Essentially, Black Panther is a Marvel superhero film, and one of the best. But it transcends genre. It’s a fantasy adventure. A sci-fi thriller. A cultural statement. A socio-political statement. A contemporary allegory. An exposé of humanity and superhumanity, on a grand scale.
The cinematography is thrilling. The action breath-taking. Immersive. Every aspect of the movie is exceptional, including the adventure, the characterisation, the humour, the setting, the suspense, the emotional engagement and the direction. The overall impact is exciting and dazzling. The story telling is extensive and vital. Beyond, and because of all of this, the existence of this film is an important cultural moment.
This is a superhero movie by Africans, for Africans. A vibrant expression of black culture, creativity and excellence. Presented stunningly within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But it goes deeper and wider. The movie is a celebration for everyone. An awakening for many. Relevant and challenging to anyone with a knowledge of history, respect for tradition, cultural awareness and a commitment to learn about and realise a better world. A chance to embrace difference.
Wakandans guarding their culture and traditions
To quote Lupita Nyong'o, Wakandan spy Nakia, this is
“a film that honours the past in terms of African Culture and historical context, but it also offers a future.”
Black Panther offers an opportunity to engage.
A brilliant ensemble cast is led by Chadwick Boseman, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Michael B Jordan, Danny Kaluuya and Letitia Wright, aided by seasoned Hollywood figures Forest Whitaker and Angela Bassett, along with Tolkien stars Martin Freeman and Andy Serkis. Stan Lee makes his customary Marvel appearance, welcome as ever.
The cast: L-R (back row) Andy Serkis, Sterling K Brown, Forest Whitaker, Michael B Jordan, Winston Duke, Daniel Kaluuya;
(front row) Danai Gurira, Lupita Nyong'o, Chadwick Boseman, Letitia Wright
Marvel Superhero Black Panther and his not-so-secret identity, Chadwick Boseman
The true star of the film is arguably the setting. Wakanda, the fictional country, is widely described as the only African nation that was never colonised. Wakanda has resources – primarily vibranium – technology, education, sophistication and an ancient rule of law. It appears to be a perfect society. Prosperous, with no sign of racism or inequality of any kind. And yet there are problems and inconsistencies. Otherwise, there would be no need for a superhero.
Wakanda is Imaginative and triumphant. Based on the counterfactual of what would have happened had colonialists stayed away from Africa. But Wakanda is much more than this, and the movie conjures up vibrant stories and traditions. Quoting Lupita again:
“The film is so layered, so deep; allegoric, folkloric, mythological, like a new kind of mythology that we’re offering to the world in the Black Panther story”.
Wakanda: a land of folk tales and magic
Wakanda: a land of advanced technology and design
If we want to place Wakanda, my recollection from the screening was that the meteor crash landed, Smallville style, in an area that appears to be around Burundi, or close by; somewhere between Uganda and Tanzania, perhaps on the fringe of Kenya. There is a mixture of cultures and accents in the film. It struck me that T’Challa (the Black Panther in statesman mode), sounded increasingly like Nelson Mandela, with a rich, gravelly voice conveying gravitas and dignity. A real life sub-Saharan hero revered and loved universally.
Symbolism abounds within the movie
A prime example of symbolism is the colour scheme in the garments worn in the casino battle. Okoye wears a red dress, Nakia a green dress, and T’Challa a black shirt and tie. These are the colours of the Pan African Flag. Blue, the colour of the Ulysses Klaue’s waistcoat and Everett K Ross’s jacket, represents colonialism.
(R-L) Okoye in red, T'Challa in Black, Nakia in Green
The Pan African Flag
The role and status of women
Much has been said of how men and women live in harmony in Wakanda. This sounds progressive, futuristic even, but the land is ruled only by the King (T’Chaka), the prince (T’Challa), and Erik Stevens (aka Erik Killmonger, born N’Jadaka). There’s a startling moment where Shuri (Letitia Wright) puts up her hand as if to challenge for the throne, but then admits she is joking.
Shuri is, however, the technology supremo. The one in charge of the science lab. In this role, she is a great example of female expertise in technology as well as humour, and a champion for STEM. This is an area where young women appear to be excelling in Africa especially.
Shuri (Letitia Wright) in her laboratory
Shuri in a highly sophisticated pair of mittens
On the fighting front, the finest warrior is Okoye (Danai Gurira). Okoye epitomises the arresting combination of aggression and beauty. The wig she wears when going undercover dishonours her shaven head, and she quickly finds a way to dispense with it by turning the wig into a weapon. Who throws a wig, honestly?!
Leading the way in espionage we have Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o’) who has enjoyed a complex history with the Black Panther and now chooses to make her own way in life.
