Director: Ryan Coogler
Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Angela Bassett, Andy Serkis, Forest Whitaker
The superhero movie has evolved as a genre over the last two decades, embracing more sophisticated narratives and themes. However despite that progression, it has remained almost exclusively the domain of white, male protagonists. The overwhelming response to Wonder Woman last year showed how empowering it was for women to finally see themselves in positions of strength and agency usually reserved for men. Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther offers that same experience to people of African descent, again pointing to the incredible importance of representation in cinema, particularly in popular cinema.
T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), Prince of the African kingdom of Wakanda, first appeared on our screens in Captain America: Civil War, where we witnessed the death of his father King T’Chaka (John Kani) in a terrorist attack on the United Nations. T’Challa now returns home to Wakanda to bury his father and prepare for his coronation. To the outside world, Wakanda appears to be one of the poorest countries on Earth – the sort of place one current world leader might class a “shit hole country.” But that is merely a mask disguising what is actually the worlds wealthiest and most technologically advanced nation, built on a rich supply of the powerful extra-terrestrial mineral vibranium. While futuristic in its technologically Wakanda remains traditionally tribal, so there are a number of rituals, including combat, T’Challa must perform before he can take the throne. After a brief detour to South Korea in pursuit of Wakanda’s public enemy number one Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis in a rare non-motion capture performance), T’Challa returns to Wakanda to find a mysterious outsider, Erik Killmonger (Michael B Jordan), has come to make a claim on the throne. As T’Challa fights for his birthright he must also decide what sort of king he wants to be.
While Black Panther is not the first film about a black superhero – we have already had the Blade trilogy and Hancock – what sets it apart is the extent of its Afrocentricism. This is not just the same old superhero story with a black actor substituted in for the white. Africanness is central to the look, feel and spirituality of the film, from its music and design to its setting and characters. In a prologue, we are told that the key to Wakanda’s technological supremacy was a vibranium meteorite that hit the country thousands of years ago, providing them with an enormous supply of the valuable resource. Where technological advancement has often come hand in hand with Western colonisation and homogenisation at the expense of local traditions, Black Panther shows us a vision of an organically African technological superpower. The production design by Hannah Beachler uses traditional African architecture and design as the basis of a super city unlike any we’ve seen. Wakanda offers a vision of what might have been had Africa itself, rather than colonisers from elsewhere, reaped the benefits of their natural resources.
While revelling in this African superpower, Black Panther does not live in a fantasy, ignoring the real world plight of the African diaspora. The primary tension in the film comes from the disparity between the experience of the people of Wakanda and that of black people everywhere else in the world. The price of Wakanda’s secrecy has long been the suffering of those beyond their borders who could have benefited from their resources and knowledge. To Killmonger, who has grown up in the US and experienced first-hand the oppression faced by people of African descent around the world, Wakanda’s silence is treasonous. When he returns to Wakanda to challenge for the throne, it is with a view to using Wakanda’s resources to turn the tables on an international scale, making oppressors of the oppressed. While his methods may be dubious, even T’Challa must acknowledge his underlying motivation is righteous. Having always been taught that the King’s responsibility is to the people of Wakanda, T’Challa is confronted by the idea that Wakanda may have a responsibility to those beyond their borders.
After Thor: Ragnarok operated with tongue firmly in cheek, Black Panther demonstrates a sincerity which stems from its titular protagonist. T’Challa is unlike any of the other heroes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. He is both superhero warrior and political figurehead, and sees the second as the far greater responsibility. Rather than a cynical anti-hero, he is honourable, noble, respectable and respectful. Boseman plays him with gravitas, but the solemnity of the character sees him slightly overshadowed by the sheer charisma of Michael B Jordan’s Killmonger. A sort of Malcolm X to T’Challa’s Martin Luther King, Erik is a strong villain with a clear and understandable motivations who is only one or two missteps away from being the hero of the film.
While much of the excitement for this film centres on its challenge to the whiteness of the genre, the pleasant surprise is its simultaneous challenge to its maleness. Black Panther is filled with powerful female characters, with the majority of T’Challa’s key allies being women. Angela Bassett oozes nobility as matriarch Ramonda, and Lupita Nyong’o, as spy and love interest Nakia, provides a more measured voice callnig for a more interventionist Wakanda than Killmonger’s. The two scene stealers, though, are Letitia Wright and Danai Gurira. Wright plays T’Challa’s sixteen-year-old sister Shuri, a tech genius who is the Q to his Bond. T’Challa’s solemnity means the burden of comic relief often falls to her, while their sibling relationship also shows us a softer side of him. Gurira’s General Okoye, leader of the Dora Milaje, Wakanda’s fearsome, all-female kings guard, is an incredible screen presence and, to put it simply, kicks ass.
With its eighteenth film, Marvel Studios is not resting on its laurels. A stand alone film, Black Panther is largely unburdened by the cameos, crossovers and fan service which are usually par for the course in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Ryan Coogler’s offering does all those things that Marvel does well – spectacle, action, character, humour – while also pushing the MCU in exciting new directions, offering a daring exploration of contemporary isolationism and racial politics which until very recently would not have seemed possible in a big budget, major studio tentpole movie.
Review by Duncan McLean
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