Attending a screening of Black Panther is nothing short of a celebration. I went to two separate screenings and it was pure superhero pandemonium. The largely black audience was decked out in vibrant African dashikis, headwraps, Black Panther shirts, and even full-fledged costumes of the characters themselves. The theater had even hired African drummers to entertain the crowds as they waited in line for food and flooded into one of six theaters playing the film.
When I was growing up, I worked at that very theater which is situated in an small, affluent white suburb. It took a black Oscar-winning actor moving within driving distance before they began to regularly screen black movies. So to witness it imbued with the spirit of Wakanda—for capitalistic gain or not—is just one of the reasons why Marvel’s Black Panther is so revolutionary.
However, the most important question remains: does film itself hold up to the bombastic hype from fans who have waited more than a decade for Marvel to finally make a movie about a black superhero?
The answer is a sonic boom of a YES (and that record-breaking first weekend box office doesn't lie either).
Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther is an audacious masterpiece with a loaded cast that brilliantly blends the buoyant imagination of an unabashedly African superhero universe with the traumatic weight associated with systematic racism, oppression and the consequences of colonization.
Taking place a week after the events of Captain America: Civil War, Black Panther follows T’Challa’s (Chadwick Boseman) coronation as King of Wakanda. Unfortunately that celebration is interrupted by the rise of enemies new and old determined to out Wakanda’s secrets, namely their true identity as a country with unprecedented technology and riches, all powered by their mountain of Vibranium.
Black Panther is joyously filled with characters as vibrant as the African diaspora represented in the tribal ceremonies and Wakanda’s aftrofuturistic city-center, which blends ancient iconography with modern transportation and a freedom never seen in associated with African cultures.
King T’Challa doesn’t reign alone. Appropriately, especially with black and African cultures, it is the women of Black Panther that steal the spotlight with their luminosity and badassery. The Walking Dead’s Danai Gurira’s Okoye is the general of the Dora Milaje or Wakandian secret service. She is as fierce as she is funny, and when paired with Lupita Nyong’o’s Nakia, they make a dynamic duo with enough substance and flair to fill their own Marvel franchise.
Boseman brings the same assured and regal swagger to T’Challa that he did in Civil War, however, his demeanor is still muted by his new royal responsibilities, of keeping the secrets of his country and carrying the burden of his father’s recent death. But he positively shines when he’s accompanied by his little sister, Princess and tech genius Shuri (breakout star Letitia Wright). She doesn’t depend on him for leadership or council, but as a big brother to tease and impress with her technological prowess. It’s Shuri, who has created the technology that has not only powers the Wakanda itself but also the dazzlingly kinetic action sequences, most notably being the extended fight and chase scene in a Korean casino.
In this sublimely innovative sequence, Okoye makes a bold statement by using her bothersome wig to kill a bad guy before going awf on his buddies with a vibranium-powered spear. Major props to Gurira for showcasing Okoye's supreme discomfort with her wig, which she wears as if she’s trying to balance a festering dead thing on her head. It’s a deeper statement about rejecting European beauty standards, and the power of femininity. This loaded moment is one of the many priceless and layered details in this film that you'll notice after a second viewing.
Okyoe also uses Vibranium in her spear and shoes to mount an epic car chase that even ropes Shuri into the action all the way in Wakanda by remotely driving the car. It's one of many scenes that captures the unspoiled freedom of Wakanda, where it's absolutely normal to be able to walk on tops of cars, thanks to the super-powered space metal in your shoes or to be able to drive a car from a nation away.
And this, Wakanda’s fiercely-protected riches contributes to the rise of Erik "Killmonger" Stephens, played with rabid ferocity by Michael B. Jordan. Killmonger is a truly American creation, a villain hellbent on snatching and hoarding power by colluding with enemies, thieving, and murder. Killmonger, with his gold teeth, tragic upbringing, and body branded with kills will join Spider-Man: Homecoming’s Vulture and Thor: Ragnorak’s Hela as one of the best villains in the Marvel universe, particularly because his ideas and motives are not wrong.
Unlike other Marvel villains who are motivated by greed or universal destruction, Killmonger's agenda is actually honorable, even though his methods, especially his penchant for violence against women are horrific. He infiltrates Wakanda with the intent to arm oppressed people all over the globe so they can rise up and take power back. As a child growing up in Oakland during the ill-fated war on drugs in the early 1990s, he witnessed how one-sided and violent the march to true freedom really is. Meanwhile, Wakanda has remained uncolonized and un-ravaged by slavery and colonization that stripped the rest of Africa of its people and riches.
It asks the complex question: Is Wakanda wrong not to share their technology and riches with the outside world? Seeing as how countries have plundered the Motherland for everything from diamonds to coffee to Shea Butter (and again PEOPLE) the easy and simple answer is no. But as the world encroaches, it's becoming harder and harder to ignore the plight of the people around them.
Nakia, a Wakandian spy, champions Wakanda starting a refugee program and reaching out to other nations. It's an admirable idea and one that challenges T'Challa as both a king and a man. It's also one of the many reasons why Black Panther is possible the most feminist movie yet (Sorry not sorry, Wonder Woman, you never should've left Themyscira). While T'Challa wavers to rule as a new king, the women beside him remain unmoved in their convictions and will see them through no matter what it takes. "I save my country," Nakia proclaims at an important tipping point in the film. It is Okoye and Dora Milaje that bravely and epically challenge Killmonger in the movie's thrilling final battle that includes armored rhinos, Shuri pulling double-duty during the melee and a fight in an actual underground railroad. It is Shuri who oversees the development of technology and is forever improving it. It is Queen Ramonda (the underused Angela Bassett) who encourages Nakia to take the heart-shaped herb.
Like in black culture, the women are the soul and strength of the film. T'Challa is a better man and king because he listens to them.
Black Panther is a dense, lush and legendary film that doesn't make light of the real issues of oppression and colonization throughout the world. "A kid running around Oakland believing in fairytales, can you believe that?" Killmonger scoffs, sadly.
The silver lining here that glints as brightly and proudly as Wakandian vibranium is that director Ryan Coogler was that kid from Oakland, and now he's sharing his fantastic fairytales with us. Grade: A+
Photo Credit: Black Panther's Official Facebook page