Film critic Leslie Byron Pitt asks why the feature has meant so much to the black diaspora and if it truly stacks up on screen
Marvel’s Black Panther has brought with it a tidal wave of hype with more than an undercurrent of politicised commentary. Much like Ghostbusters (2016) and Wonder Woman (2017) before it, Ryan Coogler’s third feature carries representation squarely into the limelight once more. These three films have had their expectations shaped not just by their plot and content, but also by who happens to be included in the stories and in front of the cameras. Hollywood has occasionally paid lip-service to ‘diversity’ in the past, even that a rarity. Moreover, Marvel stories, above all, showcase strong white American characters facing the foreign foe. So how has Black Panther become such a cultural moment for the black diaspora? Does the film live up to the hype? And are we seeing true representation making headway?
Taking place soon after the events of Marvel’s Civil War (2016), Black Panther begins with T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), the prince of the fictional African nation of Wakanda looking to take his place on the throne after the death of his father; King T’Chaka (John Kani). Before his reign can even be solidified, dark forces in the form of a black-market arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) and exiled Wakandan soldier under the name of Killmonger (Michael B Jordan), look to descend upon the newly crowned King and set to tear apart the technologically advanced nation at the seams.
The Black Panther character was co-created by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, first appearing in Marvel’s Fantastic Four comic no.52 in July 1966. Appearing amidst the America’s civil rights movement as an attempt to answer the lack of black characters in comics, it is easy to consider the origins of the character as a cynical ploy to attract a few more eyeballs using the topics of the day. However, despite his white creators, Black Panther’s early stories, particularly those written in the seventies by Don McGregor and drawn for the most part by the African American artist Billy Graham, allowed musings of black consciousness to appear. It was also groundbreaking in allowing hot-button topics such as colonialism to be addressed whilst also developing a space for black sci-fi in mainstream pop culture.
It’s easy to view this as just another day in the office for the current trend of comic book movie. On paper, one could easily retool the basic plot blueprint of Black Panther and perhaps create yet another Ironman (2008) entry, yet it is in the setting and characters which set this movie apart from many of the recent Marvel features, as well as other blockbusters in general. Black superheroes on screen have been around before from the likes of the sharp-toothed Blade (1998) to the rather forgettable Spawn (1997). What we’ve never seen is the scope, nor the nobility that’s displayed here. Black Panther may stop briefly in London and treat the audience to a wildly enjoyable firefight and car chase in South Korea, but the film’s power lies in the invention of Wakanda. Coogler’s vision of the nation combines striking Afrofuturist visuals with clear and recognisable political struggle. It builds upon what Kirby and Lee had started, by allowing their creation to be absorbed and shaped by the very people and audience members it was made for.
A Marvel movie is rarely the setting for political comment beyond good versus evil, and yet Black Panther puts forward propositions that we have always been told would be too controversial and political for mainstream western audiences. The film doesn’t shy away from problematising dated representations of African countries as backward. It transforms the popular imagination of ‘underdevelopment’ with the rich and textured backdrops of its fictional setting, and by placing the conflicts of a youthful, black royal family in the foreground. Box office responses have blown out of the water any talk of white audiences shying away from a movie that doesn’t centre white characters – taking a record-breaking $201.8 million in its opening weekend. The mainstream success of critical, progressive and political black art is obvious elsewhere too, particularly in the musical rise of artists such as Kendrick Lemar who is featured in the pulsating soundtrack.
Yet the movie has seen even more success amongst African Americans who show a 37% audience share (Cinemascore). The highly positive reception shows palpable relief from communities that a black imagination is possible and remarkable outside of the narrow margins usually cast for it. The powerful “ghetto” movies such as Boyz in The Hood (1991) and Menace 2 Society (1993) were critical in highlighting areas of representation. However, much like the sub-genre of gangster rap which layered the urban landscape of these movies, they slowly became the totality of black stories.
Black Panther is not played for board laughs like in films such as Coming to America (1988), despite some great moments of humour. It is given solid structural dynamics, which whilst not too far removed from the likes of Marvel’s Thor (2012), are usually saved for a white cast. One need only remember the tepid responses to solemn takes such as Gods of Egypt (2016) and Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014) to see how risky a move this can be.
Much like Ant Man (2015), Black Panther feels far away enough from the talk of infinity stones and Tony Stark that it can be an engaging piece on its without distractions. It pilfers liberally from the Marvel stock and gives its characters splashes of Shakespearian tragedy and Bondian charm, with Boseman having a particular calming presence. Yet the film works best where it builds upon on the tried and tested Marvel themes: when the heroes realise that their antagonists are crafted from their own hubris. The character of Killmonger may feel like a slightly subtler Loki, but his pathway towards his creation makes him a far more tragic creature. His telling line about death and the bondage of slavery at the film’s climax reverberates with the same cynicism that is seen in the more complicated moments of Captain America (2010) and Iron Man (2008). That the characters we see are creators of their own downfall make a film with a small focus on black on black conflict tougher to chew on than most.
Strangely enough, for a movie with a decent level of action Black Panther is more exciting when the characters are not fighting. It’s challenging in ways that are groundbreaking in this genre: from a cast of strong women to its framing of an African nation which subverts the usual narratives. In fact, it has so much to say that Boseman’s T’Challa almost gets lost amongst the goings on. Both Lupita Nyong’o and Danai Gurira have numerous scene-stealing moments. They are the beating heart of Wakanda and they steal the show. Meanwhile, both Andy Serkis and Michael B Jordan power their way to the top of the Marvel movie league of villainy. Because of this, the screenplay suddenly doesn’t have enough for Boseman to do.
Coogler’s action sequences are fun and still hold as much impact as the impressive boxing fights of his second feature Creed (2015). What becomes the most important aspect of Black Panther’s direction however, is less about how the filmmaker will connect to Thanos, but more about Coogler being a black director who has the chance to play in the type of sandbox that’s only usually reserved for a chosen few. His ability to craft such an enjoyable piece of entertainment allows Black Panther, along with F Gary’s Grey’s Straight Outta Compton (2015) to help usher in a new strand of afro-led filmmaking in which the budgets are bigger and the themes wider-ranging.
It’s not just wider representation, a re-painting of the walls, which sets Black Panther apart – it’s an opening up of creative possibilities and imaginaries. Maybe dollar signs will be the key to a realisation that ‘diversity’ isn’t a tickbox but a rich resource, and Wakandan vibranium will show itself an allegory of more to come.
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Leslie Byron Pitt is a film writer and amateur photographer from High Wycombe, Bucks. He currently co-hosts Fatal Attractions, a lively film podcast about 80’s and 90’s Erotic Thrillers. He can be found via Twitter and Instagram at @Afrofilmviewer.
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