Synopsis: Following the events of CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2016), Prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) must accept the burden of a kinghood for the African nation of Wakanda despite his own nervousness about being ready. He accepts the responsibility of becoming the leader and protector of the nation only to learn that an old national enemy Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) will be going to South Korea in an attempt to sell stolen quantities of the Wakandan national treasure, the mysterious alien metal vibranium used to power and build Wakandan hi-tech. From this encounter emerges a rogue CIA agent and ex-Navy Seal (dubbed Killmonger for the number of deaths he is personally responsible for in his efforts to destabilize nations and sow havoc around the world) who has hidden ties with the Wakandan royal family and goals all his own. When T’Challa and Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) square off for leadership of Wakanda, an epic adventure story results in director and co-writer Ryan Coogler’s BLACK PANTHER (2018).
When he was alive, Roger Ebert made no effort to hide his love for solid adventure stories in exotic settings. This resulted in his giving high ratings to flicks like RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981) and ANACONDA (1997), which baffled some of his readers. I was not among the baffled, since I have a similar love for adventure tales and rank RAIDERS among my favorite film experiences from childhood. Over the years, I have encountered other films that reinvigorate that spark. I make no secret about my enjoyment of John Milius’ CONAN THE BARBARIAN (1982), Stephen Sommers’ THE MUMMY (1999), as well as other flicks in a similar vein. Now, along comes BLACK PANTHER, which gives me not only the same engaging action sequences and unexpected twists as the adventure flicks that hearken to my younger days, but also includes a vast number of well-defined characters to root for and villains to revile. Needless to say, both the boy I used to be and the man I have become are impressed with the result.
Trista, did you have any opening thoughts you wanted to share?
I was super excited to see Black Panther. The movie did not let me down. How often can we say that?
Not often enough, these days!
I sat through the movie with a big stupid grin on my face, in a packed theater. I was lucky enough to see it with a mixed-race audience that had tons of little kids, so there was a lot of gasping, cheering, and applause.
There were many things I loved – exotic Wakanda and its people, and a tight adventure story with a couple solid through-lines to the narrative that kept us on track. OMG the costuming and set design! The cinematography was strong. Most importantly, I loved the characters. Speaking in general, there were many characters that had agency and were fleshed out, and had important things to say and decisions to make. Watching the story, I felt that these characters had history – like LORD OF THE RINGS: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING (2001), we were seeing these characters on a normal day of being themselves, not dressed up and trotted out for show. It was also an awesome chance to let Black American actors shine in roles that were not simple cut-outs.
BLACK PANTHER lives through its characters! In addition to the five or so principles (King T’challa himself, Killmonger, Klaue, T’challa’s ex-lover and Wakandan superspy Nakia, and T’challa’s sister Shuri), the cast boasts a secondary cast lineup that could easily match the STAR WARS (1977) toyline in terms of numbers. What’s more, each of the characters is given agency in a story that could easily have been relegated to only T’challa and Killmonger. Angela Basset’s regal turn as Queen Ramonda, Forrest Whitaker’s priestly Zuri, Danai Gurira’s badass presentation of General Okoye, Daniel Kaluuya’s captain of Wakandan military W’Kabi, Martin Freeman’s lost at sea CIA agent Everett K. Ross, and Winston Duke’s powerhouse performance as M’Baku number among the characters who stuck out for me.
Winston Duke in particular manages to steal almost every scene he is in, bringing humor, nobility, and bruised pride to his portrayal of the leader of the white gorilla tribes who lurk in the mountains and watch Wakanda from this remote perspective. When he first appears as a challenger to T’Challa’s throne, audience expectations might hold him as one of the low level villains of the piece. However, once the challenge is over and M’Baku is defeated, his role becomes much more interesting.
I’ve seen cringeworthy depictions of M’Baku – the character felt like the worst African ape-man stereotype. Winston Duke’s M’Baku was amazing and believable, with depth and dignity without the baggage of being a Magical Negro – a king looking out for the best interests of his people. ! I want to see more of his character and Shuri, T’Challa’s sister.
T’Challa is a fun character too. I first saw Chadwick Boseman in GODS OF EGYPT (2016) as the god of knowledge Thoth, and Boseman won me over with his dry humor and gravitas. Both of these are key to T’Challa – a young man striving to unite the ideas of being a good man and a good king to his people. He’s thoughtful and diplomatic, respects tradition without being enslaved by it, and has good relationships with many powerful Wakandan women. Boseman sells a complex character well.
Can we take a moment to talk about how I would have LOVED Shuri as a little girl? She’s a princess and a brilliant scientist and a loving, teasing sister. How awesome a role model is that? Best Disney Princess ever!
