Film Review: Black Panther
All hail the king
Marvel's Black Panther is one of the most culturally significant films to ever be released. An uplifting celebration of blackness, Black Panther represents a momentous turning point in black cinema. Ryan Coogler has crafted one of the most poignant explorations of African culture and what it means to be black. The main character just happens to kick ass and wear a cat costume. Mild spoilers ahead...
A Raisin in the Sun, The Color Purple, School Daze, Boyz n the Hood. Cinema has no shortage of gems when it comes to incredible films that explore the black identity. And as of February 16th, you can add Marvel Studios' Black Panther to that list. Sure, Black Panther is a mainstream superhero movie with jaw-dropping action, balletic fight scenes, and CGI spectacle, but it is also a measured and extraordinary exploration of race and pride. Ryan Coogler (Creed, Fruitvale Station) has crafted a remarkable film that defies not only the conventions of superhero filmmaking, but also the conventions of black cinema. Where certain films in the black cinema genre are rightfully solemn reflections of the inequity of the black experience, Black Panther is instead a joyous celebration of blackness - a jubilant examination of African roots. Dazzling in its setting and optimistic in its Afrofuturism, Black Panther is unlike anything you've ever seen, no matter what culture you hail from, and its positivity is a landmark in the history of black filmmaking. “It’s the first time in a very long time that we’re seeing a film with centered black people, where we have a lot of agency,” says Jamie Broadnax, the founder of Black Girl Nerds, a pop-culture blog focused on science fiction and comics written from the perspective of black women. The Black Panther ensemble, she observes in a New York Times interview, “are rulers of a kingdom, inventors and creators of advanced technology. We’re not dealing with black pain, and black suffering, and black poverty." There are plenty of films that explore marginalization and prejudice, but Black Panther strives to show us the other end of the spectrum.
Black Panther picks up shortly after the events of Captain America: Civil War, with Wakandan crown prince T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman, retaining his regal gravitas from Civil War) returning home to take on the mantle of the titular Black Panther left by his dead father. An animated prologue conveys the history of the fictional African nation: gigantic deposits of vibranium (the magical metal that Captain America's shield is made from) gave rise to the technologically progressive nation of Wakanda; scientifically advanced beyond the comprehension of the rest of the world, Wakandans live in seclusion with the help of tall mountains and hologram technology, and the five separate tribes of the nation are ruled over by a single king: the Black Panther. Without venturing too much into spoiler territory, the crux of the film deals with Wakanda's foreign policy - and for the first time, a Marvel film ventures past the tried and true formula of big bads and threats of imminent destruction. Sure there's some of that in this film, it is a comic book movie after all, but Ryan Coogler's story deftly raises a compelling point as the central conflict of the film multiple times: why hasn't Wakanda, as technologically advanced as it is, done more to help the outside world? This question shapes the complex quality of Black Panther, and the realism of the debates around Wakanda's secretive policies colors its world as deep and lived-in. For example, Nakia (Lupito N'yongo) a Wakandan spy that spends much of her time in the outside world, advocates an open-door policy that can potentially place the nation as a shining beacon of good in the world. On the other hand, Okoye (Danai Gurira), T'Challa's advisor and leader of the Dora Milaje, a group of fierce women warriors, opts for a more traditional isolationist stance along with the Black Panther's mother, Queen Ramonda (an always welcome Angela Bassett). Complicating matters is the Jabari, an anti-technology Wakandan tribe that lives in the mountains north, led by the complicated M'Baku (Winston Duke). Each of these aspects of Wakandan society paints a full picture of how the nation operates, and the political complexities are well-written enough that they carry the entire film's narrative with ease.
