This weekend brought the debut of Ryan Coogler's newest directorial triumph, Black Panther, a Marvel Studios production distributed by Walt Disney Studios. Based on the eponymous Marvel Comics character, Black Panther, which features a black director and a nearly all-black diasporic cast, raised incalculable expectations for black moviegoers, comics fans, critics and the film industry, and, having seen it yesterday, I can say hesitation that it more than satisfies them. It manages to be a thrilling fantasy movie based on a comics foundation, a visually arresting and movingly acted wok of cinema, and a politically aware, multilayered film that keeps the viewer thinking even after the final credits and post-credit clip have rolled.
The film's plot mirrors similar superhero tales, but is, as has been widely remarked, anchored in and deeply informed by an African(ist) futurist aesthetic. The story's hero must assume the mantle of his father, and shoulder the profound responsibilities for his people, but the script, by Coogler and John Robert Cole includes twists, include two villains, one far more significant than the other, and a tale of familial revenge, linked to differing ideas of cultural socialization (African vs. African-American) and liberation, that I cannot say I have ever seen in any other superhero film. (One sees echoes of this, however, in a TV show like Black Lightning, which I wrote about last week.) Indeed, the deeper conflict in the film, rooted in the idea of family, now underpinned by the DNA testing industries and genealogical research, about the relationship between those in the Diaspora and those, like the Wakandans, who have remained in the African homeland, may pass over some moviegoers' heads, but to me was one of the most stirring aspects of the film. Another was the film's baseline feminist perspective; Wakanda may be presided over by a king, and Black Panther may be a cis-heterosexual male, but this is no patriarchy, and women are equals--as warriors and citizens--to the men, the ruler notwithstanding. As a template for the new century, and for black children and children of all races, this is a powerful model to internalize.
|Lupita Nyong'o, Chadwick|
Boseman, & Danai Gurira
To give just a glimpse of the plot, Black Panther unfolds with a quick prologue, set several centuries back. In a world parallel to our own, a meteor bearing the fictional metal vibranium, the rarest and most powerful element known to humankind, strikes central Africa. As five tribes wage war over the magical resource, a member of one of the tribes ingests a "heart-shaped bulb" that has been transformed by the vibranium, giving him special powers that lead him to become the first Black Panther. He unites four of the five tribes as the nation of Wakanda, with the fifth, the Jabari, remaining semi-independent in a loose confederation in the snowy mountains above. (A scene later in the film gives us a mini-tour of this aerie-perched nation; what was not clear was where most its women were, as if it were a kind of black Sparta in the clouds.) Rather than exploiting this remarkable resource, Wakanda chooses to guard it, presenting itself to the outside world as an impoverished, sleepy "Third World" member of the international community, while inside its borders, it is a technological powerhouse.
|Lupita Nyong'o and|
We flash forward to the current moment, which includes references to our contemporary world, in which the noble Prince T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is set to assume the Wakandan throne after the assassination of his father, T'Challa (now played by veteran South African actor John Kani). We meet his younger sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright), Wakanda's resident tech genius; his mother, the grieving Queen Ramonda (a suitably regal Angela Bassett); and the head of the Dora Milaje, the Wakandan state's all female guard, General Okoye (Danai Gurira, embodying an electrifying blend of brilliance and ferocity). Before T'Challa's coronation begins, he and Okoye retrieve his ex, Nakia (a radiant Lupita Nyong'o), now a deep operative in Nigeria, the sparks still evident between them. As part of his ritual installment, before a royal audience outdoors, above waterfalls, and presided over by a much older Zuri (Forest Whitaker), T'Challa must face a challenger from any of Wakanda's tribes, all of whom, including his best friend, W'Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), beg off. The Jabari tribe's head, the strapping (6'5" and stoutly built) M'Baku (Winston Duke), does raise a challenge, only to eventually tap out after being subdued by T'Challa. This is one of several rituals the viewer witnesses, giving a sense of the depth of the culture and the reverence with which power is transferred.
|T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) facing off|
against Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan, at right)
The acting is uniformly strong, and the viewer gets the sense that everyone in the film is enjoying themselves. Winston Duke and Letitia Wright are among the many breakout stars, if there are rolls for them down the road, and it was invigorating to see Boseman, Jordan, Nyong'o, and Gurira in roles other than biopics, historical narratives or realist tragedies, important and necessary as such films are. In 2006 and again in 2012 I wrote about the increasingly Diasporic cast of black Hollywood, and this film fully represents that shift, drawing its talent from across the globe, while bringing together venerable figures like Kani, Academy Award winners like the senior Whitaker, and beginners like the younger Whitaker. As other commenters have noted, the films is that rare Hollywood product that also seems not beholden to colorism, particularly for its leading actresses. How rare--and needed!--to see dark-skinned women not relegated to the background, but in the forefront of a story, yet this felt organic, not forced, like most of what the film offers its viewers. Cinematographer Rachel Morrison deserves praise for the rich imagery and her skillful blending of realism and CGI, and the score, by Ludwig Göransson, with contributions by Kendrick Lamar, and others, complements and enlivens what the viewer sees.
|Michael B. Jordan, as Erik|
Killmonger; Daniel Kaluuya,
as W'Kabi at right
|T'Challa (Boseman) again|
facing off against Killmonger (Jordan)