Black Panther. The anticipation has been building for some time. Long before he appeared in Captain America: Civil War, he was in the hearts of Marvel as far back as 2005 (when they gained back the character rights) with some easter eggs starting in 2010 (Iron Man 2 on a S.H.I.E.L.D map).
Sometimes Hollywood says yes to things we don’t want (let’s not talk about Marvel’s Inhumans) but sometimes they say no to the things we do. Thankfully that initial hesitant no turned into a yes and the reins were handed over to Director Ryan Coogler. A resounding yes matched by ticket pre-sales that broke records, an appearance in Captain America: Civil War that was inspired & a royalty type cast list.
But was it worth the hype? Was Black Panther really that amazing?
Was the all black cast a misguided attempt at a political stand?
Yes, yes and no.
I have 3 words for you after having seen it for myself on Friday.
BELIEVE. THE. HYPE.
But first, a little history. Wakanda is one of the most prominent nations in the Marvel Universe. The fictional country first appeared in Fantastic Four #52 in 1966 and was created by wonderful comic book writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby. Wakanda is surrounded by what would be the real life nations of South Sudan, Uganda, Kenya, Somalia, and Ethiopia. Its exact location has varied throughout its publication history but the general consensus is East Africa – somewhere. Wakanda is imagined to be what the people of Africa would have been able to achieve and create in the absence of invasion and occupation.
Creating something that has been around for almost 50 years in source material fell on the shoulders of cinematographer Rachel Morrison and production designer Hannah Beachler. And create they did – with some scenes reminiscent of Lion King that I wasn’t the only one to notice. Beachler is no stranger to creating impressive imagery from Coogler’s 2 breakout films (Fruitvale Station and Creed) to Beyonce’s Lemonade. She had 8 months to research and with the pressure of her Marvel loving 18-year-old son and previous incarnations, she went to work building Wakanda from scratch whilst remaining as true as possible to the diaspora. As one of the only women of colour at her level in production design, her and Rachel did a fantastic job bringing Wakanda to life. It is a visual marvel (and might be the only time I agree with watching it in 3D), saturated in breathtaking afro-futurism and impressive technology mostly created by T’Challa’s loveable sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright). And let’s not forget the breathtaking costumes created by Ruth E Carter that were both fresh and new and reminiscent of current African tribes and traditions.
The almost all black cast were individually and collectively the most captivated by a cast I have been for a long time. From the hilarious M’Baku (Winston Duke stole every scene he was in), to the regal Ramonda, T’Challa’s mother played by Angela Bassett and the complicated Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o). Oscar nominated Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out) is W’Kabi, the head of the military guard, with Forest Whitaker in a powerful turn as Zuri whilst Danai Gurira is the formidable Okoye (this gif alone says it all). Andy Serkis as Ulysses Klaue and Michael B Jordan as Erik Killmonger were multi-faceted villains that you found hard not to enjoy on screen. And let’s not forget the Black Panther himself, Chadwick Boseman who brought a vulnerability to the ruler of the tribes. Martin Freeman, as CIA agent Everett K Ross, was in some ways the eyes of the audience in awe of the unveiling of Wakanda, meeting the citizens and being told to stay out of the way.
It happens all too often in movies what is termed as the “white saviour” complex, often used as a cinematic trope where a messianic white figure comes in to save the people of colour from themselves and their plight. This does not happen in Black Panther thankfully. Most characters are surprisingly fleshed out without the need for an overly-long film or complex origin stories and flashbacks. I didn’t need a long time to warm up to the cast. I even started getting a little emotional for and with the supposed ‘bad guy’ Killmonger.
