On the surface, Black Panther, the latest cinematic outing in the MCU, is a thrilling tale that’s tautly wrapped around a conceit that would seem like an extension to Oscars So White or Oscars Whitewash of last year, that challenged the very foundation of inclusive diversity of the grand old Uncle of felicitation and recognition in Hollywood. And nothing could be further from the truth. Black Panther is taut and it is thrilling. But it’s more than just a statement of sorts. It’s a powerful revision of a world that’s far too long giddy-upped its pace based on the stirrups that’s made and dangled for a privileged few countries to run and manipulate.
Directed by Ryan Coogler, the movie, co-written by Coogler and Joe Robert Cole, is powered by something that’s never been the backbone of superhero franchises thus far. And that unmistakable energy is the thrum of good old fashioned and solid mythology. Seamlessly, seemingly effortlessly melding powerful, traditional story-telling with the zip and pow of modern technology, Black Panther is an out-and-out triumph.
The opening, a wonder-inducing scene in sand-cloaked animation, lays out the myth of the Black Panther, of the four of five African tribes who unite under their leader to form the nation of Wakanda. The fifth tribe of Jabari, choosing to stay outside Wakanda, has an important role to play, as you discover later. For now, you’re told that the power and the magic behind Wakanda and its leader is an alien metal called Vibranium (that now, thanks to the movie, is all set to replace Krypton as the most popular member of the Superhero Periodic Table.) Cut to 1992 where the Black Panther, King T’Chaka (Atandwa Kani) is in Oakland California, tracking down his brother Prince N’Jobu (Sterling K. Brown), who’s convinced that Wakanda has remained isolated in the global scheme of things for far too long. There’s a tense face-off between the brothers, after which the part-hieroglyphic part-character text announces the present day, where, the current Black Panther, prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is forced to return to Wakanda after the death of his father (now played by John Kani) in an attack on the UN, to be coronated the king of Wakanda.
But not before he and Okoye (Danai Gurira) – she the head of the all-woman special forces who protect T’Challa – extract the former’s ex, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) from an undercover assignment. Why? Because the prince harbors some simmering, residual, but not burnt-out feelings for her. There’s some good-natured ribbing from Okoye and T’Challa’s sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) when they arrive in Wakanda; where, you also meet his Queen Mother, Ramonda (Angela Bassett), his best friend and head of security of the Wakandan Border tribe, W’Kab (Daniel Kaluuya).
With all these characters, you’re attending T’Challa’s coronation ceremony, but not before you gasp as you’re taken into a warp of sorts as you fly into the real, prosperous Wakanda that thrives and bursts with color and high-tech wizardry behind the façade of a third-world nation. The coronation scene is superbly done, the superior background score by Ludwig Göransson beating to ancient, traditional African drums and horns, powered by modern musical movements, incorporating the haunting superhero theme oh so beautifully. (And elsewhere, there’s hip-hop that straddles the incessant, rhythmic, mesmerizing ancient drums, haunting, heaving chorus calls, strings, horns, brass, and the big-piece cinematic orchestra that take turns on the baton to be the vehicle for the soaring theme music.) Even as Zuri (Forest Whitaker) the Wakandan statesman initiates the process, there’s trouble atop the breathtaking waterfall plateau, the stridulating challenge by Jabari Tribe’s leader M’Baku (a superbly sardonic Winston Duke). The action piece that follows is even more stunning, thanks to the water body, the athletic bodies that spin around each other in menace, and the entire piece surrounded by a misleadingly peaceful architecture of bosky and chlorophyll.
In the meantime, the black-market arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis, so deliciously evil) working with Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), a black-ops soldier (who has that ominous hip-hop theme floating on flutes assigned to him), steals a Wakandan artifact that also has the Vibranium metal inside it. The action shifts to South Korea where in a casino T’Challa, Nakia, and Okoye arrive to foil the sale of the artifact; this is where we also bump into CIA agent Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman) who’s heading the operation to trap Klaue. There’s some breathtaking action here as well, with the background score morphing from Afro-chorals to the theme and a pulsating orchestra; this in turn segues into a stunning car chase that has all the elements of tongue-firmly-in-cheek Bond humor.