I love the sense of humor and brother/sister banter between Shuri and T’Challa. Of course, Chadwick Boseman’s performance is much more of a serious one, but he does deliver the big brother weariness with style. Letitia Wright’s portrayal of Shuri is of the ultimate li’l sister, an energetic, far too intelligent character that will never allow herself to be bored – no matter how much trouble she needs to start to keep busy. All of this comes across without goofy flashbacks, either. Pure chemistry, body language, and well-conceived dialogue.
Michael B Jordan’s Killmonger took turns being chilling and heartbreaking. Coogler sets Killmonger up as T’Challa’s dark mirror, but doesn’t pound the didactic into the sand or let it overstay its welcome. There is so much rage in this man without a country who longs for home, and Jordan has a powerful screen presence that will not be denied.
You know what else was awesome about the characters in Black Panther? We don’t see Africa as a generic exotic monoculture. There are five tribes allied in the Kingdom of Wakanda, and each has their own accent, modes of dress, and customs. I loved how the costumer Ruth E Carter came up with Afrocentric designs for each of these tribes and updated them for a modern, futuristic, believable look… and she did it for everyone. The little girl in me wanted to dress up in ALL THE COOL CLOTHES. It was a visual feast of color and design. (This is showcased beautifully in the cliff scenes during T’Challa’s challenge fight in the beginning.)
The costuming is certainly gorgeous. All the fabrics and colors make the scenes pop. There is a definite attention to the detail of costumes that gives the picture a grandeur I typically do not see as much anymore.
I really like the framing and set design tricks as well. There is a great shot of downtown Wakanda, hustling and bustling crowds under the bright sunshine doing their daily things while monorails and flying ships whiz by. Later, when the action moves to Busan, South Korea, there is a similar shot of a main drag cluttered with people and vehicles, but the use of nighttime, the dark blue colors give the scene a noir-flipside quality to the much more cheery Wakanda setting.
Rachel Morrison’s cinematography gives us some truly evocative images. Here is a science fiction story without any boring frames. Fight sequences with vast armies make sense. Each location’s geography is presented in clear terms without telegraphing too much of what will become important in the Big Showdown To Come. The camera serves as a perfect eye for the audience, presenting a lot of information in ways that is easy to digest while giving some breathtakingly original shots that may well become iconic.
The attention to visual details in this movie transcends typical comic book tropes. Sure, there is a guy running around in a suit – technically several guys running around in the suits – but this is emblematic of the mythology in the picture. That mythology runs through every aspect of the flick. I love how many layers are in this thing. It’s a far future-esque science fiction setting hidden away in the contemporary world, and yet there is a rich religious mythic vein that fuels questions of morality. The movie takes us to a hallucinatory land of the dead. The movie takes us to mines of a material that does not exist and makes that material acceptable by building a believeable “what-if?” world around it. The lines of fantasy, sf, and reality blur in lovely ways.
Into this world come intrusive elements from our world, both as helpers/guides (Martin Freeman’s return to the role of CIA agent Everett K. Ross) and as antagonists (Jordan’s Killmonger). The baggage and dreams they bring are relatable, and the confusion with which these are met are sometimes heartbreaking. The audience’s world is not the one Wakanda takes for granted, it is intrusive. Alternately, the film proposes that the world Wakanda takes for granted is something our world can strive to become in time. Of course, Wakanda’s world is not a perfect utopia – it is one layered with its own deceptions and dangers. However, it is nevertheless a fascinating place that is ultimately better suited to humanity than the cold, dark, and often ignorant world surrounding it. While this is not a message movie and there is no moral at the end, it is a movie that ponders where we are, where we are going, and how many of the obstacles we face are what we bring with us.
The movie is worth seeing. Preferably on the big screen, since the audience can immerse themselves in the characters, the images and the world these two things evoke. If we apply the Howard Hawks definition of a great movie, then I’d say this film passes the “three great scenes and no bad ones” model with flying colors.
BLACK PANTHER is a big, shining dream of Africa I’m honored to see – I never thought I’d get a glimpse of her as her people intended it. BLACK PANTHER isn’t a ‘good superhero movie’. It’s a great movie. I heartily encourage everyone who loves adventures to go see it on that big screen.
Also, I am SO LOOKING FORWARD to all the cool Black Panther costumes come Halloween! Wakanda forever!
The next MONDAY MOVIES here at CONSIDERINGSTORIES will take a look at PAYBACK: STRAIGHT UP, the director’s vision of the film that was released eight years after the theatrical. For those playing at home, it’s available in DVD and BLURAY formats as well as on demand.