There’s something magical about Marvel’s newest superhero film Black Panther. Since the teaser trailer that aired during Super Bowl LI, Wakanda, the fictional country has created a cultural groundswell of both admiration and pride around the world. At the moment I couldn’t put my finger on what made it special. It just looks and feels different. Its easy to point the thumping urban hip-hop soundtrack and the primarily all-black cast, but as each trailer was released the notion this movie was something bigger—something more than what we’ve previously seen in the Marvel Cinematic Universe … and it fucking feels great!
And then it dawned on me, this is Ryan Coogler’s mojo. Since his debut film, Fruitvale Station and later with Creed, Coogler has crafted rich stories featuring down-to-earth characters with real problems in circumstances that are, for people of color, extremely relatable and speaks to power certain socio-economic, racial, and gender truths. He invites us to sit at the table and follow along his narratives steeped in history, perspective, and hope. We become more than an audience, we become witnesses, participants, family. And with Black Panther, Coogler not only makes you a citizen of Wakanda, but puts you smack dab in the middle of this family’s tale.
Taking place after King T’Chaka was killed by Helmut Zemo in Captain America: Civil War, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) returns to his secluded homeland Wakanda where he is preparing to ascend to the throne. Its here we are introduced to the elders, tribal leaders, the Dora Milaje, and T’Challa’s immediate family. And lets face it as the story begins to unfold you realize you’ve seen some of these people before – at black family gatherings like family picnics, reunions, weddings, holidays, and funerals.
Yup, family. T’Challa is that cousin everybody likes, a born leader that is humble, polite, soft spoken, who can’t dance worth a damn but he has his own swagger so you just roll with it. Okoye (Danai Gurira) as his general and leader of the Dora Milaje – the king’s all-female personal guard, is that ride-or-die cousin that always has your back but she and the rest of the ladies have no problem whooping your butt in a game of spades or practically anything else. And there’s Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) T’Challa’s ex and a tribal leader. She’s your cousin’s girlfriend that he fucked over but everybody likes her so she’s like family. Then there’s Shuri (Letitia Wright), your smart, young cousin that keeps you cracking up because she’s always clowning and getting into things.
There’s plenty more family members too. You got auntie, T’Challa’s mother Romonda (Angela Bassett) always looking good and running things; Zuri (Forest Whitaker) that uncle that keeps the family history and breaks up any fights – especially during spades, and W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) and M’Baku (Winston Duke), your cousins who are sore losers and won’t let anything go – especially when losing at spades.
In the film T’Challa learns the man responsible for stealing vibranium several years ago Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) has resurfaced and the tribal council wants justice. This is that dude, who scammed grandma during hurricane Katrina and you know you’ll turn him in to the police, after you kick his ass. Things take a turn when Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) arrives with his own agenda that would change the fate of Wakanda forever. Killmonger is that woke cousin that’s mad at the world for all the wrong reasons. Needless to say, he doesn’t get invited to much, but shows up anyway and always got beef – he always wants to play Uno when nobody else does.
Got it, good.
Obviously the story is more complex than my simplified backyard barbecue spades party example, but it illustrates the care and detail Coogler and his writing partner Joe Robert Cole placed in developing each of their characters and how they interconnect more so than interact with one another. There are effortless facets to this story that explores racial, socio-economic, and global stewardship well beyond anything seen thus far in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This a story about black people that focuses solely on exploring black problems. And it is T’Challa and Killmonger’s character explorations respectively that weave all these elements together.
Black Panther is a visual utopia of vibrant color and tradition. Coogler’s attention to detail is not only stunning but thought provoking as each element is chosen to highlight the rich cultures within Africa. The backdrop of Wakana is lush, exploring a country uncolonized and allowed to develop unfettered with science and technology unknown to the outside world. This fictional city is Xanadu, Shangri-La and Eldorado combined. Its Afro-futurism and Coogler makes damn sure you know it. From Ruth E. Carter’s intricate almost spiritual costume designs (Oscar!), to Hanna Beachler’s incredible set designs you are drawn in – completing at whim of this story and the allure of the phenomenal world — the home of the Black Panther.
As the credits roll while listening to “All the Stars” by Kendrick Lamar and Sza, you feel it — something has changed, something is different. This is not your typical superhero movie and the MCU has taken its ever-expanding catalog to New territory. Black Panther wins on every level, its an amazing feat that stirs emotion, pride, and hope well beyond its cinematic roots.
Black Panther: 5 stars. Directed by Ryan Coogler. Stars Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Letita Wright, Winston Duke, Sterling K. Brown, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Andy Serkis. In theaters Feburary 16, 2018.