All these characters eventually crash into each other with such ferocity and yet such a beautifully woven web of familial friction, relationships that are strained as are loyalties that shift, spin into actions that are so human in a superhero story. And that’s the beauty of Black Panther. It, like all gripping traditional stories, knots in the past and the present to thread a future full of possibilities.
Plus, the cast is all-round terrific. Angela Basset is royalty and magic rolled into one; Danai Gurira as the warrior is intensely lithe and sharp as a whipcrack; Lupita Nyong’o is sass, whipped cream of energy, and grace rolled into one; Letitia Wright packs an impish souciance, reveling in her role that’s almost in part a Bondesque Q to her brother’s Black Panther. As Erik “Killmonger” Stevens, Michael B. Jordan is so vulnerably villainish, his eyes emanating an anger and rage that only hurt can propel. And Chadwick Bose in the titular role is simply beautiful. He’s got his own brand and cross of vulnerability, a softness to his demeanor that’s akin to the deadly paw that lands as a panther strides in for the kill. Bose’s Black Panther is feline and humane, assured and uncertain, a paradoxical combination that slides in parallel to his delicately curled eyelashes that glide across all the action that flits across his expressive facial landscape.
Director Ryan Coogler helms a winner, and not just because of the intense action sequences he packs – and no, there’s no decimating of a hapless populace here – or the breathtaking sets and astounding sceneries he conjures. It’s because in his world, the superhero isn’t the one who’s got an alter ego. It’s an entire nation – a nation that’s ostensibly third-world because of where it is located and the skin color of its people, but underneath the atlas trappings is a rich, vibrant community that’s far, far ahead of the world in STEM. Black Panther scores because it dares to invent a world that inverts a race subjugation that pins back centuries. Coogler and his team dream a world where an African nation is richer and more powerful than any other; it works so well because it speaks to the problem and solution-seeking plight of refugees; it grips because it offers the possibility of solutions lying outside the first world domain; it stays with you because it shows the struggle of a well-endowed nation – to stay neutral and detached and risk affecting the lives of its fellow continent people, or reach out and offer solutions and risk upending the isolated peace and prosperity it’s enjoyed all along.
It haunts because even if you don’t agree with Killmonger’s methods, you can’t help but sympathize with his cause; Black Panther works because it builds characters, not cardboard figures; it assigns them motives but also responsibilities; it inverts the casting too, but with dignity – Freeman’s CIA character not a cartoonish figure, but he does ask to be included in the action – he’ll have more to do in later parts for sure, but for now, must remain content with an extension of his Watson-like place in the Wakandan scheme of things.
And finally, Black Panther triumphs because it opens up so many beautiful possibilities, even if we must first deal with the all-out bang-bang of the Avengers next; it makes the overall skin color not a highlight, but yet so sexy and sensual, so life-like and sinuously real. It stuns with alluring scenes such as the one where T’Challa connects with his now passed father – the sky backdrop a visage of a fiercely beautiful Vibranium speckles sprinkled across the horizon – and their dialogue a gentle stab into your heart, as it did in mine, wishing you could connect with your loved parent just that one more time to ask how to handle it all, now that they’re gone.
We’ll never get an answer to that as doesn’t T’Challa entirely, but he and us will figure things out as we go along. And if that isn’t cause and a challenge to look forward to life and sequels, what is?
Black Panther is rated U/A (Parental Guidance for children below the age of 12 years) There’s some intense action sequences and a middle-finger gesture that the Indian censors thought best to pixelate, so we can’t guess what is being shown – and hence my pure, faultless mind.
Director Ryan Coogler Running Time 2h 14 min
Writer Ryan Coogler, Joe Robert Cole
Stars Chadwick Boseman, Lupita Nyong’o, Michael B. Jordan, Letitia Wright
Genres Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi
Watch the trailer of Black Panther here: