Film Review: Black Panther (2018)
Directed by: Ryan Coogler
Review by: Belle McIntyre
My chosen genre is not typically action, superhero or animated films but there are occasionally examples which stand out and rise above the genre. Black Panther is just such a film, in my opinion. It combines the qualities which I most appreciated in the animated Madagascar and the musical Lion King. The originality and brilliance of the production is a constant feast of visual and audial treats, from the costumes, hair styles, music and set design. All of these elements are deeply rooted in sub-Saharan African traditional cultures and translated in ways so astutely and skillfully rendered as to be continually surprising.
The story is an unusually complex and nuanced tale of internecine, political and cultural clashes woven together to create a tapestry of composed of elements of contemporary African-American life and the imaginary African country Wakanda. Wakanda is a beautiful land with a highly advanced and civilized society created by artfully bringing together the five warrior tribes in a peaceful coalition. The natural resource responsible for much of their scientific accomplishments is an element found only in Wakanda, called vibranium, which exists in vast quantities having arrived in a meteorite which is guarded and protected and used for mostly peaceful purposes, although is allows for them to have superior weapons and indestructible structures and personal attire. There is also a magical plant which is cultivated which has remarkable healing, strengthening and protective properties. All of this allows the Wakandans to live a strife-free secure life of altruism and higher learning. They are further isolated from the outside by something which resembles a hologram which renders the country invisible to the rest of the world and reinforces the idea that it is an extremely primitive and impoverished country.
If this sounds like the Bhutan of Africa, peaceful and perfect, by virtue of its isolation, you would be right. But the real world has a nasty habit of intruding and disrupting. It comes in forms both benevolent and malevolent. When the king dies and his son TChalla (Chadwick Boseman) is recalled to Wakanda to assume the crown and become Black Panther, he leaves the real world and summons his former girlfriend, Nakia (Lupita Nyongo) to attend his coronation. Nakia is a Wakandan spy and a committed activist working to correct social injustices in Africa. As they are both reconnected to their roots TChalla embraces it and all the responsibilities entailed, while Nakia chafes at the contrasts between the blissfulness of Wakanda and the suffering of black people in the real world. She advocates for the positive effects that the Wakandan technologies could bring to the world to elevate all of society. But the Wakandans, rightly fear that their technologies could be used by nefarious characters and would lend them such overwhelming advantages that they would eventually be able to control the world and make it a much worse place.
The evil-doers conspiring to get into Wakanda include a notorious South African arms dealer, Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), a one-armed arch-villian out of a Bond movie. He is entangled with a terrifyingly dangerous, angry African-American named Erik “Killmonger” (Michael B. Jordan), so named because of the number of people he has killed as a trained Special Ops combatant, and which he proudly has recorded in scarifying marks which cover his impressive torso. Klaue wants to obtain the vibranium to enrich himself by selling it to the highest bidder, while Erik wants to reverse the world order and take revenge on centuries of white oppression of black people. I will not reveal Erik’s particular connection to Wakanda, but it provides a twisty back story. And into this mix of would be intruders on Wakanda is the American CIA agent, Everett Ross (Martin Freeman), whose motives are less clear but he’s not a baddie. The conflicts are intense, fast and furious as well as thoroughly engrossing and thrilling. The outcome is quite genius and satisfying and makes the case for balance rather than extremism, peace rather than war, understanding, altruism and generosity. A stunning vehicle for a very important message which feels amazingly relevant today.
The cast is uniformly terrific and their individual characters are well-fleshed out. The queen, TChalla’s mother Ramonda, elegantly portrayed by Angela Basset is assisted by the high priest, Zuri (Forrest Whittaker), who was close to the previous king and knows all of the deeply held secrets, which ultimately must be revealed. TChalla’s royal guard, the Mira Milaje, composed of superbly fit and accomplished warrior women, is lead by Oyay, (Danaia Gurira). The special effects are dazzling and dizzying without the unnecessary annoyance of of 3D. The exceptionally effective soundtrack composed by Ludwig Göransson with additional music and production from Kendrick Lamar incorporates various elements and instruments from authentic tribal traditions as does the choreography. The architecture of Wakanda is also an amalgam of motifs of African structures and the contemporary work of Zaha Hadid making for a multilayered and multi-textured compelling and enticing environment. It is a remarkable accomplishment to convincingly render the world of a traditional society in futuristic terms while keeping its identity intact. I think everything about this film is top notch and it deserves all of the praise and attention it is getting. Lest I forget to mention is is an almost entirely black production, cast, and crew. That is a first and hopefully not the last. Take that Hollywood!