Black Panther officially premiered February 16, 2018. I’m on my way to the highly anticipated cook-out in Wakanda with my side dish at the ready. Not only am I here for it, I’ve already seen Black Panther twice. By the time this runs, I’ll most likely have seen it a third time. But have no fear, this remains a spoiler-free zone.
Black Panther’s Opening Sets the Tone
As the film begins, it’s immediately apparent this is not only a visual origin story for Wakanda, it’s orienting this lore in history beyond merely picking up Black Panther’s place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) post-Avenger’s Civil War.
We learn the history of Wakanda as a child might learn about his people’s past, shared oral history. It juxtaposes Wakanda’s hidden idyllic existence against the world’s grim history steeped in imperialism, colonization, and the blood of slaves. The accompanying visuals are simultaneously informative and stark. The entire sequence is tangibly stunning in presentation.
Experiencing Wakanda’s evolution and subsequent decision to not only close its borders but to hide as the rest of the Continent falls to colonialism strikes a note that echoes through the entire storyline. In the face of the state of the outside world, it’s hard to contradict the reasonableness of the nation’s position of non-disclosure and policy of no involvement.
Wakanda Has No Need of a White Savior. Black Panther is the defender of Wakanda.
And before all is said and done, everyone will know exactly what that means.
Black Excellence as a Given
As I said about Black Panther’s family tree, the existence of a never subjugated African nation is a highly subversive theme. The very idea flies in the face of accepted history and the ideology lauding colonialism as overall a good thing. It’s difficult for many folx to even fathom a world where brown people weren’t “civilized” by whites.
In 2011 rap artist Lupe Fiasco released a track called, All Black Everything in which he mused about an alternate world history. The lyrics include the line,
[we] stayed in Africa, we ain’t never leave so there were no slaves in our history…see I fell asleep and I had a dream, it was all black everything”
Seeing a strong nation, teeming with diverse groups of black people, with uninterrupted advancement coupled with vibrant, living, breathing cultural traditions as the norm of daily life immediately reminded me of that lyric.
This feeling deepens as the background music ebbs and flows with rhythm and joy and the audience gets its first look at the sweeping vistas of Wakanda and its people as they gather for T’Challa’s coronation. Technological advancement nestled in traditions that anchor this society showcases the many varied tribes and their contributions to Wakanda’s greatness.
If you’ve wondered what’s the “big deal” about a film filled with so much unavoidable blackness, this is it. Most black people live in places where the majority of folx firmly believe black excellence not built with white “influence” can only exist as fiction. They work hard to reinforce that belief as truth. But seeing such a lush and powerful civilization brought to life by drawing on the rich inspiration that is Africa and its people combats that in a way words simply cannot.
Fair warning, this won’t be the last time the film’s score makes you feel some type of way either. It’s a different experience from the soundtrack.
Black Panther’s Story Direction
Black Panther begins its franchise with an introspective storyline. This film’s about T’Challa, his people and the price of the kingdom’s decision to stay apart, not Black Panther faces off against bad guys around the world.
For those hoping for the standard “crash, bang, pow” superhero flick, here’s where you should pause and breathe. Remember, once T’Challa/Black Panther avenges his father’s death there’s nothing holding him in the outside world unless his narrative in the MCU gets expanded. This isn’t just a “tie-in” film for the Avenger‘s franchise. If no one knows about Wakanda, then the defender of the nation has no reason to leave home.
By the time T’Challa steps on Wakanda soil, we know this film’s main story arc will be deeply rooted in Wakanda’s past and its secrets. A flashback establishes the how and why Wakanda will come crashing into conflict with the modern world. This backstory also sets off a highly emotional theme as it relates to Africa’s “lost children” and their relationship to the continent. Coogler’s direction embed this highly contentious subplot into the heart of Black Panther in such a way the question where were you while we suffered? radiates throughout. It’s the driving force behind Nakia’s actions and choices. It shapes T’Challa’s developing code of honor and his evolving view of Wakanda’s place in the world.
I’m being deliberately vague because I think giving away too much of the T’Chaka (John Kani) related aspect of the main story arc undercuts the emotional impact and revelations when watching Black Panther.
His relationship with his father and how he confronts not only the consequences of decisions made by T’Chaka and Zuri (Forest Whitaker) but how T’Challa deals with the emotional impact on how he feels about his father be are essential story elements. Without them, T’Challa’s subsequent actions would lead to a far different outcome. One that doesn’t necessarily create a natural segue for Black Panther to substantively engage with the rest of the MCU.
