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, Sterling K. Brown
Director: Ryan Coogler
Running Time: 134 Minutes
Rating: PG-13 for Prolonged Fighting with a Variety of Weapons, Some of It Fairly Brutal and Bloody
Release Date: February 16, 2018
Black Panther culminates with the lesson, “The wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers.” This appeal would seem to apply most directly to the United States at this particular cultural moment, but instead it is an exhortation to the fictional African nation of Wakanda now that its new king T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) has ascended. Wakanda is filled with vast riches and incredibly advanced technology thanks to the stockpile of the alien metal vibranium long ago delivered by a meteorite crash. But it is also supposedly one of the poorest nations on the planet, likely due to a generations-long isolationist policy. Much of Black Panther feels like buildup to this point of opening up to the rest of the world, and in that way it is a prelude to the sequels that are sure to come. But what it reveals over the course of that prelude is thrilling.
Black Panther is not the first black superhero movie, but with a majority-black cast, black director, and African setting, it is unabashedly black in so many ways that are unprecedented for a blockbuster of this magnitude. It is unsurprising then that its initial villain is reminiscent of blaxploitation heroes fighting against The Man. Ulysses Klaue (an agreeably gonzo Andy Serkis) is a white South African arms dealer who is looking to get his hands on vibranium and make a pretty penny in the black market. But after Klaue is dispatched, the conflict ultimately comes down to that between T’Challa and Eric “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), who was born in America but has Wakandan roots and just as legitimate a claim to the throne as T’Challa. While Killmonger’s methods are overly destructive, his complaints, both personal and regarding how Wakanda does its public business, are legitimate. That Black Panther focuses on an intranational conflict should not be viewed as evidence of African and black cultures refusing to engage with the rest of the world, but rather an illustration that they already have plenty to keep themselves occupied.
While filled with several action set pieces and a fast-moving plot, Black Panther is most successful in its design and production elements. This is the sort of movie that brings a fully realized vision of a fictional world to life. The costumes are based on traditional African garb, but they are their own uniquely lavish style. Diverse tattoos and piercings add to the mix, including a few elements (such as one very stretched-out lower lip) that could be presented comically but are instead signs of dignity.
Culturally, this is a people that honors its elders, going so far as to have another dimension of sorts that exists at the nexus of technology and magic. Dubbed “the Ancestral Plane,” its purpose is for new kings to visit their deceased forebears for the sake of imparting necessary wisdom. Wakanda also treats its women in high regard, as they no big deal serve essential roles in government, science, and diplomacy. It may be true that the throne may not appear to be an option for woman (at least in this outing), but the monarchy is not as unilateral a position as it could possibly be. Considering all that progressiveness, it is disheartening that so much of Wakanda honor is bound up in a code of fighting and a culture of combat. That is not a complaint against the movie; in fact, what we have here is an appreciably complicated look at the difficulty to be a paragon of a nation.
The Black Panther is not just T’Challa, but rather a mantle that he holds currently. Accordingly, Black Panther the film is very much an ensemble piece, with attitude- and passion-driven performances from all the Wakandan tribes. The particular breakthrough is Letitia Wright (probably best known for the “Black Museum” episode of Black Mirror) as T’Challa’s spitfire younger sister Shuri, who manages to be both the comic relief and the Q to his James Bond.
Black Panther fits squarely within the overarching narrative of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, even though it can stand firmly on its own. Furthermore, it is nice to see it sidestep the easy template of the typical origin story that most solo superhero cinematic debuts tend towards. It has the standard two post-credits scenes, and weirdly enough they fit in the the MCU’s next chapter more squarely than other recent post-credits stingers. The last one is also more satisfying than those recent examples, perhaps because Black Panther takes care of its own, and we are ready when it stretches out.
Black Panther is Recommended If You Like: Shaft, Captain America: Civil War, Fruitvale Station
Grade: 3.75 out of 5 Headwraps