Review: Black Panther

Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Director: Ryan Coogler

Writers: Ryan Coogler & Joe Robert Cole

Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Andy Serkis

Genre: Superhero

Rating: PG-13

It really is a sad time when my meager activity as a humble film reviewer seems to come with such a massive burden. There was a time when a good movie was an event of widespread satisfaction and cultural camaraderie. Those times are still abundant, thank the Lord. It just saddens me when such times are ever absent, especially now.

The next entry in the biggest and most successful film franchise of all time should always be a time for us to put aside differences and enjoy something together. A time when all things that divide and raise contention between us as a people are shelved away in the fog of irrelevance as we unite personally and empathetically with a shared archetypal narrative. Sadly, I feel that such a feeling is becoming a luxury. Even in the face of such dedication and mastery of a remarkably complex subject rich with possibility, depth, and intrigue, I find my position being pulled and extracted to areas of introspection I’d rather not entertain at the moment. It’s not fair. It’s just not fair…

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: More close-up fights than in previous Marvel films, with more explosive, widespread violence. One-on-one ritual battles are intense (with bloody wounds, stabbings, etc.), full of moments when it seems like a character is going to die. A couple of deaths (both real and presumed) are particularly emotional. Weapons used in full-scale battle scenes include spears, curved knives, and armored war animals. Super-powered guns/cannons that have the power to obliterate vehicles in one shot. Bad guys shoot bystanders and enemies, sometimes in cold blood. A long, explosive car chase causing lots of destruction. Dead bodies are shown. Flashback to T’Challa’s father’s death. Brief footage from 1992 LA riots on TV. Black Panther rescues women from armed Nigerian soldiers.

Language/Crude Humor: Infrequent use of “s**t,” “ass,” and “hell”; one character makes a middle-finger gesture. A couple of Wakandan characters use the historically accurate word “colonizer” as a derisive/dismissive way of referring to white people/those in power.

Sexual Content: A couple of kisses and some flirting. One couple calls each other “my love” in a flirtatious/charged manner. Klaue smuggles a sensitive package in the crotch area of his pants.

Drug/Alcohol Use: Adult extras drink in the background of a casino scene; a more central character orders a whiskey. A fictional heart-shaped herb is used for medicinal and mystical purposes in a sacred ritual.

Spiritual Content: Seemingly psychedelically induced meetings with the spirits of ancestors.

Other Negative Themes: Divisive racial commentary.

Positive Content: Promotes teamwork, communication, loyalty, integrity, courage, and friendship. Highlights the abilities of women and people of color in leading roles. Explores the necessity of global compassion and outreach and the idea that, as human beings, more unites us than separates us. Duty, ritual, justice, and tradition are very important to the Wakandans. An important theme of the movie is learning that those who may seem perfect usually aren’t; we all have flaws and secrets. But we also aren’t responsible for the choices of those who came before us.

T’Challa is a born leader who’s thoughtful, patient, and compassionate. The movie portrays women–particularly T’Challa’s inner circle of Okoye, Nakia, and Shuri–as strong, smart, capable, and courageous. Shuri is an inventive tech genius. Even the main villain is complicated and thought-provoking. Diverse ensemble cast. A highly respected character is revealed to have made some pretty big mistakes in the past.

Review

There is a significant clamor among film critics and buffs that while outright proselytizing is vehemently discouraged in the field of filmmaking (“If you want to send a message, use Western Union” is a common maxim in Hollywood), movies should strive to at least be about something larger than themselves. Even if the aim is to do nothing but give people a reason to get out of the house for a Friday evening, the experience should leave us with something concrete and approachable to chew on. The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) seems to have a difficult time of this outside of the robust Netflix productions. While I don’t demand that every outing in the MCU gives us a scholar’s diet of philosophical discourse, I do constantly wish that each one be a bit more than what seems to be a feature-length trailer for the next entries.

Thankfully, Ryan Coogler has delivered this and then some with Black Panther, the latest entry in the MCU that pushes boundaries not only for this franchise but for blockbuster cinema as a whole. It can be said that Coogler will be seen as one of the most valuable young filmmaking talents in the business. Given that this is only his third feature production and that he’s barely over 30 years of age, Coogler has accomplished more with three films than most do in an entire lifetime. I honestly feel rather under-accomplished in the face of it.

