When Marvel Studios unveiled their cinematic version of the Black Panther in Captain America: Civil War, they unleashed something upon the world that either was unanticipated, or else thoroughly brilliantly crafted. They introduced us to a character whose legacy is one of tradition, but surrounded by technology that far outclasses that of the rest of the world.
With the death of his father, King T’Chaka (John Kani), Prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) has to find his murderer, an affair that brings him into direct conflict with the Avengers. Black Panther picks up right where that film left off, where the prince must return to his homeland of the fictional Wakanda, where he will ascend to the throne beside his most loyal friends: his mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett), his sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), his general Okoye (Danai Gurira), good friend and political rival W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), his advisor Zuri (Forest Whitaker), and love interest Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o). Though he is initially challenged in his ascension to the throne, by the leader of the White Gorillas, M’Baku (Winston Duke), his ascension goes somewhat smoothly. The real threat comes later.
Black Panther is every bit as exciting as he was introduced to be. In Civil War, he was a hunter who used his remarkable technology to track down the man who murdered his father. In Black Panther, we learn that it is his sister Shuri that supplies him – Q-like, from the Bond series – with all his wonderful toys , which include his bulletproof armor, sonic disruptors, localized emps, and a ridiculously cool-looking jet that American CIA man Everett Ross (Martin Freeman) gets to pilot. In Black Panther, King T’Challa similarly gets to hunt, and this time his target is the international pirate Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis). This brings out a rollicking share of action in an otherwise non-action-oriented film.
Black Panther is a drama at heart. It follows a freshly-anointed king as he struggles through the confusion of his first days in power. A family story that explores the mystical world of the sacred panther goddess Bast, it nonetheless channels a certain degree of the Lion King. This is not a comparison to belittle Panther, but rather as a means of bringing out the almost Shakespearean quality of the film. In Panther, King T’Chaka made a decision in his youth that will come back to haunt his son, T’Challa, an act that seems like it should be from one of his plays, yet, to my knowledge, never does actually happen. If any one individual from this film comes across as being lifted from the Globe Theater, it would be Erik Stevens (Michael B. Jordan) as a kind of Othello. Stevens is a young man who has been betrayed by his country, abandoned, tossed aside, and forgotten about. In his bid for vengeance, he embraces the illusion of war – the Killmonger side of himself, trained, ironically, by America’s CIA – as a means of changing the world by burning it. Much as the heroic Othello winds up doing, thanks to a degree of deception by those closest to him.
Through Killmonger, Black Panther is a very American social commentary filtered through the imaginary land of Wakanda. Stevens is an Oakland boy. He has seen the destitution of the streets, played basketball with a broken plastic container for a hoop, and witnessed the murder of his father. More than that, I would attest that he – more than any other person in this film – is representative of the audience (and apparently, I’m not the only one who felt this way). Sure, T’Challa is a king that we aspire to; Nakia is the spy we all would love to work with; Okoye and W’Kabi are the general and councilman who we would love to trust to the protection of our lands; but who best represents the audience as we are now? Erik Stevens. The man who wants to burn down what has come before, and in the ashes, to rebuild his home, his world, his hopes. He is a man who loves his father, who honors the world that was denied him because of the bad decisions of those in powers, and he – like many angry Americans nowadays – has had enough. Like too many of those who will go see this movie, he is a man of layers, of complexity, betrayed by the world around him into doing unspeakable evils. He is not a good man, and his is the face that the audience will behold if they are not careful. Thankfully, this film is not called Killmonger; it is called Black Panther, and thankfully, the ideal that T’Challa represents is there to shed some light on the nuanced colors of Killmonger’s world.
