In the history of African-American cinema, there have been watershed moments.
From 1991’s Boyz in the Hood to 2014’s Selma, filmmakers have long presented an unflinching and honest depiction of what it means to be black in America.
And though some of these movies helped spark moments of national discussion about race and identity, they’ve largely been marginalized by audiences simply seeking entertainment at the multiplex.
Is it naïve to believe that a mainstream movie with a majority black cast, speaking intelligently about critical issues of importance that affect all Americans, not just those of African descent, could result in seismic social change?
But that was before Black Panther.
That was before Marvel Studios made the brave decision to allow a young, celebrated black director (Ryan Coogler) to work with a predominantly black cast to tell the origin story of its first black superhero.
Much like 2017’s Wonder Woman, this is a film that transcends pop culture by embracing and celebrating the best that people can be, regardless of gender or race. And, much like Wonder Woman, this is a movie that will have a specific demographic weeping and shouting with joy at finally seeing themselves rightfully, and righteously, represented.
Black Panther is the origin story of T’Challa, the newly-crowned king of Wakanda, a fictionalized African utopia, which has existed for centuries, much like Wonder Woman’s island home Themyscira, cloaked from the world’s view and thriving because of its understanding and appreciation of basic human tenets.
In Wakanda, there is no war — against other nations, or its own people, regardless of their tribe. All its people are treated equally, with shared resources readily available to allow everyone to prosper. Science and innovation are championed. Women are respected and revered. There is but one rule: What makes Wakanda special is never to be shared with the outside world for fear of it being abused and hoarded by the few at the expense of the masses.
The crown weighs heavy on T’Challa’s brow because of this, because so many other people across the planet are suffering and dying. It isn’t until a threat of his father's making appears that T’Challa must decide how his legacy will be defined.
Coogler, who broke out in 2013 with Fruitvale Station, a true-life tale of a black youth wrongly killed by law enforcement, comes out swinging with a remarkable opening sequence that perfectly frames his vision by telling the birth of Wakanda as a children’s bedtime story.
With vivid animation, and clear prose, Black Panther makes the case early on that while paradise is a gift, there is great responsibility in shepherding its progress.
He quickly transitions to early 1990’s Detroit, a fitting backdrop given that great city’s slow implosion due to neglect and political malfeasance, before deftly segueing to a thrilling jungle raid that sees the introduction of two vital characters: Okoye (Danai Gurira, The Walking Dead) and Nakia (Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o). Okoye is general of the Dora Milaje, Wakanda’s all-female security force, and Nakia is a spy and the former girlfriend of T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman).
Next up is T’Challa’s coronation as king, and his ingestion of the magical elixir that imbues him with the superhero powers of Wakanda’s protector, the Black Panther. This entire sequence is simply jaw-dropping in both its spectacle and its beauty. Seriously, it must be seen to be fully appreciated. Watching Black Panther is like being transported to a wonderful alternative reality where culture, tradition and ancient beliefs are celebrated without fear of repudiation. Coogler nails every aspect, from the stunning wardrobes to the tribal accessories and body modifications, and he sets the entire coronation on a ledge overlooking a tremendous waterfall. Sure, it’s CGI, but damn if you don’t believe you are there.
T’Challa, Okoye, Nakia and his baby sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright), who is the Q to his James Bond, eventually travel to South Korea to thwart the sale of a rare vibranium artifact by the villainous Ulysses Klaue (a wonderfully unhinged Andy Serkis), who first appeared in Avengers: Age of Ultron. But Klaue is but a red herring; the true villain of Black Panther is Erik Killmonger, T’Challa’s cousin who was born far from the jungle in the U.S.
As played by Michael B. Jordan, marking his third time teaming up with Coogler, Killmonger is one of the best villains yet to debut in the MCU. But is he really a bad guy?
Killmonger wants to use Wakanda’s technological advancements to give African-Americans across the world the ability to finally stand up to oppression, racial violence and denigration and reclaim their rightful place as founding fathers and mothers of the world. If he has to destroy the majority white society in the process, so be it, because that society has done few favors to his people other than make them second-class citizens.
Think about this for a second.
Black Panther is a comic book movie. It’s filled with explosions and eye-popping visuals, cool gadgets and a fierce army of female warriors. Yet, here we are, talking about two schools of thought rooted very much in our real world that you can hear being debated right now on a cable news program.
You have Killmonger who represents the by-any-means-necessary side, the radical activists, the poverty-level minority workers who have toiled too long under the thumb of a majority that discounts and demeans them solely based on race and status. And you have T’Challa who wants to be not only the best king possible to his people, but also a global benefactor, sharing Wakanda’s resources freely to better the planet and all its people equally.
This push-and-pull, this timely debate of might versus right, of #BlackLivesMatter versus #AllLivesMatter, of violence versus benevolence, plays out in a major motion picture being released by the House of Mouse as part of a collection of interconnected films spawned from the pulp pages of comic books, and it is thoroughly exhilarating in its execution and intelligence.
Black Panther is unlike any Marvel movie released to date. It’s unlike any big-budget superhero film ever attempted. This is not laughable like Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. This is a crackling, urgent, socio-political thesis disguised as popcorn entertainment, imparting its message of peace, tolerance, equality and respect while we watch two grown men dressed as jungle cats battle for the fate of Wakanda inside a mountain mine filled with blue-glowing mineral ore.
Comic book heroes always save the day, rescue the girl (or boy) and beat the bad guy. And, since 2008, no studio has told these stories as well as Marvel.
But, for the first time, we are witness to something unprecedented. Coogler and his top-notch team have created a film that will stand forever as an unrivaled achievement and as a milestone for young African-American boys and girls to look up to and aspire to emulate.
If ever there was a time, it is now, to ask, “Can a superhero movie save our world?”
In the case of Black Panther, if we take the time to listen, to demand change and to hope, that answer comes as a resounding roar: