Equally thrilling and thought-provoking, Ryan Coogler’s entry to MCU is an important piece of Black Art.
SO. I loved Black Panther. But before you read my take, go read some reviews by black authors and critics, which thankfully most media outlets are putting forward for this film. We talk a lot about representation on screen and behind the camera in this space, but film criticism is also predominantly white and predominantly male. In the wake of such a powerful pop cultural moment, let’s try to elevate marginalized voices in our own community too. Don’t worry, my review will be waiting here for you.
Also – this review contains no spoilers, but I had to weigh in on the final post-credits scene. That will be at the end, after my review and some additional comments on the discourse surrounding the movie.
Excellence. The story of Black Panther is one of excellence. The nation of Wakanda and its citizens are steeped in excellence. Director Ryan Coogler and the cast, a who’s who of actors of color, excel in bringing the story to life. And the movie interrogates what it means to be excellent, and how you spread that excellence to those around you. But the film truly excels in placing itself into a larger discussion of race and black art, celebrating and grappling what came before but also showing us a fresh vision moving forward.
The film is “unapologetically black,” and I’ve spent the last few days pondering the meaning of that phrase. People of color are constantly asked to accommodate white people, to not be too forceful, to coddle racial animus instead of shout it down. We are constantly asked to not be our truest and fullest selves, so as not to intimidate or unnerve the majority around us. Even those that do reach their apex, be it in academics or athletics or art, are asked to move over and make room or take a back seat to their white counterparts.*
*Not to belabor the point, but I’d like to again pause here and ask you to seek out black commentary on this film. I’ll share as much as I can on Twitter @ManuclearBomb.
And that’s what makes Black Panther unapologetic; it has no desire to accommodate or coddle whiteness. It invokes blackness in a way that can be familiar to us, be it scenes in Oakland shooting hoops or a Kendrick Lamar soundtrack (that bangs, by the way). But it’s also black in a way that is unfamiliar. The “cool outfits” and “herders” Martin Freeman’s Everett Ross describes can be gleaned from many a National Geographic special, but Coogler and company imbue Africa into the costumes and the sets and most of all, the score. Invoking tribal rhythms and instruments, the music does not move to a western meter, but something foreign to our ears, making the audience realize that they are the outsiders here, not the Wakandans.
Speaking of the Wakandans, they are all great. The strength of the film is its cast, and while Chadwick Boseman (T’Challa, the titular Black Panther) and Michael B. Jordan (N’Jadaka a.k.a. Eric Stevens a.k.a. “Killmonger”) function as leads, it feels more like an ensemble cast. T’Challa’s sister Shuri, played energetically by Letitia Wright, is pure joy, full of mirth and intelligence and stealing every scene. Angela Basset plays the Queen Mother Ramonda with all the grace one would expect, carrying the burden of a nation and its rulers on her shoulders effortlessly. Lupita Nyong’o (Nakia) and Danai Gurira (Okoye) are the closest women to the royal family, heroes and warriors both. Too often women of color get the short shrift in films that aim to center men of color, but Black Panther has no qualms about stepping away from its male characters for extended periods to allow Shuri and Nakia to blossom.
But let’s take a moment to talk about Jordan’s Killmonger, which has rekindled the tired “fixing Marvel villains” discourse (every 2017 MCU villain — Russell’s Ego, Keaton’s Vulture, and Blanchett’s Hela — supposedly “fixed” it last year, so why this keeps coming up, *shrugs*). While Killmonger is unquestionably a villain, his is a story of tragedy and neglect that symbolizes who we as a society have left behind (people of color, specifically black people). His very existence questions Wakanda’s isolationist policies, and brings the plight of black people under slavery, imperialism, and colonialism into T’Challa’s purview, making him wrestle with what it means for Wakanda to be so excellent while other black communities the world over have been allowed to suffer.
But by positioning T’Challa and Wakanda as the best possible version of society, the film grapples with these very real horrors from a new angle, a position of power and not helplessness. It doesn’t foist any undue emotional labor on the black characters or audiences like many films about slavery or colonialism do (and again, this is product of having black creatives working on these stories). Of course the strength of the message will be diluted by Marvel and corporate cowardice, but it’s fantastic to see topics like colonialism and empire actually tackled by recent directors (recalling Hela from Thor Rangnarok as well).
The story is compelling the entire way through, and the final scene with T’Challa and Killmonger is sublime, something altogether beautiful and melancholy at once. Killmonger truly does have a point and purpose, and if not for the kill count that earned him that moniker, could very well be the protagonist of this story. At no point does the story let you forget that Killmonger is a product of how the world interacts with and ignores people of color.
Coogler’s own style comes through in the cinematography (from Oscar nominee Rachel Morrison), using tracking shots through several of the set pieces (not unlike his other masterpiece Creed), and his “kinetic” action sequences have a rhythm and momentum that’s new to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Humor is appropriately spread throughout, punctuating the right moments and way more importantly, deepening the relationships between the characters involved. The way Shuri and T’Challa joke with each other is one of the most heartwarming threads in a blockbuster tentpole I can recall.
The film has some trouble spots, specifically with the CGI near the end of the movie. While it may take some viewers out of certain moments, those moments are brief, and they still feel stylistically true to the world and vision being forwarded. And it becomes painfully obvious that a relationship between Okoye and Ayo (Florence Kasumba) was left on the cutting room floor, as Marvel/Disney remains unwilling to commit to queer representation in their films.
