‘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.

Figure Skating in Detroit is aiming to change the color of the sport This girls-only program uses figure skating to build self-esteem and academic achievement

Asked recently which event she was more excited about — the 2018 Winter Olympics or the recently released Tonya Harding biopic I, Tonya — 13-year-old figure skater Kendyll Martin quickly said the Olympics. After all, she hadn’t even been born when Nancy Kerrigan was assaulted at Cobo Arena and wasn’t familiar with arguably the most dramatic moment in figure skating history.

Her dad, Carl Martin, chuckled. He remembered it, but he and his family are focused on how figure skating can be more widely available in communities of color.

Kendyll was introduced to the sport in kindergarten through a program at her private school. But she is more the exception than the rule. Many black girls, in Detroit and elsewhere, have not been exposed to the sport or its benefits.

Figure Skating in Detroit (FSD) is aiming to change this. The girls-only program is an offshoot of New York’s Figure Skating in Harlem, which uses figure skating to develop leadership skills, self-esteem and academic achievement.

Kendyll’s mother, Robin Martin, learned of FSD on the news and took Kendyll to a free workshop. Kendyll, who had stopped skating because her school’s program had been dismantled, was excited to have an opportunity to get back on the ice. Her parents were pleased with the program’s focus on skating, education and leadership.

Applicants are required to be Detroit residents and undergo an interview. Geneva Williams, director of Figure Skating in Detroit, uses the interview to determine the quality most important to her and the program: commitment.

In exchange for the time commitment — roughly two hours per day, four days a week — and maintaining at least a B average in school, the girls receive ice skates, uniforms, mentoring and on-ice instruction. Parents are asked to participate as well. Williams doesn’t just want them to provide transportation and fees, she wants them to attend some of the workshops.

The cost to the family is about $250, which covers instructor’s fees, costumes and equipment, and skates. Anyone who can’t swing that amount is asked to pay what they can. The Michigan Women’s Foundation, individual donors and other local foundations subsidize most of the program’s expenses. Williams’ goal is to get 300 girls to join by the end of 2018.

“I was impressed and excited that they offered skates,” said Robin Martin, although Kendyll hasn’t taken advantage of this yet. She still uses skates that were purchased before she joined FSD. Robin added that the cost to join the yearlong program is equivalent to what she would have paid for one or two private lessons.

She’s right. The cost of figure skating can be can be stifling, and it is likely part of the reason there aren’t more black figure skaters. A new pair of figure skates can start at $500. Add coaching costs, ice time and outfits and the tab can jump to $10,000 just for a low-level skater. This is steep for most families, let alone those living in Detroit, where the median household income is just above $26,000.

On Tuesdays and Thursdays, 52 girls travel to Jack Adams Arena in northwest Detroit to skate. They range in age from 6 to 15, and Williams suspects most have never practiced the sport before.

“They are learning wiggles and basic skills,” reported Kendyll. More advanced skaters, like herself, work on spins and jumps. Her favorite is the loop jump and the scratch spin.

The girls are divided into four groups based on skill level. Besides on-ice instruction, they receive off-ice training in ballet, jazz, choreography and expression.

On Mondays and Wednesdays, the girls are separated by age and participate in a program called I Can Excel (ICE).

“I take classes like financial literacy, life skills, STEM and dance,” said Kendyll. Nutrition and tutoring are also offered on these days.

Barb Reichert, spokeswoman for the U.S. Figure Skating Association, likes all of it. “I admire how Figure Skating in Detroit puts a laser focus on education and then provides the support to be successful in the classroom and beyond,” she said by email.

Gary Miron, a professor in the College of Education and Human Development at Western Michigan University, is also excited about the program.

“Kids engaged in extracurricular activities tend to perform better than kids who don’t,” he said. Students who compete in gymnastics, cross-country and track tend to have high GPAs, he said, and figure skating would probably fit into this group of sports tied to high academic performance.

Williams added that understanding the physics of figure skating can help girls understand physics generally. It is these connections between sports and science that fortify her belief in the program.

Another benefit for the participants is the backing of Olympian Meryl Davis. The 2014 ice dancing Olympic champion is not competing in Pyeongchang, but she has been promoting both programs in Harlem and Detroit. She visits and gives skating tips to the girls from time to time.

Kendyll has met Davis a few times, and the encounters leave her somewhere between dazzled and intrigued. Still, she’s not interested in pursuing ice dance. Instead, Kendyll hopes to learn more complex jumps and spins so she can compete. FSD does not train girls for competition, so she’d have to join or partner with a figure skating club to do so.