No superhero film is complete without its antagonist, and Black Panther gives us the best Marvel villain since Tom Hiddleston's Loki. Although Andy Serkis does fantastic work chewing scenery as mercenary arms dealer Ulysses Klaue, it is Michael B. Jordan's (Creed, Fruitvale Station) tragic, dangerous, and utterly magnetic Erik "Killmonger" Stevens that lends Black Panther its magic. Killmonger's backstory instantly paints him in a sympathetic light, and his tragically relatable history puts him at odds with T'Challa in ways that are perfectly understandable. As a black American with far-removed Wakandan roots, his experience is one that the king of a super-nation cannot possibly comprehend, and unlike the optimistic and hopeful Nakia, Killmonger seeks to use Wakanda's weapons technology to repay the trauma he's suffered from the rest of the world. As witness to racism, imperialism, and many other injustices black people have suffered from outside the sanctuary of Wakanda, Killmonger is a damaged man fueled by bloodlust and vengeance. And although his cruelty and mustache-twirling villainy sometimes undermines the depth of his character, Michael B. Jordan plays him with enough pathos and righteousness to make him one of the best foils in superhero film history. What makes Killmonger so effective as a villain is the way that Ryan Coogler and company reverse the expected roles in villain and hero: Erik's story is the relatable one, Erik's experience is the one that audiences, black audiences, will understand, especially in today's political climate. And just because this is a superhero film with CGI cat costumes and lumbering fantasy warbeasts doesn't make Black Panther's takes on abandonment, racism, and violence any less poignant than say, a film like Dead Presidents. When compared to T'Challa's lofty idealism, one can argue that Killmonger is not only justified, but right, methods aside. In another reality, one could even see him as the anti-hero of his own feature.
When it comes to the rest of the cast, everyone more than pulls their own weight. While Black Panther does fantastic things for the black cinema genre, one simply can't ignore the other obvious fact about T'Challa's coterie: they're all women. Powerful, fierce, and confident, the Wakandan women almost put Chadwick Boseman's Black Panther in the back seat with their strong personalities. Whether it's Nakia's tenderness, Okoye's biting stubborness, or Ramonda's stern wisdom, the women of Black Panther take center stage. Even T'Challa's genius kid sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) is a fully formed young woman - a sassy inventor who couldn't care less about Wakandan politics. It's great to see that as important as the film is to the exploration of race, Black Panther hasn't disregarded the depiction of women in its story.
You also can't talk about Black Panther without mentioning its incredible production design. From the detailed sets to the intricate African stylings from costume designer Ruth E. Carter, Wakanda drips with authenticity, and you could easily mistake the place as real sans the CGI skyscrapers and flying cars. The quality of production design extends beyond the superficial, because not only does Wakanda look authentic, it feels authentic - rich in culture, tradition, and African values. This display of proud nationalism is not something that can be faked, and from the moment you gaze upon Wakanda, you can tell that Ryan Coogler and his production team performed the ultimate labor of love with painstaking attention to detail, and the result is a gorgeous homage to African culture that always feels earned and not exploitative. Doctor Strange's Kamar Taj and Thor's Asgard and Sakaar can't hold a candle to Wakanda.
In the end, Black Panther is still a superhero film. And in that regard, it doesn't disappoint either. The taut scripting flows smoothly, blending genres seamlessly as it jumps from political suspense to action epic to spy thriller without batting an eye - never once letting its 134 minute running time become obvious. The ruthlessly efficient Dora Milaje particularly stand out, having been given the film's most exciting action set-pieces, and I could watch their warrior women exploits endlessly. However, as great a film as Black Panther is, it isn't perfect. While the action is perfectly serviceable, and sometimes even awe-inspiring, the Russo brothers remain the masters of kinetic choreography, a status that seems nigh untouchable at this point. Coming off of the two Captain America films, Black Panther's action beats and fight staging may be step down from what we've come to expect from a Marvel film, and some dodgy CGI in parts of the film doesn't do it any favors. Also, it seems that Marvel's tendency to waste big name talent in roles that only serve to spout exposition hasn't really been remedied in Black Panther, with the likes of Angela Bassett and Martin Freeman. Glimmers of promise shine through for both their parts, but their marquee talents are mostly squandered with too little screen time. At this point, I'm just nitpicking an otherwise fantastic film, because in terms of flaws, there's not much more to be said. It seems petty to gripe on such trivial things like fight choreography and CGI when Black Panther is such a momentous film. It's difficult to put into words how steeped in black culture the film is while still maintaining a thrilling mainstream appeal, but from the second the Marvel Studios logo fades from the big screen, you will know exactly what I'm talking about.