Go right now and see this film. Here’s the trailer:
I say this because it’s a glorious movie, filled with stunning visuals and action, superb characters, amazing music (Kendrick Lamar produced the soundtrack), and layers and layers of explorations of history, responsibility, colonialism, isolationism, diasporas, and relationships both interpersonal and global.
There are many others who have written far more eloquently about this film than I can, so here, I’ll just give you an overview and a few of my thoughts, but I’ll provide links to some of the other articles, because they’re important, too.
This is a Marvel film, but it’s also one of the most highly anticipated films from that universe and it completely delivered not just Marvel-style action, but something wholly profound and deeply moving. And you don’t need to be all that familiar with the Black Panther universe or with how he as a character ties in to the rest of the Marvel universe to enjoy this film and its story.
The movie starts with an origin story about Wakanda, the mythical (OR IS IT?) kingdom that Prince T’Challa inhabits. Wakanda is a highly advanced technological society developed by its people with the help of a meteor that hit the area years ago. The meteor was made of vibranium, the strongest metal on Earth that the Wakandans use to power everything. But the Wakandans hide from the outside world, keeping themselves separate from the world, and they’ve created the illusion that makes them appear as if they are a developing agricultural country. They don’t accept international aid (they don’t have to, but the outside world has no idea about who they really are and the tech they’ve developed), they don’t engage in trade (they don’t have to), and they keep to themselves.
T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is returning to Wakanda following the death of his father, King T’Chaka, as a result of a bombing at the UN. This event occurred in the movie Captain America: Civil War (2016), but again, you don’t need to have seen it to pick up the story for this movie. On the way, T’Challa and general in his personal guard (all women; the amazing Dora Milaje) and of the army, Okoye (Danai Gurira), make a stop to rescue his ex (they’re on good terms) Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) from a convoy of bad African dudes and take her back to Wakanda for the rituals that will attend his becoming king.
Soon after, there’s a blip on the Wakandan radar. A Wakandan implement made of vibranium is up for sale on the black market and the Wakandans’ old enemy Ulysses Klaue (Claw; played by Andy Serkis) is responsible. But he’s not the only person in on the plot. The other is Erik “Killmonger” (Michael B. Jordan), who has been carrying a major freaking grudge against T’Challa and T’Chaka for years. You’ll see why in the film.
So you’ve got various conflicts here. Klaue vs. T’Challa; T’Challa and Wakanda vs. Killmonger; internal struggles with what role Wakanda should play in the world, given its amazing technology in terms of science and medicine; and a clash between those of the (forced via slavery) African diaspora and Wakandans. And it all comes to a head when Killmonger shows up in Wakanda.
Jelani Cobb wrote about the clash between the diaspora and Africa earlier this week at the New Yorker, when he talked about a trip he had taken to Goreé Island, off the coast of Senegal, a rendezvous for slavers. Cobb recalled that island residents greeted him and his group of black academics with calls along the lines of “Welcome home, my black brothers and sisters!” but over dinner, their Senegalese guide informed them that
“we were neither their siblings nor even distant kin to Africa, implying that the greetings in the market had been merely a clever sales tactic directed at gullible black Americans who travel to the continent in search of roots, as if they were abused foster kids futilely seeking their birth parents.”
Cobb writes that “There is a fundamental dissonance in the term ‘African-American,’ two feuding ancestries conjoined by a hyphen. That dissonance — a hyphen standing in for the brutal history that intervened between Africa and America—is the subject of “Black Panther,” and he then references the film’s director, Ryan Coogler and what he told an audience at the Brooklyn Academy of Music recently: “I have a lot of pain inside me. We were taught that we lost the things that made us African. We lost our culture, and now we have to make do with scraps.”
That’s an important element in the conflict between Killmonger and T’Challa, and it’s part of what makes Killmonger such a brilliantly nuanced villain and also makes this such a thought-provoking film. Killmonger wants Wakanda to rally “people who look like me” — i.e. black — around the world and help them overthrow their oppressors/colonial legacies. And indeed, those legacies are at play here throughout this film.