One of the two most impressive ways that Black Panther shines is through its usage of color. Color is everywhere. Bold colors that are blinding in their intensity. Subdued purples that shine in the Panther armors. Bright vivid background colors in the two dream sequences. Bold uses of white to highlight the darkness. Greens that shock with envy. Each of the five tribes of Wakanda stands apart visually from their sister tribes to create a formal menagerie that is reminiscent of the Olympic rings. Yet in the capital, those colors blend into something beautiful. About the only imperfection in this visual feast is T’Challa’s first battle. Set in darkness, the palate comes off as a little too dark. Luckily at this point, viewers are not as deeply immersed in the sheer beauty of colors that director Ryan Coogler gives us, so it’s not wholly unforgivable – for this to happen after we’re introduced to the sheer spectacle we get later would be.
The other thing that Black Panther adds to the depth of this world is the music. With Ludwig Göransson and Kendrick Lamar on music, the movie not only shines visually, but it explodes in your ears with a fiery pop of tradition mixed with phat beats that do what John Williams did to Star Wars: excite the ears with a character that builds to the action of the scene. The motifs used in this compliment rather than drown out the action, but it still comes across as its own beast – one that this writer wants to hear again and again.
After all is said and done, however, I have a simple question to consider, considering what this is – namely a Marvel movie about a black African hero, written by black authors, directed by a black cinematographer, and featuring a vastly predominantly black cast: Is Black Panther a movie about race?
Probably, but I’m racially unqualified to say so. As an Anglo American, I can trace one side of my family practically to the foundation of my country, the USA; on the other, there are only two generations that separate me from my First Generation Asian American wife. As an Anglo, the most that race has played in my life was when I lived in China, where I was very much an aberration. But I was there in a position of privilege – they give foreign teachers great respect there, indeed, far greater respect than they give their own teachers – and so there, my race was actually a benefit.
What racial struggle I have seen are those that I can witness as only a white man could: vicariously. I am unqualified to comment on whether or not this movie is about race – a statement which, in this case, means I am too ignorant to be able to do so. I do not know the heartbreak of rejection, the shame that comes from being born into slavery and how those chains endure long after legal emancipation. I do not know the cultural struggle of being classed a second-class citizen simply by the color of my skin – indeed, I know just the opposite of the latter.
Simply put, I do not know the racial emotion that drives the main antagonist of Black Panther, Eric Stevens; I may be ignorant of the experience he feels at being abandoned, but that doesn’t mean I can’t feel his anger. He is a man who wants to “burn it all” because he has been dealt a wrong hand, given a bad situation, abandoned by those in power. His sentiments are exactly the same as millions of Americans (that I know of, and connect with on a daily basis through social media), who feel that the powers that be have done nothing to help the people of their nation. If we broaden our scope to include the whole world, a number of countries are similarly growling for change of a system devoid of despots who seek only to aid themselves. This is not Socialism that people are clamoring for, but rather, a fighting chance that celebrates equality rather than the increasing gap between the haves and have-nots. To me, this is not an issue of race, but, rather, an issue that a large majority of the public is feeling these days – and increasingly in the USA, where Nazism seems to be secure in a way that my uncles would be utterly shamed by, especially considering they fought in World War Two to squash such things – and is actually the kind of anger that transcends race. Killmonger’s anger is the cry of a generation who have been handed a scorched earth, and cries out for the ashes of what could have been.
I am not going on a political rant here, especially considering anything that I might have to say, is said – far more eloquently, I might add, and with far fewer words – at the end of Black Panther. But what I am saying is that because of my race, and because of my inexperience with certain problems arising because of my race, I am unqualified to label this as a movie about race. I know my place. I stand beside everyone else, regardless of their race, color, sexuality, or whatever as someone who fell in love with a movie.
Taking the definition of “black” as the absence of color, then I boldly and proudly claim that Black Panther is not a “black” movie. This is a movie that celebrates life in the vivid beauty of all colors. It is absolutely breathtaking, and the beautiful people that brought this to life should be proud of the cinematic marvel that they have wrought.
Black Panther is out in theaters all over the world. Go out and get your tickets today.
Running Time: 2 hours 14 minutes
Credit Scenes: 2: One mid-credit, one post-credit.
The Queen has spoken. Long live the King.