It seemed criminal to have not seen Black Panther opening weekend given the global hype, but tickets were sold out at the only English language cinema screening the film in Addis Ababa. I am not one to get swept up in the massive buzz that surrounds certain movies, but this in particular had my attention given that it is a huge budget super hero movie directed by an independent filmmaker who has two for two features with Fruitvale Station and Creed, both starring Michael B. Jordan. Fruitvale Station is a small, but devastating piece based on true events while Creed is a big budget nuanced crowd pleaser that satisfied original Rocky fans. Ryan Coogler directs and co-writes with Joe Robert Cole and he brings his indie film sensibilities and gives both Marvel and the super hero genre a much needed change of pace in storytelling. The superhero genre is becoming so saturated that you will be forgiven for mistaking one blockbuster for another, because there is a trend expected of these films in terms of structure and certain beats comic book movies have to hit that are crossed off like a to-do list. My least favorite part about super hero films these days is the spectacle or the numerous, numbing action sequences that often feel insignificant; what I look for is a well put together story and more importantly character development. Marvel have been doing great in choosing the right directors in their last couple of movies. Spiderman Homecoming was directed by Jon Watts who is the director of the fantastic caper Cop Car, a small indie film I reviewed two years ago and one that not many people have seen starring Kevin Bacon. The last marvel movie was Thor Ragnarok and Taika Waititi, who is the most prolific New Zealand director/ comedian, infused this forgotten about franchise with some much needed humor and it worked great with Ragnarok becoming the funniest Marvel entry thus far. One of the best things about Black Panther is that it is entertaining and funny when it needs to be; it is undoubtedly a huge blockbuster.
Ryan and the aforementioned directors have an independent cinema background so they are bringing their own style of filmmaking and storytelling to the big leagues. Ryan Coogler is building an impressive and diverse resume with his first three features at a very young age; he is going to have a long career in filmmaking. Now to the actual movie and the buzz surrounding it; one can’t overlook how culturally significant and astounding it is. It is a movie starring mostly black actors and actresses in leading and supporting roles, but more importantly most of the film is set in Wakanda, a ficitional country in Africa that is a third-world country from the outside, but has Eldorado like mystique as it is hidden from the rest of the world. This is a civilization with the most advanced technology in the whole world courtesy of vibranium which is the most powerful and valuable metal on earth that powers everything from their infrastructure right down to the very clothes they wear; it is the same material captain America’s shield is made from. So this is a different portrait of Africa that has never been seen on screen or elsewhere in the western media, unless you have read the comics. So even before going into the film, it has a lot going for it just based on the premise and setting; the story just needs to be acceptable at least and it succeeds ten folds as one of the strongest marvel entries to date.
The film is centered on Prince T’Challa who after the death of his father in Captain America Civil War has to step up and become King and ruler of Wakanda; the Black Panther as he is referred to is played by Chadwick Boseman. T’Challa is soft spoken, compassionate and carries himself with pride; he is also going through self-doubt in his ways and the ways of his people as he is confronted with the sins of his father later on in the movie. T’challa is assisted by his genius, younger sister Shuri, played by Letitia Wright, who is a scene stealer and the source for most of the humor; she equips him with 007 style gadgets that are advanced compared to anything else that the rest of the world has to offer. From what we see and what is implied in the movie, Shuri basically runs the show as the lead scientist and the brain behind vibranium driven tech in Wakanda which is astounding since she is a teenager; she also modifies Black Panther’s bodysuit in a humorous scene. Their relationship as siblings is believable in their continuous banter and moments of affection. Lupita Nyong’o plays Nakia who is a spy for Wakanda and is of the belief that Wakanda should be doing more elsewhere in Africa; she is also T’Challa’s ex and he tends to freeze or act boyish whenever he is around her. We see her in the beginning of the film on a mission to save Nigerian hostages before Black Panther comes to save the day or inadvertently jeopardize her mission from her perspective. Danai Gurira plays Okoye, leader of the kingdom guards, who is a fearless warrior while Angela Basset plays T’Challa’s mother. When one usually has to wait for a film to provide a strong female character once in a blue moon, Black Panther succeeds in having a plethora of strong and powerful female characters that are integral to the story. Oscar winner Forest Whitaker has a notable, but ultimately forgettable role as an elder statesman; it is fun seeing him reprise the same accent from The Last King of Scotland and him uttering the words “The Black Panther” repeatedly.
