Incredible! Amazing! Mesmerizing! Inspiring! Game changer! All of these descriptors, and many more that could be listed, describe the experience that was Black Panther, which is directed by Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed), and stars Chadwick Boseman (T'Challa/Black Panther), Lupita N'yongo (Nakia), and Michael B. Jordan (Erik Stevens/Killmonger). This movie stirred my soul in ways I have not experienced with a film in a long time (and I watch many). As the credits began to roll, I was left in an emotional bounce house, so to speak, and wanting more of what I had just witnessed. For full disclosure, as I write this review and reflection of the movie, I have seen it three times (all in the opening weekend). This has allowed me to process my experience beyond the limits of just one viewing. In this reflection I will try to touch upon every aspect of the movie that I found significant for analysis and greater conversation moving forward.
Before I really delve into greater details, I must say that after the first viewing of Black Panther I was all over the place with my emotions and general thoughts. After my second viewing of the film, I knew exactly what I felt and thought. The movie is not without minor flaws that can be nitpicked, but, besides a passing reference, I will not focus on any of that. It is a well put together movie, which comes as no surprise considering how well Fruitvale Station and Creed, which were Coogler's previous two films, actually were. Ryan Coogler is definitely a great story teller, who has such an attention to detail that no character feels unneeded, no dialogue seems inauthentic, and no scene is wasted. I can say that about Black Panther unequivocally. While Wakanda and these characters are fictional, I felt sincerely immersed in their world. A great deal of this is indeed because I am African American, which speaks to the importance and impact of representation that I will discuss in further detail later, but it was even more than that.
I walked away from this movie knowing that it was a comic book superhero movie, one that I have always wanted to see ever since childhood, but I realized in the moment that I had forgotten about all of that. It reminded me of how I felt about The Dark Knight, which was released in 2008 and is widely considered the best comic book/superhero movie ever, in one key way. It was simply a great movie, comic book/superhero adaptation or not. In Black Panther, the action and the comic book aspects got me hype, but they were not the aspects of the movie that kept me engaged and on the edge of my seat. That alone simply speaks to the levels this film had to offer, which wasn't experienced in previous Marvel Studios movies and the comic book/superhero genre movies in general. I will now get into some of those levels, which are also my highlights of the film.
The highlights of the film in my opinion were Killmonger (duh!), the Women of Wakanda, the aesthetic, overall representation of Blackness and Black love, and the themes that were explored with such careful and thoughtful consideration. The film also highlighted the brilliance of Ryan Coogler who continues to be on the rise. Let's dive into it!
Michael B. Jordan's portrayal of Erik "Killmonger" Stevens or N'Jadaka is the best kind of performance there is. He portrays the main "villain" of the movie, but steals a piece, if not all, of your heart from the hero. I put quotes around villain (at least initially here) because for much of the movie, you find yourself empathizing with him. For those of us who are African American, there is a deep connection that we share with Erik. His rage isn't manufactured or unreasonable. We have deeply felt his rage, and, if we are being honest with ourselves (at least for me), have fantasized about some of the actions he plans to take to transform the conditions of the "Two billion people all over the world who look like us" and share a common ancestry. It's like James Baldwin so eloquently wrote. "To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious, is to be in a rage almost all the time." The movie changes his origin to make him a direct descendant of royal blood, the son of Prince N'Jobu, who is the brother of King T'Chaka, making him the cousin of T'Challa. I very much appreciated this alteration because it added additional layers to his character arc and in the end it made him even more of a tragic figure.
