One of the pleasures of the science fiction movie genre is how it allows for new social constructs within familiar stories. More often than not, filmmakers go the dystopia route, creating meta cautionary tales. But Black Panther, yet another volume in the interconnected Marvel universe of comic book movies, uses science fiction to reveal something a bit more complex. Hopeful, cautionary and aware, this sci-fi actioner is empowering about the black experience without selling short the social issues within the black experience. The personification of this, however, is not in its titular hero but in his nemesis, Erik Killmonger (an intensely cool Michael B. Jordan). The interesting thing about Killmonger is that he is a more vital threat than some alien arriving on earth seeking to annihilate the human race, which too often is the plot of these movies. Instead, he’s the personification of the human race’s foibles toward self-destruction.
Director Ryan Coogler made a stunning directorial feature debut with Fruitvale Station (‘Fruitvale Station’ fuels heartache with intimacy). That movie also featured Jordan playing a black man who became a victim of his circumstances because of the color of his skin (the film is based on the 2009 shooting death of an unarmed Oscar Grant at the Fruitvale BART station in Oakland, California, by a police officer). Coogler then put his own spin on the Rocky series of movies with Creed. Once again, Jordan took the lead roll. Playing the son of Rocky’s former nemesis Apollo Creed, here — finally — was a boxing movie with a black man playing a hero informed by the all too familiar absent father story.
Coogler co-wrote the script for Black Panther with Joe Robert Cole, whose most notable credits are two key episodes of “The People v. O. J. Simpson.” These filmmakers, all of whom are black, have consistently proven how to represent the African-American experience on the big screen with empathy and keen awareness. While it is a superhero movie, Black Panther features it all, from historical and present-day perspective to a progressive vision of Afrofuturism. All the while the movie never skimps on the action sequences, special effects and costuming that draws most audiences to the multiplex. On the surface, there are variations on set pieces of action and even spy movies to appeal to the black experiences, including some great jokes about wigs and footwear. The funniest scene happens during an homage to the James Bond movies when Black Panther, aka T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), is shown by his tech-smart younger sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) some special tools that will assist him during a mission.
At the heart of the film is Wakanda, a technologically advanced African country hidden from the rest of the world behind an invisible cloaking shield, which is fueled by a mineral unique to the region called vibranium. That mineral, which arrived to the region via a meteor, brought peace to warring tribes in the area and allowed its peaceful society to develop advance technologies while hidden away from everyone else as Europe invaded and colonized other nations around it. It’s a place where “colonizer” is a preferred insult over cracker. Beyond technology that brings the region magnetic hovering trains and high rises with thatched roofs, Wakanda’s existence hangs together by a thread of myth and a militant democratic monarchy, whose throne T’Challa has inherited following the passing of his father T’Chaka (John Kani).
Informed by African culture both primordial, contemporary and even futuristic, Wakanda has one terrible flaw. Though the people have created high-tech advances and a defensive mechanism meant to preserve its order there’s an isolationist way of thinking that benefits no one outside of Wakanda. That cloaking shield not only keeps it invisible to outsiders but also ignorant of what has befallen African descendants around the world. After all, isolationism only serves to encourage power imbalances across the globe. This becomes an interesting source of conflict that informs this movie. Beyond that, it also speaks to contemporary issues of class struggle, segregation, ghettoization and most key and interesting to much of the conflict, an inter-ideological mingling transferred to black culture.
Personifying this struggle is the tense intellectual gulf between T’Challa and Killmonger, a man with a mysterious past driven to challenge T’Challa for the throne of Wakanda. Killmonger’s motivations stem from centuries of injustice put upon his people, from colonization to the slave trade to contemporary racism. That a section of the audience in our preview screening last week cheered as much for his ideology as they did T’Challa’s speaks volumes. As idealistic as Wakanda seems in all its realization of Afrofuturism, not to mention its reverence for the goddess mother and the strength of women as equal leaders from tech-savvy to physically skilled to wizened, the inherent problems below the surface of this seeming utopia is its isolationist policy. It is a fine balance that is tested when Killmonger arrives with a body bag and a challenge to T’Challa.
For all that seems progressive about this hidden country, it’s all a fantasy when it ignores the rest of the world, especially its own kind. This is why Killmonger resonates as something more than an evil nemesis. He’s a human being enraged with a consistent second class position, no matter his accomplishments as a Navy SEAL (and an MIT grad in the comics). He’s the underdog against a neu-hegemonic system that happens to be run by his own kind. The drama in this movie is intense because it speaks to such deep-seated frustrations.
These factors are what ultimately raise Black Panther above much of the same old superhero movies featuring mostly white people performing the same old stunts in the cliched confrontations for their cliched space in the myopic realm of action movies of good versus “evil” churned out by Hollywood for too many decades. With its progressively hopeful vision built upon an awareness of its challenges and its inherent flaws, Black Panther empowers without feeling heavy handed and obliged to a formula that isn’t the essential myth of overcoming obstacles through trials that many recognize as self-actualization. This is a depiction of troubles wrapped up in an easy to consume package that doesn’t let its audience off the hook.
Black Panther is Rated PG-13 and runs 134 min. It opened in wide release this past Friday. Local representatives for Marvel Studios/Walt Disney Pictures hosted a preview screening for the purpose of this review.