This weekend brought the debut of Ryan Coogler
's newest directorial triumph, Black Panther,
a Marvel Studios
production distributed by Walt Disney Studios
. Based on the eponymous Marvel Comics
character, Black Panther
, which features a black director and a nearly all-black diasporic cast, raised incalculable expectations for black moviegoers, comics fans, critics and the film industry, and, having seen it yesterday, I can say hesitation that it more than satisfies them. It manages to be a thrilling fantasy movie based on a comics foundation, a visually arresting and movingly acted wok of cinema, and a politically aware, multilayered film that keeps the viewer thinking even after the final credits and post-credit clip have rolled.
The film's plot mirrors similar superhero tales, but is, as has been widely remarked, anchored in and deeply informed by an African(ist) futurist aesthetic. The story's hero must assume the mantle of his father, and shoulder the profound responsibilities for his people, but the script, by Coogler and John Robert Cole
includes twists, include two villains, one far more significant than the other, and a tale of familial revenge, linked to differing ideas of cultural socialization (African vs. African-American) and liberation, that I cannot say I have ever seen in any other superhero film. (One sees echoes of this, however, in a TV show like Black Lightning
, which I wrote about last week.) Indeed, the deeper conflict in the film, rooted in the idea of family
, now underpinned by the DNA testing industries and genealogical research, about the relationship between those in the Diaspora and those, like the Wakandans
, who have remained in the African homeland, may pass over some moviegoers' heads, but to me was one of the most stirring aspects of the film. Another was the film's baseline feminist perspective; Wakanda
may be presided over by a king, and Black Panther
may be a cis-heterosexual male, but this is no patriarchy, and women are equals--as warriors and citizens--to the men, the ruler notwithstanding. As a template for the new century, and for black children and children of all races, this is a powerful model to internalize.
|Lupita Nyong'o, Chadwick|
Boseman, & Danai Gurira
What underlines this portrait is the fictional Wakanda's almost singular status as an uncolonized and unconquered country; it and its people, the comics' and films' writers tell us, avoided the fate of almost every other non-Western country in the world. (Watching the film, I immediately thought of its closest African model, Ethiopia
, a site of ancient knowledge and civilization, a religious center, the home of a proto-Enlightenment preceding that of Europe, and more, which nearly withstood all attempts at subjugation, until Benito Mussolini
's firepower briefly won control of its territory (1936-1941).) What if Ethiopia, in addition to all of its advances, had possessed an element so powerful it might transform the world? Another analogue I thought of is the contemporary Republic of Congo
, whose lands contain a host of precious and invaluable resources now used in the high tech industries. Centuries of slavery, colonialism and empire, however, have created tremendous challenges for the people of Congo, and other resource-rich African nations, to pursue their destinies to the fullest, though a cursory glimpse at the economic, political and social developments in contemporary sub-Saharan Africa underline that advancements of all kinds are underway.
To give just a glimpse of the plot, Black Panther
unfolds with a quick prologue, set several centuries back. In a world parallel to our own, a meteor bearing the fictional metal vibranium
, the rarest and most powerful element known to humankind, strikes central Africa
. As five tribes wage war over the magical resource, a member of one of the tribes ingests a "heart-shaped bulb" that has been transformed by the vibranium, giving him special powers that lead him to become the first Black Panther
. He unites four of the five tribes as the nation of Wakanda, with the fifth, the Jabari
, remaining semi-independent in a loose confederation in the snowy mountains above. (A scene later in the film gives us a mini-tour of this aerie-perched nation; what was not clear was where most its
women were, as if it were a kind of black Sparta
in the clouds.) Rather than exploiting this remarkable resource, Wakanda chooses to guard it, presenting itself to the outside world as an impoverished, sleepy "Third World" member of the international community, while inside its borders, it is a technological powerhouse.
|Lupita Nyong'o and|
The film's real action opens in 1992, in an apartment in a housing project in Oakland, California
(where the original Black Panther Party
was established in 1966). Outside, a group of black boys are playing basketball. Inside the apartment, two young black men, whom we think are African Americans, appear to be plotting a revolution, stockpiling firearms. We soon learn that one of them, royal Prince N'jobu
(Sterling K. Brown
), really a Wakandan with aims of arming oppressed black people worldwide, is the brother of Wakanda's King, T'Chaka
), has arrived to bring his brother back for violating one of Wakanda's chief tenets: betraying the country by working with an outsider, arms dealer Ulysses Klaue
, exuding malevolence), who has stolen a cache of vibranium from Wakanda. N'jobu's co-conspirator Zuri
, related directly to neither of his namesakes!) turns out to be a fellow Wakandan and spy who has ratted him out. When N'jobu attempts to kill Zuri for snitching, the King slays his brother, and departs with Zuri for Wakanda. As their airship zooms away, one of the boys on the playground looks up at the apartment, and notes the fleeing spacecraft.
We flash forward to the current moment, which includes references to our contemporary world, in which the noble Prince T'Challa
) is set to assume the Wakandan throne after the assassination of his father, T'Challa (now played by veteran South African
actor John Kani).
We meet his younger sister, Shuri
), Wakanda's resident tech genius; his mother, the grieving Queen Ramonda
(a suitably regal Angela Bassett
); and the head of the Dora Milaje
, the Wakandan state's all female guard, General Okoye
, embodying an electrifying blend of brilliance and ferocity). Before T'Challa's coronation begins, he and Okoye retrieve his ex, Nakia
(a radiant Lupita Nyong'o
), now a deep operative in Nigeria
, the sparks still evident between them. As part of his ritual installment, before a royal audience outdoors, above waterfalls, and presided over by a much older Zuri
), T'Challa must face a challenger from any of Wakanda's tribes, all of whom, including his best friend, W'Kabi
), beg off. The Jabari tribe's head, the strapping (6'5" and stoutly built) M'Baku
), does raise a challenge, only to eventually tap out after being subdued by T'Challa. This is one of several rituals the viewer witnesses, giving a sense of the depth of the culture and the reverence with which power is transferred.
|T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) facing off|
against Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan, at right)
The plot then moves first to South Korea
, where the trio of T'Challa, Nakia and Okoye seek out Klaue (and Black Panther's
creator, the legendary Stan Lee
, makes a brief cameo), with a brief detour in London
, before returning to the familiar confines of Wakanda. In the British capital, in a museum displaying African artifacts, we encounter another of the film's major characters, the oddly named but cinematically galvanizing Erik Killmonger
(Michael B. Jordan
), who devours the screen every time he is on it. In fact, he moves through the script as a literal antithesis to Boseman's T'Challa. Where the new king is restrained, dignified, almost placid, personality traits Boseman portrays effortlessly, Jordan's Killmonger is all confident swagger, a mental and physical paragon (he nearly scorches the screen when he takes off his shirt for battle), pulsating with rage born of vengeance and, the viewer eventually learns, a sense of profound abandonment. Why, he asks, was he--like Black America--left to fend for himself, a question that the film suggests is the question of the entire Diaspora; yet, as we know, Africa itself has had a centuries-long battle on its hands too. When Killmonger reaches Wakanda, he upsets the social and political cassava cart, a civil war included, and the heart of the movie turns on whether his vision of the world, or T'Challa's, will prevail. (No spoilers!) As I noted above, their senses of duty are parallel; each seeks to rule, but in the service of an idea, and communities, beyond themselves. For Killmonger, is is black and other oppressed people of color across the globe; for T'Challa, it is his birthright, Wakanda. In the end, we see how the visions merge.
The acting is uniformly strong, and the viewer gets the sense that everyone in the film is enjoying themselves. Winston Duke and Letitia Wright are among the many breakout stars, if there are rolls for them down the road, and it was invigorating to see Boseman, Jordan, Nyong'o, and Gurira in roles other than biopics, historical narratives or realist tragedies, important and necessary as such films are. In 2006 and again in 2012 I wrote about the increasingly Diasporic cast of black Hollywood
, and this film fully represents that shift, drawing its talent from across the globe, while bringing together venerable figures like Kani, Academy Award winners like the senior Whitaker, and beginners like the younger Whitaker. As other commenters have noted, the films is that rare Hollywood product that also seems not beholden to colorism, particularly for its leading actresses. How rare--and needed!--to see dark-skinned women not relegated to the background, but in the forefront of a story, yet this felt organic, not forced, like most of what the film offers its viewers. Cinematographer Rachel Morrison
deserves praise for the rich imagery and her skillful blending of realism and CGI, and the score, by Ludwig Göransson
, with contributions by Kendrick Lamar
, and others, complements and enlivens what the viewer sees.
|Michael B. Jordan, as Erik|
Killmonger; Daniel Kaluuya,
as W'Kabi at right
I have so far not commented much on any of the film's white characters; in addition to Klaue, who functions mainly as a plot feint and device, there is another, CIA
agent Everett K. Ross
, played by Martin Freeman
, who occupies a pivotal place in the plot. Ross appears in the original comics as a fairly timid, low-key character, I believe, but the filmmakers expanded his role and pumped up his personality, making him not just essential to what unfolds, but memorable as well. (It paints the CIA in a favorable light, despite the agency's less than honorable history in advancing US neocolonial, imperial and capitalist aims in Africa and elsewhere.) As a thought experiment, I asked myself, what if he had been played by a Latinx actor, say, or, given China
's growing role in Africa, by a major Chinese-American or Chinese star? Would Hollywood ever have allowed that?
I then wondered about future iterations of Black Panther
, which because of its box office success (like $200 million earned over the opening weekend, with receipts set to keep rising, and a fan base that dots the globe); will the original comics' template, and Hollywood's desire for viable white stars, shape the storylines, or will the films' directors and screenwriters delve a little more deeply into other parts of the world, considering South Korea, for example, not just as a scenic backdrop, but Korean and Korean-American actors--and other Asian American and Asian actors, actors from Latin America, and so on--for key roles? What would a big budget but decolonized, Afro-futurist and Diasporic, plural cinema look like? Would Disney, let alone Marvel Comics, allow it? Black Panther
certainly provokes the question.
|T'Challa (Boseman) again|
facing off against Killmonger (Jordan)
I will end this review am not familiar enough with all of the past iterations of Black Panther
to know which Coogler and Cole drew from, but I believe in one of the newer versions, Okoye, in addition to being womynist, is a lesbian. In this film, her love interest is W'Kabi, however. (They generate little heat on camera, unlike T'Challa and Nakia.) Will queer Wakandans make an appearance in future iterations of the film, or will wariness on the issue win out? Also, and this is just a minor quibble, but there is a patriarchal, pro-monarchist ideological strain in the film, connected to a quite different but related notion of Afrocentricity--"we are descendants of kings and queens"-- that I found a little unsettling. Of course some of us are
descended, however distantly, from royals, and African Americans may find, upon receiving their DNA results, that our royal roots go in multiple directions (Africa, Europe, etc.), but the reality for most of us is that we come from the people who did the work to build most societies and cultures up, that is, from the bottom up, and there is nothing in this to be ashamed about. Patriarchy under any guise is problematic.
Moreover, at a time when democracy feels especially precarious, in the US, in the Americas, in Europe, in Africa, and across the globe, I hope that the writers of Black Panther
's sequels can figure out a way to weave a vibrant representative democracy and republican structure into their portrayal of Wakanda's government. I have nothing against noble black kings and queens, but everyone needs to see decent, dedicated politicians, black and of every hue, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, race, nationality, religion, etc., taking the right and judicious steps, on behalf of the people they represent and the globe, which may include not only keeping each other, but kings--and presidents--on the just path.