Whichever date you choose to see the Ryan Coogler-directed Black Panther, remember it. Because, even if it’s in only some small way, you won’t leave the movie theatre the same as you arrived.
For over a year now, we have been calling Black Panther not just a black superhero movie, but a super black hero movie, for good reason. When we heard that this iconic superhero from the Marvel comic book universe (MCU) was to be brought to the big screen, we worried that it might be yet another case of an African story being told through the white male lens.
However, with the success of Selma in 2013, Ava DuVernay was rumoured to be Disney Marvel’s first pick to direct. But, with the success of 33 award nominations plus 23 wins for his debut feature Fruitvale Station (2013) and the follow up Rocky sequel Creed (2015), Coogler’s name rose to the top of the pile to direct and write, and DuVernay was shifted sideways to helm Disney’s first African American child starrer, A Wrinkle in Time (2018).
Sticking largely with the MCU premise, and peppered with spectacular updates and cutting-edge special effects, Black Panther begins in the aftermath of the events of Captain America: Civil War (2016). King T’Chaka (John Kani), in Austria to support and sign the Sokovia Accords limiting the autonomy of superheroes, was killed in the bombing of the Vienna International Centre. His son T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) returns home in mourning, accompanied by his fearsome military leader, the warrior champion General Okoye (Danai Gurira) of the Dora Milaje (Adored Ones), to his stepmother, South African beauty Ramonda (Angela Bassett), his Q-like technological engineering genius little sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) and his trusted inner circle: Ayo (Florence Kasumba), spiritual leader Zuri (Forest Whitaker) and childhood friend W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), head of the new-to-the-canon Rhino Clan.
On ascending the throne of Wakanda, T’Challa must oversee the gathering of dignitaries and guests for his Coronation. With this in mind, he embarks on a daring mission involving the beautiful Wakandan spy Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o). Soon after, at the Coronation ceremony, we meet the mountain-dwelling White Gorilla Clan, led by M’Baku (a wonderfully on-form Winston Duke).
The young King begins a journey of self-discovery, trying to negotiate a pathway that respects Wakanda’s traditions, whilst guiding the nation into the future. Through T’Challa’s search, Coogler contemplates every facet of the character’s existence and expertly inter-weaves just what makes this young black man a ruler to follow, a protector to heed, and a man to love and respect. In fact, Coogler goes further, examining love and commitment for family, the wider community and the world at large; how strong T’Challa’s commitment is to his calling, and where the commitment of the Wakandans to the throne ends, and the man begins.
This is where the beauty of Coogler’s decision to retain recognisable African tribal tradition and combine it with 21st-century technology really comes into its own. Had he chosen to base the updated story in a steel and glass structured metropolis, these themes, which remain precious to Africa and its Diaspora, could easily be dismissed as out of place by mainstream standards. But, by saturating each scene and each character in a possible, living history of the continent, these themes slide seamlessly into place, showing that tech and faith can easily co-exist, and creating a rich, supporting emotional landscape.
Other beautifully crafted aspects include the familial love between a mother and her children, a father and son, a brother and sister – the latter of which provides some of the sharpest observed humour in a movie full of sharply observed humour. Retaining the all-female Dora Milaje fighting force, Coogler takes the opportunity to represent their womanhood too, measured not least by the object of T’Challa’s tenderest feelings, and that between Gurira’s mesmerising Okoye and Kaluuya’s quietly dangerous W’Kabi.
Black Panther is practically perfect in every way. The cast beautifully embody their characters without a single misstep – even Whitaker’s wise old Zuri rings truer this time around than it did for his Saw Gerrera (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, 2016).
Boseman manages to make T’Challa a leader and hero the viewer has no trouble getting behind whilst he grapples with a terrible legacy and faces a moral crossroads. You will be with him all the way – unusual for a modern character but probably rooted in Boseman’s physical and spoken serenity. His gentle nature out of the suit complements but is never eclipsed by, the gift from the Panther God, similar to Steve Rogers/ Captain America.
Matched with an intellect and prowess equal to that of T’Challa, Michael B. Jordan infuses Erik “Killmonger” Stevens/ N’Jadaka with a menace coloured by a disadvantaged urban child’s frustration, giving a surprisingly affecting performance.
From an excellent central cast also boasting Sterling K. Brown as tormented Wakandan operative N’Jobu, Coogler simply coaxes exquisite performances all-round. But, a special mention must go to Wright and Kaluuya for matching their superstar counterparts and crafting a gravitas and decorum of advanced maturity, in keeping with their aristocratic characters. Keep an eye out for another British Blacktor Danny Sapani in a great cameo as a Borderland Tribal Leader.
