Going into this weekend, I was trepidatious. Any time the hype is huge, I’m nervous and skeptical. There was no question that Black Panther was already significant, even unprecedented: A superhero/comic book movie that featured a black hero, featuring a primarily black cast, from a black director. That’s never happened before. But just because something is significant doesn’t automatically mean that it’s good. And I really wanted Black Panther to be good. But I was afraid that its hype was due only to its sociopolitical significance rather than the merit of its story.
I’m happy to report that is not the case.
Black Panther is a tremendous story of revolution, struggle, and redemption. It is a story of figuring out who you really are, not only as an individual, but as part of a community that spans the entire globe. It is the story of the value and merit of a kingdom, and just what it means to be a good king. And it’s a story that has significant things to say about the sins of the past and the progress of the future, about the state of the world and our way forward in it.
Director Ryan Coogler brings us a deep, soulful vision of the character of T’Challa, those that surround him, and their kingdom of Wakanda. The film’s strength unquestionably stems from the greatness of its characters. I said this when I first saw Civil War, but Chadwick Boseman almost effortlessly makes me believe that this man is a king. He brings a stature and a nobility to the role that is entirely impressive. But as good as he is, he is certainly matched, and in some cases, outdone by the supporting cast.
Michael B. Jordan very nearly steals the show. His fierce portrayal of Erik Killmonger is a force to be reckoned with. And like all the best villains, his philosophy is right but his methods are wrong. T’Challa and Killmonger represent two sides of a singular argument – how to interact with the wider world. Both sides have merit, and both sides are correct – to a point. I can’t help but see these two characters as possessing a single soul – one side expressing the anger and the pain of history, one expressing the wisdom and integrity necessary to overcome them. Killmonger is one of Marvel’s best villains, and he is such because he teaches the hero a valuable lesson. A hero should ultimately learn from the villain, and that is certainly the case here.
But I would be remiss if I did not specifically address the female supporting cast. They. Are. Fantastic. Lupita Nyong’o as Nakia, T’Challa’s love interest and spy for Wakanda. Dania Gurira as Okoye, commander of the Wakandan military forces. Angela Bassett as Ramonda, T’Challa’s mother. And Letitia Wright as Shuri, T’Challa’s sister, research scientist, and Black Panther’s armorer. All of these women not only integral parts of the kingdom, but integral parts of the story. They laugh, they weep, they argue, and they fight, and they make the audience do all of that right along with them. And they’re joined by a host of other actors that round out this movie with not a single weak performance in the bunch. It’s entirely impressive.
There are, however, a few minor shortcomings. The pace of the first third of the movie can be rather slow, and the main villain is absent for most of it. This time is used to setup many things that payoff big later on, so it’s justifiable. The movie feels a little too long, but not enough to make the ending moments feel like a drag. And they just couldn’t resist slipping in a few “white boys” and even one “colonizer” - names that, if the situation were reversed, would be decried as racist. But as I said, these are minor complaints.
As much as I liked Black Panther, and as much as I believe it’s a story for everyone, I can’t deny that this movie isn’t for me. And that’s good. I’m so glad this movie – and this story - exists. Growing up, I never had to search for a hero I could identify with. They were always there. But there is a very large group of people that did not have that privilege. I’ve heard multiple accounts of little boys and girls who are now overjoyed to have a hero that looks like them. And that is nothing but a great thing.
Black Panther is a good story. But it also serves as a fair commentary on what has happened, and is happening, in our world. There is a speech toward the end of the movie that I desperately wish would come out of the mouth of someone in office, rather than a fictional character. But there is a piece of wisdom from that speech that I think I will always stick with me.
The wise build bridges. The foolish build barriers.
There are some problems with how that plays out in the movie. But the sentiment is true and valuable. In times like these, we need to be breaking down the walls between us, not building them up. Some of the responses I’ve seen to this film are unfortunate. On both sides. I’ve seen people who seem to be learning the exact wrong lesson from the story, and are choosing to side with the villain. And I’ve seen others dismiss the merit of this story altogether, and ignoring what it has to teach us.
I sincerely believe in the power of stories to unite us, to find common ground, to teach us a way forward. I believe Black Panther has something valuable to contribute to that discussion, aside from being one of the better comic book movies in recent memory. I’m happy to say that I can wholeheartedly recommend it.
Thanks for reading.