Bringing the immediacy of the hard-hitting Fruitvale Station and the robust execution of Creed, Coogler gives us in Black Panther what is easily the most topical Marvel movie since Captain America: The Winter Soldier and the most internally complete Marvel movie since Doctor Strange. Where Winter Soldier addressed the difficult subjects of pre-emptive war strikes and sacrificing freedom for security, Black Panther addresses even more present-day concerns such as national border security, social justice for ethnic minorities, international diplomacy, and the responsibilities of powerful nations to powerless nations. In addition to its topical value, the entire experience is so full of depth and intrigue, that it could easily provide grounds for a wholly distinct cinematic universe of its own.

Taking place after the events that introduced Prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) in Captain America: Civil War, Black Panther brings us up to speed on what is arguably the true central “character” of the story. We are told that the nation of Wakanda came to be by being built upon a meteorite composed of a strange alien metal known as vibranium. Five ancient African tribes warred against one another for ownership of the resource until one warrior imbibed an herb affected by the properties of the metal and gained what is known as the “powers of the Black Panther.” Wakanda was united and began its long history of success and advancement.

The story properly begins with T’Challa returning to Wakanda to be crowned king after his father T’Chaka was killed in a terrorist bombing. He is accompanied to his coronation by his tech-savvy younger sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), General Okoye (Danai Gurira), and his regal mother Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett), which serves to provide the incredibly vigorous cast of supporting characters that Black Panther boasts. As a part of the ceremony, an opportunity to challenge the would-be king for the throne in ritual combat is offered to the other tribes of Wakanda. This was one of the more baffling narrative directions of the film’s premises.

The nature of Wakanda is that it is outwardly known as a poverty-stricken third-world African country, but is secretly a highly advanced civil metropolis, home to wonders of scientific and technological accomplishment that would make Stark Industries look like a toy manufacturer. This is mainly due to the nation’s full-bodied use of the vibranium resting in the mountain upon which the capital is built. With its isolationist politics and gifted scientific minds, Wakanda achieved a level of advancement that most countries can only imagine and only residents of the nation know about. What’s odd here is that a nation so incredibly advanced technologically would be so primitive in its methods for selecting its political leaders. That hardly anyone ever questions these methods or their legitimacy is even more strange.

With that said, all plot choices, including the peculiar ones, serve the narrative handsomely from start to finish. At first from the advertisements, Black Panther struck me and many others as simply another average entry in the MCU’s run of introductory tales. Much like Iron Man before, T’Challa is the wealthy inheritor of a large and impressive technological enterprise who uses his resources to dress himself up in bulletproof attire and rescue neglected victims of terrorism from life-damaging exploitation. It even ends with the title character engaging in a climactic battle with a corrupt doppelganger. Granted, Tony Stark did his heroic derring-do to make amends for past sins, and T’Challa did this ostensibly to help where he could with the sex trafficking problem near his borders–his real motivation being to find and intercept the heroic deeds of his old flame Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) so that she may attend his crowning–but the latter is much closer in proximity to real-world concerns (such as the Boko Haram) than the former.

Nakia thankfully embodies more than just the obligatory love interest. She serves as the one who brings a call to action to T’Challa and an insistence to Wakanda to end their policy of remaining isolated from the rest of the world in order to provide aid to the less fortunate. While T’Challa is hesitant to end so many years of tradition in honor of the many kings who came before him, he ultimately receives his greatest wake-up call in the form of the main antagonist, Erik “Killmonger” Stevens.

What has been the most frequent criticism launched against the MCU is the terrible lack of compelling villains outside of names like Loki and Kingpin (and the latter is only in the Netflix series Daredevil). Michael B. Jordan, who played the starring role in both of Coogler’s other two films, comes to us here as easily the most multilayered and captivating Marvel villain to date. His quest and motivation serve to convict Wakanda for its failure to use its resources in service to its people abroad and to convict the U.S. and the world at large for its failure to do justice to people of African descent within their own borders. In fact, Killmonger’s motivation is to utilize Wakanda’s resources to arm people of the African diaspora across the globe so they may overthrow their oppressors with ease and terror.

It is often said that the most memorable villains are the ones whom you can find yourself agreeing with if situations had only been slightly different. It’s a major reason why Batman is said to have the greatest arrangement of evildoers in the medium’s history. Every single one of the Dark Knight’s adversaries has as their drive an ideal that could be not only understood but almost sympathized with under certain perspectival slants. In Killmonger, we have this very kind of hauntingly persuasive antagonism. The film even goes out of the way to give empathetic dramatization to Killmonger’s past and life experiences in order for us to genuinely recognize and feel his plight and injury. Such injury also motivates a major change of heart in T’Challa and his associates in Wakanda. Everyone involved is no longer what they were before Killmonger arrived on the scene.

The greatest move that Coogler made with Black Panther is to make it not solely about the Road to Damascus epiphany of personal growth for the title character while other characters just operate to serve his development in whatever marginalized way they can but to make the tale essentially about the very nation of Wakanda herself. The focus of every character in the story is on where Wakanda should go from here with regard to diplomacy, activism, military action, foreign policy, and a number of other concerns. The film is littered with a myriad of characters, peoples, groups, and factions that anyone could easily pick as a favorite and ask for more tales to be told about them.

Other films in the MCU such as Guardians of the Galaxy have been noted for “expanding the scope” of the franchise. I do not think the scope was expanded there so much as it was simply given new trappings. Space is a new frontier to be sure, but nothing in either of the Guardians films really add what could be easily another narrative substratum to the whole project. With the fictional nation of Wakanda and her peoples, politics, traditions, internal schisms, and global visions, I can easily imagine there being a demand for a whole film (or even a series of films) given to the likes of the techno whiz Shuri operating as the Q to T’Challa’s 007, or to the all-female paramilitary group of the Dora Milaje of whom Okoye is the leader, or to the various individual tribes that make up Wakanda. One reviewer noted that Coogler in effect has used Disney’s money to essentially give us the black versions of Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and James Bond all at once.

Several bits of mythmaking scattered throughout also seized my thoughts. The plant and meteor that grants the superhuman abilities of the Black Panther is said to be a gift of the warrior goddess Bast and brings those who imbibe it into a trance-like state, enabling them to visit the spirits of those who came before them.

Jordan wasn’t the only star performer in the acting line up. Danai Gurira embellishes the character of Okoye with an even stronger mix of feminine passion and warlike ferocity than what was found in her performance as Michonne from AMC’s The Walking Dead. Angela Basset’s presence as the doting-but-authoritative queen was palpable, to say the least. Virtually any character played by Lupita Nyong’o is more or less guaranteed to be a winner, and Nakia (known as the character “Malice” in the comics) is no exception. Trinidadian actor Winston Duke makes his filmic debut here as M’Baku (known in the comics as the villain “Man-Ape”), a brazen but virtuous leader of the Jabari, a mountain-dwelling tribe of warriors who model themselves after the primal might of the gorilla. Duke was unforgettable in all of his scenes no matter how little screen-time he was given and seemed to be a bit of a fan-favorite among the crowd I was with.

It can be said that the film’s execution was not without faults that kept it from real greatness. Seeing as this is Coogler’s first venture with a mostly CGI production, some of the compositings showed notable seams that took me out of the experience on occasion. Visually, the film is spectacular, and I expect it to at least be nominated for best costume design next year at the Academy Awards, but its ambition could use refinement. Also, this is another instance where the title character also happens to be one of the less interesting members of the ensemble. He grapples deeply with his position as the king of the most advanced nation in the world and comes to realize the faults of those who came before them, but largely he seems to be going along with the demands and expectations of others a little too comfortably from my observation.

