Like any good action movie worth its salt, Black Panther has a casino scene. T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), newly crowned King of Wakanda and inheritor of the mantle of Black Panther, has received a tip that a villain he’s been chasing will be making a deal in an underground speakeasy in the South Korean port of Busan. In an effort to bring him to justice, he enlists help from Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), his can’t-quit-you ex-girlfriend, and Okoye (Danai Gurira), the head of the all-female guard in charge of the defense of Wakanda. It’s a formula that’s been repeated countless times before, from Casino Royal to Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. The difference here is, we’ve never seen Black characters — and specifically Black women — take on this kind of sequence before. The otherwise tired set piece is suddenly new and exciting again.
Everything you’ve heard is true. Black Panther is good. It’s really, really good. So good, in fact, that the first text I sent upon retrieving my phone from the mandatory check-in at the press screening was an emoji-filled, “omg I can’t wait to see this again.”
That nagging feeling of worry and the exhilaration of cinematic liftoff aren’t unrelated. It’s a sad reality that there aren’t enough movies like Black Panther to showcase Black excellence in Hollywood, let alone a superhero movie centered around Black empowerment. The film’s current 99% critical rating on Rotten Tomatoes (Ed Power, of the Irish Independent, gave the film its first poor review earlier this week) is especially encouraging, given Proud Mary’s recent let down.
Like Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman, which turned out to be a watershed cultural moment for women waiting to see themselves kick ass onscreen, Black Panther has a lot riding on its sleek pelt. But that it feels fresh and unprecedented is also the key to what makes the film so exciting. It is definitely a superhero movie — but it’s also something more. For children of color who will grow up watching characters who look like them not just fighting for survival, but enjoying and reveling in life, it’s a symbol of what is possible.
Superhero movies are built on a tried and tested formula: white man is born with (or obtains) powers through scientific, magical or military means, and uses said powers to defend the world against an equally white and male adversary. Women and people of color are usually relegated to sidekick roles, there to provide sex appeal, humor, and a hero’s death in service to the white hero. It doesn’t matter if Avengers: Age of Ultron was a bloated mess of a movie — another is already on the way. In my less than three decades on this earth, I have seen not one, not two, but three separate Spider-Man franchises make it into theaters.
Instead, director Ryan Coogler (Creed, Fruitvale Station) has assembled an impressive Black cast that ranges from the reliably fantastic (Forest Whitaker, Sterling K. Brown, and Gurira, who needs to wield a spear in every movie from now on), the iconic (Angela Bassett, in a league of her own), today’s it-crowd (Boseman, Daniel Kaluuya, Michael B. Jordan, and Nyong’o) to the fresh-faced newcomers (Letitia Wright, who steals every scene she’s in).
Black Panther opens with the ancestral legend of Wakanda, a fictional African country powered by an alien metal called Vibranium, and leaders blessed by the panther goddess Bath with superhuman powers of strength. These distinctions have enabled the country’s inhabitants to hide in plain sight for thousands of years, thus sparing them the trauma inflicted on the rest of the continent by European colonizers. To the rest of the world, Wakanda is basically your average third-world country (“textile, shepherds, cool outfits”), a narrative that goes unchallenged because, honestly, it fits neatly into Western perceptions of Africa.
But in reality, it’s a technological marvel, an untouched El-Dorado where Black people have been allowed to prosper, unhindered. It’s a powerful symbol of African potential, but also provides the main narrative tension weaved throughout the film: Do successful Black communities have a responsibility to help those less fortunate? And if so, how?
There’s no clear-cut answer to that question, which has played out in various forms throughout 20th century Black activism, and the movie doesn’t attempt to give one. Instead, Coogler and his co-writer Joe Robert Cole present us with compelling and complex characters, each grappling with what they think is the right approach. In fact, the film’s strength lies in the fact that it quickly moves on from its charismatic first bad guy, a delightfully cackly Andy Serkis, to the story’s driving antagonist, Jordan’s Erik Killmonger, a villain whose motivations are much more multi-layered, and not always unsympathetic. By doing this, Coogler avoids framing the conflict simply as white villain vs. Black heroes, and instead delves deeper into the historic and socio-political issues that have given rise to this particularly rivalry. The stakes feel urgent, and relevant to today’s context, and that elevates the movie beyond a simple story about good’s triumph against evil.
Marvel fans were first introduced to our hero T’Challa, a.k.a Black Panther, in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War. Squeezed into what was basically an Avengers sequel was a slim plotline setting up his spinoff: During a speech to world leaders at the Vienna International Center, his father, Prince T’Chaka (John Kani), dies in an explosion, forcing T’Challa to wear the crown, and the claws that come with it.
Black Panther picks up in the direct aftermath of Civil War, with T’Challa on his way to his coronation back in Wakanda, a world impressively brought to life by production designer Hannah Beachler. Ruth E. Carter’s costumes are similarly fantastic, and both contribute to making every action sequence feel like a visual feast of color and texture rather than a blur of limbs crashing into each other. The country’s landscape is a mixture of plains where armored rhinoceri laze about until called for, commanding rivers that lead into impressive waterfalls, and tall mountain ranges that hide a neighborhood of snowy caves, home to one of the five Wakandan tribes. At the core of one of these peaks is a temple-like shrine to the Vibranium that powers the country and its people, a reminder that their strength literally comes from within. Even the skyscrapers carry a visible flavor, the sleek glass towers festooned with motifs and embellishments that make them truly Wakandan.
There, we meet the characters who, T’Challa aside, form the true backbone of this movie: the women. Black Panther is basically the poster child for intersectionality, a public shaming of a Hollywood industry that has long defended its male-centric projects by claiming that audiences could only handle rooting for one group, and then only in one movie, at a time. There are no token female sidekicks here. Nakia may be T’Challa’s love interest, but she’s fiercely independent and driven — whatever romance they do or don’t have will be on her terms. Okoye is the fiercest warrior in a country defended by an all-female guard, and leads us into one of the most powerful shots of the movie, in a face-off with her lover, W’Kabi (Kaluuya). And not only is Shuri (Wright) T’Challa’s cooler, funnier younger sister, she’s also the person in charge of developing the technological marvels that enable him to actually be Black Panther, including a new and improved suit. We’re used to Qs and Alfreds — what we’re not used to is seeing that position filled not just by a young woman, but a young woman of color.
These women are there to support T’Challa, to help him become the leader he should be. But they’re by no means secondary. In fact, they often poke fun at his stoicism, implying that he may be the hero, but he’s not the star. They’re also more than capable of holding their own in a fight, or in scenes traditionally carried by male action stars. (A shot of Nyong’o’s bare foot on a gas pedal during a car chase is a wink in that direction, with the added inside joke to women that she clearly shed her heels before getting behind the wheel, a detail too often overlooked in movies eager to cash in on sex appeal.)
The film constantly manages to subvert expectations, while remaining firmly within the action-packed superhero genre. The final scene, in particular, reminds us that weapons are not the only way to fight back against oppressors, an idea that’s been left behind as Hollywood has moved towards churning out bigger, bolder artillery with visual effects.
It’s a remarkable balancing act that proves there is no real reason a movie can’t be diverse, feminist and wildly entertaining at the same time. We’ve been calling on Hollywood to do better for years. And finally, it has.
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