‘Black Panther’s’ superpower allows it to leap over other superhero movies in a single bound More than a cool-looking bit of escapism, it’s a meditation on colonialism

This review contains spoilers.

The most anticipated superhero movie of the year, and quite possibly ever, is a movie about foreign policy.

In Black Panther, director Ryan Coogler has crafted a thoughtful, personal, detailed exploration of the implications of isolationism and colonialism. It’s gorgeous, emotional and full of inventive, eye-popping fight scenes. And it’s also a really good movie, and not just by the curved standards we’ve developed for standard superhero tentpoles.

Honestly, the worst thing about Black Panther is that it had to be released in 2018 and not during the term of America’s first black president. (The producers of The Final Year, the documentary about former President Barack Obama’s real-life Justice League of Wonks and Nerds, must be kicking themselves.)

Try to imagine all the regal African pageantry of Black Panther’s Los Angeles premiere, copied and pasted onto the East Wing of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Had Black Panther been released while Obama was in office and enjoyed a screening at the White House, it would have made for some powerful symbolism, with Obama, the biracial son of a Kenyan graduate student, greeting Chadwick Boseman, the son of Howard University who plays T’Challa, the king of the movie’s mythical African nation of Wakanda. It also would have offered a lasting rebuke to the legacy of President Woodrow Wilson’s White House screening of a different and deadlier fantasy, The Birth of a Nation. (PBS recently aired Birth of a Movement, a documentary that illustrates the way film, particularly D.W. Griffith’s racist Klan propaganda film, became a powerful force in influencing policy.)

It’s quite moving, then, to consider the message embedded within Black Panther, spread through every inch of Hannah Beachler’s meticulously luscious production design, every stitch of Ruth E. Carter’s costuming creations, every word of dialogue conceived by Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole.

The worst thing about Black Panther is that it had to be released in 2018 and not during the term of America’s first black president.

Boseman may be the titular star of Black Panther, but the emotional core of the movie lies with the character of Erik Killmonger, who is T’Challa’s cousin and a lost son of Wakanda. Coogler reserved the most complex role for his friend and leading man of his two most recent films, Michael B. Jordan.

Killmonger grew up in the slums of Oakland, the birthplace of the Black Panther Party, with his American mother. His father, N’Jobu (Sterling K. Brown), was brother to T’Challa’s father, T’Chaka (John Kani).

N’Jobu and T’Chaka had a fundamental disagreement over Wakanda’s role in the world. The country is a magical one, built on a foundation of the mythical substance vibranium, and hidden in plain sight in West Africa. Vibranium is a substance of endless capability, a wonder of physics that absorbs the energy directed toward it, then uses it as fuel. When ingested, it possesses healing qualities, rendering surgery obsolete. When sewn into clothes, it turns into the sort of lightweight supersuit that Tony Stark could only dream of. Used as fertilizer, it nurtures a herb whose fruit allows those who ingest it to commune with the dead. To outsiders, Wakanda looks like an underdeveloped Third World nation, full of brush and goats. The people of Wakanda have pledged to guard its most closely held secret: that with technology powered by vibranium, it’s actually the most advanced society in the world, a place that makes Elon Musk’s house look like little more than a fancy pigsty.

There’s a compelling argument for keeping Wakanda, which accepts no foreign aid and does no importing or exporting, isolated from the rest of the world. Its people have witnessed how colonialism has ravaged the continent, stealing people and dividing families, poaching precious metals and natural resources, creating arbitrary borders and deadly conflicts and leaving corrupt governments in its wake.

In fact, in the rare instances when they encounter white people, Wakandans simply refer to them as “colonizers.”

But N’Jobu, dispatched to see the rest of the globe, encounters a world full of disenfranchised people who look like him, ignorant of the bounty of Wakanda and struggling against the effects of imperialism and systemic racism. He wants to use vibranium to help them. But T’Chaka says no, worried that once the world learns of Wakanda’s secret, it will suffer the fate of the rest of colonized Africa. At the least, Wakanda will be forced to defend itself against ill-intentioned and well-armed outsiders. When N’Jobu decides to subvert his brother’s orders, T’Chaka is forced to kill him, and little Erik discovers his father’s corpse.

About 20 years later, after the U.S. military and intelligence community has turned him into an efficient, merciless, death machine, Killmonger sets out to complete his father’s vision.

It’s too simplistic, and frankly unfair, to label Killmonger simply as a villain. He’s an angry, half-orphaned son of Wakanda whose mind has been colonized in ways he’s incapable of realizing. Without the support of his homeland and his people, lacking the spiritual grounding that protects vibranium and Wakanda, Killmonger grows into a Che Guevara-like figure. He commits what French philosopher Frantz Fanon called “horizontal violence” against his own people.

Therein lies the brilliance of Black Panther. Superhero movies don’t have to be plotless monuments to excess and violence. With this film, Coogler illustrates the yawning expanse between self-indulgent brooding and true profundity.

Coogler puts on a filmmaking clinic, expertly navigating the tropes of superhero films that have made so many of them a chore instead of a joy. Coogler snatched one of Zack Snyder’s (300, Watchmen, Man of Steel) most irritating directorial habits, shooting action and fight scenes in the dark, and made it not just watchable but artful. That’s what happens when you have cinematographer Rachel Morrison at your service — you find natural ways to capture black people in action while retaining detail and color. Morrison recently became the first woman to be nominated for a cinematography Oscar for her work on Mudbound.

Superhero movies don’t have to be plotless monuments to excess and violence.

There is little that feels derivative, aside from the battle scenes with Wakanda’s flying saucers, which feel like they could easily appear in Guardians of the Ragnarok Star Wars, which isn’t wholly surprising given that they’re all Disney properties (full disclosure: Disney owns The Undefeated). The fight scenes in Black Panther feel original, and organic to the film. That’s a challenge considering how often Marvel employs the same second unit (the people who shoot and choreograph fight scenes) across its movies, which leads to a superhero battle homogeneity.

Everything about Wakanda is rooted in real African nations and peoples, such as the Masai, the Zulu, the Mursi and others, not the imagined “generic tribal African” who shows up in pop culture so often. For instance, the setting of the challenge battle, which determines who will ascend to the throne, is a nod to the natural majesty of Victoria Falls. Audiences have every right to be angry at cultural appropriation when it’s poorly done. Coogler and Black Panther prove that having such expectations is not unreasonable or misplaced.

There’s a quote from playwright and director George C. Wolfe that graces the walls of the Blacksonian in Washington. “God created black people,” said Wolfe, “and black people created style.”

That’s the essence of Wakanda.

Black Panther doesn’t feel like any other Marvel movie because this is not a typical Marvel movie. It’s coming out in the middle of Black History Month, and it’s on track to perform just as well as if not better than any highly anticipated summer blockbuster. It’s funny without falling into the sort of smart-aleck remark-smart-aleck remark-EXPLOSION rhythms that have come to typify Marvel movies to the point that somehow Doctor Strange and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 don’t feel all that different. That’s not just a Marvel tic, that’s a Hollywood tic: Find something that works and then run it into the ground. Then reboot it, rebrand it and spin it off as long as it makes gobs and gobs of cash.

There is a requisite scene that connects the film to the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it’s a postscript that comes after the credits roll. It’s the only bit that feels like it was mandated by the company. Best of all, Black Panther doesn’t feel as though Coogler had to sacrifice the brilliance and introspection that characterized his earlier movies such as Creed and Fruitvale Station for scale and product licensing. Instead, it’s a compelling character study and full of mirth. That’s especially thanks to T’Challa’s upstart younger sister, Shuri, played by Guyanese actress Letitia Wright, Black Panther’s breakout actress. She’s witty, charming and completely unfazed by her brother’s enormous power and responsibility. She’s also Wakanda’s whip-smart gadget mistress, the Q to T’Challa’s Bond. Also notable are the Dora Milaje, Wakanda’s elite, all-female corps charged with guarding the king. Remember the feeling that swelled from your gut to your heart and out your eyeballs while watching Diana Prince walk through No Man’s Land in Wonder Woman? Witnessing the Dora Milaje, especially any scene that includes Okoye (Danai Gurira) or Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) is like that, times 10.

At some point, I suspect that chatter surrounding Black Panther will turn to the 2019 Oscars. Black Panther’s masterful execution makes it an undeniably obvious choice. Not only does it have the revelatory newness of Avatar, but it actually has a story to back it up too.

But beyond the concerns of awards or box-office receipts, Black Panther is something special: thoroughly African and yet completely American, and evidence of just how much black people can and have yet to do. Perhaps it’s even capable, just as The Birth of a Nation once was, of helping to steer an entire national conversation.

Daily Dose: 10/18/17 Gucci Mane ties the knot

Hey, now! Got another win on Around The Horn on Tuesday, which was fun. Of course, Wednesday night is the season opener for the Washington Wizards, which should be exciting, so I’ll be there.

Even when it comes to showing concern, President Donald Trump has problems. After falsely claiming that various presidents had not contacted the parents and families of soldiers who were killed in action, when he finally decided to do it himself, he made things worse. According to Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Florida), Trump told the widow of the late Army Sgt. La David T. Johnson that “he knew what he signed up for.” He leaves behind two children and an unborn child. If you’d like to donate to their college funds, you can do so here. Trump has denied it happened.

Gucci Mane is now a married man. In a lavish $1.7M ceremony dubbed The Mane Event on BET, Radric Davis wed Keyshia Ka’oir in front of a celebrity crowd all dressed in white. Because this is 2017, the entire process will be part of a 10-part special for the network, The Wopsters, which will be must-see TV. We need not extol the virtues of Gucci and his turnaround — except, actually, we do. His new album, Mr. Davis, is way better than the two previous post-jail projects he’s dropped. This dude is such an inspiration.

Chris Long puts his money where his mouth is. Earlier in the year, he pledged to give game checks to start scholarships for college in his hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia. You might recall that a white nationalist rally in that city sparked huge outrage when a driver plowed into a crowd of people in a scarily violent and deadly scene. Now, the Philadelphia Eagles defensive lineman is donating his next 10 game checks to launch the Pledge 10 for Tomorrow campaign, designed to support educational equality efforts. Great cause.

NFL 1, President Trump, 0. After a meeting Tuesday with players, the NFL decided that it will not be penalizing players who don’t kneel for the national anthem, a far cry from all the bluster that was spoken in previous weeks. Remember when Trump got on stage and started screaming that if guys didn’t stand for the anthem they should be fired on the spot? And then Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones backed that up with a toothless statement that no player of his would kneel without getting benched?

Free Food

Coffee Break: You know you’re an important person in society when Lego decides to re-create your likeness for kids across the globe to play with. Lego’s now done so for female scientists with the new “Women of NASA” set, which features Nancy G. Roman, Margaret Hamilton, Sally Ride and Mae Jemison.

Snack Time: When it comes to cultural appropriation, some people are so ruthless with it. Take for example this restaurant in California that serves Popeyes chicken, which they PROUDLY have delivered twice a day. Wow.

Dessert: Let Thundercat take you away this afternoon. We love him.

Jeremy Lin’s dreads aren’t cultural appropriation, they’re America He’s not mocking black folks, just making the point that black culture is embraced around the world

Jeremy Lin’s velvet-gloved clapback at Kenyon Martin for his Instagram rant calling Lin out for his new dreadlocks brings to light an interesting paradox for black culture in America. Is black culture separate and distinct from American culture? Or is it an integral part of the patchwork quilt that makes up the country’s culture, and thus open and available to all?

Martin’s remarks suggest that unless you are black, you aren’t allowed to actively partake of and participate in black culture. Those who do run the risk of being accused of cultural appropriation.

What exactly is cultural appropriation?

Wikipedia defines cultural appropriation as the adoption of the elements of one culture by members of another culture. It is sometimes portrayed as harmful and is claimed to be a violation of the collective intellectual property rights of the originating culture.

I don’t buy into the notion of cultural appropriation as defined above. Cultural mockery — the exploitation of a culture for the benefit of members of another culture, or to the detriment of the members of the culture itself — is something else and should be called out and avoided at all cost.

