By: Tim Cogshell
Black Panther, the first studio produced, major motion picture to feature a Black superhero and a predominantly Black cast is a very good movie, exceptional beyond its big-budget entertainment value in a number of ways. The film is full of all the standard big-budget entertainments. Computer-generated bells-and-whistles are all over the place, from vistas of the fictional African land of Wakanda to the sleek, midnight-black tech-enhanced superhero suit of the Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), there is plenty of Wow, Smash and Bang! Yes, Black Panther is as well-produced a Marvel movie crap-fest as any, but none of that CG-poo is why this is a very good, indeed often exceptional superhero flick.
High praise from a critic – me – who has been experiencing a diminishing return of enjoyment-to-time-spent-in-the-theatre ratio as related to most recent superhero fare. I was disappointed (to say the least) by Man of Steel, Superman V. Batman and Justice League. Deadpool was a hit but I thought it was a crude, loutish bore of a movie, while Suicide Squad made me want to kill myself, if not the filmmakers of that pile. As for those Thor movies, which many enjoy, and did have a certain “Shakespeare for Dummies” quality, they’ve become tiresome. Wonder Woman, Logan and the first Guardians of the Galaxy movies were all good. Those movies, like Black Panther, issue a certain humor and charm along with a measure of gravitas with their requisite CG crap.
In any case, Black Panther does not disappoint even a fair weather fanboy such as myself. Its greatest achievement is its ability to be a movie in deep contemplation of tribulations of Black people while not being a movie against or even about White people. It even manages to render one white guy (only one) a heroic, if comic, figure. Martin Freeman reprising his role from Captain America: Civil War as CIA operative Ross, is a comic-hero repping White folks in much that same way that Black sidekicks and foils have provided comic relief for the White heroes of all other superhero films. It’s Anthony Mackie’s job in the Avengers series. He’s a good sport and Martin is too.
Written by Ryan Coogler (who also directs) and Joe Robert Cole (television’s “American Crime Story”), Black Panther is a film with wide appeal and deliberate intentions. It’s moored in contemporary issues wrapped in imaginary circumstances. Some of those issues were relevant even when the hero was conceived by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby back in 1966 about the time of the creation of Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, which was founded later the same year by Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton in Oakland, California.
Oakland, CA circa 1997 is where and when the movie opens. Aside from being the birthplace of the Black Panther Party it’s also the city from which Coogler hails; and a city that has suffered more than its share of poverty, crime and other depredations over the years. In 1997 Oakland was the polar opposite of the mystical nation of Wakanda, a hi-tech land-of-plenty with an abundant Black population and the fictional element vibranium, source of the nation’s advanced technology and wealth. A source of power, actually, that Wakanda has chosen not to share with the world. Not to share with other Black people – children of Africa one might say – oppressed and left behind because of the choices of the many kings of Wakanda.
In this narrative the miseries of the descendants of Africa, miseries that continue to this day, are principally because the Kings of Wakanda will not share with their kin the means to better themselves and rise. Perhaps even rule. In this scenario “Whitey” is mostly irrelevant. Which is refreshing. Although, one of the principal bad guys in Black Panther, Klaue (Andy Serkis), is a white guy. Klaue is a carry over from Avengers: Age of Ultron (also a whiny bore of a movie), and Andy Serkis plays him like a raving loon. Klaue is a crazy, murderous mercenary, but he’s not particularly racist. Which is also refreshing.
Chadwick Boseman’s portrayal of T’Challa, the Black Panther, is stately, suave and heroic. His accent, ever so slightly Kenyan, yet not Kenyan, is measured to register but never overwhelm a subtle, clean performance. He’s never loud. He is never angry. He is guilty over being unable to save his father (killed in a previous film), but not vengeful. He is, perhaps, a bit naive about what it means to be king, and he is struggling with the disturbing legacy of his forefathers.
Mostly, he’s worried about his people.
The theft of enough vibranium to wreak havoc in the world ostensibly drives the action of Black Panther. T’Challa and his royal entourage must prevent the ore and the location of Wakanda from becoming known to the world. To this end the film is ordinary in its superhero movie pursuits. There are a half-dozen big set piece battle sequences wherein all the laws of physics are broken in service of cool… stuff. T’Challa’s praetorian guard, Danai Gurira (“The Walking Dead”) as General Okoye and Lupita Nyong’o (12 Twelve Years a Slave), as Nakia, an accomplished spy and warrior, lead most of the battles and do a lot of the cool stuff. These are some serious ass-kicking women who find themselves saving their king’s ass on more than a few occasions. This is a correct representation of the relationship of most Black women to most Black men in my personal experience as a Black man. That said, the Panther’s mom is played by Angela Bassett with an overly meek demeanor for a Queen Mother. She looks like Toni Morrison with thick white braids, but she has no agency. She’s the only gal in the movie that don’t break something (or somebody) on purpose. I didn’t care for that.
As noted, beyond the ordinary pursuits of a Marvel comic book adaptation Black Panther has its present-day concerns. It’s concerned with the lives of boys raised without fathers and what that manifests. It’s concerned with our personal responsibility to set ourselves free from the circumstances that oppress us (whatever our race or creed or gender), and it questions what we should be prepared to do to affect our own circumstances. The slave-turned-preacher-turned-freedom fighter-turned-martyr, Nat Turner, posed these questions. Black Panther is concerned with our responsibility to our sisters and brothers when they are being subjugated – when – we have the wherewithal to free them. The firebrand abolitionist preacher and American terrorist, John Brown, felt that responsibility, too. To that end we have the extraordinary film-stealing performance of Michael B. Jordan (previous Coogler-written-and-directed films Fruitvale Station and Creed) as Erik Killmonger. One imagines the character’s name gives away his nature. Yet it does not speak to the rationale of his raison d’etre; a righteous indignation of Nat Turner and John Brown proportions, that, as with those heroic figures, is not exactly wrong.
Killmonger is pissed and he’s got good reason to be pissed. We empathize with him even when we cannot condone his actions. Michael B. Jordan gives a performance in this movie akin to Heath Ledger’s Joker in Batman Begins. He’s that good. He’s gorgeous. He’s darkly funny and he’s hellbent on vengeance. Hellbent. And sometimes we root for him. At least I did. Sometimes. Michael B. is acting his ass off in this deeply-layered, highly-motivated role. He embodies every young Black man (perhaps every person) who has ever been filled with an abiding hatred of a system that wrongly stole their life away – and all those who stood by while it happened – and did nothing. Especially the Kings.
Next year this time – awards season – I’m going to remember this performance. I am, and you will too.