I could have written my review of Black Panther earlier.
I'd seen the movie. I had my opinions.
But, this. This was what I needed to see to really write not just my opinion of but my experience in watching the new Marvel Studios/Walt Disney Studios release Black Panther.
I needed to see the kids.
As I sat watching Black Panther for the second time in an urban, mostly African-American theater in Indianapolis, I began to realize that Black Panther was not just yet another high quality film directed by Ryan Coogler (Creed, Fruitvale Station) but Black Panther is exactly the film that America needs right now. Black Panther is a healing film. Black Panther is an empowering film. Black Panther is a film that energizes and inspires and entertains and challenges and remembers.
I looked over early in Black Panther and heard a young black child lean over to his father and whisper to his father, "That's me, daddy! That's me!"
Indeed, it is.
I could sit here and wax eloquently about the various production aspects of Marvel's Black Panther, and I will be paying them their due, but the simple truth is that Black Panther is a transcendent film that that demands more than simply a paint-by-numbers review of its production values.
Black Panther, in ways both similar and remarkably different from Wonder Woman's on women and girls of all ages and races, serves to validate an entire generation of black teens and tweens who will be able to look up at the big screen and see strength and charisma and power and compassion and beauty that looks just like them and that is just as iconic as Iron Man or Captain America or any of the Marvel superheroes. They'll see a film that looks just like those other films, yet is embodied with characters that look just like them and act just like them and represent cultures just like theirs.
They will have a voice and that voice will matter.
This is not to pretend that Black Panther or any other Marvel superhero changes the world. They don't change the world. They don't alter the poverty that far too many black children live in day in and day out. They don't reverse the cycle of violence. They can't change that lump that forms in the pit of the stomach every time a black driver looks in the rear-view mirror and sees those flashing lights. They can't erase the racist trolls who are posting bullshit photos of supposed injuries received by white folks attending Black Panther screenings alongside black audiences.
You do realize the photos are complete fabrications, right? Please tell me you're not that stupid, because I can assure you that black audiences want white audiences to see this film. They want Black Panther to succeed wildly, to build bridges and to help white audiences to understand just a little bit more.
They do. They really, really do.
The true marvel of this Marvel release isn't just that it is the first Marvel film centered around a black superhero, but it's the full-on integration of powerful women into the equation. It begins with the presence of the Dora Milaje, an all-female group of special forces bodyguards and operatives tasked with the protection of Wakanda and its royal family. Two high-ranking members of the Dora Milaje, Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o) and Okoye (Danai Gurira), are constantly at the side of Chadwick Boseman's Black Panther. While most action films would likely have these women be stereotypical sidekicks, even just sex symbols, Black Panther features them as fully realized characters divergent in personality yet equally as vital and strong and necessary. Black Panther embraces the differences of its women as necessary, complementary of one another and valuable to Wakanda. While they have their differences, this doesn't lead to conflict but to even greater strength for all.
Chadwick Boseman, who toiled around in television for several years before breaking through with stand-out performances in 42, Get On Up and Marshall, is simply outstanding as King T'Challa, exuding the supreme confidence and poignant vulnerability that we've come to expect from the incredibly gifted Boseman. Defending the fictional Central African nation of Wakanda as Black Panther wearing a bulletproof suit and possessing of extreme gifts for speed, agility and strength, Black Panther may very well live into the definitive Marvel ideals best summarized in 1962's "Amazing Fantasy No. 15" where the central concept of "With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility" is first expressed and becomes a foundational value for the Marvel Comics Universe.
The plot, as is often true of Marvel films, is rather straightforward. Taking place shortly after the events in Captain America: Civil War. T'Challa is preparing to become king when an old adversary, Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), appears on his radar possessing a stolen cache of vibranium, the fictional metal that is the source of Wakanda's wealth and the source material for Captain America's shield, and T'Challa sets out to bring him to justice and protect Wakanda. It is when T'Challa encounters the American-born Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), that Black Panther gains its astute and pointed political relevance and becomes one of the best, if not the best, Marvel films to date. Michael B. Jordan has been a frequently collaborator with director Ryan Coogler and you could have easily been forgiven for expecting him to have snagged the lead role in Coogler's first mega-budgeted film.
Boy, I'm glad that didn't happen.
Jordan is simply stellar as Killmonger, his extraordinary physicality and penetrating presence helping to create a Marvel villain that should be considered on par with any other superhero villain out there including Heath Ledger's Oscar-winning Joker. Jordan's Killmonger is a complex, grounded villain, an identifiable revolutionary whose objectives resonate as legitimate even as he's clearly intended as the villain. Killmonger views Wakanda and its leaders as morally bankrupt because they've failed to live up to the power they've attained. He longs to right that wrong by using Wakanda's power and resources to spark a revolution among the oppressed.
While Black Panther is likely Marvel's most politically inspired film to date, rest assured that Coogler has to near perfection woven into the film the elements that Marvel's usual audiences love while also creating a grounded, culturally relevant Wakanda that isn't far removed even from Coogler's most urban set films. Black Panther feels both larger than life and remarkably grounded, every detail of African ritual and culture honored from the decision to maintain natural hairstyles to the honoring of ritual combat as a way of determining Wakanda's leader.
Simply put, Black Panther is one of the best superhero films to date. Coogler's filmmaking here is nothing short of masterful, most certainly the first time this critic has ever said such a thing about a Marvel film. In addition to its two top notch performances by Boseman and Jordan, Black Panther is blessed with an exceptional ensemble cast, again a small but noticeable factor that reinforces the Wakandan values that are on full display throughout the film. Lupita Nyong'o as Nakia gives a performance that exudes both a calm discipline and a determined forcefulness. Danai Gurira is exceptional as Okoye, the best fighter amongst the women, yet also a woman who can be quietly funny and dignifyingly vulnerable. There are also terrific performances turned in by Andy Serkis, Angela Bassett, Daniel Kaluuya and a host of others. There's not a weak performance or a weak character in the ensemble.
Black Panther is lensed by Rachel Morrison, who is currently the first woman D.P., for her work on Mudbound, to ever be nominated for the Best Cinematography Oscar Award. After Black Panther, she deserves to become a household name. Ludwig Goransson's original music is simply extraordinary, while one can't help but mention Ruth E. Carter's Oscar-worthy costume design.
Black Panther, almost unfathomably, is both the film Marvel audiences want it to be and the film that black audiences want and, perhaps, even need it to be. Immersed in extraordinary characterizations and authentic culture, Black Panther entertains and inspires and provokes and validates. While the year is young, there's no question it's one of the best and most important films of the year.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic