant tale of survival and restoration than a cautionary example of what can happen when a history of victimization is used to fuel tribalism rather than empathy. In its current incarnation, the Israeli government enforces a tiered system of citizenship, where the personhood and rights of Jews are valued above all others.
"Black Panther" ultimately recognizes the dangers of Killmonger’s plan, arguing that the destructive, imperialist tactics he peddles will never result in a true liberation of the people he seeks to uplift.
It’s a perverse reversal of fortune in which asylum seekers face expulsions amidst fears that they might threaten Israel’s status as a majority Jewish state, or where Palestinians are regularly subjected to human rights violations by the Israeli state. A Human Rights Watch report details some of the abuses that have occurred in the West Bank and Gaza Strip over the past 50 years, including forced displacements of Palestinians, imprisonment of non-violent activists, and the killings of civilians — all defended as necessary for maintaining the security of a Jewish state.
I understand, on a visceral level, the desire to preserve and protect a Jewish homeland; to create a safe harbor for a people with a violent history of victimization. But when that sense of safety requires the violent oppression of another people, it’s less a salvation than a perpetuation of the same violence that wrought the initial harm, this time with the roles reshuffled.
"Black Panther" ultimately recognizes the dangers of Killmonger’s plan, arguing that the destructive, imperialist tactics he peddles will never result in a true liberation of the people he seeks to uplift. It’s a lesson already made plain by Israel’s seven-decade history, during which a country envisioned as a safe haven for the survivors of genocide has become a state ruled by an oppressive government that violates the rights of a religious and ethnic minority in the name of Jewish survival and safety.
Although "Black Panther" is a story about the African and African diaspora experience, its recognition that oppressive, imperialist tactics will never mend the damage wrought by oppression and imperialism is a message that should be heeded universally.
If we want to heal a wound, it’s not enough to merely uplift the oppressed and slot them into the position of oppressor. If we want to heal a wound, we have to heal the world.
Lux Alptraum is a Development Producer for Fusion’s "Sex.Right.Now." and the author of "Faking It: The Lies Women Tell About Sex — And The Truths They Reveal," out in fall 2018 from Seal Press.