It is here where I feel a burden of outside expectations come upon me, as there have been instances of outright hostility against anyone who speaks unfavorably about Black Panther to any degree. It is here that I find my role as a social commentator being uncomfortably yoked to my role as a film reviewer. For many, Black Panther serves not only as a pivotal turning point in the MCU or in blockbuster filmmaking but as a symbolic lynchpin totem of volatile Afro-centric pride. Some of the remarks made from this point of view have ranged from the merely ignorant (those who are incidentally or intentionally unaware of Blade, Spawn, Hancock, or other similar productions embarrassingly declare Black Panther to be the first major Hollywood superhero film with a black lead), to the woefully tone-deaf and offensive (one of the most asinine comments I’ve heard about this film was given to me by a fellow film review writer stating that “Wakanda is an example of what Africa would have been like if white people didn’t invade”).

The only element in this film that is largely unprecedented in big-screen blockbuster cinema is its arresting display of the aesthetic known as “Afrofuturism.” All such remarks show themselves to be not only inappropriate but exacerbate the tenuous race relations in both the U.S. and at large. Relations that many have already been damaging quite nicely over the last nine years or so through various policies and public actions that ostensibly serve to aid the underprivileged but do more to harm both their own prospects and their reputation in the society at large. Sadly, they also open my eyes to more troubling flaws within the film itself.

At one key scene when Martin Freeman’s CIA agent Everett K. Ross is being brought critically wounded into Wakanda for Shuri’s emergency medical treatment, she remarks “Oh good! Another broken white boy for us to fix!” At a later point, Shuri derogatorily addresses Ross as “colonizer” in a throwaway line. While the arguably racist undertone of her remark is problematic enough (no different from referring to an American of German descent as “Gestapo”, “Nazi”, or “Jew-killer”), it strikes me as rather odd that the character of Shuri would be so “woke” with regard to the evils of colonization since she has lived her whole life in the isolated utopia of Wakanda as one of its high society members. I’ve recently read articles about actual contemporary upper-class immigrants from places like Nigeria that have never even heard of past evils such as the middle passage or the history of slavery or legal discrimination in America. One noteworthy young Nigerian woman even stated that she thought “everyone had a maid and a driver” like she did. This put me at an impasse with how I was supposed to read Shuri’s character and ideals; probably more than any other character.

Sure, Killmonger appropriately wears the racial injustice he’s suffered on his sleeve, and it brings much welcome intrigue to his arc and makeup. Early on when he’s exploring the African wing of a British museum, he recognizes one artifact as actually being Wakandan and made of vibranium. He threatens the tour guide with the promise to relieve the museum of the item. When she counters, he responds by noting that her ancestors never paid a fair price for either that article or anything else in that wing of the museum. It’s a gripping statement, but I have to wonder if such rhetoric is now being used among certain ardent fans as a means to fuel the same kind of retrogressive vengeance that many members of the American Left seem to advocate.

In fact, can it not be said that in relishing in the cultural display of Sub-Saharan African pageantry as if it were their own, Black Americans are violating one of the cardinal sins of the Left? Recently when I was engaging in an online conversation on the matter of the politicizing of Black Panther’s release, an old black male college friend of mine made the following remark:

“Black Panther is a huge deal, it’s the first black superhero movie with international clout of this scale. You can tout Blade and Hancock and Spawn all you want, but none of these movies were ever planned as mega-blockbusters…

… Let people celebrate their culture on a large scale. This shouldn’t be difficult.”

I gave my response:

“Incorrect. At least the first two movies you mentioned there were in fact planned as major blockbusters and did, in fact, BECOME major blockbusters. I still personally remember when the video rental stores near where I was living in Japan were sold out of their copies of BLADE for weeks. And HANCOCK made insane money hand over fist…

… Small problem: For the overwhelmingly vast majority of Black Americans, this is NOT “their culture.” Just because the people depicted therein happen to look like them, doesn’t mean that they share cultural space. Even commentators as early as W.E.B. DuBois recognized that the typical native-born Black American of even his time was of a cultural heritage and practice that was starkly different from that of the black immigrants than from places like the West Indies and western Africa. Such parallels are plentiful around the world. The peoples of the highlands and lowlands of the British Isles all look very much alike, but for many centuries, their cultures were remarkably different. 

As a Black American, I have no more cultural connection to the peoples and accomplishments of most parts of Sub-Saharan Africa (which is our best guess of where Wakanda would be located were it real) than a Portuguese-American has a connection to the peoples and accomplishments of Ukraine or Russia. To think otherwise would in many ways warrant a typical criminal charge of the Left: Cultural Appropriation.”

My concerns were genuine here. My legitimate fear is that many Black Americans would become so infatuated with the depiction of a culturally astounding fictional African nation (some seem to be still unaware that Wakanda actually is fictional) that was created by two European Jewish guys in the 60s and is still, at the end of the day, an intellectual property owned by a mega media corporation that seems to be growing and expanding at an alarming rate, that they would become neglectful of their interest in building and improving the cultural capital that they have as Americans. It is a capital in which many more contemporary Africans would love to partake, and they far outnumber the contemporary Black Americans attempting to partake in the cultural capital that Africa has on offer now.  As the Black American economist Thomas Sowell has noted in his seminal work The Quest for Cosmic Justice:

“Seldom is the claim made that black Americans alive at this moment are worse off than if their ancestors had been left in Africa. Any attempt to make that case with statistics on income, life expectancy, or numerous other variables would collapse like a house of cards.”

He later notes in the same writing:

“…it may be worth noting that the number of contemporary black Americans who have immigrated to Africa does not begin to approach the number of contemporary Africans who have immigrated to the United States.”

Make no mistake, dear reader. Black Panther is a fantastic film and one of the best entries in the MCU in recent years. I plan to see it again very soon. But just as anything can be ruined by overexposure as I’ve said before, anything can be ruined by exposure to and usage by the wrong crowd even more quickly. In my review of Darren Aronofosky’s mother!, my favorite film of 2017, I referenced C.S. Lewis’ distinction between those members of the consumer base for the narrative arts who simply use art as a tool to vindicate and further their own pre-existing convictions and agendas (the “Many” in Lewis’ vernacular) and those who actually embrace and accept the work on its own terms as a valuable relic of creativity and craftsmanship (the “Few”).

Black Panther deserves to be received as art and not just used as another pawn or banner in a ceaselessly insipid culture war.  Some of the faults I’ve mentioned here almost mark it as one of those works that were deliberately designed to be “used” in this way rather than received.  Almost, but thankfully not quite. With that said, I was reminded as a means of setting my mind at ease on the matter of the “I Love Being Black” poem penned by Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Inductee Smokey Robinson. I leave you, dear reader, with a copy of that poem here with slight censorship to meet my editor’s standards:

I love being Black.

I love being called Black.

I love being an American.

I love being a Black American, but as a Black man in this country I think it’s a shame

That every few years, we get a change of name.

 

Since those first ships arrived here from Africa that came across the sea

There were already Black men in this country who were free.

And as for those that came over here on those terrible boats,

They were called n****r and slave

And told what to do and how to behave.

And then massa started trippin’ and doing his midnight tippin’,

Down to the slave shacks where he forced he and Great-Great Grandma to

be together,

And if Great-Great Grandpa protested, he got tarred and feathered.

And at the same time, the Black men in the country who were free,

Were mating with the tribes like the Apache and the Cherokee.

And as a result of all that, we’re a parade of every shade.

And as in this late day and age, you can be sure,

They ain’t too many of us in this country whose bloodline is pure.

 

But, according to a geological, geographical, genealogy study published

in Time Magazine,

The Black African people were the first on the scene,

So for what it’s worth, the Black African people were the first on earth

 

And through migration, our characteristics started to change, and rearrange,

To adapt to whatever climate we migrated to.

And that’s how I became me, and you became you.

 

So, if we gonna go back, let’s go all the way back,

And if Adam was Black and Eve was Black,

Then that kind of makes it a natural fact that everybody in America is an African American.

 

Everybody in Europe is an African European; everybody in the Orient is an African Asian

And so on and so on,

That is, if the origin of man is what we’re gonna go on.

And if one drop of Black blood makes you Black like they say,

Then everybody’s Black anyway.

 

So quit trying to change my identity.

I’m already who I was meant to be

I’m a Black American, born and raised.

And brother James Brown wrote a wonderful phrase,

“Say it loud, I’m Black and I’m proud! Say it loud, I’m Black and I’m proud!”

 

Cause I’m proud to be Black and I ain’t never lived in Africa,

And ’cause my Great-Great Granddaddy on my Daddy’s side did, don’t mean I want to go back.

 

Now I have nothing against Africa,

It’s where some of the most beautiful places and people in the world are found.

But I’ve been blessed to go a lot of places in this world,

And if you ask me where I choose to live, I pick America, hands down.

 

Now, by and by, we were called Negroes, and after while, that name has vanished.

Anyway, Negro is just how you say “black” in Spanish.

Then, we were called colored, but s**t, everybody’s one color or another,

And I think it’s a shame that we hold that against each other.

 

And it seems like we reverted back to a time when being called Black was an insult,

Even if it was another Black man who said it, a fight would result,

Cause we’ve been so brainwashed that Black was wrong,

So that even the yellow n***as and black n***as couldn’t get along.

 

But then, came the 1960s when we struggled and died to be called equal and Black,

And we walked with pride with our heads held high and our shoulders pushed back,

And Black was beautiful.

 

But, I guess that wasn’t good enough,

Cause now here they come with some other stuff.

Who comes up with this s**t anyway?

Was it one, or a group of n***as sitting around one day?

 

Feelin’ a little insecure again about being called Black

And decided that African American sounded a little more exotic.

Well, I think you were being a little more neurotic.

 

It’s that same mentality that got “Amos and Andy” put off the air,

Cause’ they were embarrassed about the way the characters spoke.

And as a result of that action, a lot of wonderful Black actors ended up broke.

When we were just laughin’ and have fun about ourselves.

So I say, “f*** you, if you can’t take a joke.”

You didn’t see the “Beverly Hillbilly’s” being protested by white folks.

 

And if you think, that cause you think that being called African American set all Black people’s mind at ease…

Since we affectionately call each other “n***a”,

I affectionately say to you, “n***a Please”.

 

How come I didn’t get the chance to vote on who I’d like to be?

Who gave you the right to make that decision for me?

I ain’t under your rule or in your dominion

And I am entitled to my own opinion.

 

Now there are some African Americans here,

But they recently moved here from places like Kenya, Ethiopia, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Zaire.

But, now the brother whose family has lived in the country for generations,

Occupying space in all the locations

New York, Miami, L.A., Detroit, Chicago-

Even if he’s wearing a dashiki and sporting an afro.

 

And, if you go to Africa in search of your race,

You’ll find out quick you’re not an African American,

You’re just a Black American in Africa takin’ up space.

 

Why you keep trying to attach yourself to a continent,

Where if you got the chance and you went,

Most people there wouldn’t even claim you as one of them; as a purebred daughter or son of them.

Your heritage is right here now, no matter what you call yourself or what you say

And a lot of people died to make it that way.

And if you think America is a leader on inequality and suffering and grievin’

How come there so many people comin’ and so few leavin’?

 

Rather than all this ‘find fault with America’ that you promotin’,

If you want to change something, use your privilege, get to the polls!

Commence to votin’!

 

God knows we’ve earned the right to be called American Americans and be free at last.

And rather than you movin’ forward progress, you dwelling in the past.

We’ve struggled too long; we’ve come too far.

Instead of focusing on who we were, let’s be proud of who we are.

 

We are the only people whose name is always a trend.

When is this s**t gonna end?

Look at all the different colors of our skin-

Black is not our color. It’s our core.

It’s what we been livin’ and fightin’ and dyin’ for.

 

But if you choose to be called African American and that’s your preference

Then I’ll give you that reference

 

But I know on this issue I don’t stand alone on my own and if I do, then let me be me

And I’d appreciate it if when you see me, you’d say, “There goes a man who says it loud I’m Black. I’m Black. I’m a Black American, and I’m proud!”

 

Cause I love being an American. And I love being Black. I love being called Black.

 

Yeah, I said it, and I don’t take it back.

Positives

+ Pioneering aesthetic approach + Impressively engaging world-building + Outstanding performances + Fantastic villain + Lovable characters and settings + Tightly woven plot

Negatives

- Occasionally shoddy CG compositing - Lead character is the least interesting - Odd plot points - Encourages undue racial tensions at times

The Bottom Line

It’s a great film. Let’s just let it be that, okay?

 

8.5

Tyrone Barnes

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