You see it. I see it. We all see it. Yea, I just gave Black Panther a 4/4.
Film Twitter will most likely nitpick it. People will dissect it. Most won’t completely understand it. But Black Panther was a moment, not just for Marvel fans and Disney stans, but it was the rare instance of a film purporting itself to be a cultural movement, and succeeding.
And why not? Director Ryan Coogler had ample source material, and most of ALL, he was allowed to make the movie that he wanted to make, which in of itself is nothing short of revolutionary.
‘Revolutionary’ is the sense that you’ll get throughout Black Panther. Coogler is contending with a few sentiments: the need for Killmonger to be militant, the Wakandans to be dignified; a few thousand years of African history, and African American oppression, with a shared cultural trauma; and most of all, Black Panther has to be considerate of the White world/”colonizers” without turning into Uncle Tom’s. Coogler balances those themes and creates a tapestry that would be one dimensional in someone else’s hands.
It begins with Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan). Jordan is a phenomenal actor, and Killmonger is the first Marvel villain to be rightfully pissed off. He’s the first who you hope actually wins. He captures the feeling of part cultural pariah and part lost and hurt African child returning to their homeland (an image that became prevalent in the 70’s Black Power movement). He’s a killer. He’s thug. But Killmonger is also highly intelligent, and brutally honest. The character becomes a mouth piece for everything Coogler wants to say, and uncovers the divide between African Americans and Africans, that is the difference between the colonized (people who were able to cling to their culture) and the enslaved (those who had to rebuild from the barely flickering embers of ancestral memory). The harsh truths are there, if you know the subtext. And much of Killmonger’s character building is you knowing the subtext.
Meanwhile, Wakanda is part Atlantis, part tribal village, part Coruscant. It’s steeped in tradition, and provides a jarring juxtaposition from the glaringly unseen setting, that is, America’s inner cities.
Nevertheless, black is cool and dignified. You could drag and kick T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) down a flight of stairs and he’d still be chiller than you, and better looking. And while he is king, the female presence in Black Panther is strong. Okoye (Danai Gurira) occupies some of the most “wow” action sequences in the film. Though T’Challa is an amazing fighter, you know that Okoye could/would kick his ass if the time came.
Meanwhile, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) is level headed, fearless, and far more caring of the troubles of the outside world than T’Challa. In many ways, she’d probably make a better ruler too.
But the breakout star has to be Shuri (Letitia Wright). She’s the Q to T’Challa’s James Bond, providing every gadget under the sun and most of the comedy. But mostly, it’s Shuri and T’Challa’s brother-sister dynamic that sums up their community. With each bit of ribbing and each Black handshake, you should connect with the Wakandan way of life. That is the intelligence, tradition, looseness, and dignity, which are filled out nicely by Forest Whitaker as Zuri, Angela Bassett as Ramonda, and the out-and-out roll in your seat laughing, Winston Duke as M’Baku.
While the film switches between the Wakandan and African American world, there’s also a melding of a couple thousand years of African history. The weapons, makeup, costumes (I want T’Challa’s suit and sash), and set designs (I so need to see the concept art) are all meant to demonstrate a shared continental history. Black Panther has an amazing eye for detail for subtle world building. And Coogler picks so many spots to send cogent cultural jabs. White people are referred to as “colonizers.” The great financial divide between White and Black America is never forgotten. And slavery isn’t a thing that we all need to “move on” from.
There are also clear instances of microaggressions and cultural theft. Everett Ross (Martin Freeman), CIA agent, is all too willing to be friendly to T’Challa, yet arrogant. Though their initial meeting is one of friendliness, it’s also a know your place moment. Alternatively, Klaue (Andy Serkis) is so damn demented. Ross may be called a “colonizer,” but Coogler wants you to see the real McCoy in Klaue. His interrogation scene is one of the funniest moments of the film.
Meanwhile, Coogler is unflinching in his vision. Even the ending, which I won’t reveal for fear of spoilers, is brutally and utterly honest. All I can say is that, Killmonger delivers such a line that it sums up both cultural trauma and pride like no other. When I heard it, as someone who has studied the Middle Passage, I wanted to jump out of my seat and applaud. Coogler could have easily softened the blow for anyone who wasn’t Black. He could have let his White audience leave, leaving the film as just a good time. Instead, he delivers a gut punch. A cultural salvo that can’t be ignored or misinterpreted. He took the biggest risk of any Marvel film to date, and was more directive in one line than many more “serious” art pieces.
The ending to Black Panther, the willingness to not “Uncle Tom” it up, for me, is what made it into a 4/4. For me, it not only demonstrated a willingness by Disney/Marvel to let a Black director helm an almost entirely black cast in a major tentpole, but also to allow him tell his own story. They let him be brutal. They let him be historical. They let him be divisive. They trusted him to make a funny, action packed, musically current (Kendrick Lamar’s soundtrack is fantastic, and it’s a nice change from the previous Marvel films that were stocked with 80’s radio), and politically charged film. And they gave him a big budget to do it with. In short, they “let” him be revolutionary.
Photo credit: Marvel.com