Thoughts on Black Panther, which I watched a couple of days ago. Warning: this review contains some spoilers, though I’ve tried to keep all the major stuff out.
Director: Ryan Coogler
Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright, Michael B. Jordan, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Winston Duke, Daniel Kaluuya, Andy Serkis, Martin Freeman.
I’m not really a hardcore Marvel comics or MCU fan, but this is one movie I’ve been looking forward to ever since it was announced.
The story of Wakanda is fascinating — the most technologically super-advanced nation in the world that has isolated and hidden itself away in the guise of an impoverished third world African country. The small glimpse we got of some of its people in Captain America: Civil War only added to my curiosity.
The word I can think of that best describes Black Panther is “vibrant”. Vibrant characters, vibrant setting, vibrant visuals, vibrant story. There is a richness to it that I’ve seen in few movies, MCU or otherwise.
It’s very difficult to pick a favourite character, since every main character is brilliant. T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) — a kind, down to earth, honourable, emotional man learning how to be king after the death of his father T’Chaka — is the backbone of the story. He is torn between maintaining Wakanda’s centuries’ old isolationism and opening up his country’s technology and resources to help the world, because it could come at the expense of his people.
Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) is a complex antagonist with a relevant backstory for his villainous motives. He doesn’t want to become king of Wakanda just to gain power and rule over the world, he wants to use Wakanda’s vibranium (the metal that is the source of the country’s wealth and technological progress) to help liberate oppressed people across the world. His character is the perfect mirror to T’Challa.
But it is the women — especially Shuri (Letitia Wright) and Okoye (Danai Gurira) — who overwhelmingly steal the show.
One thing that is immediately clear right from the beginning of the movie is that women are not relegated to the background in Wakanda, and they never have been. Shuri, T’Challa’s younger sister, is a brilliant scientist and innovator who is responsible for creating much of Wakanda’s modern vibranium-powered technology along with the Black Panther’s superhero suits. Okoye is a general, the leader of the Dora Milaje — the country’s elite women-only special forces, and the head of the country’s armed forces and intelligence. Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett), T’Chaka’s wife and T’Challa and Shuri’s mother, sits on the ruling council. And Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), may be T’Challa’s love interest, but she is primarily a “war dog” — a Wakandan undercover spy who collects intel from around the world to keep her country safe.
Shuri is the character who stands out the most. Her relationship with T’Challa — roasting him about everything from his footwear to his obvious crush on Nakia to his outdated technology, recording potentially embarrassing videos of her brother, the king, in the name of science, and calling for everyone to speed up T’Challa’s coronation ceremony because her corset is tight and uncomfortable — provides about 90% of the humour in the film.
She’s not some protected, pampered princess. She is a brilliant scientist who truly enjoys her work. Her philosophy is: “Just because something works doesn’t mean it can’t be improved”. And her technological intelligence probably easily surpasses Tony Stark and any other MCU geniuses.
Her character is pivotal because without Shuri, Wakanda wouldn’t have any of its technological prowess. Shuri is a powerful inspiration to young girls, so many of whom are actively discouraged from pursuing STEM subjects and face heavy discrimination (okay, where do women not face discrimination? But that’s a discussion for another time.) and disadvantages as professional scientists. Also, she is snarky and names her inventions after bad puns.
Shuri embodies the youthful, positive, and modern aspects of Wakanda. Together, she and T’Challa completely demolish the stereotypical view of the solemn, strict, humourless and backward African nation that many books and movies tend to portray.
Okoye is a fearsome warrior, holds a position of power and influence, and is fiercely loyal to T’Challa and Wakanda. She is of the opinion that guns are “so primitive”, preferring to use a spear made of vibranium, no doubt with added enhancements by Shuri, which she uses to take on and defeat as many as five to eight men at a time. She detests having to wear a wig on one of her missions, and takes it off the first chance she gets — to use it as a weapon. She and the Dora Milaje can kick serious ass. They are awesome.
Being the king’s love interest does not define Nakia. As a spy, she plays a vital role in upholding Wakanda’s national security. She is also capable warrior — she uses a high heeled shoe as a weapon and drives barefoot during a high speed car chase — and does not hesitate to use her abilities to help those in need. She has her own values, aspirations, and opinions on the political future of her country, and is a tremendous influence on T’Challa.
Of the secondary characters, M’baku (Winston Duke) — the leader of the mountainous Jabari tribe — is the best, and has one of the funniest scenes in the film. When you first see him, he’s this tall, built warrior towering over T’Challa, challenging him for the right to be king of Wakanda. Then later comes this scene where he tells Everett Ross (Martin Freeman): “If you say another word, I will feed you to my children!…. Just kidding, we are vegetarians!”, and proceeds to crack up at his own joke.
If it isn’t obvious by now, I absolutely loved Black Panther. (It’s definitely my favourite Marvel film, followed by Thor Ragnarok, which is probably the funniest Marvel film to date.) I loved it for the characters and the visuals, for the political structure and rich worldbuilding of Wakanda, for the clothing, but mainly, I loved it for the messages it carries. It is a powerful representation of women, but mainly of black people, representation that is long overdue.
I also love how political the film is, intentional or not. Everett Ross is jokingly referred to as “white coloniser” and “another broken white boy for us to fix” (you’ll understand the second reference if you watch the whole film right to the very end of the credits). Okoye’s criticism of guns came across as especially significant to me with respect to the ongoing gun control debate in the US after the recent Florida school shooting. T’Challa and W’kabi (his friend and adviser, played by Daniel Kaluuya) debate Wakanda’s potential role in helping refugees around the world. Eric Killmonger’s whole argument for using Wakanda’s military and resource wealth is politically motivated. And of course, who can deny the shade thrown at Trump, his Mexican border wall, and anti-immigrant stance with the line “The wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers”, which is part of T’Challa’s speech at the UN.
Black Panther is a powerful film, and deserves all the praise it gets. Everybody needs to watch it. Why didn’t we have such movies when I was younger?