Halfway through the movie we discover that in the opening sequence of the movie King T'Chaka actually killed his brother Prince N'Jobu, brought to life by Sterling K. Brown, while protecting the life of a young version of Zuri (older version played by Forest Whitaker), who was one of the "War Dogs" (spies) Wakanda has deployed into the world. The opening sequence, which reveals N'Jobu's betrayal, leaves us with an open ended question of what happened before the spaceship, young Erik and his buddies witness, flew away. N'Jobu feels hurt and betrayed by Zuri, who grew close to N'Jobu under the guise of an Oakland native named James. When it is revealed who James actually is and that he has informed on N'Jobu, who helped Ulysses Klaue, played by Andy Serkis, steal vibranium from Wakanda, he pulls a gun and begins to fire. T'Chaka disarms him just as the gun goes off, and proceeds to stab him in the chest with his panther claws. While I believe that it was unnecessary for him to literally kill N'Jobu after he stopped him from shooting Zuri, he is visibly distraught by what he has just done. Instead of owning what he did and taking his nephew back to Wakanda, he chooses to abandon Erik and tell the lie that N'Jobu has disappeared. This is all revealed by Zuri, who harbored this secret for almost thirty years at the behest of T'Chaka, after T'Challa demands the truth.
When Killmonger initially sets his greater plans in motion to get to Wakanda and reveal the truth about his father, you cannot help but truly empathize with him. When he sets these plans in motion and it becomes clear that he wants the thrown, the empathy is still there. When he espouses the fact that Wakanda has literally hidden in the shadows while they could've conceivably helped prevent the millions of Africans kidnapped from the continent and taken to the Americas and Europe (or those who jumped from the ships) and the colonization of nearly the entire continent, the empathy grows. As an African American, aside from his personal connection with Wakanda, I would feel intense anger knowing that a technologically advanced African nation was able to help or potentially protect us from centuries of struggle against white supremacy and didn't! Many African Americans would certainly feel the same way. Generally speaking, many Black people globally would feel the same way as well. We empathize because we literally see ourselves in him.
Unfortunately for Killmonger, beyond his abandonment and tongue lashing of Wakanda for turning a blind eye to the rest of the world, specifically the African Diaspora, the empathy dries up. When you truly analyze his actions, ideology, and vision for a new world order he is not young N'Jadaka or Erik Stevens, he is the villain Killmonger. Killmonger is not to be admired, and I will argue that with anyone at anytime. I found myself willing to forgive him working with Klaue in the beginning, as his girlfriend poisons the coffee that the expert at the museum with all of the artifacts from African tribes and cultures drinks. They do this in order to steal the misidentified mining tool, which is actually from Wakanda and made of vibranium. Before they steal it, she believes it to be from the Benin people, and he informs her that it is Wakandan. She tells Erik that he is mistaken, and he tells her to not worry about it because he will take it off her hands. She informs him that it is not for sale, and he poignantly turns to her (a white woman) and asks did her people buy it or did they take it like they took everything else. This line had me hype and wanting to fist pump. Everything that happened with him after this, however, cemented his villain status.
The downfall of my being on Erik's side came after he, his girlfriend/lover (who, according to the IMDb is named Linda), and Klaue's associates break Klaue out of Everett Ross' CIA custody, which also featured the presence of T'Challa, Okoye, and Nakia. He informs Klaue that he wants them to drop he and his girlfriend/lover off in Wakanda. Klaue says that they don't want to go there because the Wakandans are "savages." Erik is intent on getting there and takes matters into his own hands. He pulls out a gun and kills Klaue's associate, but before he can turn the gun on Klaue and cut him down, Klaue grabs ahold of his girlfriend/lover pointing a gun directly at her head. Klaue is using her as a bargaining chip for Erik to put his gun down. Erik's girlfriend/lover apologizes to Erik (presumably for getting grabbed in this scrummage), but he assures her that it's going to fine. He then proceeds to shoot her dead, which takes away Klaue's bargaining chip and causes him to run for cover. In that moment, he ceased to be Erik, and was certifiably Killmonger. He eventually kills Klaue, who, while entertaining, nobody would really miss. But how he killed his girlfriend/lover, someone who loved him, in order to get to his goal in that moment of killing Klaue was deplorable. This beautiful and resourceful (as we see at the museum) Black Woman, who is nameless and largely silent, with the exception of a few lines, is brutally gunned down as a means to an end. Her short arc and characterization are not without intention, especially when juxtaposed to the women of Wakanda (a point I will explore later). Nevertheless, I was appalled, but unsurprised. All the hatred, anger, and vengeance Erik harbored in his heart and soul since 1992 solidified his evolution into Killmonger long before that moment. The audience was just given a taste of who he had become in that scene.