Black culture, though rooted in Africa, was born and raised on the plantations, sharecropping fields, urban ghettos and segregated communities of America. It developed and emanated from the spaces and places where black folks found themselves. From the pitch-dark days of slavery to the shadow of emancipation and the dawn of desegregation, these communities gave birth to what we now know and celebrate as black culture. Other than Native American, Alaskan and Hawaiian culture, it is the only culture that was developed on these shores and as such should be open to all to celebrate as American.

One thing standing in the way of this is the color line. Race can be divisive and often creates clear lines of demarcation in our country. Our history has proven that we can’t win when the battle lines are drawn according to race. However, we may have a chance with culture.

Whereas culture may come from one group of people of a common ethnic or racial group, it doesn’t have to be exclusive to that group. And when handled right, it can become a place from which we can all find common ground.

If we move some of the discussions that we have around race to one of culture, then we may be able to find a mutually beneficial way of solving some of the problems we face. That’s not to say that we should ignore race or make the false declaration that we are living in a post-racial society. However, where the issue of race can often be divisive, culture doesn’t have to be.

Martin made the mistake of conflating race and culture, which are not one and the same. I was reminded of this a day before his infamous Instagram post.

I was at a group dinner in San Francisco. I was seated next to a Chinese woman and her Jewish husband. About 15 minutes into the dinner, she looked at me and asked, “What are you?” I smiled and said, “What do you mean, what am I?” She said, “What is your ethnicity?”

I told her that I was black, and went on to tell her that my mother was Hawaiian and my father was African-American. I told her that while I was ethnically mixed, I was culturally black and was raised in a black neighborhood in the South. I don’t have any real cultural connection to the Hawaiian blood coursing through my veins other than my middle name, Kimo (Hawaiian for James).

She was stunned and revealed to me that while she is ethnically Chinese, she was born and raised in Hawaii and as a result considered herself to be, at least in part, culturally Hawaiian. From a cultural standpoint, she was infinitely more Hawaiian than me.

Just because she is not ethnically Hawaiian doesn’t mean that she can’t access or claim the culture that she was raised in. And just because I am — and know little about the culture and have never visited the island, by the way — doesn’t mean that I have some right to call her out for her adoption of “my” culture as a part of her own.

Later that evening, I told her and her husband that I have spent the last 20 years in the service of black culture as an executive for black arts and cultural institutions and as a small-business owner. I told them that I traveled extensively and have been to every continent except Antarctica. The one thing I find almost everywhere I visit is a significant amount of the American culture these people abroad appreciate and identify as American comes directly from black culture. The big difference is that they don’t see a distinction. They simply see it as American culture.

The problem is many white people in our country don’t see the totality of American culture that is exported and enjoyed by the rest of the world as an extension of themselves as Americans. Conversely, some blacks in America don’t see black culture as a true part of American culture.

When I introduced this conundrum to my dinner mates the gentleman had an epiphany, and in an instant he began to see how he and I truly shared a cultural connection as Americans that could serve as the foundation from which we could begin to appreciate and maybe even celebrate our differences, which we did throughout the rest of the evening in conversation.

In my travels, I have learned, initially much to my chagrin, that as much as I am culturally black, I am also very much culturally American. I eventually had to come to grips with the truth that I have just as much if not more in common culturally with the average white guy shopping at the local Walmart than I do with some of the people who look like me when I travel abroad.

Jeremy Lin attempted to find common ground with K-Mart by pointing out the former NBA All-Star’s collection of Chinese tattoos. Although there was definitely some implied shade in his comments, Lin, unlike LeBron James’ persistent “son-ning” of Kyrie Irving, flipped the script by “pop-ping” Martin and giving him his props as a basketball old head: “Thanks for everything you did for the Nets and hoops … had your poster up on my wall growing up.”

If you agree with Martin’s logic, it would be OK for Becky With the Good Hair to go onto Instagram and tell Beyoncé to step away from the blond weave.

All of this, of course, just continues to force us to choose sides and move us further away from one another in the widening polarization of America.

It’s time for us to look in the mirror and realize that as Americans we may not all look alike, but we do have cultural connections that can unite us and, yes, a significant part of that culture is black.

The rest of the world sees it. It’s time for us in America to recognize and accept it as well.