Black History Month: Black Panther

Some movies have such a build-up, and so many people’s expectations riding on them, that the chance of the actual movie living up to all that is slim. I remember when Bridesmaids came out, there was this huge push for people to go see it, because it was being used as a litmus test for whether big-budget woman-led comedies were viable (as you know, women aren’t funny, or at least, not as universally funny as men). And then the film itself was funny and fun, but maybe not the most mindblowing comedy you’ve ever seen. Still, after that we got Bad Moms and Girls Trip and some other big-budget women-led comedies, so maybe Hollywood decided it was worth all the fuss. If that’s the case, then they’d better listen up good to what everyone’s saying (in print and with their money) about the new Marvel movie, Black Panther: enough with all-white casts and the secondary black characters, give us more of this. Because it lives up to the hype. As my friend said after watching it, THE SHEER JOY.

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Black Panther starts soon after our hero is introduced in the yawnworthy Captain America: Civil War (how dare they steal a Steve Rogers movie and make it about Tony Stark’s daddy issues?). T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) fights in ritual combat to prove his right to inherit the throne. This is one of several scenes of shirtless men wrestling in water, the first of many trends set in this movie that Marvel should encourage in the rest of the franchise.

Soon, T’Challa is headed to Busan with his ex-girlfriend and Wakandan spy Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) and the general of the king’s guard, Okoye (Danai Gurira), to track down South African arms dealer Klaue (Andy Serkis, having an absolute lark). They don’t capture him, but soon enough we learn that he wasn’t the main villain anyway. That would be Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), former special ops everything for the US and secret member of Wakandan royalty. He’s here to take the throne and use the country’s vibranium-powered weapons to overthrow governments worldwide and put black people in charge.

It’s things like that that make this film resonate more than your average superhero film. The villain here isn’t all wrong; in fact, he’s right enough that he changes T’Challa’s vision for the future of Wakanda. Killmonger’s motivation is all too recognizable in the deeply racist and classist world we live in, and many Wakandans respond to his call to arms — shouldn’t they share their wealth and technology, shouldn’t they help those who were oppressed for centuries while they protected themselves by hiding?

One of my favorite parts of the movie was how naturally the men and women interacted, how loving and respectful they were of one another, how naturally the king’s guard is staffed by all women, and both men and women sit on the advisory council. There’s no questioning anyone’s masculinity or objectifying anyone’s body, but there is strength and sexiness. People flirt without crossing over into harassment — everyone wringing their hands over #MeToo and #TimesUp, pay attention; it can be done.

T’Challa has his own journey to go on, but the women in his life have rich stories of their own — his genius sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), who has all the best one-liners; Okoye, who has to make difficult decisions about loyalty, and who disdains both guns (“so primitive”) and wigs (“stupid”); Nakia, the spy who wants to serve her country but not give up on love.

There are moments in the movie when you really feel like you’re watching a comic book come to life — when the red bursts from gunshots linger just a moment, when T’Challa grapples with Killmonger in midair as the soundtrack cuts out, when Okoye arches her back to grab a spear while being launched from a car going at high speed. The costumes are absolutely gorgeous. The CGI doesn’t always live up to what it ought to be (in the final fight scene and in a moment at a waterfall that could have been made even more dramatic), but I don’t agree with critics who say it noticeably detracts from the film.

There are multiple jokes about Americans, which the British crowd I was in loved — and frankly, they were all correct. (In fact, one of the only things I really disagree with in this movie is giving us a nice CIA agent with no hidden agenda — c’mon, I can’t suspend my disbelief that much.)

I’m already planning to go back and see it again, to catch all the nuance and visual splendor I might have missed the first time. And for all of Shuri’s lines. And for the wrestling scenes, and the waterfall they wrestle on that I wish were real.

I’m ready to join in with the characters in the movie, crying, “Wakanda forever!”

 

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