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.
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.
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.