REVIEW: Black Panther

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Having written well over a couple hundred reviews/commentaries on all types of pop culture, it is usually pretty easy to get started in forming my thoughts. I leave the theatre or take off my headphones or close the book or click the remote – and I immediately have a narrative for what I will write. Black Panther is hands down the most difficult piece I have ever had starting or finding a direction to go in.

This is because Black Panther is so much more than a comic book action movie. Don’t get me wrong, it is still very much one of those. There is a bad guy with a name like Killmonger and a scene where the hero yells “NOOOOOOO!!!” at the sky after a family member is killed. This is the 18th release in the so-called Marvel Cinematic Universe in just a short 10 years. That should mean that the formula is starting to feel old and audiences would be tuning out. However, Black Panther has given the overall Marvel franchise new life in nearly every aspect of filmmaking.

The story follows T’Challa, King of Wakanda and the Black Panther, as he takes the throne following his father’s death. The country is extremely advanced in its technology and development but chooses to be isolated from everyone else as a form of protection. That is until an outsider named Erik Killmonger shows up with a very interesting past and a plan to change Wakanda and the rest of the world forever.

Every decision made in the making of Black Panther feels so right that they seem like the only possible choices to make. The success of this movie begins and ends with Marvel inserting Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed) as the director. It was vital to have a person of color at the helm of such a culturally significant piece of intellectual property. They went to one of the most promising young filmmakers working today, who, after this MCU installment, has a first three films resume that would rival any other director’s first three releases in history. Marvel then wisely stayed out of his way and they are now being rewarded for it many times over in critical acclaim and box office receipts.

Reading the cast list alone should make anyone want to see this movie sight unseen. Legends like Forest Whitaker and Angela Bassett bring a veteran foundation to the table for a group of some of today’s best working actors. Just listen to these names:

  • Sterling K. Brown (Emmy Winner for People vs. O.J. Simpson, This Is Us)
  • Daniel Kaluuya (Academy Award Nominee for Get Out)
  • Martin Freeman (The Hobbit Trilogy, Sherlock)
  • Andy Serkis (“King of Motion Capture” – look up his IMDB, you’ve seen him a lot)
  • Danai Gurira (The Walking Dead)
  • Lupita Nyong’o (Academy Award Winner for 12 Years A Slave)

But it is the least known of the main cast that steals every scene she is in. Letitia Wright, best known for being in the “Black Museum” episode of Black Mirror, plays Shuri, the sister of T’Challa. If this was a James Bond movie (which at times it very much feels like one), she would be Q. Her performance ensures the movie maintains the necessary levity required by such a large scale, crowd-pleasing production. Mark this post in your Favorites as it is the time and place where I guaranteed Letita Wright will be a big star. I am calling it now.

Of course, the weight of the storytelling in Black Panther is placed heavily on the two leads – Chadwick Boseman (42, Marshall, Get On Up) as King T-Challa/Black Panther and Michael B. Jordan (The Wire, Creed) as Erik Killmonger. The story arc between their two characters is very Shakespearean in nature and could easily become hokey but both actors know to play more on the subtle side and rely on their natural charisma. Boseman, who is no stranger to playing well-known characters through his roles as Jackie Robinson, Thurgood Marshall, and James Brown, carries himself with so much confidence that he will forever be known as Black Panther.

It is Michael B. Jordan, though, that really pushes this film into the realm of being special. His portrayal of the “bad guy” Killmonger causes the audience to have a great deal of inner turmoil. We don’t want him to do the bad things he does and is threatening to do but we also find ourselves understanding what has caused his anger. He’s not necessarily wrong in thought and belief but is wrong in how he is going about dealing with it.

Even though the world in which the majority of the movie is set, Wakanda, is not a real place – it is not difficult to see the parallels to today’s society. T’Challa is not an actual world leader but he is facing the same challenging decisions at the crux of many countries core struggles, including America. Killmonger is not someone you can find on Facebook or see on the news but he does represent an underlying cry of oppression and inequality that needs to be addressed before things get worse. It is these choices that the filmmakers made throughout production that set Black Panther apart from other comic book movies.

The screening I attended was completely sold out and 70% of the audience was black. There was a special feeling of excitement in the air as we waited for the movie to start. Quite often at early screenings of these franchise movies, many audience members will dress up (commonly referred to as cosplay) as their favorite characters and/or come in large groups. That happened here except instead of a bunch of Jokers or Spider-Mans or Godzillas running around, there were men and women dressed in beautiful, traditional African tribal attire. Throughout the entire film, many viewers could not contain their personal excitement and satisfaction for what they were seeing.

There was a girl a couple seats down from me who was in her late teens or early twenties. Her mom was trying to keep her calm and quiet because she was reacting to pretty much everything. Whenever a character would appear for the first time, she let out a squeal. When a great action sequence would happen, she would jump out of her chair. When a strong cultural reference or comment was made, it was like church where there would be “Mmm Hmmm” and “Yesss” sounds everywhere. It was a great experience for me, who is normally a stickler for being quiet in movies, but this was genuine and I felt lucky to watch the film with them.

Why were they reacting this way? Why did it mean so much to so many people? Because black empowerment and representation has been lacking throughout the history of cinema. The Blaxploitation era got the closest but many saw that as demeaning and comic fodder. Who have they had to represent them in the world of superheroes? Robert Townsend’s Meteor Man? Shaq’s Steel? The way a lot of us have grown up, imagining being Superman or Batman, putting ourselves in their shoes and saving the day. Minority cultures have felt a disconnect from that feeling on some level because those characters look different and come from unfamiliar backgrounds.

This is that moment for all of those people who have missed out on that excitement. They get to have that same feeling that led me to call myself Pompous Geek and write about this stuff in my free time. Black Panther is a black empowerment movie. It is a feminist movie. And, at the same time, it is a movie for everyone. That is Ryan Coogler’s greatest achievement here. The film can comment on important and relevant cultural issues while not alienating anyone. It can lead to important, desperately needed discussions but can also help heal and lead to plenty of high-fives at the same time.

All the success that Black Panther is seeing in just its first weekend, the money made and the positive word of mouth, should give us all a sense of pride. This movie is needed in today’s continually diminishing society. It moves us as a community in the right direction while also entertaining us. Wakanda, even though not technically real, can live forever… it is just up to all of us to make it happen.