Okoye (Danai Gurira). Beautifully aggressive
Not quite paradise
There are problems. Wakanda has never engaged with the outside world. At least one character resists mixing, sharing and giving aid. He is worried about refugees coming in and spoiling it for everyone already there. A very familiar attitude elsewhere in the world. So, how do we assess isolated perfection? If this is the great version of Africa, the great vision for all Africa and the world, then it really isn’t OK because humanity thrives on engagement and interacting with others, however badly it has been done before. And yes, it has been done horrendously.
Wakanda: the perfect society (?)
Colonialists are rightly blamed for artificially bringing tribes together in the past to make a single unified nation (e.g. Nigeria). But here, in Wakanda, disparate tribes come together to create an apparently utopian single nation. There is a difference here, though. Wakanda survives this process because it is managed internally. And for the most part, Wakandans live in harmony. Even the Jabari tribe, which has rejected the rule of the court and disappeared into the mountains, is not actively aggressive. However, the very presence of warriors in Wakanda shows the need to be prepared to engage in fighting, with external foes even if they can keep the peace internally.
Wakandans: to protect and to survive
The role of whites in the film is intriguing. Disturbing at times.
The relationship with America is complicated. Everett K Ross, the CIA agent, is one of the good guys. He assists in the air battle by taking out rogue Wakandans seeking to betray their culture and traditions. In contrast, South African Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) – is a thoroughly ugly and evil character. A stereotypical villain with more than a passing resemblance to Eugene Terre Blanche, a notorious white supremacist who ended up being hacked to death by farmers with machetes in 2010.
Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis). Mean and nasty. In blue.
There is also a reference to transatlantic slavery, where African American challenger Erik Stevens (aka Killmonger), ultimately defeated by the Black Panther, states that he would prefer to jump off a cliff and drown along with all the Africans who were pushed overboard into the sea rather than be saved and live in chains.
At the end, at a United Nations convention, Wakanda offers to share its resources and learning. The opposite approach of colonialists who stole all from the African countries. An ignorant white council member demands to know what Wakanda can realistically offer to the rest of the world. T’Challa has a wry smile on his face. I look forward to seeing Wakanda’s answer in the sequel.
T'Challa at the United Nations. Presenting an offer.
There are links to so many films, with plenty of twists. Lion King stands out a mile, with the theme of male ascension and rites of passage, fighting for the crown, the problems and eventual triumph of the son of the father. Here T’Chaka is not quite the hero his son once thought he was.
Mafusa and Simba - the Lion King
The casino scene with the fighting calls to mind several James Bond films, notably Casino Royale, but with weapons here including a traditional vibranium spear as well as a somewhat less traditional wig (reminiscent of Odd Job’s hat in Goldfinger). Even Austin Powers. More on Bond, Letitia Wright would make a fine Q should Ben Wishaw have enough of gadgets, weapons and cars. As for the car chases, the Black Panther chase is more than a match for anything performed in Mission Impossible.
The battle scenes are reminiscent of Braveheart, Troy, Lord of the Rings and countless other films. But I can’t recall seeing Rhinos made of Vibranium being summoned anywhere else. The presence of Hobbit Boy (Martin Freeman) and Gollum (Andy Serkis) is another link with Lord of the Rings. My mind also wandered to Indiana Jones, with goblets, magic potions and caves.
There are few mainstream black superheroes. Wesley Snipes and the Blade trilogy and Frozone in the Incredibles are high on the list of fantasy figures. For a more earthly link, there is Queen of Katwe, another fine African movie starring Lupita Nyong’o.
Queen of Katwe
Finally, don’t dismay. I haven’t forgotten Spiderman. I’m really not sure whose suit I prefer. And even more finally, switching to DC comics, there is Superman with his kryptonite. Wakanda’s vibranium wins hands down here. A source of strength rather than weakness.
Black Panther is a fantastic movie, in the grand Marvel tradition. Fun, scary, exhilarating. It has a superhero, supporting heroes and heroines, villains, spies, intrigue, conflict, revenge, resolution, fast moving action, stunning scenery, electrifying special effects, the return of forgotten friends and enemies, a hint of romance, and an impossibly hopeful way forward for the world. Tradition blended with progression. And plenty of magic.
I came away from the film energised and chomping at the bit to see more. There is plenty of scope for reprisals, character development and new storylines. The Marvel universe can only get bigger and better.
© Eddie Hewitt 2018
Connected Cultures - Marvel Avengers and the Black Panther, with a report from the European Premiere by Eric Stevens
Connected Cultures – Black Panther quotes from Lupita Nyong’o
Marvel – Black Panther