On the whole, Coogler and co-writer, fellow African American, Joe Cole, made creative choices which diverge from the MCU, many of which we can live with: Making Nakia a spy rather than a Dora Milaje and omitting the African American jazz musician Monica Lynne or Storm as T’Challa’s fiancé, for example.
More puzzling is the decision to use isiXhosa, normally spoken all the way down in South Africa, as the national language of Wakanda. Not Wakandan, Yoruba or Hausa – all the main languages spoken in the MCU territory. Swahili, might have been a more logical alternative, as one spoken in the East and South-East of the continent, given that Wakanda is located in the Eastern continental region. It also happens to be the native language of the First Lady of Afrofuturism, Lt. Uhura (Star Trek: The Original Series) and would have been a respectful nod to her pioneering character. Beautiful as it is, Xhosa might have been settled on because of the convenience of having John Kani and his son Attandwa, who plays younger T’Chaka, willing to teach it to the cast and act as on-set consultants! However, it must be said that the gorgeous Xhosa and the gentle lilt it colours spoken English with certainly adds to the romance of this fictional territory, and this cast of mainly African Americans do it justice – also rare for a modern film.
The other choice concerns Kaluuya’s W’Kabi, who is T’Challa’s second-in-command and most trusted best friend in the MCU. His story arc in the film isn’t consistent with this, and it seems oddly unresolved after he is last seen with Okoye. After Erik, W’Kabi feels the most coloured with Westernised thinking. Still, Kaluuya is brilliant and gets to make rhinos look super cool.
The costumes are incredible – from Wakanda, to London, to South Korea and Austria, Ruth E. Carter, so prolific in black film since the 1990s, and sci-fi movies Robert Townsend’s The Meteor Man (1993), and Serenity (2005) should get a major nod next awards season. At a time when it seems every new black film or TV show promises a music-driven story, Black Panther impresses with a score that is unobtrusive, appropriate and, of course, beautiful.
So, has Black Panther finally satisfied the 30-year wait for real on-screen Afrofuturism, not seen since the opening scenes of Eddie Murphy’s Coming To America (1988)?
Yes, it has.
With the prestigious Cannes, Toronto and Sundance Film Festivals taking notice, as well as 12 wins out of 19 film critic award nominations for his freshman and sophomore films, Coogler proved he could direct quality films working with independents (Forest Whitaker’s Significant Productions) and a small $1m budget (2012-13) and the majors (MGM, Warner Bros and New Line Cinema) with a $110m budget (2014-15).
Co-writing with Emmy-nominated, Writers Guild of America award-winning Joe Cole, and with Nate Moore as one of seven executive producers, the entire foundation of this film was bound to prove a solid basis for a sensitive and nuanced treatment of an Afrocentric story.
Jewish Americans Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created Wakanda and the world of the Black Panther in 1960s America, but it is these five African Americans who have set the gold standard for what it takes to create a truly iconic Afrofuturistic vision.
Wakanda represents our past reimagined, only touching on being spared the conquering, enslaving Arab threat from the East and the trans-Atlantic slave trade in the West, with Wakanda, advanced for the time, but not yet strong enough or big enough to help, protecting itself; The young Killmonger is our present, starting as he does in the Oakland (California) Projects. But, it is reimagined as he takes his destiny into his own hands and is moved with a strong desire to arm the African Diaspora with revolution. As the dust settles for the young King, T’Challa considers his fellow man – the good and the monstrous, and the responsibility of a wider obligation. Women are not only central to this story, they also permeate through every aspect of
wisdom, truth, and strength; Our future is suggested as one made richer by the events in this movie. In none of them does colourism exist, because, significantly, colonisation has not happened in Wakanda.
I do not award this film a perfect score lightly, as I have only done so once before, for Ava DuVernay’s documentary, 13th. I do so now believing that, despite being a big studio Blockbuster, Black Panther is destined to become a modern classic or, at the very least a cult phenomenon, judging by US pre-sales alone projected to top a record-breaking $170m. Having decided that Joss Whedon’s Serenity (2005) was my pick for a near perfect science fiction movie, I am happy for Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther to leapfrog into first place.
Black Panther is released in the UK on February 13th for an undisclosed theatrical run. So, grab your tickets now and grab at least two, because you will want to see it again almost as soon as it ends.