In her 2016 article for The Cut, Ashley Weatherford details “The Year in Black Joy“. If she were to write such an article for 2018, she might put Black Panther right at the top. When we first met the Marvel Cinematic Universe version of T’Challa, aka Black Panther, it was in the third installment of Cap’s story, Captain America Civil War from 2016. His father, T’Chaka, the King of Wakanda, a fictional African nation, has just died in a bomb attack. He has inherited the throne as well as the identity of Black Panther, a masked figure in a black bulletproof suit with claws. There are a lot of questions about T’Challa’s backstory as well as Wakanda’s that are left unanswered.
The latest film,
Black Panther, seeks to answer those questions. It essentially picks up right after the events of that movie, with the nation of Wakanda still grieving the loss of its king. What the film nails right from the start is a refresh of the superhero origin story. We aren’t treated to two hours of how T’Challa became Black Panther. We are quickly brought up to speed in an introductory animation, that also includes how Wakanda obtained an alien metal called Vibranium that gives them the best tech, energy sources, and armor. In fact, it powers the Black Panther suit. But all of the details aren’t labored over like they were in Doctor Strange, and it still works. The two and a half hours of Black Panther are better spent showing how T’Challa comes into his own as a king rather than a superhero. This storyline gives us a welcome break from the Avengers plot and allows us to marinate in the world of Wakanda.
Wakanda, as represented by writer/director Ryan Coogler (
Fruitvale Station 2013, and Creed, 2015), is a wondrous place, with diverse tribes, amazing architecture, and mind-blowing technology. It’s a relief to see a futuristic cityscape that looks new and original and isn’t just a rehashing of the environs of the Blade Runner films. Wakanda is anAfrican superpower with the same kinds of problems that the US, Great Britain, Israel, or China might have. The conflict central to this storyline is isolationism vs inclusion. Before T’Chaka died, he kept Wakanda shrouded in mystery, using the power of Vibranium to masquerade it as an impoverished nation that doesn’t participate in global trade and also refuses aid. Of course, the reason it refuses aid is because they don’t actually need aid, because Vibranium essentially solves all of their problems. But now that T’Chaka has died in Captain America: Civil War, should T’Challa follow his instinct, and the advice of his ex, Nakia, and share the wealth of its technology with the rest of the world?
There are so many ways that Black Panther excels in telling its story. To my mind, a story with strong, complicated characters in a rich, detailed setting is successful, and this movie is bursting with them. We get to see the benevolent King T’Challa, played by Chadwick Boseman (42, Marshall) with a wisdom beyond his years, surrounded by myriad strong women, including Okoye, played by Danai Gurira (Walking Dead, All Eyez On Me) a capable and fiercely loyal general, and Nakia, as played by Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years A Slave, Star Wars: The Force Awakens) who is too busy being a superspy freeing oppressed women to be the queen. There is also a breakout performance by Letitia Wright (Humans, Black Mirror) as T’Challa’s younger sister, Shuri. Coogler has given Shuri, the brightest, most intelligent character, the funniest and most memorable lines. That matters. Coogler has written black women as strong, brilliant, funny people who stick with the convictions of their character. Young black girls get to watch women who look like them kicking ass, being smart and funny, and looking awesome while doing it, in a Marvel movie. And so do young black boys. And so do young white boys and girls. That’s huge.
Andy Serkis (
Lord of the Rings, King Kong) was also impressive in Black Panther as Ulysses Klaue. He really seemed to lose himself in this role, in a way that reminded me of Heath Ledger’s Joker. This role did not demand he give his all and yet there he was, portraying a thoroughly convincing pyschopath. It was also really effective to see Martin Freeman (The Office, The Hobbit), who is white, take a bullet for Lupita Nyong’o, because black women are not disposable. In fact, some good or interesting moments in the film were how the movie treats its white people. Most included Freeman struggling to be useful despite his repeated gracelessness. Cut to Freeman believing Klaw’s conspiracy theories about how Wakanda is basically El Dorado, the lost city of gold (sure, they turned out to be somewhat true, but look how easily convinced he was when it was a white man saying it). Fast forward to Freeman using the gauche term “third world country” repeatedly. Jump to a white academic demonstrating her expertise in African artifacts and getting it wrong.
But for as goofy and clueless as white people are in this world — and the real one — the movie stops short of advocating their extermination from the planet. One character who is represented as treating black women as disposable is Killmonger, played by the smoldering Michael B Jordan (
Fruitvale Station, Creed). The juxtaposition between Killmonger and T’Challa has been likened to Magneto and Professor X, which itself has been compared to Malcolm X and Dr. King, which I think is apt for both. It isn’t a one-to-one ratio, but I also picked up on elements of a more blood-thirsty radical left movement, a la the Bolsheviks in the Russian revolution, wanting to share the resources among the people. If you add an angry black filter over it, wanting to use the power to kill their oppressors, and their children, and anyone who agrees with them, you have Killmonger. It’s a more extreme version of the kinds of conversations that have been happening in American politics for a while, represented on-screen in a way that is easy to disagree with, while also doing a good job of justifying why Killmonger feels this way.
Of course, what ends up happening is Killmonger, after his defeat, is successful in moving T’Challa’s political platform more to the left. He opens up Wakanda and in a triumphant mid-credits sequence, implies he is going to begin sharing the Vibranium stores with the world to end global power disparity amongst the people. This will be a game changer for the MCU as it enters its next phase, thus another reason why Black Panther’s standalone movie is a big cog in the ever-churning machine of the Avengers story.
Black Panther is a joy of of a film, a pleasure to watch, get lost in, and revisit, with a diverse and lovable cast of characters, sumptuous visuals, and an engrossing story. It is a joy to get to see some of the finest talents work together, despite working inside an industry that often relegates them to token roles. We get to see Chadwick Boseman and Michael B. Jordan and Lupita Nyong’o and Angela Bassett and Forest Whitaker, and Daniel Kaluuya, together, being badasses. It seems to be paying off as well, grossing approximately $192 million its first weekend, a $361 million worldwide total, and sure to gain more as the fire spreads, with long lines out the door and theaters scrambling to add screenings to accommodate demand. Some might try to convince you that to objectively review a film, it must be viewed without the lens of identity politics, to scrutinize its merits colorblind. Black Panther certainly succeeds its aims regardless, but why separate the identity of the author, its players, and its audience? This movie doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and there’s something positive for the world to be found in in embracing “black joy”.