Black Panther (2018)
We have reached a point in this country where everything is tainted with politics and, if just one thing is out of place or one word is taken out of context, an entire career can be abolished in the course of a day. Entertainment in many ways has often conflicted and sometimes intertwined with politics, but we are at a stage where little is judged on its artistic merit.
When it comes to Black film making, it doesn't help that Hollywood, thought by many to be one of the most liberal institutions in the country, has had policies toward African-Americans directors and actors that have barely changed since Birth of a Nation hit the screens. There was a brief time in the early 1970s where blaxploitation films opened up the door for directors and actors to reach audiences regardless of racial makeup, which also began to lead to films other than cheap action films being made. Five on the Black Hand Side may have been a bit long-winded and preachy, but it did show a move away from the simple plots that were making those movies a bit repetitive. Still, as well meaning as they might have been, White liberals decided that too many of these movies caused a negative outlook, and suddenly it was back to normal. If a Black actor had more than a sidekick role, and God forbid a role that involved sexuality, Jack Valenti and his anonymous band of censors were there to put the kaibash on it.
Hollywood, true to form, followed suit and made sure they played it safe.
So, 40 years after it became normal to have Black actors and directors making movies and starring in roles that had traditionally been filled with White actors, while maintaining their own cultural aesthetics and being able to draw in a multicultural audience, we are at the point where a superhero movie made the same way is treated as some special event. This time around, due to racial tensions building to unbelievable levels and White supremacist trolls seemingly hovering in every corner of the internet, Black Panther ended up carrying more weight than it should have.
Luckily, it turned out to be one of the better entries in the Marvel Universe.
Following the events of Captain America: Civil War, T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) returns to Wakanda to become its new king. Along the way he stops to pick up his ex-girlfriend Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o), who is on a mission in another part of Africa. He also reunites with his sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) the Queen Mother, Ramonda (Angela Bassett). Wakanda itself is a nation set apart from the rest of the world, containing massive reserves of a mineral called vibranium, and hiding a capital city that is centuries ahead in development from the rest of the planet. To the rest of the world, however, they appear to be just another poor, backward African nation, made up of five tribes under an uneasy truce.
Cracks begin to appear in that truce when, in what was typically considered a ceremonial challenge, T'Challa receives an actual challenge in the form of M'Baku (Winston Duke), the leader of the marginalized Jabari tribe. T'Challa bests him, and takes his rightful place as ruler of Wakanda. Still, his days of sitting on the throne must wait, as an old nemesis has arisen: Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), an international arms dealer that the late T'Chaka (John Kani) had pursued all his life. In 1992, Klaue, with the help of T'Chaka's brother N'Jobu (Sterling K. Brown), stole vibranium from Wakanda, causing a rift between the two men that resulted in N'Jobu's son being left behind in America, growing up in a rough neighborhood in Oakland and eventually becoming Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), one of the most feared mercenaries on the planet.
T'Challa is unaware of Killmonger's involvement with Klaue in the theft of an ancient Wakandan artifact from a London museum, but with his sister providing him with a new suit and calling the shots behind the scenes, he heads to South Korea with Nakia and the general of his royal guard, Okoye (Danal Gurira) to retrieve it. Once in Busan at the location of the reported sale, it turns out that the buyer is CIA agent Everett Ross (Martin Freeman), who is setting things up to nab Klaue. Nothing goes as planned, leading to Klaue's escape, and T'Challa being forced to take the wounded Ross back to Wakanda, thus potentially revealing its secret to the United States. Meanwhile, Killmonger decides it is time to finally make his move for the Wakandan throne, killing Klaue and bringing him and the vibranium back, much to the delight W'Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), the defacto leader of the Border Tribe. W'Kabi was upset with both T'Chaka and T'Challa's inability to stop Klaue, and has supported revealing Wakanda to the rest of the world - things that Killmonger has achieved and promises to do.
With Erik having claim to ascendancy to the throne, he challenges T'Challa in ritual combat and wins, ordering the herb that gives the Wakandan kings supernatural powers destroyed and sending weapons out to the Wakandan spies that have infiltrated countries throughout the world with orders to start revolutions so that Wakanda can then swoop in and take over as a the center of a new world government. Nakia, along with Shuri, Ramonda and Ross, flee the capital city to seek help from the Jabari. M'Baku refuses direct action, but reveals that T'Challa is still alive, but barely. With the help of one of the last flowers of the heart-shaped herb, Nakia heals him and provides him with his Black Panther suit, putting him on equal footing with Killmonger, and his return sparking a civil war between the tribes. Meanwhile, Shuri tasks Ross with making sure that the vibranium weapons never make it to the outside world.
There is also more family drama involving T'Chaka and the royal adviser Zuri (Forest Whitaker) that sparks Killmonger's actions, but I don't want to head into spoiler territory.
Once again, happily, we are spared an origin story. The Black Panther, always the current king of Wakanda, is a position thousands of years old and the result of the five tribes agreeing to end their fighting and work together. The king is given the juice of the heart-shaped herb, a plant altered by the vibranium in the soil, that gives him superhuman powers and makes him responsible both for keeping the secrets of Wakanda hidden and be its ultimate protector if threatened. T'Challa has trained for it his entire life, and is merely fulfilling the role he always knew he would.
Without having to focus on building up the reason for the character's existence writer/director Ryan Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole are given a chance to do some actual world building. Wakanda largely has two languages, Xhosa for the four main tribes and Igbo for the Jabari, showing different origins for those who came to Wakanda. However, they have a common written script, and a good portion of government business appears to be performed in English, much like the areas that surround them. All have different dress, and appear to have different cultural attributes to different regions of sub-Saharan Africa, resulting in the sort of pan-Africanism that many of the more forward-looking leaders in the region have envisioned. Their capital city certainly shows a meshing of different cultural aspects, including Western building styles. They also appear to have maintained their traditional religion, being unconquered by either Christianity or Islam.
It also hints at the difficulties of keeping such a society secret in the modern world, and the morality of doing so when they are in a part of the world that could benefit much more from their guidance than it could from backhanded, often condescending, Western charity. Still, there are hints that many of the elders in Wakanda are almost as condescending as their Western counterparts. It also provides a look at an absolute hereditary monarchy that works and benefits its citizens; Wakanda, though it appears expression is not oppressed (at least not until Killmonger arrives), is far from being a democracy.
There are so many questions raised and so much hinted at that I am hoping Coogler gets to continue with more movies focusing specifically on T'Challa and Wakanda, and that he doesn't end up just a side character that shows up whenever somebody tries to take over the universe and they need a Black guy to balance things out. I also find Wakanda much more interesting than Themiscera, simply because these are human beings that have made large leaps in technology and society building by putting aside many of their differences, rather than just being magical beings created by a Greek deity.
As should have been clear from his brief part in Civil War, Chadwick Boseman is more than up to the part as both Black Panther and a benevolent monarch. Both Lupita Nyong'o and Letitia Wright are given strong roles rather than just being shoved to the background when the action starts. Angela Bassett, unfortunately, doesn't get much screen time and, while Danal Gurira's role as the head of the Dora Milaje really only calls for her to be tough as nails, she is still memorable the time she is on the screen.
Happily, Martin Freeman is not given a white savior role, but instead becomes just one more person doing his part. He's more the confused outsider, realizing suddenly that a lot of what he thought the world was like is completely wrong. He also, in a couple awkward scenes, realizes what it's like when he's no longer the one in charge. The Jabari seem quite interesting, so hopefully we get to see more of them and Winston Duke in the future. Though marginalized, they are still on the same technological level as the rest of Wakanda, but are obviously a completely different culture forced to live beside those who do not understand them. It's another bit of world-building that just makes me want to see more.
Andy Serkis is a nice amoral band guy as Ulsysses Klaue, but he's really a red herring when it comes to being the big bad in this one. Michael B. Jordan plays the role to the hilt, but this is where the movie falters. Killmonger is not some unkillable menace, but he is still just given one major motivation, little screen time to develop on that and a final battle that is largely exciting, but has little gravitas as the audience could really care less about him. We know T'Challa is going to win, and Killmonger is just an annoyance. He does get a good ending scene, but definitely could have used more of that building up to him challenging T'Challa for the throne.
The other place this fails is in the effects department. More cartoonish, rubbery CGI from a series that, with the hundreds of millions of dollars pumped into it, has no excuse for putting on screen. The capital of Wakanda looks great, the ship effects and aerial battles are wonderful, but then we get war rhinos that look worse than that tiger from The Walking Dead. We also get Black Panther and Killmonger trading blows in mid-air in a manner that's almost as bad as Legolas doing his Super Mario imitation in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies.
What is most important to the Marvel Universe is that Black Panther sees the potential, like in Spider-Man: Homecoming, in letting the characters stand on their own and giving the audience the benefit of the doubt that they already know the background. That way more emphasis can be put on the stories and, hopefully, we start to get villains we actually care about and who may be a challenge to these superheroes.
I also hope that now we have it, after all these years, out of our system that a movie with a largely Black (or any largely non-White) cast doesn't have to be a media spectacle. The movies themselves need to stand on their own merits, without the focus on racial or gender equality, which are often not the focus of the movies themselves, intruding upon an entertaining work of fiction. At least with the first movie focusing solely on T'Challa, we have been given a movie that makes me curious to find out more about his world than about a fight with a giant purple guy with a glove.
Black Panther (2018)
Time: 134 minutes
Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Lupita Nyong'o, Michael B. Jordan, Letitia Wright, Martin Freeman
Director: Ryan Coogler