Williams is not opposed to helping the girls compete, but right now she’s trying to secure funding and participants to ensure the longevity of the program. And Figure Skating in Detroit may be just as helpful to its lead organizer as it is to the girls who enroll. Williams was caring for her sick husband when she first heard about the program. When he died, Williams needed to grieve and find something she was passionate about professionally and emotionally. Though she is not a figure skater, FSD has helped spark the next iteration of her career.

The Detroit area attracts some of the most elite skaters and coaches in the world. This has been true since the 1960s, a long time before Little Caesars Arena was scheduled to host the U.S. Figure Skating National Championships in 2019.

But while black folks make up most of the Motor City’s population, only a small fraction appear to be members of the figure skating clubs around the region. The United States Figure Skating Association, the national governing body for the sport, does not track the race of competitors. Pictures from ice shows and competitions are the best evidence that black skaters exist.

All of this — the population, the number of skating rinks in the city, the figure skating talent, the need — is why Figure Skating in Harlem chose Detroit as an expansion city for the program last November.

Ava DuVernay, John Legend and Marley Dias among Smithsonian American Ingenuity Awards honorees ‘Smithsonian’ magazine announces sixth annual awards ceremony and a new festival

Director Ava DuVernay continues to make strides in content creation, and her creativity keeps manifesting into star power. DuVernay — along with other phenomenal creators, including singer John Legend and 12-year-old author Marley Dias — is part of a group of distinguished guests being honored at Smithsonian magazine’s sixth annual American Ingenuity Awards on Nov. 29.

Award recipients were announced last week and span eight categories: technology, performing arts, visual arts, life sciences, physical sciences, history, social progress and youth.

DuVernay, director of the movie Selma and the television show Queen Sugar, is being honored for visual arts. Singer, songwriter and activist Legend is being honored for performing arts. Dias, creator of #1000BlackGirlBooks, is being honored for youth. Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit organization behind Sesame Street, received the award for social progress for introducing the character Julia — the first Muppet with autism.

Presenters at the awards ceremony will include iconic composer and music producer Quincy Jones and famed saxophonist Branford Marsalis. The winners will be commemorated in the December edition of Smithsonian magazine.

“This year’s American Ingenuity Awards honorees are revolutionizing American culture,” said Smithsonian editor-in-chief Michael Caruso. “Since their launch, the awards have always recognized the cutting edge of American achievement. It’s no accident that the winners of our physical sciences award last year, the LIGO team, just won the Nobel Prize in physics.”

As part of the awards announcement, Smithsonian magazine also announced the launch of its Smithsonian Ingenuity Festival. Starting on Nov. 15 and continuing through early December, the series of events featuring this year’s American Ingenuity recipients will include discussions with DuVernay and actor David Oyelowo about the new black Hollywood; Legend on what he considers his best album, Darkness and Light, and his recent accomplishments; and a discussion with Jones about his career in music. The festival will also house a re-creation of Duke Ellington’s second Sacred Concert in commemoration of its 50th anniversary by the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra.

“The success of the awards program has led to a major expansion this year, the creation of the Smithsonian Ingenuity Festival,” Caruso said. “The festival will bring to life the spirit of innovation at many of our great Smithsonian museums in Washington, D.C., and in New York.”

Smithsonian museums hosting events include the Arts and Industries Building; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden; the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York; National Museum of American History; National Air and Space Museum; National Museum of Natural History; and National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Most of the events are free, and some require a reservation.

Neil deGrasse Tyson to Kyrie Irving: “I’m glad you play basketball instead of serve as head of NASA” Astrophysicist is pop culture’s ultimate superfan

Celebrity astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson likes to talk. Loves it. When you ask the New York native and director of the Hayden Planetarium a question, his voice lights up. Whether it’s about science or popular culture, Tyson is eager to educate, often offering more than you even asked for.

The fourth season of National Geographic’s StarTalk, his hit late-night talk show (née podcast) that features the likes of Bill Clinton and Terry Crews, premieres Oct. 15. “I care deeply about what role pop culture plays in hearts, minds and souls,” said DeGrasse. StarTalk mixes science with comedy with interesting conversation for a show both entertaining and educational — but most importantly, accessible. “I can start where you are, what you bring to the table, and I just add to that,” he said. “I think that’s part of the successful recipe of StarTalk.”

What’s a bad habit that you have?

