I got lucky and won tickets to see an advance screening of Black Panther. I took my daughter with me. She’s been a Black Panther fan since she saw the character in the Captain America: Civil War movie, and the day she asked me to buy her his comic was a proud one for me. As for myself, to be honest, I didn’t know much about the character beyond the basics: T’Challa (here played by Chadwick Boseman) is king of a hidden African country called Wakanda that uses a fictional metal called vibranium in remarkable ways, and the King of Wakanda (aka Black Panther) has a kick-ass suit. See, I’m a Spidey fan. Web-Head, forever!
Still, despite my penchant for the wall-crawler, I was eager to see Black Panther, if only to be able to share with my bi-racial daughter a popular-culture rendering of what a successful, independent, proud African nation might have been like.
Granted, the movie is fiction. That said, without the ills that troubled Africa and the black African nations (specifically colonialism and slavery), who knows what might have been? And, for me, that is what I think is one of the strongest aspects, even gifts, of this movie. It offers a glimpse of what could have been, as well as suggests another question: is it still possible?
So, the movie. I had purposefully avoided trailers and early reviews because I didn’t want to be disappointed. How many times has a movie been over-hyped and then when you do see it, you can’t help but be disappointed? Few movies live up to the hype.
But, somehow, Black Panther, did.
I have to admit, when I walked out of the movie I felt confused. I knew I’d seen a great movie. I’d laughed, cried, cheered, felt dread at the right moments, as well as complete exhilaration. But wait. There was a superhero in it, wasn’t there?
And that’s when I realized it. Black Panther is far from your typical superhero movie. Yes, there were muscled-up men running around in beefed-up leotards, cool gadgets that would make Q pant with covetousness, huge fight and action scenes, and beautiful women. But this movie had smarts. It dared to raise the kind of social justice questions and messages a lot of people are afraid to bring up in normal conversation in a way that felt relevant without being preachy or laying blame. This was a movie with substance; a thinking-man’s superhero movie.
Two days later, I’m still thinking about it.
There are tons of reviews out there that can break it all down for you better than I can. I’m a novelist and blogger, not a journalist. But I can share some of the things that stood out and caused me to respect this beautiful, superhero movie.
Wakanda: I watched the movie in a theater made up of multicultural, but mostly white, viewers. When the movie opened, I think I was most concerned about how Africa would be presented. So often in media, black Africa is reduced to exotic animals, Maasai warriors, famine, wars, slavery, rituals and body modifications and shamanism, things that can seem incomprehensible, even bizarre, to Westerners. But, I was pleasantly surprised. Sure, the face-painting and body modifications, clothing, language and mannerisms, and religion were present. But as a person of color, as I watched the proud, intelligent people of Wakanda, who had built a technologically superior society to any that had existed on earth, and who had rooted their cultural and social society in respect, loyalty, heart and soul, and tradition move about the screen embracing their culture in all its forms, I felt my own sense of pride swelling. Though fictional, it felt good to see the people of Wakanda (stand-ins for black Africans) portrayed as autonomous, and with the power of self-determination.
This is not a typical mash ’em up—bash ’em up superhero movie: I admit I’m at the tipping point of superhero fatigue. Maybe I’m getting too old for 30min+ of ear-splitting noise and enough visual stimulation to trigger a seizure. But Black Panther did something that surprised me. It had action, fighting, an epic showdown between good and evil…and then bookended that with the most touching and deep scene of any movie I’ve seen in ages, along with one of the most profound statements I’ve heard in ages. I won’t spoil it but Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) utters it during the sunset scene and it has to do with the sea. You’ll know it when you hear it. After reading Roots and The Book of Negroes, hearing Killmonger say what he does gutted me. But beyond that, the scene was profound for another reason. How often do you see two alpha men with completely opposite points of view fight tooth and nail to defend what they hold most dear and, though neither submits to the other, still reach a point of understanding, maybe even respect? The fact it was portrayed by two powerful, black men was bonus.
Also, the scenes between Killmonger and his father were short but powerful. They gave his character depth and a relatable, believable motivation that makes you wonder, “If I was him, would I have done the same thing? Would I have felt the same way?” The fact we connect with the antagonist sets T’Challa (and the writers and director) up for a very difficult challenge: How to deal with his enemy without isolating the audience? Well, they figure out a way and it was monumental (see above). I can’t say more without spoiling it, so go and see the movie.
Women characters: Love, love, loved the women in this movie. They were strong, passionate, had vision and commitment, and they could kick ass! It was so refreshing to see strong women who could love a man and yet not be defined by that man, women who exist as individuals aside from her man (or the role of a mother, for that matter). How often does that happen in ANY movie? And again, the fact that it is portrayed by black women felt like a victory. And did I say they kicked ass? Watching Okoye (Danai Gurira) swing that spear made me want to jump up and cheer. Also, Letitia Wright’s Princess Shuri’s humor and intelligence shone. Watching her made me proud that my daughter was able to see such a fine character onscreen, one that would be an inspiration for young girls of any ethnicity, anywhere.
T’Challa: Wise, temperate, aware of his own inexperience, and principled, it made me realize how much we need examples of leadership like this in real life, let alone cinema. Imagine if our own leaders acted with conscience? Kindness? Or an open mind? What would our world look like today, if that were true?
Marvel has been putting out innovative movies that are challenging the paint-by-numbers format of the superhero genre. Logan, the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, and Thor: Ragnarok, are some examples. They’ve done it again with Black Panther.