Black Panther is a victory in cinematic representation
Black Panther took its first victory lap before it even premiered. The hype began in preproduction, when the cast, which included the likes of Angela Basset, Forrest Whitaker, Sterling K. Brown, Daniel Kaluuya, Lupita Nyong’o, Chadwick Boseman, and Michael B. Jordan, was announced. Ryan Coogler was named the director of this group of black cinematic royalty. The hype train only picked up speed during the film’s press tour and hit its full stride when Black Panther finally arrived in theatres on Friday. In fact, the movie’s ticket pre-sales smashed box-office records; as of its Thursday night screening, the film had already earned nearly $25 million, and it’s estimated to crush opening weekend competition, soaring to an estimated $200 million in sales.
The hype, it turns out, was deserved.
Black Panther takes place in the technologically advanced, albeit fictional, African nation of Wakanda. This country was formed on a deep foundation of valuable metals (vibranium) that has allowed its people to be highly advanced, although the nation purposefully maintains an impoverished reputation among the rest of the world. By keeping its wealth and advancement secret, the country has both removed itself from world affairs and protected its technology. The people of Wakanda, therefore, have managed to live peacefully and mostly obliviously to the poverty and racially motivated decimation of black men and women the world over.
After his father dies, T’Challa (played by Chadwick Boseman) is crowned the king of Wakanda. He must navigate his responsibilities as a diplomat while also taking up the mantle of the Black Panther, a generational protector of the country. He dawns a black Vibranium suit, and gains super speed, strength, and dexterity from a heart-shaped herb which is native to Wakanada. But soon, T’Challa’s rule is challenged when Erik Killmonger (played by Michael B. Jordan), a militaristic, ferocious warrior of Wakandan decent, but raised in America, challenges T’Challa for the throne. Killmonger feels betrayed by a nation that he thinks let down its black brothers and sisters around the world and throughout history — allowing them to be enslaved, impoverished, and brutalized while their society flourished. Killmonger seeks to use coercion and violence to take over Wakanda, and ultimately use the nation’s technology to militarize marginalized black populations around the world.
Black Panther thus offers its audience an intricate examination of the lasting effects of slavery and colonialism. Throughout the film, references, observations, and even outright jokes are made about the colonization and brutality that stripped Africa of its people’s autonomy. While much of the Marvel cinematic universe has re-written history in order to shape and justify its heroes, Black Panther acknowledges real-world history. Rather than rely on stakes that are always so fantastical, so much larger than and beyond the scope of real life, Black Panther manages to balance revelling in fabricated technology and mysticism while also drawing from historical, all-too-real conflict; the movie has time for both armored assault rhinos and cloaked discussions about imperialism, black militarism, and monarchy.
The rift between T’Challa and Killmonger — which at its heart is a debate about what a black utopia owes the rest of the world — is all the more meaningful because of these racial overtones. T’Challa and Killmonger aren’t just polarized, but tied together. Killmonger, who has royal lineage, knows only of the country’s wealth and means as well as its absence from world affairs — brutality and disenfranchisement that have directly affected, and now fuel, Killmonger. The conflict boils down to black burden: Black people must weigh their responsibility to elevate their brothers and sisters against their need for self-preservation in a world that has treated their brothers and sisters with nothing but savagery.
While the movie may focus on this struggle between two black man, Black Panther also gives its strong, black female characters time to showcase their principles and intellect while simultaneously kicking ass. Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) doubles as a spy and golden-hearted philanthropist; Shuri (Letitia Wright) is both the 16-year-old princess of Wakanda and a technological genius who builds the Black Panther suits as well as countless other futuristic marvels. Okoye (Danai Gurira) is the head of the Dora Milaje, an all-female group of warriors tasked with protecting their king. Ramonda (Angela Bassett), Shuri and T’Challa’s mother, navigates the loss of her husband while still nurturing her children. Each character is well developed: They are allowed comedic moments as well as scenes that feature their compassion, intelligence, confidence, and combative expertise. Seeing female actresses, especially black women, play layered, whole characters instead of being limited to portraying the stereotypical, singular traits that often befall black women on screen is a revelation.
Ultimately, Black Panther serves as a shining example of why representation is so important. Finally, audiences — many for the first time ever — get to see a complex black superhero supported by a majority black cast, who thrive in positions of royalty and power based on their society’s technological advancement, in an Afrocentric environment. Black Panther exists in a space that most blockbusters have failed to occupy: It proudly waves a fist in the air, celebrating all that it means to be black, while still delivering an action-packed, emotionally driven narrative, culminating in a film that speaks to and celebrates blackness while still remaining accessible to everyone.
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