I’m always aware of bad habits, so I’ve probably gotten rid of it already. I have an unrealistic attraction to kettle chips. The crunchier chips, [fried] in peanut oil, no shortage of salt — is that a flaw? Is it a bad habit, or is it just a habit? The real question is, if anyone has a bad habit, why haven’t they done anything about it yet if they are self-aware it is bad? I used to twirl my hair when I was a kid, but then I stopped. I notice when other people are twirling their hair, it’s interesting. I empathize with them.

“Dwayne Johnson. I used to have a body that kind of resembled his body.”

Kyrie Irving once said that the world is flat, although he later admitted to (supposedly) trolling. What would you say to him about this?

We live in a free country, where you can think and feel what you want, provided it doesn’t violate someone else’s freedoms. I greatly value that. So to Kyrie Irving I would say, ‘I’m glad you play basketball instead of serve as head of NASA.’ It’s a reminder there are jobs for people who have no idea what science is or how and why it works. And in his case, basketball is serving him well. The problem comes about if you are not scientifically literate, hold nonscientific views and rise to power over legislation and laws that would then affect us all. That’s the recipe for social and cultural disaster.

What’s the last museum you visited? Do you find yourself going to museums often?

I very much enjoy museums. The last museum I went to that was not local in New York City … it was an art museum in Sydney, Australia. There was a whole section that had aboriginal art, not only of Australians but also some from the Maori tribes of New Zealand.

“I have an unrealistic attraction to kettle chips. The crunchier chips, fried in peanut oil, no shortage of salt — is that a flaw?”

What is your favorite social media spot?

Lately, I have to say Twitter because of the value I derive from it. I have these random thoughts every day, and Twitter is a means by which I share these thoughts with the public. And in an instant, I get to see people’s reactions. Were they offended? Did they laugh? Did they misinterpret it? Did they overinterpret it? So I get a neurosynaptic snapshot of how people react to thoughts that I have. And this deeply informs public talks that I give. It’s my way to get inside people’s heads without violating their space.

People go to your Twitter feed to learn, so it’s nice to hear that you enjoy learning from your followers.

It’s not like I’m Professor Neil on Twitter. I tweet about a lot of really random things. People say, ‘Why don’t you give us the latest news?’ I’m not a news source. If I don’t think about that news today, you ain’t getting a tweet about it. I don’t start the day saying, ‘What am I going to tweet today? Let me think something up.’ No, it’s random. … You just happen to be eavesdropping in my brain. Before the end of the month I’ll be engaging in my Instagram account. I’ve yet to post to it. I deeply value photographic arts. It’ll mostly be artsy things, more artsy than purely educational. Then I write my own little caption about it.

So no pictures of your dinner?

If the dinner evokes some cosmic thought, yes, you’ll get a picture of my dinner. Otherwise, no.

If you could be any athlete, dead or alive, who would you be?

I think about Jesse Owens often. I think about Jackie Robinson often. Simply because of how great they were at what they did, how honed they were in their performance and the fact that their existence meant more than their performance. In other words, the whole was greater than the sum of their parts: great athlete, at an important time, doing an important thing, having an influence on people in a positive direction.

Have you ever been starstruck?

I was a little bit starstruck when I interviewed Jeremy Irons. There are movies he’s been in where I just — how can you be this good in that role? How is that even possible? And just to shake his hand and interview him for StarTalk, that meant a lot to me. And here’s one you won’t expect. I’ve never met him, but I’d be delighted to. I’ve got him on my short list: Dwayne Johnson. I used to have a body that kind of resembled his body. He’s beefier in the last two years than he was about 10 years ago, when he was actually wrestling. He beefed up extra for the Fast and the Furious series, so not in that state, but in an earlier state, of Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson. When I looked like that, no one was interviewing me in the newspapers. No one was asking to publish my books. So he’s a modern reminder of a lost chapter of my life.

When you were wrestling in high school, did you want to become a pro wrestler?

No. No, no, no. No! You want to talk about physics — physics in pro wrestling is what allows things to look like they hurt when they don’t. But it’s the laws of physics exploited to fool you, rather than exploited to win.

What sport do you most enjoy watching, from a purely physical standpoint?

I like many. And there is physics in all sports, so I don’t rank them in this way. In fact, StarTalk because of the success of our shows where we cover sports, we spun off an entire branch called Playing With Science. It’s all the ways science has touched sports. We talk about famous catches, famous hits. We do talk about concussions. We brought in a neuroscientist to talk about [concussions] from football. We talk about NASCAR and the technology involved with that. We talk about the physics of driving around a track. There’s a lot of fun physics in essentially everything, you know why? Because there’s physics in everything.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.