I saw ‘Black Panther’ last night and My Life is Better for it (My Non-Spoiler Review)

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Yes, this poster has a Star Wars-vibe to it. That’s not a mistake. (c) Marvel Studios

“Can U C the Pride in the Pantha
As he glows in splendor and grace
Toppling OBSTACLES placed in his way
Of the progression of his race

Can U C the Pride in the Pantha
As she nurtures her young all alone
The seed must grow regardless
Of the fact that it’s planted in stone

Can U C the Pride in the Panthas
As they unify as One
The flower blooms with brilliance
And outshines the rays of the Sun”
– Tupac Shakur, “Can U C the Pride in the Panther”, The Rose that Grew from the Concrete

*[I saw an advanced screening of Black Panther on Tuesday – 13 February on the IMAX screen of the Metreon in San Francisco.]

There’s a moment in this film when our eponymous hero visits a housing project in Oakland (yes, Oakland – Yay Area!). He’s dressed incredibly sharp, carries himself proudly, and just so happened to show up in a jet that can turn invisible on command. Naturally, most of the kids – all Black – are in awe of this mind-boggling display of science fiction come to life. But one boy is taken aback by all of it: not just the cool sci-fi ship, but that Black people both created it and own it. When the young man approaches Panther, the hero may be more awed by this curious boy than the boy is of him.

I am that boy. Not literally, obviously, but I’m that boy who grew up reading adventure stories – from The Scarlet Pimpernel to Spider-Man – and always found my love of them tempered by the fact that there were often no Black faces to be found. I’m that boy who grew up thinking “Wouldn’t it be cool to see a Black version of Superman, Batman, or Iron Man?”. I’m that boy who grew up loving Storm from the X-Men, but grew frustrated as to why this Black African woman was always drawn with straight hair (I’m actually writing an entire piece about this – stay tuned). I’m that boy who read Wizard magazine month after month and had his heart skip a beat whenever he read that Wesley Snipes was trying to make a Black Panther film happen. I’m that boy who knows exactly why other little Black boys and girls are so eager to see this film that they’ve already begun cosplaying as the characters.

I am still that boy, and the film Black Panther was made just for me.

I’m going to do my best to avoid spoilers, but one thing you’ll take away from this review is that this film is 100% about Black identity. It has almost nothing to do with the MCU proper, save for the appearances of four characters (Klaue, Agt. Ross, Stan Lee’s cameo, and someone who pops up in the post-credits scene). It’s a standalone Afrofuturist film for which the core message is “Black people need to rethink the way we interact with one another – on all levels.” For a “popcorn franchise flick,” it has more depth some recent dramas I’ve seen. But, just as The Last Jedi turned misogyny on its ear, so too does Black Panther rewrite the common rules of Black heroes. And we, the audience, are all the richer for it.

Following the death of his father, Prince T’Challa must now take the throne as king of Wakanda. Though the world believes the country to be some third-world backwater in East Africa, the truth is that the country is so technologically advanced that they are a world unto themselves. All of its secrets, both technological and spiritual, are now the responsibility of its new king.

But there’s one secret most Wakandans never knew. An American named Erik Stevens has a connection to both Wakanda and T’Challa that’s been hidden for almost 30 years. When the secret is revealed, it threatens not only T’Challa and Wakanda, but the entire world as we know it.

It’s been said many times that as enjoyable as the MCU movies are, the villains are pretty forgettable. I’ve always reckoned that this was by design: that Kevin Feige and Co. wanted you to imagine yourself as the hero, so the villain was often an afterthought. (Whereas the DC movies seem to think everyone is a villain.) Fortunately, there’s been a noticeable improvement in recent MCU flicks: from the easily-relatable Vulture in Spider-Man: Homecoming to the righteously pissed of Hela in Thor: Ragnarok to now Erik “Killmonger” Stevens in Black Panther. And the best thing about Killmonger is that I’d argue he isn’t really a villain, he’s just the antagonist.

Killmonger is the personification of Black American rage. When he chides T’Challa and Wakanda for not being there for Black Americans – whether it be allowing the slave trade to happen or simply not supporting the Civil Rights Movement – he has a valid point. He’s the face of Black Americans who think Africa has thrown them away. But whereas Black Lightning (whose fantastic show I had to miss to see this film) channels that rage into a need to protect his people, Killmonger’s rage has consumed him to the point of no return.

For nearly 50 years, everyone from creator Stan Lee to director Bryan Singer has admitted that the X-Men were meant to represent the Civil Rights Movement, with Xavier and Magneto representing MLK and Malcolm X, respectively. So, it says a lot that they originally wrote Magneto as a moustache-twirling villain who started a group called “The Brotherhood of Evil Mutants”. I bring this up because the Killmonger of this film is the idea of Magneto done much better… and with an actual Black man to boot.

But what of our hero? Like the heroes of The Last Jedi (which also featured Lupita Nyong’o and Andy Serkis, albeit both in CGI), T’Challa finds himself at a crossroads, wanting to stay respectful to tradition, but refusing to dismiss the way the world is changing. The paradox is that the sci-fi kingdom over which he rules proves that those two concepts are not mutually exclusive. T’Challa – unlike some rich people and/or world leaders I could name – is slowly coming to the realization that the key to having immense power isn’t to hoard it for yourself like some greedy toddler, but exploring how it can improve the lives of others. If all you want to do is accumulate more wealth and power for the sake of having more wealth and power, then you’re practically asking for someone to steal it from you. When this trillionaire king refers to Wakanda as “poor” without a trace of irony in his voice, it’s the epiphany of a man who understands that he is not an island.

And the thing is, Wakanda is justified in its isolationism. In-universe, it’s the only African nation to have never been conquered the White man. (My favorite joke of the film is when Princess Shuri first meets Ross and refuses to address him by name, simply referring to him as “colonizer”.) They are the only nation – not just in Africa, but the world – to never let its destiny be shaped by Eurocentrism and that’s something to be proud of. Hell, Chadwick Boseman chose T’Challa’s specific accent for that specific reason. The problem is that they think that makes them better than everyone else. When advisor W’Kabi refers to refugees in terms all-too-similar to recent headlines, it reveals that despite all of Wakanda’s accomplishments, its leaders are – yes, I’ll say it – “bougie niggas”.

This is made striking clear when T’Challa’s rich-boy upbrining is contrasted with Killmonger’s upbringing on the streets of Oakland (birthplace of both director Ryan Coogler and the Black Panther Party, thank you very much). Wakandans represent the sort of rich-nigga finger-wagging we’d often hear from Bill Cosby over the past 20 years: the idea that “You too could be Black and wealthy if you could get out of your own, you damn ghetto rat!” They don’t want to uplift our people, they just want to criticize those who aren’t on top with them. The fact that Killmonger has the exact same gold teeth as Klaue (something no one ever comments, but is plain to see) speaks volumes. T’Challa’s other major epiphany is when he refers to Killmonger as “a monster of our own making.”

In Freudian terms, T’Challa and Wakanda are the Super-Ego: unflappably bound to tradition to a fault. Killmonger is the Id: pure emotion that is dangerous – nay, deadly – when left unchecked. This makes Nakia the Ego: she’s a native Wakandan who uses her knowledge and skills outside the borders, proving that the Id and Super-Ego work best when in tandem. Slavery didn’t end simply because of the diplomacy of Frederick Douglass and Lincoln, nor simply by the uprising of Nat Turner; the Civil Rights Movement doesn’t just owe its success to MLK and Lyndon Johnson, nor just to Malcolm X and the Black Panthers. It’s all of these things that make real change.

Black Panther treads the line between being Black American wish fulfillment as well as a manifesto for uplifting our people. That’s something I never got from Meteor Man, Blankman, or even Blade, which proved Marvel could be an effective film entity.

As far as performances go, I saw the film with my parents, with my father commenting that Chadwick Boseman is one of those actors who’s the same in every role. I see what he means, but I think Coogler gets some great stuff out of him here. If anything, I’d say that description more accurately applies to Michael B. Jordan. I think Jordan can be expressive, but in all the roles I’ve seen him in, his line delivery has never sounded right to me. He’s done enough material now to where he shouldn’t sound like he’s doing his first line-reading.

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Okoye (Danai Gurira), Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), and Ayo (Florence Kasumba). (c) Marvel Studios

Great work is to be expected from veterans like Angela Bassett and Forest Whitaker. Sterling K. Brown turns in a great performance, as do Letitia Wright as Shuri and Get Out star Daniel Kaluuya as W’Kabi. And Andy Serkis & Martin Freeman do their roles well. But the real stars of this film are two of the ladies in the photo above. Lupita Nyong’o and Danai Gurira make everyone around them vanish when they’re onscreen. Their performances are spot-on and they kick ass while doing it. Hell, it kinda makes me wish for a live-action Metroid film with one of them playing Samus Aran.

Director/co-writer Ryan Coogler does some of his best work here, but… if the film has a flaw, it’s that some of the early Wakandan scenes drag a bit. Noticeably, at that. I know we’re establishing things, but there’s still a bit of a lull. Also, the film occasionally falls into the trap of Marvel films by being over-edited and overly expository. Thankfully, this isn’t the entire film, but it’s there. The best stuff is when Coogler jumps genres between scenes: it goes from African-version-of-The-Phantom to “Black 007 in Korea” to Fifth Element visuals to Spartacus-level epic from scene to scene – all without a single misstep (save for that early lull).

The Afrofuturistic design of Wakanda could best be described as “African Asgard”. I don’t say that necessarily as a knock, just as a recognition that Marvel has a house style to which they’re adhering. Seeing that you approach the kingdom via invisible jet or on raft with dancers just makes me jealous that this place isn’t real.

But the real hero of this film is costume designer Ruth E. Carter. Writer Chris Pulliam said it best when he called the film’s costume design “a Godsend to Black cosplayers”. If she doesn’t at least pick up a nomination at next year’s Oscars, something is wrong with the world. The colors, the designs, the weapons – all of designed by a Black woman with the specific intention of being worn by Black people. When Black kids want to dress up as Luke Skywalker or Wonder Woman, we’re often told we look ridiculous (usually by White people who have no problem dressing up as Storm or Luke Cage). This single film gives us enough material for Hallowe’ens and conventions for years to come.

I was hoping that my nephew would attend last night’s screening with us. His father declined because he wants to take the boy himself this weekend. I have no idea how he’ll do that, given that the opening weekend has been sold out for nearly a month, but I hope they get to see it. My nephew is at just the right age to be that boy in the scene I mentioned. I watch him play with his action figures and watch his cartoons. I know he’s too young to think about what the greater sociological impact of those things could be, but I know they’ll affect him in the long run.

I hope he gets to see Black Panther in a packed house, as I did. I hope it inspires him and every other kid in that audience to see out more characters that look like them. I hope it empowers his child mind the way it did my adult mind. I hope the MCU continues to give Black Panther and the Wakandans important roles in their universe. I hope that this film, like The Last Jedi, shows that all kinds of people have an active part in great adventure stories.

Most of all, I hope this isn’t the last time I see something like this.

GRADE: A-

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