Ryan Coogler’s highly anticipated superhero movie is even better and richer than could have been imagined, thanks to a fantastical world that evokes real questions about history
Let’s talk about hunger. As wonderful as Black Panther is—and it’s as good as we’d hoped, maybe even better—nothing in it is a match for the carefree, infectious joy displayed last week by a group of middle school students from Atlanta’s Ron Clark Academy. Maybe you’ve seen them. They went viral after videos of their celebratory dancing on school cafeteria tables hit Instagram, then Twitter, then the news. The students had just found out that they—like middle and high school students across the country, boosted by fundraising campaigns and the wise support of their principals, teachers, parents, and local community leaders—were taking a school trip to see Black Panther for free. Fundraisers to send students like these to see the movie have become a nationwide trend: the #BlackPantherChallenge. Over $300,000 has been raised to date.
That’s not the sole reason Black Panther seems poised to trounce box office records this weekend, to say nothing of its other benchmarks, like exceeding the Fandango presales of every other Marvel movie to date, or being one of Twitter’s most talked-about movies of 2017—despite not coming out until 2018. But it helps. If we’re going to have a conversation about what makes Black Panther feel so essential, we may as well start there. We can do the whole song and dance of spelling out the basic reasons for the movie’s importance: what it means for Hollywood that a project of this size, with this budget, and with a nearly all-black cast, can finally seem like a worthwhile risk for a major studio and the timely impact of a movie about a mythical African kingdom, a so-called “shithole country,” to be released at this moment in our political history. The movie is a symbolic solution to issues that, when Black Panther was just a rumor, a dream getting tossed to and fro in a Marvel Studios boardroom, we didn’t think could grow so much more dire.
All of that matters. All of it is true and worth reckoning with. Does any of it justify the goofiness of Michael B. Jordan, one of the movie’s stars, cosplaying as a member of the actual Black Panther Party on the cover of British GQ? Complicated. Maybe a radical political organization like the Panthers would have preferred to have been left out of your corporate franchise narrative, pun or no pun. And would any of the movie’s representational power still matter if Black Panther weren’t any good? Again: complicated. The social politics of it all are eerie and dense; those politics, twined with history, aesthetics, the New York Times push alerts I keep ignoring, the open-all-hours despondent chaos of my Twitter feed, and on and on, is even more fraught. It’s possible to love Black Panther but be conflicted, but still love it, but still be conflicted, all the while sharing in the unmitigated joy of its existence. “The film arrives as a corporate product,” writes Carvell Wallace, beautifully, for The New York Times, “but we are using it for our own purposes.” I like thinking of Black Panther in those terms: not just as a movie you watch, nor as a challenge to the woke box-checking of the political minefield we call the internet, but as something we can use.
Black Panther is a feat in its own right. It is very much the Black Panther tale dreamed up by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in the 1960s, a retelling of the origin story in which Wakanda becomes the sole possessor of vibranium, an indestructible alien element from a fallen meteorite, and over time becomes the most technologically advanced society in the world, in part by cutting itself off from said world, hiding under the cloak of unassuming third-world poverty.
The story of the movie, taking its cue from the comics over the years, involves precisely this question of isolation, and whether Wakanda is better off alone. The trouble starts when T’Chaka, the king of Wakanda, and the current Black Panther, is killed in an attack on the U.N. in Vienna, a plot point familiar from 2016’s Captain America: Civil War. When he dies, his son, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), rises to power. The robot-armed villain Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), meanwhile, is trying to break into Wakanda and steal its resources with a small team of bad guys, among them Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), by his side. Who Killmonger is to Wakanda I’ll leave it to the movie to reveal. Suffice it to say this gnarly, muscled Annapolis grad from America has been trained in bringing down royal dynasties, and he’s got his eye on T’Challa’s throne—and the smarts, as well as the thirst for vengeance, needed to get there.
It’s a complicated plot centered on the question of what Wakanda is and—most urgently—what it means, not only to the Wakandans themselves nor even to Africans broadly, but to blacks everywhere. Imagine knowing there was a black utopia, a place at the root of all blackness, self-sufficient and untouched by slavery or colonialism. It’s a fantasy: a reversal of history. “Wakanda itself is a dream state,” says director Ava DuVernay to The New York Times, “a place that’s been in the hearts and minds and spirits of black people since we were brought here in chains.” The question that envelops Black Panther, in other words, is a question baked, poignantly and also fraughtly, into its script. What Wakanda—a booming black metropolis that mixes technological Afro-futurity with the spiritual and ancestral past—means to the black people within the movie is analogous to what it means to us outside of it.
Incidentally, I’ve noticed in comment sections and the occasional dumb tweet that this idea can be misread to suggest that the premise of Black Panther is one in which black greatness can exist only in fantasy. I see it differently. The power of Wakanda, to me, is in the idea that within destitution and historical violence can lurk great power. Wakanda puts up a literal front that effaces its true beauty; what appears impoverished is, in fact, the seat of technological advancement. This is different from the usual Third World discourse, and it’s certainly different from the history of colonization, in which the primacy of Africa as a hub of civilization, rather than as merely a victim of it, is often erased.
“I’m from a place that I’d never been to and that nobody who I loved had been to because they couldn’t afford to go,” says Coogler, who grew up hearing about Africa but went for the first time only late in the process of making his previous film, Creed. “So I would hear stories from them about this place that they didn’t even know anything about, and those stories were a counterbalance to the awful things that we did hear about them.” Coogler spent about three weeks traveling Africa as he did research for the film. “I truly felt that seeing it for myself was necessary for my growth as a human being.”
The story of black American spiritual renewal and voyages to Africa isn’t a new one; entire movements and styles, from Black Zionism in the 19th century to the kente cloth durags I grew up seeing in Irvington, New Jersey, were born of this idea. It’s not even new to movies, really—Coming to America being a prominent, humorous riff on black Americans’ imaginative curiosity about Africa and Africans, and Hype Williams’s Belly, which features a character played by Nas expresses a desire to leave behind a life of violence to go to Africa and find his roots. But that’s not the same as seeing it in a Marvel movie. And Coogler, smartly, revels in the astonishing, symbolic beauty of it. Coogler’s Wakanda is rife with powerful women, including the army of speared warrior women known as the Dora Milaje, who serve the king in name but, based on their fierceness alone, would seem to serve no master. Has Grace Jones hailed from Wakanda this whole time and none of us knew? The gangbusters quartet of Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Angela Bassett, and Letitia Wright play T’Challa’s love interest, war general, mother, and sister, respectively, but each woman stands on her own, separate from her ties to T’Challa. Each woman is as modern as the gleaming, sky-high buildings or the hyperadvanced rail system devised by Shuri, T’Challa’s sister, who is in charge of the country’s vibranium-based technologies.
For all that’s new, there’s old again: The act of becoming king is still rooted in old rituals, down to a fight on the rocky cliffs of a waterfall in which the incumbent Black Panther, stripped of his legendary powers and reduced to being a mere man, must defend the seat from a challenger. T’Challa wins that battle, but he risks losing the war. What makes Black Panther feel different from other Marvel movies is that the world it imagines, the fights it insists must be fought, are grounded in real questions with immediate analogues that harken back to an entire discourse of black activism and thought. Other superhero movies could take a page from Black Panther’s book. How much better would most superhero movies be if, rather than fall back on the plain anonymity of World War I and II villains, they rooted themselves in a live, urgent sense of culture? What if Christopher Nolan’s Batman films had anchored themselves in a genuine sense of economic disparity, rather than continually paying lip service to that idea through a vaguely conceived millionaire and his abuses of power? What if the Avengers’ Ultron had more of a palpable fear of public surveillance? Seeing Bruce Wayne or even 007 get a tour of their new toys, meanwhile, is always fun, as tropes go, but imagine that those toys, and the monied, technologically advanced societies they imply, had become possible only through an element that had the power to reverse the course of colonial history. Wouldn’t those tools seem more powerful, the stakes in their design that much higher?
That’s what it feels like to watch Black Panther. Coogler’s unique skill, visible from his first feature, Fruitvale Station (2013), about the 2009 shooting of Oscar Grant III in Oakland, is his ability to instill a movie with a sense of history and, even more remarkably, a sense of place. Fruitvale is very much an Oakland story. The director’s tremendous follow-up, Creed (2015), a sequel to the Rocky franchise (again starring Michael B. Jordan), is a Philly story.
Black Panther is, obviously, a Wakanda story, meaning that its images ripple with Wakanda’s specific rhythms and textures; characters’ in-jokes and senses of humor seem to open up untold bits of history among them; rituals feel genuinely ritualistic, lived in and specific to the people and the place. It’s convincing in the way that the struggles between young Creed and old man Rocky became the foundation of one of the most moving and unlikely screen relationships in recent memory. Their shared history, evoked in the pictures on the walls, the scratches in the furniture, and the gestures and looks that divvy up the emotional beats of the story, is what creates that bond. Coogler takes history—geographic, interpersonal, textbook—seriously. But that’s merely a personality trait. What makes his films a cut above is his ability to give that history an afterlife in images, to weld those images into a story, to fashion that story into something larger than life—larger, even, than movies.
Black Panther may be Coogler’s first superhero movie, but in truth, the heroes at the center of his films, including Oscar Grant, have always felt bigger than their real-life counterparts, if only because of Coogler’s willingness to lean into treating them like the heroes of a movie. It’s not that simple, but maybe it is. Even Fruitvale, which lacks the muscled opera of Creed and the big-budget wizardry of Black Panther, is a movie whose contrived sense of last rites seems to contradict the realistic look of its images. But the movie isn’t totally interested in outright realism. It’s a precisely structured, unsubtle, larger-than-life tragedy, the kind of tribute you give to a man whose fate stood for more than one man’s fate. That comes off in large part because of Jordan, who is again the standout actor in Panther, and who has found, in Coogler, the perfect collaborator. In Panther, Jordan’s pain is the movie’s pain, his rage the movie’s rage. He’s the villain, but not really. The movie takes the grand risk of seeing him with sympathy, not merely because he’s human, but because he, too, is a black man in search of a home, and a history—like so many of us. He has strayed, but the movie goes out of its way to give his feelings legitimacy. The ideas that sustain him—about what Wakanda owes to the world—are the opposite of villainy.
I admittedly have less at stake in whether Black Panther is a good superhero movie. I just wanted it to be a good movie. And I wanted us to be a good audience: thoughtful, fair, fervent, excited. I think we’re all winning, on all fronts. The most radical thing a Black Panther movie could have done is ask what Wakanda means—and what it owes—to the race. And that’s what Coogler’s passionate, funny, dexterous movie asks, over and over again, both to its characters and to its audience. It’s a mighty question, and it feels like it’s coming alive in almost every one of Coogler’s images: in their sense of the elements, in their dramatic and physical grandeur, in their beauty. Black Panther crouching in trees to pounce on a team of sex traffickers is an image with force; so are the images of T’Challa fighting for the throne in water so viscous and alive it seems fit to swallow him back up into the earth. Wakanda is sequestered for a reason. Its ability to resist being colonized, like its neighbors, isn’t arbitrary or accidental. How do you make a multimillion-dollar Marvel movie out of that moral complexity? There’s no need to wonder any longer. Coogler has made that movie. And it’s Marvel’s first genuine masterpiece.
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