Again, Jelani Cobb:
“There is a great deal more that differentiates ‘Black Panther’ from other efforts in the superhero genre. The film is not about world domination by an alien invasion or a mad cabal of villains but about the implications of a version of Western domination that has been with us so long that it has become as ambient as the air.”
And we see it play out between the characters on the screen, as Wakanda splits as some choose to work with Killmonger in his world domination plot while others rally for T’Challa who, in a confrontation with Killmonger, tells him that he is no better than the colonizers he abhors, that he seeks to perpetuate the system he struggles against. Indeed, T’Challa recognizes in Killmonger that “we created him” because Wakanda did not help him (and that’s part of Killmonger’s backstory that you’ll have to see for yourself; it’s too good to spoil here), and it is their responsibility to right the wrongs that they have perpetuated not only against Killmonger, but others in the world, who would greatly benefit from the superior tech and medicine that Wakanda has developed.
The film’s cast is almost completely black with the exception of two secondary white guy characters (and, in the case of Klaue, his nameless henchmen) who serve as bookends and stepping stones for the narratives. They are not the focus or the story here, nor should they be.
The women characters include the amazing warrior women of T’Challa’s personal guard — especially General Okoye; T’Challa’s sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), who is a wise-cracking and brilliant scientist; T’Challa’s ex but colleague Nakia, a gifted spy and warrior in her own right; and T’Challa’s mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett). T’Challa treats these women as equals (contrast how he interacts with them versus Killmonger), and he relies on them for advice, guidance, and keeping him grounded. It was beautiful, watching all these different women with different skillsets working with each other and T’Challa throughout this movie.
And though Shuri didn’t have much screen time, she is a pivotal character not just in the movie and in the role she plays with her brother and as a top scientist, but also what that character can come to represent beyond the movie. She steals every scene she’s in, but, perhaps more importantly, her science and tech persona could inspire young black women and girls to pursue STEM fields. I was thinking that throughout this film and then I caught a piece over at the fivethirtyeight site by Walt Hickey about Shuri, who notes that when movie audiences see on-screen representations of themselves — particularly aspirational ones — the experience can change how they see THEMSELVES in the world. That’s why good representation in media is so very important.
Also see this piece at SYFY Wire on how Shuri can inspire young black girls and maker culture.
And, while we’re at it, meet the warrior women of Wakanda:
Find out more about Dora Milaje HERE.
Along those lines, Coogler worked with Rachel Morrison, an Oscar-nominated cinematographer who has worked with him in the past, on the movie Fruitvale Station (2013). Morrison says she was looking to blend the epic with the intimate, and it was daunting because she hadn’t done a film like this, on the scale that Marvel movies require, but she nailed it, bringing that sweeping scope (scenes in Wakanda, Oakland 1992, and South Korea) that worked in tangent with the intimate feel of the character arcs.
I absolutely loved this movie. I loved the cast, I loved the story, I loved the many layers that dealt with issues both mundane and deeply painful, I loved that it makes you think, and I loved that people who don’t often see themselves so thoroughly repped in major motion pictures — let alone superhero films — got that with this film. I know how moving and validating that can be, to FINALLY see yourself represented in a major motion picture. I imagine it’s similar to the feeling I had when I saw last year’s Wonder Woman, from the opening sequences that featured Amazons to WW’s journey onto the battlefields of World War I — seeing a woman do that…oh, my God. THIS is what it feels like to be repped in film, I thought. And it’s an amazing upwelling of joy and relief that just fills your chest and makes you want to shout YES as loud as you possibly can.
So go see it.
Here are more articles about this movie. It’s a game-changer, friends.
Ryan Coogler’s thank you letter to fans
The Women of Black Panther take Center Stage
IndieWire on Rachel Morrison
Diplomacy vs. Radicalism: A Look at the African Diaspora in Black Panther
“Black Panther” is more than a film. It carries the hopes of the global African diaspora
Audiences Across Africa Hail Black Panther for Humanizing Black Characters
‘Black Panther’ is a milestone in African Americans’ search for home
‘Black Panther’ is a huge victory for representation in film
The Nerdist did a great report on why representation via Black Panther matters.
Happy Friday, and may the odds be ever in our favor.
By the way, what are you still doing here? GO TO THIS MOVIE!