To get to the meat of the story however, we have to talk about the villain everyone is talking about and that is Erik Killmonger played by frequent Ryan Coogler collaborator Michael B. Jordan. The first time we see him is in a British museum as he is schooling the museum guide on the real origin of some Benin artifacts before an ultimate and calculated robbery of an axe that contains vibranium; he is working with Andy Serkis’ character Klaue who is an arms dealer and vibranium expert. From an exposition by Martin Freeman’s character, we learn that he hails from Oakland and that he was in the military; he got the name Killmonger because he was a ruthless killing machine. After the robbery scene in the beginning and another rescue operation, he disappears from the movie for quite some time as the movie focuses on establishing Wakanda as a character in itself and showing the ceremonial inauguration of T’Challa as king. He doesn’t reappear until half of the second act where he completely turns the movie on its head and steals the rest of the movie. He is one of the most sympathetic villains to come along in years once we learn his backstory that links him to Wakanda. The film uses his character as the lost child and explores the dynamics and disconnect between African Americans and Africans. Killmonger is knowledgeable in Wakanda’s prospects and shares similar beliefs to Lupita’s character in that Wakanda should be doing more to help the unprivileged except he also wants retribution and wants to conquer the world with Wakanda’s advanced technology. He believes that Wakanda shouldn’t be hiding from the world and guising itself as a third world country, but rather cementing itself as a powerful nation to be reckoned with. He wants to challenge for the throne and change Wakanda forever; he mostly wants to help his fellow African Americans and oppressed black people around the world by equipping them with vibranium technology. Killmonger says to T’Challa “Two billion people all over the world who look like us whose lives are much harder, and Wakanda has the tools to liberate them all.” For a villain, Killmonger makes too much sense and I spent the majority of the film agreeing with him to an extent and completely empathizing with him, until he becomes a more generic and less calculated villain in the third act for the sake of resolution.
The usual tropes of the lack of a father figure in the portrayal of African Americans here is subverted on a different level and particularly striking. One scene specifically where Killmonger visits his father in the spirit plane/ world was one of my favorite scenes in the film as the father he hasn’t seen since he was a child asks him “no tears for me?” and Killmonger basically responds by stating that death is commonplace where he is from. This is also a story of old versus new, and Black Panther is confronted with the sins of his father and being challenged by Killmonger with new ideas and issues he couldn’t possibly understand being privileged. A big chunk of my enjoyment in this movie came from how well this character is written in terms of knowing his drive, motivation, sadness and a great deal of pain. I thought the movie could have used more of his character early on. As for the other villain who was already introduced in Captain America Civil War, Andy Serkis (Klaue) serves a single purpose in the movie but I thought he was deliriously cartoonish and fun. Martin Freeman is the only Caucasian who has seen Wakanda besides Serkis (Klaue) who is South African; Freeman also has an interesting role and helps out to the best of his ability in Wakanda later in the movie. There is a challenger to the throne from Wakanda early on in the film, M’Baku who is the local Jabari tribe leader and he is yet another standout character and has a lot of funny lines later on in the movie. Daniel Kaluuya off Black Mirror and Get Out fame plays another local tribe leader who is friends with T’Challa, but feels there needs to be more decisiveness in leadership later on in the movie.
I repeat, the race dynamics can’t be underplayed when talking about this movie; we haven’t seen anything like this movie and it is absolutely groundbreaking in of itself being a cultural moment and a love letter to Africa. Africa is not seen in a positive light anywhere let alone the silver screen, but Wakanda and its culture, which is an amalgamation of many countries across the continent and the recognizable wardrobe from all over Africa, is a feast for the eyes. Wakanda is almost magical and vibrant; the audience will feel transported and there is a palpable sense of identity and pride radiating from the people of Wakanda and the film will have more resonance for Africans primarily and people of color. Being that Wakanda is an African nation that hasn’t been colonized some people have made comparisons to Ethiopia. As an Ethiopian, I viewed this movie as its own thing recognizing that Wakanda is inspired by different things that make Africa unique; perhaps the most valid comparison to Ethiopia would be the kingdom of Axum in the 1st century which at the time was considered one of the four great empires along with Rome, Persia and China. Wakanda of course has advanced technology that is possibly a century ahead of anything else the world has seen.
The score of the film is very unique for a Marvel or comic book movie; I enjoyed the mix of evolving percussions throughout the film, Goransson’s orchestra driven original score and the accompanying soundtrack compiled by Kendrick Lamar. There are exciting action sequences and one in particular in a South Korean casino is memorable especially when Okoye removes her weave that was bothering her all night before battling some assailants. The third act is predictable but still carries some weight because of Killmonger as he is the unlikely tragic figure in the entire story and is the character that stays with you after the end credits. The earlier ceremonial inauguration was reminiscent of The Lion King and it is every bit as iconic although the story does drag a little afterwards before the welcome return of Killmonger. Having removed the cultural aspect and significance, the movie still works simply as a comic book movie. It is more than just a run-of-the-mill super hero movie despite having some recognizable and predictable tropes, but what makes the movie great is the depth in storytelling and character building that you don’t necessarily need in this genre. It works in the same way that Get Out managed to work as a social satire/ thriller and a crowd pleaser at the same time; people that don’t like comic book movies are still going to enjoy and get something out of Black Panther. I found this movie wholly entertaining and thoughtful and despite the huge pressure put on Coogler, he succeeds in making one of the best comic book movies to date and giving us the most memorable villain since Heath Ledger’s Joker. Black Panther is a landmark in filmmaking and is already breaking all kinds of records in the box office; it is a must-see movie on a global level if there ever was one. (9/10)