Later on after he takes the throne, we witness Killmonger take the heart shaped herb and visit the Ancestral Plane, the same way T'Challa did when he was crowned King earlier in the film. Killmonger's ancestral plane looks much different than T'Challa's. He does not have the connection with his previous ancestors (another sore spot for African Americans generally), so no one else is in his ancestral plane other than his father. His father never received a proper burial, so they are both trapped, in a sense, in the same apartment room where N'Jobu was killed. Their conversation caused my eyes to water and continue to feel empathetic. That was the case until Killmonger returned from the Ancestral Plane. He immediately orders the spiritual attendant, who is an elderly woman, that has taken Zuri's place, to burn the remaining supply of the heart shaped herb. She objects after informing him that they need it for the time when a new king is crowned. He grabs her by the throat, lifts her off the ground, and tells her, "When I say do something, I mean that shit." He then watches as all of the herb (besides the piece Nakia sneaks in and takes), burns. This effectively ends the Black Panther lineage with him. In that moment he became a despot - a tyrannical leader who seeks to maintain absolute control through fear, intimidation, and through the elimination of any challenge or successor to take their place. His goal is empire, where he is the sole ruler.
In addition to these points, Killmonger expresses a propensity to kill the innocent and to kill Black sisters and brothers to ensure the success of his goals. Later in the film, he executes a member of the Dora Milaje right in front of her sisters, including Okoye, who are gathered around him in a defensive fighting stance. This comes after he tells T'Challa before they engage in ritual combat that he has killed all over the world, mainly in Iraq, Afghanistan, and even his own sisters and brothers on the continent of Africa. This is how he got the name Killmonger, but he explains that he did all of that so that he could get to Wakanda and kill T'Challa. You have to pause to take in the hypocrisy. He killed the very same Black sisters and brothers that he scolded the Wakandans for not protecting and uplifting against the white supremacists colonizing imperialists.
Furthermore, Everett Ross, the CIA operative, upon waking up out of his bullet induced coma says of Killmonger, "He's one of ours." He proceeds to describe his background graduating from MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and joining the navy seals, where he racked up confirmed kills "like it was a video game." He joined a special ops group that drops off the grid so that they can perform assassinations and destabilize governments. Does this sound familiar? Ross later tells T'Challa, Nakia, and Shuri that he is doing what he was trained to do. He says this in reference to him burning the garden of the heart shaped herb. They were trained to strike at vulnerable times for a nation, such as the death of a monarch or an election year. The goal is to gain control of a country's resources. In this case, that resource is vibranium. This sounds like United States foreign policy since the end of the second World War and certainly since the "War on Terror" began. And just like the same United States foreign policy, his plan would have gone terribly wrong.
In reality, Killmonger acts less like a revolutionary who wants to liberate oppressed people all over the globe, and more so like the very imperialists and colonists that he hates so much. As T'Challa tells Killmonger during their final fight, "You want to see us become just like the people you hate so much."Killmonger expresses here and previously that he knows how colonizers think and that, "I learn from my enemies." That is unfortunately untrue, as T'Challa delivers the emphatic line, "You have become them." That was such a powerful exchange between the two and it confounded everything we had seen before. Killmonger had indeed become his enemy. Everything he did, every strategy he prepared, his ideological formation, and every horrible deed he carried out resembled the oppressors. You cannot dismantle the oppressors system with the same tools the oppressor used and uses to create and maintain it!
Killmonger beautifully embodied this messy contradiction. Michael B. Jordan delivers a performance that has you teary eyed and appalled. He is a complete scene stealer as Killmonger. Even his theme, which I found myself dancing to every time it was played, helped to deliver a unique sense of menace and profundity. Even until his last breath his presence was felt. When T'Challa offered to heal him, he refused on the principle that he would only be locked up and put out of sight. He states, "Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from ships, cause they knew that death was better than bondage." At this, I lost it! I couldn't help my sadness and my eyes watering. This was truly a tragedy of the highest order. Killmonger was a victim of white supremacy and Wakanda's indifference. He was betrayed by both. And so, while he is a villain, he is far more than that. He is still wrong, but it is not as simple as good vs. evil (just like life)! This is why even in midst of his death, there was peace and the reality that he had fundamentally changed the hero, T'Challa, the great Black Panther, and all of Wakanda forever.
The Women (Powerful and Graceful Black Women)
It is no coincidence that the first Marvel representation (beyond Black Widow to an extent) of strong female characters with their own agency are Black Women. This Marvel Cinematic Universe has been dominated by male heroes and characters generally, but the Women are literally the foundation on which the film stands, which is not unlike our community historically and today. And these are mostly dark skinned Black Women! That point is relevant because Hollywood is historically a place where colorism shows its ugly head. Casting lighter skinned Black people, especially and more specifically women, has essentially been the rule that all or most must follow. They are believed to be more marketable to the "general audience" (white people) and overseas audiences. In modern times the industry has seen a greater push with casting actresses/actors who are "ethnically ambiguous" looking. This is an attempt to push a false diversity. They can say they are being diverse or respecting the need for representation without actually doing so. Black Panther is refreshing because it is breaks from this unfortunate culture. changes the game! The Women of
I want to begin with the specifics, however, by talking about the Dora Milaje and Okoye, specifically. Whew! These women exemplify power and grace. They often throughout the movie even appear to be greater fighters than T'Challa. He has a heart shaped herb that imbues him with superhuman strength and senses, but they don't possess this and still take care of business.
Okoye, played by Danai Gurira (The Walking Dead), is a fully realized character. She is not just the generic leader of the Dora Milaje and general of Wakanda's forces, but a character who is integral to T'Challa's and Wakanda's success and future. Without Okoye, T'Challa is not the T'Challa/Black Panther we are introduced to in Captain America: Civil War. This is personified greatly in the beginning of the movie when they go to rescue Nakia (who definitely doesn't need rescuing), who is on a mission and can handle herself. She has been taken along with other Women in a Boko Haram style kidnapping. T'Challa tells Okoye that it won't be necessary for her to join him when he goes in to take the soldiers out, and the look on her face said it all. We were howling in the theater. Her look could be translated into something along the lines of, "Yeah, alright boy." She proceeds to tell him, "Just don't freeze when you see her." T'Challa tells her, "I never freeze." And of course, he does exactly what she said not to do. When he sees Nakia, he lets out a very awkward, "Hi," which sounds like he was in complete astonishment. Because T'Challa froze, Okoye swoops in and takes care of one of the soldiers who took one of the Women and held her at gun point in front of T'Challa and Nakia. When they return to Wakanda, Shuri asks Okoye if her brother froze and Okoye responds with one of the most hilarious lines in the movie, "Like an antelope in headlights!" Moreover, if you needed a selling point to just how "bad" her character is, she arguably has the best fight sequence in the whole movie with the casino scene in South Korea.
No character in the rest of the film handles their opponents like that. In the end, Okoye is fierce, confidant, caring, and humorous all throughout, and she is not alone in this three dimensional characterization.
Nakia is T'Challa's ex-girlfriend, but she cannot be limited to that by any means. Many have talked about how Killmonger fundamentally changed T'Challa, and the phrase "Killmonger was right" has circulated the internet, mainly on social media. What I have seen less (literally one time) is "Nakia was right." I would echo those sentiments louder and louder because she is truly the one that fundamentally changed T'Challa, and ultimately Wakanda. She planted the seeds with T'Challa from the very beginning. Long before T'Challa met Killmonger, Nakia was constantly trying to get him to understand what she had come to understand being a War Dog - the world needed what Wakanda had to offer. "To whom much is given, much is required" is the idea that came to my mind when Nakia engaged with T'Challa. He wants to uphold the status quo, and with all of her idealistic exposition, he even makes the comment that she would make a great queen if she weren't so stubborn. She retorts that she would be a great queen because she is so stubborn but adds,"If that's what I wanted."
From the first time she appears on screen, her interactions with all of the characters display a deep sense of care. She cares for everyone she encounters, especially those in need who she could potentially help. For me, she represents truly seeing another. She acknowledges and sees the humanity in the people around her regardless of tradition or anything else that could stand in the way of that. She really strikes a balance between the two as well. She is not beholden to tradition, especially when it contradicts this care that is deeply a part of the very fiber of her being, but she is also able to understand and respect its importance. Nakia is warm vibes from start to finish, the embodiment fo the love we need in our world.
Shuri, who is played by Letitia Wright, is the next Woman I want to focus on, and she is honestly my favorite person in this movie. She is everything, which includes being the most brilliant person in the world! Shuri blends her genius intellect, unique style, enthusiasm, quippy humor, and annoying little sister essence into an unforgettable personality. She is a fully embodied character. She is 16 years old, oversees the technological advancements of the entire nation, and is unafraid of speaking her mind, except when Queen Mother Ramonda says enough, of course. When she called out her brother for having his toes out in her lab, I hollered. "The real question is, what are those?" She then proceeds to test out the new Black Panther suit at T'Challa's expense. He kicks the suit, which causes it to store the kinetic energy from his kick. She then activates a kimoyo bead to record T'Challa kicking that same spot and being shot halfway across the room. "Delete that footage," he says frantically. That is such a thing that we as Millenials and the generation directly after us, which Shuri is a part of, would do to our loved ones and friends. She provided that connectivity in the film. When she screamed as Killmonger threw T'Challa off of the waterfall, we felt that deep within.
When she and Nakia come through the door in the last act of the movie to join the fight for Wakanda, so to speak, we shouted, Yes!" Two of my favorite scenes from her, however, were when she is completely geeking out while explaining to Ross how the underground rail system works and when T'Challa needs her to remotely drive the car to pursue Claue, who flees the casino with his entourage. As it relates to the former, seeing that type of pure joy on her face and in her explanation was rich. The same thing goes for the car chase. She is so excited and happy that T'Challa calls upon her to participate in the mission. Although it is very serious mission, she's still just having fun like a 16 year old young woman would be in those situations. Both of these scenes show us how full of life she was and how that fullness affected the energy of the movie. Shuri was a breath of fresh air, who I didn't expect a great deal from. I'm thankful that my expectations were shattered.
The Queen Mother, Angela Bassett... uh, I mean Ramonda didn't have a very large role, but she was effective. Angela Bassett can do no wrong, so her limited screen time as Ramonda was not wasted. In every scene she gave life with how regal she portrayed the Queen Mother. One of the most powerful scenes in the entire movie came when she yelled out to T'Challa, "Remember who you are," as he began to lose in ritual combat against M'Baku from the Jabari Tribe, who was challenging for the throne of Wakanda. That was a reminder to anyone who has or had a Black mother raise and nurture them. There is no greater support, source of encouragement, or safety net you will have. That love is unconditional. The way that scene was shot perfectly encapsulated her strength and even temperament that reassured not only her children, but an entire nation in so much fluctuation and uncertainty a week after T'Chaka's death.
Each of the Women of Wakanda demonstrated a sense of liberation. Much has been made of Wakanda being a land that was never colonized (the same as the actual country of Ethiopia) by European nations. This leads to a discussion about Afrofuturism, an arts form that combines science fiction with black culture to create a future informed by blackness, among other things. I want to add to the discussion as it relates to the uncolonized reality of Wakanda and its Women, as opposed to Linda, who is Killmonger's girlfriend/lover. She is completely in the service of Killmonger, and is ultimately just a footnote to his story. How does this relate to colonization and the Women of Wakanda you ask? Well, I'm happy to tell you. The Women of Wakanda are their own people aside from T'Challa. He may be King, but they are not relegated to secondary roles in the same way Linda is. I would argue this is a function of imported ideologies and structures of the colonizers. Killmonger has literally been raised in a misogynistic patriarchal society in the United States. Wakanda, for all intents and purposes, is not that society. Those ideologies were never passed down through their culture and society, and therefore have no bearing over the Women of their society. Linda, like Killmonger, is a victim of the effects of colonization, which is a glaring fact only more pronounced when we are able to see the way the Women of Wakanda operate. When I observed this in the movie and then had time to analyze it, it only testified to how layered this film, its characters, and the issues presented are.
The visuals of Wakandan architecture, clothing, technology, and more are simply stunning. The various versions of the Black Panther suit are sleek, practical looking, and just animated enough to appear as if they were ripped straight from the pages of the latest issue of Black Panther. When T'Challa wasn't donning the Panther suit, he looked like African royalty. His traditional robes are a sight to behold (except when he pulls those toes out). The Dora Milaje look impeccable in their armor, which looks royal and functional. It boast of proud tradition infused with what I imagine as futuristic science fiction style garb. Even in the shots of normal Wakandans walking through town, there is a distinct "hodgepodge" of various African cultural expressions blended with fashion forward expressions that I have seen others rock or that I have dabbled in myself. The traditional wear that was worn during the ritual ceremonies and combat was unlike anything we have been privy to before on the silver screen. Queen Mother Ramonda looked like a certified boss every time she appeared on screen. I can't express that enough. The five tribes were distinctive and captured the eye. There was no shortage of visual stimulation to entice and compel the eyes to gaze upon it and want more. The spaceships and aircraft were every child's science fiction fantasy touched with African brilliance. The vibranium infused infrastructure of the city was gorgeous. All of the scenery was gorgeous. The waterfall was majestic. The mountain top where T'Challa and Nakia share an intimate moment of self reflection is awe inspiring. All of the gadgets and tools made from vibranium are carefully crafted to perfection. This is a place you want to be. And in Killmonger's last moments when he describes how his father N'Jobu used to tell him how Wakanda was the most beautiful place he had ever seen with the greatest sunsets, all you can do is shake your head up and down in agreement.
Authentic Black Love Displayed
The love was in abundance in this film. Even the love that was strained was displayed in a healthy way. T'Challa and Nakia clearly loved one another. The chemistry between the two of them was palpable. It is not as apparent with Nakia at first, but as the story unfolds, the layers are peeled back. T'Challa, however, is love struck from the inception. It is refreshing to see a Black man that in love and enamored with a Black Woman in this form of media. Even when the two are not in the same scenes together, the love is felt. When the other is referred to, they speak of them in a way that those of us who have experienced this level of love can recognize. At the end when they end up rekindling their relationship as a romantic couple, it is a well deserved and earned conclusion.
Okoye is T'Challa's big sister through and through. From the beginning of the film, you are able to see that she is not just a sworn protector of the thrown. She cares for him and probably knows him as well as he knows himself. It is not just about duty, it's about relationship. Some of the most gripping moments of the movie were her internal struggle when T'Challa was being beaten by Killmonger and in the aftermath when she is visibly distraught when asking Nakia if the Queen and Shuri are somehwhere safe from his reach. That love is not one sided, as T'Challa displays the same affections. Their playful nature with one another reminds me of siblings. In fact, it rivals the the playfulness of Shuri and T'Challa's interactions.
The literal sister that T'Challa has is the sensational Shuri. She is the quintessential little sister for sure. I can say that from experience. She is her brother's keeper in every way, but never denies an opportunity to humble him back down to size. That is true love! Even their hand shake gives me the feels. T'Challa loves his little sister as a big brother should. There is no mantle of the king when it comes to her. He is not consumed with self in a way that it suffocates the air around. He is free to support her as she supports him. And it is really more than support, but there is a true reliance that comes from trust and a deep bond.
Their mother, Queen Ramonda, is the apparent backbone. Like any good mother, and Black mother for sure, she knows Shuri like the back of her hand. The first scene with all three of them is hilarious and heartwarming. I identified so heavily with that scene. When Ramonda shouts "Remember who you are" while T'Challa engages in ritual combat with M'Baku, I literally wanted to jump out of my seat! That was every Black mother everywhere, ever. The scene was shot so beautifully as well. T'Challa, the same as most adults around their parents, is her boy, plain and simple. That dynamic is captured quite well from both actors. Shuri captures this as well, along with a deep reverence for Ramonda, which is also rooted in the same love.
We only get a true glimpse of the love for T'Chaka through T'Challa's journeys to the ancestral plane. In the first visit the affection that T'Challa has for his father is solidified by the fact that he expresses he doesn't believe he is ready. His father talks about how he has prepared his whole life to be king, and T'Challa quickly explains to him that he was referring to being without him. This is so powerful. You see the two men hugging, exchanging tears, and just overall being raw with their emotions. Even T'Challa's second visit to the ancestral plane, where he goes off on his father and the previous Black Panthers, is literally out of a pain that could only exist from a place of love. Their relationship (even though his father is deceased) will never be the same but it doesn't have to be either. No longer does he have the idealized image of his father in mind, but now he sees him as a fully realized human being with flaws and all. The ability to love that is much greater.
Okoye and W'Kabi have a very interesting dynamic. We know they are together and in love, which quickly becomes strained with the arrival of Killmonger. I wish we were able to see the four hour cut of this movie because I'm sure that it was more interaction and characterization around their marriage. Nevertheless, what we get is important. Okoye is willing and ready to check W'Kabi when he eventually jumps off the deep end and attacks T'Challa and all the Dora Milaje at Killmonger's order. She has the great moment where she steps in front of the charging rhino that is headed straight for M'Baku. The rhino, who is ridden by W'Kabi stops dead in its tracks and even gives Okoye a friendly lick on the cheek. She stands firm against W'Kabi's treacherous actions, and he surrenders. I felt the emotions in that scene deep within. In the end, her passionate love (and threat) are what end that conflict, as his surrender means the surrender of the Border Tribe and all others fighting alongside them.
Lastly, Killmonger and his father share a genuine bond of love. When Killmonger takes the heart shaped herb and enters the ancestral plane, it is heart wrenching. The exchange between he and his father N'Jobu was one of the most intense portions of the movie. When N'Jobu asked Killmonger, who appears as a young Erik, "No tears for me," you could hear a pin drop. Killmonger says that everybody dies and that it is reality around here. He does eventually start to cry, with one stream of tears out of one eye, which represents the first moment in the movie where he was not under the moniker of Killmonger. He was simply Erik or N'Jadaka talking with his Baba N'Jobu. That took real love! This is probably the only person he has ever loved (we're not sure what happened with his mother), which is powerful and altogether sad.
I love how we were represented in this movie. Black people were allowed to be Black people. Blackness is unshackled and unchained in a beautiful euphoric celebration of our Black lives - body, soul, spirit, and culture! I was reminded of an episode of my favorite television show from childhood, Static Shock (based on the comic book character and series Static), which gave me my first framework for articulating the importance of representation. I saw myself in Static. Nevertheless, in this particular episode of Static Shock entitled "Static in Africa," Virgil Hawkins (Static) and his family travel to the country of Ghana in Africa. He meets and teams up with the African superhero Anansi the Spider. Before that team up, however, he has a conversation with his best friend, Richie Foley, about his experience so far. Virgil tells Richie that here (in Ghana, Africa), "I'm not a Black kid, I'm just a kid (paraphrase)." He goes on to ask Richie, who is white, "Is this how you feel all the time?" Richie says something to the effect of, "I guess."
The same feelings that Virgil/Static expresses to Richie about the difference in his experience in the United States compared to his experience in Africa are present for me watching Black Panther. In my third viewing of the film, I seriously sat there and thought, "Is this how white people feel all of the time watching movies, television, and just about every other form of media that can be consumed?" I had so much pride watching this movie because I related to every single one of these characters personally. My experience was literally a journey to Wakanda. I wasn't in a movie, I was in Wakanda! If I am being honest, I have probably never felt that before in this way. And that is saying a lot.
Blackness was unapologetic. It was not concerned with the white gaze, which was another relative first in my experience with representation of Black characters. The tendency to play to a majority white audience was non-existent. I completely lost myself in laughter when M'Baku and his people started the Gorilla hoots at Everrett Ross when he tried to speak before M'Baku. For every Black person that ever wanted a privileged white person to shut their mouth and stay in their place (instead of speaking from a place of ignorance), that moment was golden. When Shuri was startled by Ross when he initially woke up out of his coma and says, "Don't scare me like that colonizer," I almost choked on my whoppers candy! The cultural ways and traditions were not dialed back and made to be more respectable for western audiences. Even Okoye being upset with wearing the wig when they went undercover in the casino is rich. She refers to it as a disgrace because she fully embraces who she is and is completely confidant with and in that. The ritual to crown T'Challa king is some of my all time favorite imagery across any genre of film. Nakia engaging in ritual dance and just being full of life left me so warm inside. Every expression of our whole selves is meaningful and authentic. I was left wondering, "Is this what I could be experiencing more often if we actually valued representation in this society beyond a white western lens?"
Coogler is the first Black director to be given a 200 million dollar budget. And as I write this Black Panther has made over $400 million domestically (U.S.) and over $700 million worldwide. It is breaking records left and right, and has only been out for 11 days. The man behind it all had only two other films under his belt before making this movie. It helps that those two movies were the acclaimed Fruitvale Station and Creed. I alluded to the story telling abilities of this director, which cannot be highlighted enough in my opinion. It appears as though Coogler was not micromanaged when it came to putting this movie together. He told the story he wanted to tell (although I still want that 4 hour cut), and created a layered piece of art that is unlike anything the genre or the studio has released before. And did I mention that Mr. Coogler is only 31 years old?!
It may just be conjecture, but it is no coincidence that the head of Marvel Studios, Kevin Feige, declared Black Panther to be, "the best movie we've ever made." He recalled saying that directly to Ryan Coogler after he finished screening the film for the first time. Being that Coogler is an Oakland native, which is a location as integral as Wakanda in Black Panther, and viewing interviews he's done about the movie, you can immediately see how this was a labor of love. What made the movie so special is how intimate Coogler tied it to himself. That rings true when Killmonger in his last moments says to T'Challa, "My pops said Wakanda was the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen, he promised he was going to show it to me one day. Do you believe that? A kid from Oakland running around believing in fairy tales..." He is the ultimate testament to the fact that your dreams don't have to be fairy tales; they can indeed come true! How inspiring is that for young Black girls and boys everywhere?
Themes - Cultural, Social, & Political Overtones
There are plenty of cultural, social, and political under and overtones, some of which I have touched upon in this piece already. Racism/white supremacy, the vestiges of slavery and colonization, imperialism, nationalism, immigration, the nature of revolution, armed resistance, "Black Rage," Black Womanhood, vicious stereotyping, humanitarianism, tradition, technological progress, connectedness to land, African spirituality (specifically the connection to Ancestors), the African Diaspora, the constructed barrier between Africans and African Americans, love of people/country, servanthood, globalism, global citizenry, leadership, Afrofuturism, unimpeded African brilliance and ingenuity, and even the idea that Black people (and in our real world, Black Women specifically) are leading the pathway forward for our collective worldwide liberation and peace. I use the word "overtones" because unlike "undertones," which imply subtlety, hits hard and pulls no punches. The great thing about art is that the interpretations are endless, and at the same time, with this piece of art, the nuance is so rich that all of these topics and concepts will be talked about in the context of the movie and our real world for weeks, months, and years to come. And the reality is that this piece would continue on indefinitely if I were to begin to engage each of these. here.
Black PantherI hope to further tackle each of these issues that the movie sheds light on in other pieces. For now, it is sufficient to end this piece having given my general review and reflection. I enjoyed this movie beyond description. I find myself wanting to return to the theater for my fourth, fifth, and however many trips (my pockets will allow) to the world of Wakanda. I know that this is also the case for many of you that will read this. The entertainment industry has just had the wind knocked out of it with the a vibranium infused jab! It can no longer be business as usual, and in recent years we have seen a movement to demand and create greater representation so that all children (and adults for that matter) can see themselves represented. The tide has been shifting. The success of has only shifted the pendulum further in the direction of progress, and so much so that regression is unacceptable. The conversation and climate has changed, but we must continue to talk with our dollars and in other forms (such as social media galvanization) to never return to the status quo.
Representation matters. Representation matters. Representation matters! Let no one convince you otherwise!
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