The difference between heroes and villains in ‘Black Panther’ and in life

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Chadwick Boseman stars in “Black Panther.” | Marvel Studios/Disney

Across the urban American landscape, I see Killmongers — members of the “lost tribe.” They perish, perennially preying upon one another — brother against brother — dwelling in a forgotten land bearing no resemblance to mythical Wakanda.

I also see T’Challas — the embodiment of black promise and dreams fulfilled. Their presence, however, seems less abundant than their nemeses, which threaten the future of a nation in this land where the Negro still is not free.

And if the “Promised Land” ever really once existed, even in this northern American metropolis called Chicago, it now more resembles a barren forgotten land, where far too many black people languish on islands of poverty and despair. Where the wind blows with a chilling breath, even on sun-drenched summer days amid violence and gunfire as inevitable as the change of seasons.


Here, murder tolls and the innocent die young. Blood and human carnage are rinsed by rain that flows into street drains or soil. In this land, the non-fictional Black Panthers — inspired by visions of black self-sufficiency and harmony — have long been dismantled, riddled with bullets by cops as they lay sleeping in bed.

Still, visions of Killmonger and T’Challa dance in my head.

Villain and hero in the Marvel Comics movie, they are first cousins by birth — “brothers” by blood, and yet adversaries. One: the destroyer of Wakanda. The other: its defender. At first glance, one is evil, the other good.

But upon further reflection, and my own introspection, it is clear to me that Killmonger and T’Challa are one in the same. That no man is all evil and that no man is all good.

Clear to me is that Killmonger is T’Challa. And that T’Challa is Killmonger. That they both have the same blood, the same potential as men to become part of the solution, or part of the problem, the same ability ultimately to choose.

And yet, I cannot deny the most glaring divide between the two, which I myself have known: connection and rejection as little boys.

Clear to me that Killmonger was severed from any connection to the land of his forefathers. That menfolk in his family, even aware of the boy’s existence, dropped the ball, left him to languish apart from them — to grow up without knowing who he was, whence he came, or his full potential.

I know. For I am Killmonger.

I am also T’Challa. I am both. I was one bad choice, one explosive episode, or one hopelessness-induced depression from becoming destroyer instead of builder.

I was the dropped ball. A member of the lost tribe. An abandoned son of poverty, bathed in anger, resentment and the pain of rejection by the first man who was supposed to love, to protect and guide me.

In his absence, other men stepped in. And the rage and pain of Killmonger slowly, eventually dissolved.

Many years later, amid headlines of the murdered and wounded across this forgotten land, I am reminded of my brother Killmongers. Reminded even this week of the countless little black boys, growing up with no black man to speak life or hope. Innocent boys who long to see their fathers or simply a father figure to show up just for them at a track meet or a football game or school.

And I am reminded that “we” must be their reconnection. For the sake of “Wakanda.”

At a recent panel discussion on “Black Panther,” I misspoke about having seen as a journalist a cooler full of “T’Challas, wearing orange toe tags, stacked in the Cook County morgue.”

I meant Killmongers.

But the truth is, they really were T’Challas.


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