There is very little else I can nitpick in Black Panther; it’s a celebration of black excellence, repackaging familiar themes and tropes into something foreign and jarring in the best of ways. This film had enormous (if unfair) expectations burdened upon it and is going to become a victim of the Online Take Factory (of which I’ll have plenty more to say below), but in the end, the film excels in every possible way; it’s a delight to the eyes, it’s a delight to the ear, it’s a delight to the heart. Wakanda Forever.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t weigh in on the conversation surrounding this film regarding representation and consumption. I have two distinct, hopefully not-conflicting points I want to forward. First, representation in media absolutely does matter. There are people, who have seen themselves represented in all manners of media and art, who will decry the importance of this film, or use the fact that it’s a popcorn flick appealing to the widest possible audience as a way to downplay its impact.
This can be rejected summarily; art is necessarily enriched by diversification of viewpoints, and authentic viewpoints at that. While the popular lament is “there are too many action/superhero/franchise movies,” the true over-saturation to me is films made by and for white men (which to be fair, many franchises including Marvel play into). Films made from the vantage point of people of color (or women, queer, gender nonconforming, and transgendered persons) are woefully underrepresented and under-marketed, and Black Panther acts as a repudiation to that. A film with a cast as diverse as this would normally be pigeon-holed as a film for black people only, and for better or worse, the Marvel tentpole removes that hurdle and expands its reach.
And it’s important to note that this film isn’t just about one black superhero; it shows us black excellence and black wealth in a way that isn’t oft-captured. The film champions black women as well, which is often a failing of films that center men of color at women’s expense. And even in a futurist setting, it offers a meditation on centuries of imperialism and colonialism that have wrecked our own world, specifically the global south. These are powerful images and narratives that Ryan Coogler and company pushed to the forefront, and in the age of Black Lives Matter and a fascist president, inescapably valuable.
But at the same time, we should acknowledge the limits of consumption as a form of politics (the following has less to do with the film and more with the surrounding discussion). We live in a time where many conflate what we consume with what we believe, where “I loved Get Out!” is a new “I can’t be racist, I have a black friend!” This idea needs further interrogation. Kudos to Marvel for staffing this entire movie with people of color, from producer Nate Moore down to Coogler and the rest of the cast. But Black Panther is a property invented by white men (even if Lee and Kirby were earnestly progressive for their time), and the greatest profiteers at the head of Marvel are generally white, conservative men who have connections to the current President.
We should question why GoFundMes to send black kids to this movie get overwhelming support (including from me), but less sexy endeavors such as giving money to homeless shelters and food banks do not. What does it say about people who will support sending kids to this film, but then turn around and vote for a candidate that is going to cut services to the sick and poor (who are disproportionately people of color)? Not to shame anyone, but why is this the reality? What makes us behave like this?
That isn’t to say that signaling to executives doesn’t have value; time and again, films led by a diverse cast have soared critically and commercially (Hidden Figures, Get Out, Star Wars) and these should be lessons Hollywood takes to heart. There has been solid pushback in the last few days, from petitions to reinvest Black Panther profits into black communities, or Ava DuVernay starting the Evolve Entertainment Fund to support marginalized persons getting a foothold in the industry. These are proactive measures that go beyond simply “voting with your dollars.”
None of this criticism is about the film itself, which itself is a joy and a celebration. It is personally affecting, as a person of color and diehard comic book fan. But let it not just be a celebration; let it be a call to arms. Black Panther shouldn’t be an island, but part of a larger body of art championing diverse voices. We can’t rely on our “benevolent” capitalist benefactors to provide this for us; we must demand it, we must fight for it, we must tear down the intuitions that relegate black art to the “urban market” (a term loaded with racial animus), and we should do everything possible to ensure that the astronomical profits reach the black community. Because Black Panther isn’t just a glimpse of a better pop culture landscape, but a chance for Hollywood to take notice and for audiences to reflect on their own commitment to materially improving black lives.
*****POST CREDITS SCENE DISCUSSION SPOILER*****
I’d be especially remiss if I didn’t weigh in on the final post credits scene, as I am the preeminent Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier scholar of our time. The final scene shows James Buchanan Barnes emerging from a hut in Wakanda, still missing an arm, but with Captain America-colored robes and long-flowing hair and a top knot to boot (seriously, this image is divine). I’d like to point audiences to some tie-in comics Marvel is releasing ahead of Infinity War. In one of them, Shuri helps “fix” Bucky and remove the programming Hydra put in him many years ago, making him ready to fight Thanos and the Black Order in the upcoming war.
During the scene, one of the children refers to Bucky as the “White Wolf,” which is a curious phrase from Black Panther mythos. In the comics, T’Challa had an older brother named Hunter (a white child) who was adopted before T’Challa’s birth. Hunter would grow up to lead the Hatut Zeraze, which translates into the “Dogs of War,” echoing an oft-repeated phrase in this film “war dogs.” The Hatut Zeraze are Wakandan secret police, as the movie constantly refers to the network of spies Wakanda has around the world. Hunter and T’Challa clashed many times over differing visions on how best to champion their home country.
So what can this tell us about the fate of Bucky Barnes? Sebastian Stan is still signed on for more films after Thanos, and whether we will get more Captain America films (with either Bucky or Sam taking the mantle) is unknown. A more likely scenario is to scatter established characters to other titles (Guardians 3 and Homecoming 2 are definitely coming, and sequels for this, Doctor Strange, and Captain Marvel seem sure bets). Personally, I think Anthony Mackie’s Falcon is more suited to take the mantle of Captain America going forward, so that frees Winter Soldier to be used elsewhere.
I doubt Barnes as villain is a route they’d go, given the mileage the MCU has gotten out of him in Winter Soldier and Civil War. But as T’Challa secret assassin and spy, a skillset perfect for the Winter Soldier, Barnes could work on piecing his life back together while still doing what he does best in service of Wakanda. The mid-credits scene of Civil War has T’Challa speaking about saving Barnes to make amends for his father, and a developing a rapport and partnership between the two would be the best way to pay that off.