Written by David Holland
We are barreling toward the conclusion of the Infinity Saga. But before we can watch Thanos break the universe, we need to travel to a new country and meet a new king. This film introduced the term “Afro-futurism” into my vocabulary in a big way, and boy does it deliver.
We first met Black Panther in “Captain America: Civil War”. T’Challa’s father, King T’Chaka, was killed by Zemo’s attack on the UN, thrusting the throne onto him before he wanted it. Director Ryan Coogler, most well-known for directing “Creed” in 2015, picks up the story from there. Coogler wrote the movie along with Joe Robert Cole. There was a lot riding on this movie in terms of expectations. Fair or not, it was up to “Black Panther” to prove that a blockbuster movie directed by, written by, and starring people of color could succeed on a large scale. This is the first real attempt to bring the Black Panther to the screen, although Wesley Snipes did try unsuccessfully in the 1990s. Visual effects technology being what it was back then, the Black Panther suit basically would have been black cat ears, so it’s probably for the best. But then again, he got to be Blade so it can’t be all bad.
The cast of Black Panther is overflowing with talent. Chadwick Boseman returns as Black Panther and Danai Gurira as Okoye, both having been introduced in “Civil War”. They are joined by Michael B. Jordan as Killmonger and Lupita Nyong’o as Nakia. Martin Freeman and Andy Serkis reprise their respective roles as Agent Ross and Klaue, and since they played Bilbo Baggins and Gollum in the “Hobbit” movies they earned the nicknames “The Tolkien White Guys” on set which is just perfection. And how have I gotten this far without mentioning Forest freaking Whitaker!?
Let’s talk about those fears that a movie starring an almost entirely black cast wouldn’t be successful – The movie cost $200 million to produce and pulled in $202 domestically. In the first weekend. “Black Panther” was the first Marvel movie to recoup its production costs in opening weekend! So yes, I think we can call that a success.
How Does it Hold Up?
I went to this movie alone (it’s not weird to go to movies in the theater alone – it’s a room with a bunch of seats all facing a giant screen in the dark where you’re expected to be quiet. I know this is a digression but I just had to say it) the weekend it that it opened. I am a white guy in my thirties which is pretty much the sweet spot as far as demographics go for summer blockbusters. To put it bluntly, I’m used to going to movies that are made for me. Action heroes, sci-fi heroes, the love interest in romantic comedies, protagonists in young adult dystopias, they all looked like me.
I was struck by a thought while watching “Black Panther”: This movie was not made for me. It was interesting, liberating in a way. Even “Wonder Woman”, which featured a female superhero, felt like it was structured with male audiences in mind. But “Black Panther” is unapologetically black – as it should be. “Black Panther” was written by black writers, helmed by a black director, and overflowed with talented black actors. When asked what it was like to be one of the few white actors on set, Martin Freeman replied “Right, this is what black actors feel all the time.” More words have been written by more important people about the significance of Wakanda, so I won’t repeat them here, but suffice it to say that imagining a part of Africa untouched by colonialism is important in a way that I, as a white person, can’t fully grasp. And that is okay. At one point Shuri actually calls Everett Ross “colonizer”. In a time now when many white people chafe at the slightest implication that they are racist, it would be easy to miss the lighthearted lesson behind it. Ross is a CIA operative, an organization with a less than stellar history on the continent of Africa. But when Shuri calls him a colonizer, it’s in a teasing tone, a reminder that he is an outsider in her home, in her lab. Ross picks up on the lesson. He follows Shuri’s instructions, stays mindful of Wakandan customs, and demonstrates a willingness to sacrifice himself to restore T’Challa to the throne.
I can’t end this section without mentioning Killmonger. He is a sympathetic villain – an orphan, an exile, a man whose plan involves liberation for oppressed people around the world. Michael B. Jordan is perfect for the role, and the upside down shot of him walking into the throne room to usurp T’Challa’s throne is absolutely spine-tingling.
While researching this movie I learned that Ryan Coogler expected Killmonger’s last line to be cut by Marvel’s higher ups. After T’Challa offers to attempt to save him from his fatal wound, Killmonger rebuffs him, asking instead “Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from slave ships, because they knew that death was better than bondage.” It’s poignant, perhaps even more so now in the moment America is currently wrestling with. Coogler thought he would have to fight to save the line. Instead, Marvel boss Kevin Feige told him there was plenty to cut in the script, but to keep that line and build the whole movie around it.
For centuries Wakanda has stayed sheltered from the rest of the world, using its rich vibranium deposits and developing technological advances beyond any other society on Earth. But while Wakanda stays hidden, there is plenty of suffering across the globe. Killmonger’s plan is to respond to that suffering by using Wakanda’s weapons and encouraging violent, worldwide revolutions to overthrow oppressive governments. T’Challa, on the other hand, is torn. He wants to help, and he is drawn to do so by both his own heart and his love interest, Nakia. But T’Challa doesn’t want a cycle of violent revolutions. He wants peace, to offer a helping hand wherever possible. He also wants to make amends for the secrets kept by his father which led to Killmonger’s life in exile. T’Challa takes on the personal responsibility of the throne with the goal of being a better king than his father and leads Wakanda to take a place of responsibility on the world stage.
This was the first time I’ve watched “Black Panther” since George Floyd’s murder and the protests that followed it. I have always liked this movie but this time there was something different about it. The MCU needed this movie – otherwise it’s an almost entirely white universe. It’s hard to overstate how much this world is served by black actors, directors, writers, and voices working together to deliver a message of hope for the world. That’s it, there’s no ending joke here, no pithy remark. Just a movie worth celebrating.