Film Review: Black Panther
Black Panther is a modern day science-fiction superhero escapist fantasy set in a world in which we ask the question: what if there was a country in Africa that had not been colonised and instead it had secretly become the most technologically advanced nation in the world? This is the answer.
, which takes place one week after the events of Captain America: Civil War
, wastes no time at all to jump into the action and is a quick reminder of why T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman), who assumes the mantle of Black Panther, a chosen warrior protector of his country Wakanda, was so well received in the aforementioned film. The action reintroduces us to his super reflexes and swift savagery in close combat as he goes to meet his love interest Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o) to inform her of the passing of his father, King T'Chaka (John Kani), and the inevitable ascension to the throne that awaits him.
This scene, which is set in Nigeria in the dead of night, follows a mission that's in progress to stop human traffickers. Something inside me lit up as it has been a long time since the Marvel Cinematic Universe has tackled a real world problem rather than a fictional one. The ongoing #BringBackOurGirls campaign in Nigeria, which was the social media effort to bring attention to a tragedy in which 200 young women were abducted by Boko Haram, sought to shine a light on the horror story, but the fate of the girls themselves continues to be tragic. It is one of the few African ordeals that has managed to capture the world's attention so the relevance of the opening scenes were the first signifiers that the movie would touch on more sensitive topics and themes. This has made me think that the team members of the Avengers, with all their abilities and powers, should be utilised more in real world conflicts.
From thought provoking to breathtaking, the dark midnight encounter is contrasted beautifully with the kingdom of Wakanda in all its vibrant colour and life. The relationships between T'Challa, his all female royal guard, his love interest, and his mother are the strongest and warmest relationships he has, which speaks to the legacy of powerful women who spear head Wakanda's leadership. Despite all their positions of power, they bring out the most playful elements of T'Challa's character, something we didn't get to see in Captain America: Civil War
because the focus there was on the death of King T'Chaka.
The film introduces us to Erik Stevens (Michael B Jordan), whose high number of confirmed kills while in the US army has earned him the moniker of Killmonger. Killmonger has partnered with Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), an arms dealer introduced to us in Avengers: Age Of Ultron
, who is also the only Westerner ever to have seen the real Wakanda. The two set out to steal a vibranium artifact from a museum and, in a brief exchange with the museum's curator, Killmonger explains the artifact's true Wakandan origins. This serves to demonstrate his in-depth knowledge of Wakanda's secrets: of how the small third world farming country is actually a technologically advanced isolationist nation that intentionally hides from the world. His very American accent and mannerisms juxtapose the rich African nature of the characters and locations depicted in the movie. This serves to solidify the narrative of an outsider attempting to claim the throne.
In Wakanda we are shown how the interior of the main citadel compliments the royal, futuristic, and wholesome African feel of the city and palace. When we are introduced to Shuri (Letitia Wright), T'Challa's younger sister, who is head of the science and tech division (the Black Panther
equivalent of Q in the James Bond
films), she is casually playing "Wololo"
by Babes Wodumo featuring Mampintsha, which sets the comfortable laid back mood of her space. It's easy to see how the music and the artwork tie very neatly into her design process. Her gadgets, tech and gizmos all have a slick feel to them. The work space itself serves as a major step up from the clunky and uninspired environment in which we see Tony Stark from the Iron Man
The most beautiful part of the lab scenes are the interaction between brother and sister, from their unique greeting that combines an identifiably black hand shake with the traditional Wakandan greeting, to Shuri roasting her brother over his sandal choice in a perfectly timed "what are thooooose"
. Outside of Loki and Thor, sibling relationships in the MCU are virtually non-existent so it was a welcome charm that left its mark on me.
The humor and emotional pace in the film is timed to perfection, allowing dramatic moments to be dramatic and scenes of silence to run their course. It never feels forced when a happy moment is touching any of the characters.
There is no need to explain how kick ass the action scenes are and how mind blowing the stunts are. A sequence that stood out was a casino fight, which was reminiscent of the church scene from Kingsman: The Secret Service
, that looked like a single shot panning across the room while many smaller fights were breaking out. Another brief moment of action that had me leaping from my chair was the showcasing of just how far technology and culture have been incorporated into Wakandan apparel. In this scene farmers raise their cloaks, into which vibranium threads have been woven, and yell "Shields!", which activates and illuminates a two-metre-tall force field in front of them.
The unparalleled world building of Black Panther
was magnificent, from the ceremony of succession of king and panther to the depiction of the traditions and beliefs that Wakanda holds dear, the political allegory of keeping other nations and refugees out of Wakanda, and the potential dangers of reckless nations acquiring weapons of mass destruction, which spoke volumes to the universe and real life.
The movie stands out as a huge shift from Hollywood's staple of white faces and Eurocentric narratives, by having a black lead actor backed by a majority black cast, is something far too often relegated to very problematic themes: slavery, gangs, ghetto, and comedy. While the last item on that list doesn't seem all that bad, the reality is that when black actors are
placed in white films they are framed in one of those roles almost one dimensionally so, more often than not, if a black character isn't dangerous by portrayal the only other thing he or she can be is comedic relief, which is very limiting in terms of being a black person and seeing yourself in characters in mainstream media. This idea of representation extends to women and what roles they are allowed
to fill on screen, but applies two fold to women of colour. Therefore it was a fantasy come true to see black women be represented as strong but not abrasive, funny but also intelligent; as leaders who had legitimate authority but not through scheming or seduction. It was like seeing the potential of Africa and the future of how Africa will be in the future of cinema.
That said there were a notable amount of South African influences on Wakanda, particularly with regard to the language used juxtaposed with where the country is located. Wakanda is neatly placed next to Kenya, which makes the use of Xhosa completely out of place. Although Wakanda is a melting pot for cultures - based on the costume designers' research across Africa - the language issue is still an eyebrow raiser because languages become localised. Sestwana in Botswana and Sestwana in South Africa make perfect sense because they are neighbours. Venda in South Africa is close to Shona in Zimbabwe and Shona is close to Chewa in Malawi but Chewa is two or three standard deviations away from Venda and the people would have trouble communicating. By the time you get to Kenya it sounds so different that a South African born first-language Xhosa speaker wouldn't understand or would have great difficulty understanding what someone from Wakanda was saying. We give allowances for it due to the fact that Swahili and Xhosa are still a Bantoid language set but one still has to question why an East African language wasn't chosen. My quick answer is that the clicking sounds, which are almost unique to Xhosa, sound more like "an Africa language" than anything else.
The bottom line is that it didn't ruin my experience of the movie and it did fit it well with the pro-African messages that the film-makers were tapping into, so much so that Wakanda is now real in the hearts of many.
I had a list of eight expectations for the movie and it met four of them. One expectation that sadly wasn't met was the presence of heavier set black bodies, at least featuring in the main cast. My final expectation and in truth an expectation for anyone who has been following the grander narrative of the Marvel cinematic universe, was how it would lead into the next movie slated for the series; without giving too much away it serves as a stand-alone movie that one can enjoy without the 17 movies that came before. The movie was not as problematic as I thought it would be, I knew the film-makers would do it right but I expected them to stumble here and there and was happily proven wrong. I loved it. I loved the world they built and the story telling devices they selected to accentuate the visual language they were crafting from African cultures; the music; the spoken language of Xhosa. The overall vibe was proudly and unapologetically African.
Black Panther was written by Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole, was directed by Ryan Coogler, and stars Chadwick Boseman, Michael B Jordan, Lupita Nyong'o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, and Andy Serkis.
The press screening was courtesy of Ster-Kinekor.
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