I am not really a fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I like the movies well enough as fun blockbuster entertainment, but I find my self constantly aggrieved by the narrative and thematic tension between spectacular bombast and real world sociopolitical issues. This frustration was particularly palpable for me during Captain America: Civil War, where I felt the light tones, serious issues, and character logic clashed with each other. What really redeemed that film for me was the introduction of Black Panther and how his arc of revenge and acceptance proved to be the true heart of the film. In the months leading up the debut of his solo feature, I was cautiously optimistic. Each reveal about the production made me hopeful that this would be the film to break the mold of these pretty white people action figure movies, yet I had to remind myself that this was still a cog in a much grander machine of formulaic design. Black Panther has finally arrived, and while it is unfortunate that some of my fears were indeed founded, I am pleased to see that the film brings in incredible elements that I hope will elevate the MCU to a whole new level.
Chadwick Boseman stars as the Prince T’Challa, the superhuman known as Black Panther and ruler of the fictional technologically advanced hidden African nation of Wakanada, returning home after the death of his father T’Chaka to be crowned as the new king. At his side are his stalwart general Okoye (Danai Gurira), his brilliant younger sister and technological support Shuri (Letitia Wright), and his former lover and expert covert operative Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o). When Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) comes back on the radar, their mission to try and apprehend him reveals the presence of Erik Stevens (Michale B. Jordan), a dangerous foe who holds a hidden connection to T’Challa that serves to rock the very foundations of Wakanda and ultimately put the world in potentially grave danger.
Black Panther is all at once another formulaic superhero movie and a revolutionary achievement for modern blockbusters. The MCU has constantly tried to maintain a balance between the artistic direction of its directors and the corporate mandates that seek to keep these family friendly 4-quadrant films inoffensive and accessible in order to make as much money as humanly possible. Depending on your preference, you might say maybe a few or perhaps all of them have succeeded in this to varying degrees (I’m partial to the contributions of Shane Black and his Iron Man Three). Director Ryan Coogler of (Creed and Fruitvale Station fame) manages to infuse Black Panther with a truly unique vision and themes, though they are hampered by the very fact that they must be stuffed into a conventional superhero vehicle. Nonetheless, to see an almost entirely all black production (on screen and behind the camera) introduce weighty subjects such as the African diaspora, the colonization of Africa, and the marginalization of black people is truly a minor miracle and a sight to behold.
The movie is a visual splendor, showing off Wakanda as a beautiful melange of lush natural scenery, bustling metropolis, sci-fi future tech-scape, and supernatural mystique. So much of the history of science fiction comes from the white/western viewpoint which has used pastiches of African and Asian culture as elements in their world building to signify exoticism and the alien (think of the mash ups of Asian cultures in Blade Runner or the designs of droids based on African art in the Star Wars). It was so refreshing then to see this long standing device completely inverted, with various forms of real world African design and touches of modern aesthetics amalgamated into a “new normal”. Wakanda is an amazing fairy tale kingdom, but the movie makes it feel so real, so tangible, so familiar. Between the colorful outfits and hair-dos, street vendors selling chicken on a stick, to the little children running along to school wearing jazzed up Wakandan Jansport backpacks, I felt like I could have been there before. We are not exotic aliens — we have been here, existing in vast civilizations and influencing the advancement of culture since time immemorial.
For as much as the movie gets right visually, the mandatory pre-visualized action setpieces are somewhat of a mess. I have a hard time in general with heavy CGI effects in blockbusters; its not that I need them to look “real”, but I need them to be seamless. Transitions from grounded tangibility into the high flying fantastical always takes me out of the movie. And it’s particularly hard for me to care about a gripping battles to the death when its surrounded by so much visual clutter and business. There is solid fight choreography throughout the movie, but the best moments are the intimate duels that take place when T’Challa is ritually de-powered, armed with only blade and shield against powerful opponents that make the danger feel much greater. Beyond that, all the actual special effects superhero stuff honestly left me pretty bored 1
To paraphrase the recent praise of another film critic, Black Panther is part “Black Iron Man“, “Black Star Wars” and “Black Lord Of The Rings“, a reworking of sci-fi/fantasy of the past and presence in a new lens. That said, it also wears its links to more classic literary traditions on its sleeve. The tribal and family conflicts that arise are very much Shakespearean, although in truth you could see its lineage even further back to fables and folktales from Africa and other cultures from antiquity, a sentiment beautifully expressed in the opening cinematic that shows the sands of time come to life.
This literary/folklore lineage is part of the true greatness in the film, recontextualizing elements of the past and imbuing them with new meaning. Okoye and her Dora Milaje, the elite group of female warriors that serve as the king’s royal guard and special forces, reflect ancient stories of warrior women like the Amazons, but also real life female warriors such as Amanirenas of the Meriotic Kingdom or the national Jamaican folk hero Queen Nanny. That history resonates once more as we see lauded black actresses portraying strong, intelligent, powerful women who have just as integral part in the story as the main male hero. Moreover, that powerful representation opens doors for other women in front of and behind the camera, allowing for their voices to be heard and amplified.
This recontextualization also manifests within the main villain, leading to perhaps the most powerfully resonant element of the film. Erik Stevens aka Killmonger works as a classic tragic antagonist, a foil to the nobility and someone with legitimate claim to power seeking to take it by force like something out of a Shakespeare play or an Alexandre Dumas novel. However, the true power of Erik comes from his existence as a manifestation of all the sorrow, anguish, and rage resulting from the transatlantic slave trade and the African Diaspora at large. Underneath his bravado and fueling his cold blooded killer proficiency is an almost incomprehensible level of psychological trauma borne of being a black man left behind, stripped of his identity and heritage, left to fend for himself and to create an identity of his own without the nurturing support of a family or a village in the proverbial and literal sense. On top of that, the reveal about his service as a tool of war and chaos to be wielded by modern imperialists in the name of “national interests” rings particularly true with the demons I contend with.
My parents are immigrants from the Caribbean/South American nation of Guyana. My mother is of native Amerindian decent, part of the people known as the Macushi. Yet, she never met her father. My father hails from further north and is more traditionally of darker skin and direct African roots. However, beyond my grandparents, I don’t know the further lineage of his bloodline and I don’t know whether our family name (of Scottish origin) is from marriage or placed upon us via the brand of slavery. In a certain regard I do not know where I come from. But even so, my bloodline is vast. I have countless cousins, uncles, nephews and nieces, and that number seems to grow everyday. I am a first generation American, Brooklyn-born, Queens-raised, Bronx-bound. I am also a Military veteran of 12 years and 3 combat tours, the first of my family to serve. I have spent nearly a decade overseas in multiple countries as an emissary of my nation and my race. I am proud of the good I have done, but I must face the reality and the consequences of my actions as a part of the war machine. I am more representative of Captain America than anything Steve Rogers will ever be, yet my path reflects that of Killmonger in a way that cuts deep.
Perhaps it is fitting then that The Black Panther represents a coalescing of that schism, a path towards healing, enlightenment and a way forward. This deeper element is undeniable to the success of Black Panther, even in the face of its other failings as yet another superhero blockbuster on the conveyor belt. Even so, this is something quite special that many, many people will surely get something substantive out of, possibly for many generations to come.