An Appreciation of Violence

The following post is my attempt at comparing and contrasting interpretations of Roach’s “violence is the performance of waste,” and Hartman’s “care is the antidote to violence” within the context of Marvel’s Black Panther movie. One may read the title of this post as a romanticization of violence, following the popular definition of appreciation as “the recognition and enjoyment of the good qualities of someone or something.” Rather, I am using the word appreciation as “a full understanding of a situation.” Thus, I will be discussing how this movie, and certain elements of our class, have modified my “appreciation” of violence. Note: obviously this post contains Black Panther spoilers… but nobody should need one at this point! Make time to watch the movie after finals 🙂

Another note: this analysis is fairly separated from the metaknowledge and context of the Marvel Universe. Black Panther is definitely one of my new favorite movies, and if it is not recognized in the next awards season, I will riot, because the acting, script, directing, soundtrack, cinematography, and CGI were all well done. Sitting in Geneseo’s creaky, gross theater, I felt things I hadn’t felt in a while, especially from a film. My emotions were all over the place: I gasped, I laughed, I cried, I fumed. It was aesthetically, emotionally, and intellectually gratifying. And of course, there’s the much-discussed matter of representation in the film. There are several articles online discussing the significance of Africans, including African women, being portrayed as genuine, empowered, advanced, and three-dimensional characters. And since I just linked a dozen articles, I’m going to talk about something more specific. What stood out to me that I haven’t seen talked about much is the representation of violence.

As some of you may have determined from interacting with me in group discussions, I am a vegan, tree-hugging, pacifist. I’m one of the naive folks that thinks most violence is senseless and avoidable. Thus, while I can appreciate the complexities and aesthetics of violence in film (I’m thinking of Quentin Tarantino with that phrase), I think in many cases it is not carried out well enough to justify its inclusion beyond senselessness. Black Panther managed to tear down that attitude that previous actions movies I’ve watched had built up: it helped me see the potential for the beauty and benefits of violence. Even though I still think violence is “bad” and “wrong,” I am beginning to recognize it is not always senseless.

The violence in Black Panther was not senseless, or if it was, that senselessness was acknowledged. Violent actions in the movie were analyzed, questioned, and grieved. Unlike most movies, there weren’t “extra” characters killed off unnoticeably. And while The Bad Guy died, his death wasn’t celebrated, nor did it immediately solve the problem. (And people are still debating if the antagonist is actually the protagonist!) Overall, Black Panther wasn’t satisfied with typical tropes, and instead explored deeper themes of violence. I have categorized these themes in this post, and for each will be deciding whether I think the examples fit my perceptions of “violence [as the] performance of waste” and “care is the antidote to violence.”

As I describe the examples, I don’t want to get too much into plot summary, so I’ll give some brief context for anyone who hasn’t watched. Black Panther mainly takes place in Wakanda, a highly advanced country that receives its power and wealth from a somewhat magical metal called Vibranium. Vibranium united the tribes of the country (apart from the Jabari tribe, who believe the Wakandans should stick to tradition) with the Panther tribe’s leader as the king. Wakanda is the only African country untouched by colonialism, existing entirely outside the global systems of institutionalized racism. But to other nations around the world, Wakanda is “disguised” as a “third-world” country. The movie starts in 2016(ish), where King T’Chaka was killed in a bombing. His son T’Challa was heir, and was set to become the new Black Panther and leader of Wakanda. But there were two challenges to the throne. First was M’Baku, leader of the Jabari tribe (mentioned earlier), who ended up losing the legal challenge. Second was Erik Stevens, T’Challa’s unknown, American-raised cousin, who wanted to avenge the death of his father (killed by T’Chaka). Lastly, other notable characters are Nakia, T’Challa’s former lover; Shuri, T’Challa’s sister; and Okoye, a female loyalist soldier.

The first category is: “Superficially senseless violence,” as represented by Erik Stevens.

