Shut up and listen: T’Challa vs. Killmonger
Why Black men relate to ‘Black Panther’ protagonist and “villain”
Third of a four-part series
Sheletta Brundidge has made a living talking — from TV, radio and as a standup comedian, you name it, she’s done it. But after being blown away by Black Panther, Brundidge decided to enlist other voices in the community to unpack the power and reach of the blockbuster film — hence, she must shut up and listen.
It was the summer of 2015 and my only daughter Cameron was just a little toddler. Our family was out to dinner one night at a neighborhood dive that had lots of big screen TVs covering college sports. My husband Shawn and I were playing around with our kids, eating and being silly when out of nowhere everyone started screaming and clapping wildly.
Now, we didn’t know what was causing all the ruckus, ‘cause the Brundidges were face-deep in burgers and fries. But all the hoopla startled my baby girl and she started to cry uncontrollably. You see, she’s been diagnosed with autism and loud noises scare her to no end.
I began trying to comfort little Cameron and get her back to a peaceful place, but before I could calm down my child, an angry sports fan from across the room yelled, “Shut that Black baby up!”
I couldn’t turn around fast enough before my husband Shawn got up to go “lay hands” on the rascal who said it, and not in the Biblical sense.
When my man left his seat, he looked at me, and I saw something in his eyes. Something I had never seen before. He was not just mad, he was angry, with a purpose and ready to protect his family.
Now let me tell you, this is my husband: Tailor-Made-Suit-Wearing Shawn Brundidge. He is cooler than a polar bear’s toenails. This man never raises his voice for any reason. I’ve been with him 17 years now and I ain’t never heard him fuss, not even at the kids. My husband graduated from medical school; fighting and starting trouble ain’t in his DNA.
But at that moment in that restaurant in that instance, he went from Mr. Cool to Tupac Shakur. I wanted to raise up his shirt to see if he had “Thug Life” tattooed on his chest.
I jumped up, grabbed my baby’s daddy and pulled him outside. I knew if my man had gotten ahold of that disrespectful racist, he would have wound up being away from us for at least 10-15 years. And I ain’t ‘bout that single life.
When I watched the Black Panther movie, I realized that as much as my husband reminds me of noble, good-hearted King T’Challa, he has a little Erik Killmonger in him, too. Killmonger was the antagonist in the movie, a mercenary who sought revenge for a family wrong. Needless to say, Poppa Brundidge don’t take no mess when it comes to his family.
And according to Michael Battle, every Black man is part T’Challa and part Killmonger and that’s not a bad thing.
You may know Battle. He’s a St. Paul native who grew up in the Twin Cities but currently resides in Los Angeles. For 10 years, he’s been the co-host of the Mom & Michael Hour with his mother Jearlyn Steele on WCCO Radio. He’s a film and television producer, talent manager and magician. You may remember his handsome face from Dragon Fly TV, a PBS children’s show that aired on Twin Cities Public Television.
I’m gone shut up and listen to Michael, a Marvel movie aficionado, explain how many Black men straddle personas on any given day.
SB: Were the roles of the two lead male characters in Black Panther real for you?
MB: I felt like when I was watching Black Panther, I was watching the narrative of the daily experience of Black men in America play out between the protagonist and antagonist.
Unlike most of these relationships we see in films, both of these characters are Black and have honorable intentions. You don’t dislike Killmonger. You don’t like what he’s doing, but you understand why he’s doing it. I see myself in this character every now and then in many of the days of my life.
You have to decide when walking into a meeting at work where you have a confrontation with someone…who doesn’t look like you or have your values or beliefs, or more specifically when you’re being pulled over by a police officer, you have to decide in that moment which version of the Black king you want to be.
Do you want to be the T’Challa version and take a more peaceful approach or do you want to be Killmonger version who is going to approach the situation with a heightened level of intensity?
SB: Word? It’s like that?
MB: That’s what we experience every single day especially when someone is seemingly attacking your family or your home or the things you love most. Anger is in everyone. But when it’s coming from a White face, and it’s said in a way that’s patronizing and antagonistic, in a way that might be rooted in race, it makes the Killmonger in us all jump out that much faster.
And again, I love him as an example of what it really is — it isn’t the angry Black man that we’ve seen so often in film and television. It is the educated, highly successful and amazingly powerful Black man who is making the best choices for him. It’s not just blind anger.
SB: But shouldn’t you choose to be the noble, peaceful king who doesn’t fight and isn’t aggressive to be successful?
MB: Killmonger can be just as successful as T’Challa. I don’t want the implications of my comments to seem as if being T’Challa is the overall better options because sometimes he’s not. Every Black man I know has both of those characters within himself. It’s not saying that some half of us are bad.
You have to find the balance between the two. I think success is found when [you have] access [to] both entities in their full power when you need them. Sometimes you have to be wholeheartedly aggressive and that’s not specific to Black men.
For any human being, acting in social situations to protect what you love, you have to be the more aggressive version of yourself. But again, smartly aggressive. Pointedly aggressive.
SB: How do you decide though? When is it okay to unleash your inner Killmonger?
MB: There are moments when you have to choose. Am I going to jump off? If I turn into Killmonger when a cop pulls me over, the consequence of that is, I might be shot. But that doesn’t mean you can’t go march somewhere as a reaction to mistreatment…
I think it’s an ongoing deeply complex conversation that starts when we’re young men, when we’re speaking to our Black parents, and it continues through adolescence and adulthood.
SB: Did you get the same sense of pride I felt after watching the movie?
MB: I walked out of that theater beaming with pride. Just completely enveloped in this warmth of joy that I had seen Black people on screen replicated in a way that was beautiful and honorable and that showed us, us being Black people, in the way that we feel on the inside very often but we never get to see [on the big-screen]. It was such a positive representation of people who look like myself and those in my family.
Next up: The conclusion of the four-part series will focus on dialogue between African and African American communities in light of Black Panther.
Sheletta Brundidge welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.