Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther is one of this year’s most anticipated movies, and for good reason. The excitement seems to stem from the current state of political affairs or a gut reaction to unprecedented representation in blockbuster cinema, but the film is so much more than either.
Black Panther is a continuing conversation that’s simultaneously about colonization and the dissociation of black Americans from Africa, and it’s also a joyous celebration of African culture.
[Warning: The following contains minor spoilers for Black Panther.]
Black Panther opens with a father, N’Jobu, telling his son the history of the nation of Wakanda. One of the rarest metals on Earth, vibranium, is used to construct the people and buildings of Wakanda’s past in a magical retelling of the country’s origins. N’Jobu informs the audience that the first Black Panther united warring Wakandan tribes, and that vibranium became their most valuable resource.
From the archives of Wakanda, the film flashes forward to 1990s Oakland. A makeshift basketball hoop rattles as kids play a on the blacktop way past dark. A Wakandan ship hovers above, obscured by clouds.
It’s a moment that allows us to contemplate the similarities and differences between these two worlds. When the outside world began invading the areas surrounding the unconquered land of Wakanda and enslaving their peoples, the nation’s leaders could have helped the locals or remained hidden and protected their valuable resources. Either choice could have catastrophic consequences. The Wakandans chose to invest in themselves instead, concealing vibranium — and the technological advantages the material provides — from the rest of the world.
In showing the legacy of Wakanda, which is filled with wealth and knowledge, and juxtaposing it with the hardships that black youths faced in Oakland, Coogler establishes a conversation around the dichotomy of being African-American versus African.
Throughout black American history, there’s been a desire to go home to Africa. We read about it in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, when Nettie Harris discovers the beauty and freedom Africa has to offer. Spike Lee explored the idea of returning to the mother continent in Malcolm X. In both cases, Nettie and Malcolm describe a feeling of finally belonging. Home is a powerful thing.
Black Panther seeks to find a middle ground between these two worlds: a world where black Americans aren’t left out of the cultural celebration of their West African roots, and where greedy people don’t have an opportunity to consume Wakanda. By focusing on the citizens of Wakanda and their disagreements on how to manage the country’s future, Coogler creates a sense of harmonic anarchy. Everyone wants to reach the same goal — to protect and preserve Wakanda — but they all have different ideas on how to get there.
“Wakanda forever” is a popular phrase among the nation’s people. The Dora Milaje, the Black Panther’s personal guard, believe that this means serving their country no matter who is on the throne. To N’Jobu, T’Challa’s uncle, and W’Kabi, his best friend, it means protecting Wakanda from any threat, at any cost. T’Challa believes in Wakanda’s moral fiber. He follows traditions closely, but also seeks to rectify the mistakes of the leaders who came before him. That controversial mindset comes to life in Shuri, T’Challa’s little sister, who bucks tradition.
Played by Letitia Wright, Shuri is a revelation. Wright steals every scene with her bright smile and perfect comedic timing. From a brazen middle finger to a sense of fashion and confidence in the face of imminent danger, Shuri is an inspiration for all. I cannot fully express the joy of seeing a smart, carefree, nonsexualized young black woman on the big screen.
But Wright’s is only the first in a long list of outstanding performances.
The women who make up T’Challa’s support system round out the cast terrifically. Angela Bassett plays the king’s mother, Ramonda. Headstrong and regal, her presence brings a calm assuredness to the team. Lupita Nyong’o’s Nakia is incredible. A Wakandan spy first, she is unwilling to compromise her desire to help people with her love for her king. There isn’t a Black Widow sex symbol here, or a Pepper Potts standing in the wings. The women of Black Panther are vital to Wakanda’s success.
No one is as impressive as Danai Gurira. As a woman torn between country and family, Gurira’s Okoye is wonderfully complex. Her fight scenes are incredible to watch. On a busy Korean street, Okoye stands atop a moving car. As Nakia weaves through traffic, trying to catch up to Klaw high on adrenaline, Okoye tosses spears through armored vehicles. Her scarlet dress flies out behind her just like a cape. How long until Okoye gets her own solo movie?
The strong roles don’t end there. In just two scenes, award-winning actor Sterling K. Brown gives one of the film’s most compelling and layered performances as N’Jobu. N’Jobu is a sheltered prince who, for the first time, has experienced how cruel the world can be to people who look like him.
In the swell of hype not much attention has been paid to Chadwick Boseman. Like Batman, T’Challa is a complex character who carries a lot of responsibility on his shoulders. And, like Batman, he is most interesting when the family he has collected surrounds him.
For T’Challa, this is his blood family — his mother and his sister — as well as the Dora Milaje and other local leaders. Because his people are his main priority, the conflict must come from within the community. Black Panther launches a new style of Marvel film. Like Ant-Man, Black Panther is a world unto itself. Although it’s connected to the larger universe through CIA operative Everett K. Ross, there aren’t any Avengers in the film. T’Challa will always choose Wakanda first.
In his second turn as the Black Panther, he is as flawless as ever. The king Boseman has crafted is the opposite of the martyr Tony Stark or the soapbox-standing Steve Rogers. T’Challa is exactly the kind of leader everyone hopes to serve — soft-hearted, able to make tough decisions, and always putting his people first.
After his father’s death in Captain America: Civil War, it is time for T’Challa to take the throne of Wakanda. All the people of the country show up to celebrate or challenge the new king’s ascension. With everyone lined up, it’s easy to see that Ruth E. Carter deserves an Oscar for her costume design. Her use of colors is masterful; the palette is distinctly African, and so striking as to make me long for the days of Technicolor.
Wakanda is the African dream. Unsullied by colonization, it is the most technically advanced civilization in the world. It looks like the most technically advanced place in the world, too.
All of Wakanda is constructed in harmony with the natural features of the land. Production designer Hannah Beachler has created some of the most unique sci-fi spaces in recent memory. An entire subway runs through an underground cave system. The throne room is built into a mountain. Every window is placed on a curve so as not to obstruct natural lines of sight.
There’s so much to enjoy about Black Panther that it is hard to know where to stop. In addition to Kendrick Lamar’s incredible soundtrack, the score, by Swedish composer Ludwig Göransson, is phenomenal. He uses drums to create a driving heartbeat that steadily builds over the course of the film, and my heart was racing in time with the music. This works best during the fight scenes. Building energy right into the next scene helps avoid the lulls that have become commonplace in Marvel films.
Black Panther is the best Marvel film thus far. Aside from the incredible representation and the gorgeous visuals, the story is terrific. I have never cared for a villain the way I care for Michael B. Jordan’s Erik Killmonger. Standing with feet shoulder width apart, he always has his hands clasped in front of him, and he never looks at anyone straight on unless he intends to end them. Killmonger is as attractive as he is intimidating. But Jordan wasn’t hired for just his sex appeal. That sharp eye and wounded heart shine through a tough exterior to illuminate a real human being. He is the crown jewel of an incredibly wealthy project.
It’s hard to describe the first viewing of Black Panther. There is pride in seeing so much black excellence in a single film. Sometimes, there may be too much. T’Challa is an infallible character; every decision lies on a straight moral compass. But the design elements of the film, the incredible performances and a killer soundtrack more than make up for any small flaws.
Do not wait to see Black Panther. Bring tissues. Bring arms that can hold and ears to listen. There will be a lot to talk about afterward.