  • Finding his father’s lifeless body, and being forced to grow up among the gang violence of California whilst being semi-aware of the fantasy land of Wakana, made Erik a very angry person
  • His entire adult life consisted of military training. He was a Navy SEAL, recruited into a black ops unit, and in the US armed forces. It is also implied he carried out other bounty-hunting types of private missions. We know for sure that the kills physically took place on US, Afghanistan, and Iraq soil.
  • While in the armed forces, Erik would cut his skin in a manner that’s attributed as “tribal crocodile scarring,” with one mark for each kill.
  • This “collection” and active perusal of kills gained him the nickname “Killmonger.” This nickname implies he is a “dealer or trader” in the “commodity” of kills.
  • He celebrates all of the above by stating that his life goals are further violence:
    • “I’ve waited my whole life for this. The world’s going to start over. I’MA BURN IT ALL!”
    • “I lived my entire life waiting for this moment. I trained, I lied, I killed just to get here, I killed in America, Afghanistan, Iraq. I took life from my own brothers and sisters right here on this continent! And all this death, just so I could kill you [T’Challa]!”
  • On a surface level, Erik mentally and physically represents the type of action heroes and villains I detest: individuals who take pride in the violence and feel no remorse no matter how “senseless” the act of violence is. I view these actions as very wasteful and performative, and feel a sense of hopelessness in that no care could “antidote” the individual nor their actions.

However, it becomes very clear that Erik’s violence is much more complex than that. The next category is: “Multi-faceted violence,” as represented by Erik Stevens.

  • Although the main villain, some (including the actor who plays T’Challa, which I’ll get to soon) consider him the hero of the movie.
  • His life is a conglomeration of reactions to injustice, both personal and systematic.
    • On the death of his father and gang violence: “Everybody dies. It’s just life around here.”
    • On colonialism: “How do you think your ancestors got these [artifacts]? Do you think they paid a fair price? Or did they take it, like they took everything else?”
    • On slavery: “Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from the ships, because they knew death was better than bondage.”
  • He’s allowed to display vulnerability, which is pretty significant considering black males (and villians in general) are not often given that dimension.
  • As a result of all of the above, when he dies we are sad and not sad at the same time.
  • This (and the following sections) is where I really started to question the “wastefulness” of violence. His poetic, poignant lines are performative in a very intelligent sense.

This brings me to the next category: “Violence in revolution,” as represented by the question, Why isn’t Erik the Black Panther instead of T’Challa?

  • By this question I don’t mean “why didn’t Erik canonically grow up in Wakanda and become the literal Black Panther leader” but rather, “why didn’t the creators of this portion of the Marvel Universe shape the story so that Erik is symbolically the Black Panther.”
  • As discussed in the last section, two factors radicalized Erik: his childhood experiences, and viewing the institutionalized racism of post-colonial and post-slavery places. But he never felt like he had the resources to make a change.
    • I like the way one article puts it, “Killmonger is pure, raw vengeance for that – the fury of centuries of injustice, all poured into one person.”
    • He realized that the wealth and power of Wakanda’s vibranium could give African Americans (and other descendents of slavery) a chance.
    • This is an admirable trait in theory because he holds the same realization that many others (inlcuding T’Challa) may, but he knew it didn’t have to be that way and he wanted to make a change.
    • A major conflict in the movie is whether Wakanda should expose themselves as wealthy and successful in order to help others with their power, or to remain private and isolated in order to protect their success. As a result, Wakanda was currently not helping others, and Erik saw that and was mad.
  • As I referenced earlier, Chadwick Boseman, the actor who plays T’Challa, says his character is “the enemy I’ve always known. It’s power. It’s having privilege…. T’Challa is born with a vibranium spoon in [his] mouth.” \
    • So while Boseman recognizes that T’Challa is a potential antagonist and Erik is a potential protagonist, he doesn’t connect the dots: Erik is fighting the power and therefore is a potential emblem of the original Black Panther movement more so than T’Challa.
  • For me, this is where the “care is the antidote to violence” really comes through as both affirmed and refuted. Even though T’Challa expresses care towards Erik, it’s too late. However, the movie ends on a hopeful note, implying large-scale, long-term, systematic care.

In order to start a revolution, Erik needed the throne. This brings me to the category of “Violence in rituals,” as represented by traditional Wakandan “challenges” for the throne.

  • In Wakanda, when a new king is being elected, members each tribe either accepts the proposed king or offers up a “challenger” to the throne. The challenger physically fights the proposed king, and the survivor is the new king.
  • T’Challa views this as an acceptable custom, and fights a challenger, M’Baku. But later, when Erik proposes to fight, T’Challa says, “Throw down your weapons, we can handle this another way.”
  • Here is a clip of the T’Challa V. M’Baku fight and Here is a clip of the T’Challa V. Erik fight. Both clips are such low quality that I almost feel ashamed linking them, so please feel free to skip watching them for sake of cinematographic preservation.
  • Even though I hate violence there was something about these scenes that sucked me in. The vocal and spiritual participation of the tribes and families was very intimate. There was a lot of honor in the fact that they were forced to distance themselves. It reminded me of hidden mothers of Black Panther members who would be proud of their children/sons yet terrified.
  • I think the producers of this movie did a lot of cultural research when creating these scenes. The scenes portrayed the rituals in a very intelligent and respectful manner. This article provides more information on some African fighting customs, including Stick-Fighting, striking, and wrestling. But these customs are also viewed in negative light, such as in this article from AnswersAfrica.com.
  • Overall, the “performative” nature of the challenge scenes adapted my attitudes of socially acceptable violence.

The last category is a short one, “Violence in the name of patriotism,” as represented by Wakandans in general but Okoye especially.

  • I mentioned in the first paragraph of this post that there are no “extras” that die unnoticed. In fact, there are military members that are injured or die in the final fight scene that aren’t outwardly recognized. However, the patriotic cohesiveness of the scene sort of provides recognition of them.
  • It’s really interesting that the women soldiers are kind of at the lead of the battle, or at least have some of the more significant roles.
  • But of course that means that romance is contrasted with patriotism:
    • Nakia has a line that’s romantic towards both Wakanda and T’Challa, “It is my duty to fight for who I…for the things I love.”
    • When Okaye’s husband W’Kabi says, “Would you kill me, my love?,” she responds, “For Wakanda? Without Question.” [But she doesn’t kill him.]
  • There is the issue of “serving” Vs “saving” in the context of patriotism.
    • Okaye says to Nakia, “I am loyal to the throne. What are you loyal to?”
    • This implies that Nakia is not loyal to anything, when really she is “loyal” to the idea of constructively building/saving her country rather than blinding “saving” it.
  • Patriotism is a form of care, but it often conscripts patriots into performing violence.

I’ll conclude with more questions: What causes violence? A combination of genetic, environmental, and social factors? Is it all evolutionary? Will we ever evolve out of violence? Is there such a thing as a completely non-violent person when taking into account all senses of violence? If psychologists, sociologists, and biologists can’t fully answer these questions, there’s no way I’ll be able to. A lot of the violence we saw in class, both natural and otherwise, was devastating and to say otherwise would be romanticization. But I do think, as we try to avoid and condemn violence, it is always worthwhile looking into the context and motivations of violences.

P.S. I just found out that the Geneseo Theaters are bringing back Black Panther! Here are the showtimes: Fri 5/4-4:00, 7:00, 9:15, Sat 5/5 & Sun 5/6-1:00, 4:00, 7:00, 9:15, Mon 5/7 thru Thurs 5/10-7:00, 9:15. Now nobody has an excuse 🙂

P.P.S. Since summer is coming up and we’ll all have more time for unassigned reading, if you enjoyed Black Panther, consider looking up “The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm,” a junior science fiction novel by Nancy Farmer. It’s set in Zimbabwe 2194, and tackles some similar themes in a really subtly intelligent way.

P.P.P.S. Saudi Arabia, which had a long-standing ban on public cinema, recently lifted that ban with Black Panther as the first public showing of a movie! 

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