Review: Black Panther (2018)

Exciting, beautiful, idealistic, an important statement in a cultural moment, and a real good time.

Black Panther boasts so many important firsts in a mainstream cinema blockbuster – black representation, black superhero, powerful women, powerful black women, Afrofuturism – that it’s almost a bonus that this is also a thoroughly entertaining film, a fine comic book movie, and just beautiful and epic. As a cultural moment, not just for America but for black people everywhere, and also for many other minorities, it’s exciting to witness in real time.

Focusing in a little more: as a Marvel movie, Black Panther also boasts an unusually sympathetic, compelling and memorable villain in Erik Killmonger (played by the always-wonderful Michael B. Jordan, in this, his third team-up with writer-director Ryan Coogler).

In the Black Panther comics, acclaimed writer Ta-Nehisi Coates seeks in Black Panther to balance aspirational, escapist, and real-world historical narratives, in ways that both inspire and comment. As he tells The Atlantic:

The Black Panther I offer pulls from the archives of Marvel and the character’s own long history. But it also pulls from the very real history of society—from the pre-colonial era of Africa, the peasant rebellions that wracked Europe toward the end of the Middle Ages, the American Civil War, the Arab Spring, and the rise of ISIS.

And so, Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther needs to be a lot of things to a lot of people. Tricky.

As a cultural moment, it’s exciting to witness in real time.

Even as an Afrofuturist fantasy about a mythical kingdom, the film is bookended with scenes in Oakland – the first set in 1992, which immediately grounds an escapist film in race-riot reality. The film announces that it, like its royal protagonist, is choosing to navigate a complicated path between fantasy and reality that other films in its genre (or at least its comic book universe) have not, and have not needed nor been expected to. Black Panther, both the film and its hero, will forge its own path – one that’s idealistic, wonderful, exciting, and not without challenges.

There is the argument that the failure, the true tragedy, of Black Panther is that its central conflict revolves around one black man killing another – more specifically, an African killing an African American. While the nuance and implications of this are beyond me, as an outsider, to comment on, it is also as an outsider that I ask whether the most obvious alternative wouldn’t have been just as harmful an idea: an black hero defeating a white villain. I mean, the film has its white villain (I mean, Klaue is a South African diamond trader, come on) and he is killed, seemingly decisively and unceremoniously, and by said African American (Killmonger). It seemed incredibly personal, and incredibly tricky, for the film to showcase black-on-black violence, in both its action setpieces and its larger discussion. Had the film shown only black-on-white violence throughout, might it have risked being dismissed as mere revenge fantasy?

It’s not an ending, but a beginning: a path that will be beset on both sides…

As an outsider, I felt like I was eavesdropping on a personal conversation: passionate internal debate between factions of a race; divisions between tribes, nations, continents, diaspora, experiences, educations, cultures. While Killmonger’s “burn it all” approach perhaps “lacks any coherent political philosophy“, it could be argued (and I interpret the film as saying) that radicalisation is one product of colonialism, and must be dealt with internally, not by the very forces that colonised and helped radicalise. Put another way: while I think T’Challa didn’t fight hard enough to truly save Killmonger, I can appreciate that the film perhaps sees it as more important that Killmonger die on his own terms – “Bury me in the ocean, with my ancestors that jumped from the ships, because they knew death was better than bondage” – than to have him suddenly “redeemed”.

The film ultimately has T’Challa choose neither the isolationism of his forebears, nor the radicalisation of the Killmongers or W’Kabis, but to forge his own, more complicated path. It’s not an ending, but a beginning: a path that will be beset on both sides – from those who’ll abuse the knowledge Wakanda shares, and from those who’ll accuse Wakanda of not sharing enough. But ideas which are beneficial in principle are usually complicated in practice. This actually opens up plenty of possibilities for conflict in the sequel, which I hope dares to go even further than this remarkable film already has.

Black Panther was always going to be at least controversial, if not problematic. I’m glad that if it is, that – again, from the outside – it at least seems to be for good reasons. And that it is, above all, a really entertaining, thoughtful, passionate film.

Random observations:

  • Angela Bassett is a queen who does not age. Holy shit.
  • Everyone in this is beautiful.
  • Everything everyone is wearing is beautiful. Costume designer Ruth Carter (Malcolm X, Selma, Roots) explains how she helped create the film’s “feast for the eyes”:

  • If I ever wake up in hospital, I want it to be in Wakanda and in what Martin Freeman is wearing.
  • What a cast & cast of characters – so many personalities introduced (and so many strong women, and types of strong women), clearly defined, really endearing. This movie does character juggling that exceeds even Civil War, in doing so without the help of a dozen previous films’ worth of establishing them.
  • Speaking of going further: I love both Wakanda (its civilization & its tech) and that it wasn’t explained. With so many characters so well introduced, the sequel could really explore the world – and the character of T’Challa – in much richer detail. Spin-offs? Black Panther Universe!
  • First post-credits scene: I don’t get the criticism it’s copping. Yes, the scene is basic and preachy: but it feels like something that basic and loud needs saying right now. We’re in a moment, and this film’s statement is made all the more important and timely because of this moment. It’s a moment many of us never imagined the world would ever be in, and many of us still struggle to reconcile with the reality we’re in, so basic and preachy is far from the most ludicrous or inappropriate response to that. That said, I’m not sure this scene and the rest of the film share the same target audience, and this scene will probably (hopefully) date poorly…
  • Ryan Coogler is both a thoughtful and technically adventurous film maker (Creed alone… wuh). Check out his fight scene breakdown, and the layers, both conceptual and technical, that go into his process:

Also: let’s not forget that much of the cultural moment surrounding Black Panther was the lead-up to its release. Some of my fave moments:

  • A shot-for-shot primer on the backstory – Okayplayer
  • “Yellow, a color invented by Mahershala Ali, heard the Beyoncé song “Upgrade U” and began working exclusively with Lupita Nyong’o and Danai Gurira” – Hunter Harris at Vulture
  • Addressing the problematic character ‘Man-Ape’ – EW

Director Ryan Coogler opens up about his process in this frankly beautiful interview with Kris Tapley for Playback (in Variety):

Renegade Cut discusses the film’s envisioning of an uncolonised Africa: