Black Panther review – a film about cultural identity in the modern world
Around ten or so months ago Patty Jenkins and Gal Gadot brought us Wonder Woman, a film for which there was a big reason to be happy – we had a great, female centric superhero movie. Now, we have another facet to the representation comic book film, in the form of Black Panther.
Black Panther sees T’Challa, the king of the fictional african nation of Wakanda, still mourning the loss of his father, but ready to take his position of throne, whilst adversaries within the nations borders and outside conspire against him.
From the outset, Ryan Coogler – director of Creed and Fruitvale Station – manages to make one thing clear: this is an African story, a story about and by black people, and the film is all the better for it. He quickly explains the rules of Wakanda; that a meteor of Vibranium hit the earth billions of years ago, and infused the plants and earth with luscious nutrition and valuable deposits of the metal, and when man walked the earth five tribes converged on the land and made it their own.
Coogler might only be on his third directorial effort, but he directs with a grace and ease not seen since Joss Whedon knocked out Avengers as his second feature. The information we need to go into the film is given quickly, so that newcomers and Marvel fans alike can ease into the story. Much like Creed, the film sees Coogler tackling a story about being trapped in the shadow of a father.
Storywise the richness is there to mine, and mine the film does. Building the world of Wakanda is a feat that lesser directors would fail to do; the design of the city are both a mix of Asian market towns and big Middle Eastern designs, but feels very African and futuristic, in keeping with a technologically advanced nation. Despite this, the country upholds sacred traditions. Drawing from various African cultures, Wakanda is shown to be a hub of spirituality, believing in the healing process of the earth, praising ancestors, astral planes, but also being aware that technology is key.
It’s refreshing to see a film so unashamed about its identity it all but screams it in your face. Even the underlining subtext about the plight of black people around the world is handled carefully, but with an eye to a comic book sense of fun – this is where the film really flies. For ages Marvel has talked about mixing genres with its films and here we get Game of Thrones meets James Bond spy thrillers; casinos, car chases, battles for the crown, a plot to rule the world, and good old-fashioned double-crossing.
All which is helped by gorgeous cinematography by Academy Award nominee Rachel Morrison who shoots the film with painterly grace. Perhaps it’s the love of the landscape that gives it such an epic grandeur, leading you to think at times the film is a historical epic, the likes of which David Lean would have made in his heyday. The costumes by Ruth E Carter tell you where each member of the nation is from based on how they dress, and there’s a richness to the world that gives you the history without speeches.
Complimenting the overall design of the film is a majestic score by Ludwig Goransson, a rich opera of a score mixing vocal chants with classic strings, as well as music contributions by Kendrick Lamar, giving the film a texture and identity separate from the other entries into the canon.
But all of this rich detail comes under the guise of a film that is big plain fun. It’s enjoyable; the action scenes are frequent and varied from the fights to the car chases, there’s a lot to enjoy as the cast try to hide the fun their having. Chadwick Boseman embodies T’Challa with more confidence this time around, less unsure and more filled with a stoic sense of purpose after his exploits in Captain America: Civil War, while Martin Freeman and Andy Serkis as the only two white people in the film are great support, fleshing out the wider world.
But it’s the supporting players that work best: Michael B. Jordan’s Erik Killmonger is a villain with purpose; his plan makes sense. It’s not just that his character has shades of an outlandish Bond villain to it, his motivation is an emotional one, that we understand and come to realise is very much entrenched in his being. Man of the moment Daniel Kaluuya and The Walking Dead‘s Danai Gurira both manage to hold their own, and show their worth as confidants to the king. Forest Whitaker and Angela Bassett play the wiser older figures who do wonders to give context and gravitas to the whole thing, and Lupita Nyong’o is flirty as the love interest who is also a warrior in her own right.
But actually the two people who make the biggest impact are Letitia Wright as Princess Shuri, the film’s default Q and Winston Duke as M’Baku both of whom get huge laughs but also make their characters appealing, making you hope they show up in further MCU films to show of what they’re worth. At the heart of the film it’s about a cultural identity, one that is not just about being proud of being black, or being african though both are integral to the film, but it’s one about family.
This is proud to be a Black Panther film. It relishes the comic book spy silliness as much as it respects the importance of the trail it blazes, but even more, it offers well-written characters for minorities who are rarely given the representation they deserve. Luke Cage may have been the MCU’s first look into how it is to be African American in the modern world, but Black Panther is a look into how it is to be black in the modern world.
Even so, the themes of moving away from your father’s shadow, being a greater person than your legacy defines are important and the most important central relationship is that of a brother and sister, both royal and heir to vast wealth but still able to goofy and love one another. The MCU continues to grow, and as it builds to it’s galactic level showdown it doesn’t look like it’s getting any smaller but even so, it stands tall with their black hero and proclaim their intent. It offers characters that little boys and girls of colour everywhere can look up to, as many white children do to Spider-Man, and girls did to Wonder Woman and say “I see myself as the hero”, and that makes the film a triumph. Wakanda Forever.