The Quiet Radicalism of ‘Black Panther’

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Black Panther
Directed by Ryan Coogler
Written by Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole
2018/USA

The arrival of Black Panther is cause for celebration. The first film to star the eponymous superhero is also the first Marvel film to feature a predominantly black cast. Directed by Ryan Coogler, the movie is radical in the way it portrays black power. It’s an often thrilling and compelling corrective to the pale sameness that has infected big-budget studio filmmaking.

If there’s a person who stands to gain the most from Black Panther, it’s the star, Chadwick Boseman. Boseman’s career has been marked by a string of forgettable biopics built on empty prestige. His role here as T’Challa is both his most ambitious departure as well as his safest career choice — it is a Marvel movie after all. The character was introduced previously in Captain America: Civil War (2016), after his father was assassinated, and now assumes his place as the king of Wakanda, a fictional nation located in the heart of Africa, host to the Earth’s sole source of vibranium, a precious metal stronger than anything known to man and capable of powering fantastic technologies (annoyingly referred to as “tech” throughout the film).

In addition to ruling over the nation and its tribes, T’Challa also inherits a futuristic suit that makes him nearly indestructible. He’s aided in his new role by Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), his former lover and a capable spy, as well as his chief of security, General Okoye (Danai Gurira).

Black PantherThe three are forced into action in an attempt to capture Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), who has stolen part of Wakanda’s vibranium supplies. His accomplice is Erik Stevens, otherwise known as “Killmonger” (Michael B. Jordan). Killmonger initially appears to be little more than a bloodthirsty mercenary, but his connection to Wakanda runs deep.

As unusual as it is for a Marvel movie to promote African American actors to leading roles, perhaps the most unusual aspect of Black Panther is how the first third of the film feels like the closest thing we might ever get to a black James Bond. Boseman doesn’t have the suave air of Bond, but he makes up for it with an unimpeachable sense of dignity. Filling the comedic relief role of Q is T’Challa’s sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright). Shuri is Wakanda’s resident maker of gadgets and gizmos, though her inventions are far more impressive than exploding pens and laser watches. There’s even a scene where T’Challa, Nakia, and Okoye try to rescue missing vibranium in a South Korean casino. (Though there’s no time for baccarat or vodka martinis.)

These early parts feel a bit disjointed and weighed down by exposition, but Coogler does something fantastic once the MacGuffins are dispensed with. He has managed to craft a film in which the stakes are more emotionally salient than any previous Marvel film by paradoxically shrinking them. Rather than trying to save the world, T’Challa is trying to save the soul of his people.

Black PantherCoogler’s task would be impossible without Jordan’s great strengths as an actor. Killmonger is not a force of pure evil, the kind of villain who wants to destroy the world that we’ve come to expect. Jordan instead plays him as someone traumatized by great pain inflicted on him his whole life. It’s common for writers and directors to try to create antagonists who have been wronged, but it’s usually little more than a transparent ruse. Coogler and Jordan succeed where so many others have failed; if anything, Killmonger threatens to become more compelling than T’Challa. Jordan is the stronger actor, and Coogler has learned how to coax strong performances out of him after working together on Fruitvale Station (2013) and Creed (2015).

It’s hard to overstate just how exhilarating it is to watch a film in which black characters are allowed to be the masters of their own destiny — completely. Marvel films have made strides toward diversity in the form of minority sidekicks, but Black Panther proves that their stories can be just as compelling, if not more compelling.

If there’s something frustrating about Coogler’s radicalism, it’s the way in which he restrains it at times. He has created a fascinating film of black sovereignty, yet it’s a world in which gender dynamics are nearly as calcified as our own. Sure, T’Challa is surrounded by vicious women warriors, but that’s just it — everything they do is in service of him. It’s fascinating how many strong female characters Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole have created, but each of them exists solely to facilitate his needs, his desires. They’re a step up from helpless abandoned waifs like Rachel McAdams in Dr. Strange (2016) or Natalie Portman in Thor (2011), but they still lack their own interior lives.

Other aspects of the Wakandan society seem oddly regressive. Its devotion to combat and warfare is meant to telegraph strength, but it often looks more like bellicosity. The senior members of the country’s major tribes are devoted to the monarchy, yet any person who can beat the king in a fistfight gets to assume his throne. There are moments in which Black Panther suggests T’Challa will reform these medieval practices, but no such change occurs.

Perhaps it’s asking too much of Coogler to liberate everyone in Wakanda in one fell swoop. He has created the first Marvel film that truly feels like the work of a single creative vision, not the result of a committee meeting. That vision is still radical and revelatory. Black Panther charts a way forward for future blockbusters to approach representation. It remains to be seen whether Hollywood is paying attention.

Brian Marks is Sordid Cinema’s Lead Film Critic. His writing has appeared in The Village Voice, LA Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, and Ampersand. He’s a graduate of USC’s master’s program in Specialized Arts Journalism. You can find more of his writing at InPraiseofCinema.com. Best film experience: driving halfway across the the country for a screening of Jean-Luc Godard’s “King Lear.” Totally worth it.

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