BLACK PANTHER IS ALL A SUPERHERO FLICK CAN BE, EVEN MORE
WHAT SHOULD A superhero movie be? What can it be? At last, with Black Panther, we have an answer for all those time.
In the last decade alone—where the promise of progress in Hollywood read first as fantasy, then as farce—America’s cathedral of heroes offered little access to depictions that fell outside the mechanisms of the industry. Batman and Iron Man, billionaires. Thor, a Norse god. Spider-Man was a youthful prodigy. Captain America, a World War II soldier, became the literal manifestation of national pride and hope.
Black superheroes were never afforded the same deification. During the tail end of black cinema’s golden age, Wesley Snipes’ early-aughts Blade trilogy flirted with pop immortality, but even that character’s legend faded across the years. Sometimes I wondered, even at the moment, if black superheroes were ever truly meant to endure in the mainstream, the truth of America being what it is, or if the continuous image of black valor was too much of an irritant to the illusion Hollywood required to project, to protect.
As you can picture, what rises upon in the opening tints of the film sets the stage for no mediocre undertaking. Here, the past and present are linked by a shared future. Writer/director Ryan Coogler, born and raised in Northern California, remains close to home, dropping us in the murk of 1992 Oakland. The occasion—death.
We first meet Prince N’Jobu—portrayed finely by Sterling K. Brown, he’s a Wakandan spy radicalized from his time living in the US—who has provided intel to Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), a rogue black market dealer, on how to secure vibranium, the meteoric ore native to Wakanda that is the life source to the nation’s technological prosperity. When N’Jobu’s misdeeds are unearthed, King T’Chaka, his brother, is forced to confront him. Their meeting fatally concludes, and the heir of the throne must bear the weight of his secret: that it was he who killed his brother to save the life of Zuri (Forest Whitaker), a trusted advisor. And though we don’t know it yet, this is Black Panther film’s heart, the moment every subsequent action will flow through.
The ensuing story splits along dueling ideologies. Black Panther picks up the story where Captain America: Civil War left off, with T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) assuming control of his kingdom’s fate in the wake of his father’s death. For decades, Wakanda’s utopian spirit has thrived under the cloak of East Africa’s ethereal beauty, believing that if world powers discovered its technological and scientific ingenuity, the country would risk constant threat.
Old-guard preservationists—among them, T’Challa’s mother Queen Ramonda (played by Angela Bassett from American Horror Story) and Okoye (Danai Gurira from The Walking Dead), chief of the king’s women-only security unit, Dora Milaje—believe the nation must continue as it has for centuries, only nurturing its own people. Others, like W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) and Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), confidants to T’Challa, subscribe to a more pan-Africanist worldview, believing that Wakanda must use its might to remedy the world of evil.
Nakia especially believes it is the country’s duty to aid the less fortunate—be they refugees, poor kids in the US, or activists caught in the tempest of protest against unjust state influence. The time arrives when the kingdom Wakanda can no longer remain immune, learning that it too must yield to the cry of a changing world.
A specter of change comes in the guise of Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (an evil, power-consumed Michael B. Jordan); he used to be a Black Ops mercenary fueled by blood and vengeance for his father’s death, Prince N’Jobu. His price is T’Challa’s throne and sovereignty over the nation. Killmonger, who finds an ally in W’Kabi, seeks an all out global revolution. He wants Wakanda to place itself as a wellspring by equipping marginalized factions with its advanced, indestructible weaponry—a move he’s sure will liberate the nation from the shadows and into a global superpower. Joe Robert Cole, who co-wrote the script of Black Panther alongside Coogler, turns an ancient narrative on its head through Killmonger’s revisionist wrath: The colonized as the colonizers.
What transpires is a film of beauty, backbone, and startling discipline.
Lines are drawn, and what transpires is a film of beauty, backbone, and startling discipline. Technically lush, the film infuses itself with diasporic hybridity: Wakandan outfits, architecture, and dialect pull from Mali, Nigeria, Kenya, Ethiopia, and South Africa. Rachel Morrison, a cinematographer nominated for the Academy Award attached to Black Panther movie, offers shots full of color and pure awesomeness. When T’Challa goes to the ancestral plain to find some advices from his late father, its gaping purple skies stretch into the theater, as if we are also on this dreamlike journey. As Marvel movies continue, Black Panther is rife with franchise touchstones: thrilling action sequences—the most daring of which starts off in an underground South Korean casino and rockets into a car chase through the crowded streets of Busan—are undercut with moments of human spirit and levity (Letitia Wright’s princess Shuri and Winton Duke’s M’Baku serve up well-timed blushes of humor).
COOGLER AND T’CHALLA form a parallel path here, finding answers to the same question: who are you responsible to, ultimately, your people or the people of the world? For the part of Coogler, he does due diligence by fusing Black Panther with appreciations to black culture beyond the backdrop of Wakanda and the customs of its people. I particularly adored the moment when Jordan’s Killmonger, revealed to be of royal blood, refers to Bassett’s Queen Ramonda “auntie” with a razor-thin smirk. Or when little Shuri jokes with her royal older brother about the time-honored footwear he wore to impress tribal leaders, laying into him with, “What are thooose?!?!”
Even free of such context, the film is a certain win here. Conveyed via the judicious eye of Coogler, Black Panther’s existence alone brings out a counter-history in movie and mass media—first by eliminating whiteness from its narrative center, then by making black folks and black self-determination the default.
He has reshaped the possibility of a superhero classic, a nod to his singular point of view and belief that black lives matter, and that they imbue relevance on the big screen no matter what narrative form they take. Coogler proved that with Fruitvale Station, his breakout 2013 feature about the killing of Oscar Grant, and one more time with Creed, the 2015 boxing action movie that mined the importance of legacy and family.
Black Panther movie will manifest as a movement greater than now. It’s far more than historic pre-sale records, or box-office predictions. The crazy hype that’s followed the movie since inception has been utterly volcanic, like nothing I’ve seen before.
It’s not that our need for black superheroes has shifted. Pictures like The Meteor Man and Steel may not have been commercially vivid, but their tales and their images remain crucial to black communities as what one friend depicted as “arbiters of hope and virtue in ways that transcend the limitations of our routine, colonized lives.” Another friend who I spoke to this week shared a comparable sentiment: “we need black superheroes to remind ourselves that inventing yourself is not only possible, but necessary for survival.” I cite them because Black Panther, Coogler’s masterpiece, has been a reflection of mutual hopes in creative industries where black lives are either underappreciated or co-opted for empty laughs. These worlds, these august narratives, have always been viable to us.
So, what can a superhero movie be? It can be truth and fire and love. If we’re lucky, it is all of those things, perhaps more. Black Panther is no mistake overflows with them.