Spoilers spoilers here be spoilers
Full disclosure: 1) I am not white, 2) I am an immigrant, 3) there are people (myself included) who think I am a damn fool, 4) in general, the MCU has by and large left me bored to tears.
With all that out of the way, Black Panther is the god damned best thing to come out of the milquetoast factory that is Disney/Marvel’s MCU. To be fair, that isn’t a high bar to clear, but things in the MCU had taken a turn for the interesting recently with the similarly refreshing and politically switched on Thor: Ragnarok. I suppose we should feel blessed that within a short few months, the MCU has given us a delightful romp through a nation disintegrating while confronting its horrific colonial past… starring SPACE VIKINGS, and an incendiary critique of the way powerful nations, both white and non-white are complicit in the systemic dehumanisation of entire races of people. There’s more going on under the surface of Black Panther to be sure, and for the most part it muscles past the Marvel house style to remain engaged in its musings for almost the whole runtime.
But yeah, I am happy, giddily so, that the MCU has produced a movie that is a prime example of the value of mainstream “safe” cinema. In the right circumstances, pop entertainment can be a validating and/or confronting conversation with popular culture at large. It can discuss topics that are important to the culture and the people living under it in an intelligent way. And in the best of circumstances it can still be excellent entertainment. And gosh, Black Panther is a damn good entertainment with actual thoughts in its head about race and history and a culture of theft and degradation, whatever its flaws may be (they are choppy, sometimes illegible action and rather poor CGI).
It is important to note that Black Panther is not the first movie to feature a black superhero (Blade 1-3, Catwoman, Steel, FAN4STIC, Iron Man 2 and 3, Captain America 2 and 3, etc). At least one person has also told me that Black Panther is not a film about real life exceptional Black people. To be fair, this conversation arose as a means to question why Black Audiences cared about Black Panther and not biopics of significant Black figures… which is… wrong?? It also arose out of a desire to dismiss the importance of Black Panther. After all it is just another dumb super hero movie, right? But that presupposes that the only legitimate works of art and media are ones that distance themselves from “lower” forms. It’s already a fairly common argument that genre films and animation aren’t worthy of considering as important cultural artefacts (unless they are from specific sources). This ignores the potential of genre films to be ABOUT SOMETHING (e.g. Gojira, the Romero zombie movies, Get Out, Under the Shadow, Snowpiercer etc.). It also unnecessarily limits the avenues for minorities and the issues they face to be depicted in the wider cultural context. It would be a sad state of affairs if, for example, Wonder Woman did not exist because the only legitimate place to tell stories of exceptional women and the power of compassion was a biopic. There is something legitimising about having a group of peoples be represented in the mainstream rather than specific niche genres. Their stories are important enough to be shared and consumed widely. It allows for cultural exchange on a level beyond what a high art or prestige movie would. And there are all sorts of classist implications in insisting the truly important cultural artefacts are those produced for consumption by an elite white tertiary educated audience. Fight me.
Black Panther picks up soon after the events of Captain America: Civil War. T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) returns home to the secretly wealthy and technologically advanced African nation of Wakanda after the death of his father, the late king T’Chaka. All things considered, the succession seems to be going well for both T’Challa and Wakanda, until it comes to pass that Wakanda’s public enemy number 1, Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) has resurfaced. Seeing an opportunity to bring a murderous plunderer to justice, it is decided that T’Challa, his ex Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), and the leader of the Dora Milaje, Wakanda’s all female special forces, Okoye (Danai Gurira) set off. In the process, they unearth skeletons from the late king’s closet and things start to get complicated. As it turns out, Wakanda deployed spies to multiple nations to develop a vast intelligence network. One of said spies was none other than T’Chaka’s brother, N’Jobu, who was deployed to the United States, only to be radicalised after witnessing the plight of the Black peoples of America. He is then killed by T’Chaka when he is confronted for assisting Klaue to infiltrate Wakanda and make off with valuable vibranium. It is the consequences of this killing and T’Chaka’s subsequent choice that fuels most of the conflict in Black Panther.
With Black Panther, Ryan Coogler has taken the musty old origin story formula and bent it to his will. The narrative familiarity afforded by the origin story template allows Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole to focus more screen time on developing the world, characters and politics of Black Panther. The movie is an absolute triumph of aesthetic. It presents the audience with an excellent and predominantly Black cast inhabiting a world that extrapolates how an East African nation with abundant natural resources would fashion itself with nil contact from violent European colonial powers. Wakanda is a gorgeous fusion of African elements and design queues with near future technologies. The movie presents a rich palette of cultures, all richly research and lovingly displayed. This rich cultural influence permeates the score, which is genuinely the best and most thoughtful and thematically resonant film score in all the MCU, melding percussive and vocal elements with a more traditional western film score to represent Wakanda, while sneaking hip hop beats in edgeways for any musical cue to do with the half American half Wakandan Erik “Killmonger” Stevens/N’Jadaka (Michael B Jordan).
Black Panther starts off interrogating what it takes to be an effective leader of a country that has as much to gain as it does to lose if it opens its boarders and engages with foreign powers. It then goes a step further to ask how such an advanced African nation could sit idly by while it is privy to the horrors of violent colonialism. It is heavy stuff, and it only gets heavier as the film goes on, baking this thought experiment into the very fabric of the film’s drama.
As much as I was enjoying the movie, it wasn’t until a specific point that I truly fell madly, head over heals in love with it. Early in the film, T’Challa ritualistically drinks of the heart shaped herb, a plant infused with vibranium that grants him the powers of the Black Panther. He is transported to a spiritual realm, rich in colour and wonder and populated by the spirits of his ancestors, where he communes with his father about his duty to his country and upholding its ideals. Later in the film, Killmonger partakes in the same ritual, only to be transported to the mundanity of his Oakland, California apartment, peaks of the rich purple sky of the ancestral plane only evident out the windows. It is here that he is greeted solely by his mournful father. There is so much going on in this scene that it would take a while to unpack it all. Killmonger’s appearance shifts to that of a stern faced child, putting on a brave face, symbolic of the still festering trauma and anger driving him, only finally catching up to him when he reverts back to his adult self and openly weeps. This scene is a perfect visual representation of what it is like to be a child of an immigrant, having a vague connection to and yearning for your motherland and culture that is intermingled with the present of your new home in a foreign land. This scene is what gives a beating heart to Killmonger’s previously intellectually driven call to revolutionary violence.
Each character in Black Panther has something to say or contribute to the film’s themes of racism, identity, cultural theft, and revolution. And each character says or contributes these things in big and small ways. The opening narration about the history of Wakanda, for example, is told by N’Jobu to a young Erik, deepening his sense of disconnect from his culture being a second generation immigrant. Ulysses Klaue’s character, delightfully hammy as he is, is constructed around the various forms of theft he, a white South African, perpetrates on successful Black cultures, stealing vibranium and hip hop in equal measure. Shuri (A delightful Letitia Wright) embodies a forward thinking attitude of constant striving for improvement, something that rubs off on T’Challa as he confronts the secret history of his nation. Likewise, Nakia insists on actively aiding foreign populations wherever possible, not wanting to be holed up in a secretive and isolationist nation when there is suffering abroad. Killmonger, himself is an embodiment of righteous fury, challenging the Eurocentric view of western/White cultural, intellectual, and technological superiority. An early scene in a museum has him quizzing a curator as to the origin of various African artefacts before challenging her knowledge and the museum’s right to ownership of ostensibly stolen cultural goods, for display to a predominantly white audience. Coming from a disadvantaged background his emotions are raw and his motive is violent revolution. In opposition is T’Challa, a Black man from a privileged socioeconomic and cultural upbringing, free from the burdens of living under the thumb of a racist country with racist policies. He is a man who can afford the distance to offer a peaceful alternative. Killmonger cannot, and importantly, the film cannot bring itself to wholly condemn him for his drive toward violence, implicating the US military and CIA’s training for the grubbier, more all destroying edge to his actions. After all, it is the conflict that Killmonger brings to Wakanda that spurs T’Challa into positive action, confronting his ancestors and ultimately mobilising Wakanda’s wealth and technology to empower disenfranchised minorities world wide.
It would be disingenuous to disown the anger simmering under the surface. Killmonger may be a hyperbolic embodiment of this, a killing machine honed by military and CIA training to slaughter enemy combatants and destabilise foreign governments for the insertion of a US friendly regime. One need only look at #killmongerwasright to see how this movie struck a cord with audiences. I feel a lot of this has to do with how true the film is to the personal experiences of a young director Ryan Coogler and his friends in Oakland.
I too was angry once, but I grew to be merely tired and sad. Black Panther was a flash of inspiration that worked past my defences and made me feel alive again.
It may be a “stupid superhero movie” but it is the most important superhero movie to be released in recent times.