I’m not sure why it took a movie like Black Panther to bring together such a fantastic cast all individually doing great work joining as a team to pull this off. I know there have been some incredible movies with almost all black casts that I love, but in living memory for me, I don’t remember a movie on this scale being so celebrated and freely attempted with such strong female characters. I’m of course not at all dismissing the success of recent films Get Out, Girls Trip, Selma and Hidden Figures and if anything I feel like I was sat at the forefront of history. Let’s hope this isn’t a Hollywood phase but a new norm. As a superhero geek from a very young age, seeing myself on screen was an experience I’ll never forget. I was overwhelmed as the credits rolled, struck by the enormity of what the movie tried and successfully achieved. Black is beautiful and worth fully rounded characters and kickass women and brilliant scripts.
As Ryan Coogler humourously put it, “You had Denzel, you had Wesley Snipes and you had Will Smith who were capable of having blockbuster movies and they could greenlight almost anything. They could play in action movies, they could play in dramas, you know what I’m saying – but for whatever reason, I don’t know the reason, they never did movies together. I don’t know, you’d have to ask them why or what it was, I’m sure they could tell you. It was like the movie could only afford one of them or whatever.”
I had the honour of attending a screening at the British Film Institute, with a short Q&A with the director before the movie, put on by the incredible We Are Parable. The atmosphere was electric, with loud laughter and cheers at some fantastic one liners & standing ovation and cheering at the end with one cry of “Rewind it.” from a guy near me.
Wakanda may not be real but considering that it’s meant to be based somewhere in East Africa (near my home Rwanda), I felt it. A deep connection. That connection and inclusiveness permeates the whole film. If you’re not a person of colour, you don’t feel shamed or attacked. You’re included like Martin Freeman’s Agent Everett K. Ross. The hot topics of colonialism, race, tribal divides & world poverty are addressed adeptly without being too in your face. They’re just a fact of their world as much as it is ours. It’s credit to the writers that you can still speak truth without weighing down the film too much.
I’m not sure if the film was released in time for Black History Month for a reason, or if that was just a serendipitous moment of post-production. Regardless, there’s no denying the significance of this 18th entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Unlike Jeremy Vine’s misplaced comments where he said that Black Panther was “overwhelmingly black” during his interview with leading man, Chadwick Boseman.
Black Panther is the most tweeted movie in 2018 from the trending #WhatBlackPantherMeansToMe created by Kayla Sutton of Black Girl Nerds to the #BlackPantherChallenge which raised hundreds of thousands of dollars. The challenge was started by New York resident Frederick Joseph who created a GoFundMe page to raise money for Harlem children to see the movie and the overwhelming response raised up to $40,000. This led to various campaigns in various cities and states and currently, as of the time of this blog post, stands at over $300,000 and more than 30 countries.
“Possibilities are born when you see yourself reflected.”
As Lupita Nyong’o said about the wonderful film Steven Spielberg’s The Colour Purple and how it inspired her to go into acting, “It was one of the first films I watched where a woman had my complexion and my hair texture. That was deeply, deeply moving and influential. Possibilities are born when you see yourself reflected.”
I feel like this movie is more than just a typical superhero movie. It has the potential to allow many more children of colour to grow up seeing themselves reflected in a positive light. As something more than just slaves, prostitutes, drug dealers but as the most intelligent person in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (Shuri) and a wise King ruling a prosperous nation.
Now don’t mistake my 5 star rating to mean perfection, it’s not. However, this is a solid first outing with more bite than I expected for something so feverishly spoken of since its announcement in 2016. For 2 hours and 15 minutes, you will be transported to the bright world of Wakanda, fall in love with Shuri as she makes you laugh and gape at the fight scenes that everyone was highly trained for (that casino sequence alone is incredible). All wrapped up in a surprisingly cohesive plot for a first attempt with beautiful imagery and nuances that stirs a nostalgia for home. An Africa as united as the cinemagoers who are turning up in traditional outfits to all screenings and becoming fast friends over their shared excitement. We are more than just our slave history. We are more than colonialism.
Is Black Panther a roaring good time or would you prefer it disappeared into the darkness? Your turn on the soapbox in 3, 2, 1.