In a display of consistently skillful storytelling, key characters and elements are smoothly introduced then swiftly incorporated into the story progression. This tactic seamlessly marries the film’s many themes to the main story arc and subplots.
Most of the ‘Black Panther’ comic series thrive on sharp-witted and often double-edge or tongue-in-cheek humor. Writing duo Ryan Googler and Joe Robert Cole hit all the right notes in the film. It made for a quick pace – that only fell off beat a few times in the second act – and perfectly inserted moments of comic relief, needed tension-breakers, and a compelling way to reveal character insecurities and foibles.
Chadwick Bosman’s T’Challa/Black Panther is charismatic and commanding yet relatable. His journey as King is soon fraught with danger, failures, and filled with unexpected challenges but he’s never divorced from the people around him. We learn about his relationship dynamics naturally. This direction style not only reels us into the action it artfully expands our knowledge of Wakanda, his role and how the nation views itself and its place in the world.
I will say, I believe there were some missed opportunities to delve into secondary relationships and characters in the second act that would’ve served the climax well.
There’s a moment prior to T’Challa going on a mission to hunt Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis). This isn’t a spoiler, T’Chaka initially disclosed to the UN in Avenger’s Civil War Klaue stole from Wakanda so it stands to reason we’d see the continuation of that story thread in Black Panther.
Coogler skillfully inserts the direct harm W’Kabi’s (Daniel Kaluuya) suffered at the hands of Klaue. But there’s an opportunity to give us more insight into him without distracting from the main story arc. Had Coogler capitalized on it, I believe it would’ve increased the emotional impact of his later actions and decisions. His character is a key part of all the drama that unfolds later. But more importantly, to me, his role in bringing upheaval to Wakanda speaks to the film’s subtle commentary on how our own anger often triggers events that can undo unity, peace, and success. Although the visual storytelling paints a vivid picture at the height of the climactic scenes, I feel like a touch of the emotional edge remains blunted.
The Jabari Tribe
Item number one, if you don’t know who Winston Duke is. Fix that. Now.
Item number two, Duke’s M’Baku is brilliantly played and should’ve had a more developed storyline in Black Panther. His performance was nuanced, powerful, and at turns flat-out hilarious. But more importantly, M’Baku is a pretty big deal in Wakandan lore.
From the first time the Jabari come on the scene and straight through to the end, this tribe’s place in Wakanda is underdeveloped and it shouldn’t be M’Baku is one of the nation’s greatest warriors. He leads a tribe with a more traditional bent who do not fully embrace the role of technology among the clans. The storyline would’ve only been better served to fully understand the Jabari clan’s antipathy towards the other clans and direction of Wakanda.
Pace Balancing Humor
There’s a playfulness between T’Challa and his genius sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright) that highlights their love and respect for one another. They’re equals, despite the age difference.
T’Challa’s side trip to retrieve Wakandan spy, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) provides needed levity and balance early on. The danger that initially prompts Wakandan’s withdrawal from the world still persist and are on full display in this sequence. It’s in-your-face imagery that’s emotional, builds tension and also reveals even soon-to-be kings can lose their cool when confronted with an ex-girlfriend.
And, though he is King, T’Challa/Black Panther is never so unapproachable that General Okoye (Danai Gurira) can’t tease or put him on the spot.
As he struggles to embrace being King (and what he believes that should mean) T’Challa’s relationships are tested and pushed to the limit. But the script’s tone and direction keep this story fully three-dimensional and emotionally connected.
Women of Wakanda
From the very beginning it’s clear the women of Wakanda – and in T’Challa’s inner circle – will not be ornamental or lack the depth of character. It’s no accident the new first character introduced, outside those known at the end of Civil War, is a woman. Female agency and equality aren’t just a “goal” in Wakanda. They’re a fact. Director Ryan Coogler had a deft approach to the women in Black Panther that should be emulated.
There are women of power and prestige, like the queen mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett) or two of the clan leaders, elite warriors like the Dora Milaje led by General Okoye (Danai Gurira), or adept fighters-working outside Wakanda running a spy agency fighting against crime and corruption-like Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), a genius scientist leading the way for Wakanda’s technological advancement like Princess Shuri (Letitia Wright).
Not a single female role felt out of step or forced. There’s no forced hyper-masculinity embedded in the character development to “explain” how females can (and do) excel in these positions. The women here are men’s natural equals and Coogler’s direction drives that point home with logic and ease.
I won’t lie, watching women lead without question, excel without artificial barriers, and fiercely defend themselves and others were just flat out amazing. That they did so exuding various aspects of femininity and femaleness made it more so.
Coogler treated males and females as equally capable. There’s are no forced imagery that strikes a discordant note or makes the characters feel artificial or forced.
But what was truly striking was the feeling that women were essential to society.
I’m greedy, I wanted more and I kept hoping for a tease of Shuri suited up as Black Panther (for research purposes, of course) because Letitia Wright brought this character to life with an effervescence and pragmatic brilliance that just screams give her a movie where Shuri’s takes the lead. The comic lore is there, so picture me lighting candles and praying to the universe that this becomes so.
The New Iteration of Eric Killmonger
Ryan Googler and Joe Robert Cole’s reimaging of this comic character opened the door to more than just a logical villain for Black Panther. I won’t go into details about the changes because it’s a huge spoiler.
Eric Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), as written, is the living embodiment of all the people Wakanda turned it’s back on the day it chose to close its borders and shielded its cities.
He is the undeniable face of a large portion of the diaspora. He’s brash, vocal, always hare’s breath from exploding into violence, belligerent, frighteningly smart, and more than capable of aggressively seizing his birthright.
Michael B. Jordan more than did Erick Killmonger justice. Jordan portrayed Killmonger with a biting intelligence, a caustic edge, and smoldering anger that more than one audience member will feel soul deep. He took what could’ve been interpreted as a brutish and limited character and played him with fantastic flair and an emotional depth that’s damn impressive. Everything from his casual arrogance to his deliberately leaning into an American accent is dead on perfect.
Killmonger is less a villain than a messenger the Elders and nation would do well to heed. His journey to Wakanda-and reception-is the work of a lifetime and a striking allegory for those stuck in the diaspora without a key that opens home.
The differences between T’Challa’s more measured tone and demeanor and Killmonger’s brashness, naked ambition and unhidden thirst for vengeance brings the less violent but no less brutal result of debilitation by colonialism into sharp focus. Cradling this conflict in the arms of T’Challa’s journey as King is an adrenaline kick and wicked smart storytelling. It completely rewrites what needs to be the notion of honor and obligation for Wakanda’s King.
Wakanda is now perfectly oriented in the real world. Its idyllic existence stands as both a symbol and shame. Adding thematic element makes all the action and fighting meaningful to the overall story and purposeful.
Don’t be surprised if you walk away conflicted about Killmonger. Don’t be surprised if some folx around you get real uncomfortable once he starts talking. Killmonger is embodies everything wypipo fear in a free black people.
This type of nuanced story arc successfully centered on a non-white character is also the kind that makes them uncomfortable and determined to define “diversity” on film as divisively (and as narrowly) as possible for as long as possible.
For many, his anger, mission, and his ultimate aim are not only understandable they should be expected. Ok, may not his unhidden desire to be a warmongering dictator but the proactive and aggressive defense of subjugated peoples?
Yeah… when do we leave?
Trust and believe, Killmonger’s gonna have people feeling themselves for days. He’s a connective thread that will resonate well after the credits roll and audiences move on to new adventures.
Moral of the Story?…
Black Panther is an effortless example of world-building and truth in story-building. No edges weren’t smoothed nor story angles manipulated to further insert non-white characters in unrealistic places or ways in order to appease. It is proof that is not necessary to pander in order to tell a diverse, dynamic, and emotionally compelling story.
But, if you’re longing for the days when (superhero) storytelling bent itself into impossible shapes to keep women marginalized and non-white characters from taking the spotlight – even in their own stories – then you’re not going to like a lot of films coming down the pipeline.
Even if you want to pretend that Black Panther has no greater nuanced or significance attached, it’s just a damn good film. I’m excited to see how it expands the MCU and hope for more Wakanda-center stories in the future.
This shouldn’t need to be said, but I will because I watched people leave a Marvel movie early (again). There are two post-credits scenes, so DON’T leave before the credits finish rolling. Besides, the end credits are beautiful.
What do say about the film? Let us know in the comments!