by Tim Gordon
Facing challenges from outside as well within the walls of his kingdom in Wakanda, Prince T’Challa understands the words of his late father which proves that indeed “it hard for a good man to be king” in the superbly entertaining and groundbreaking afro-futuristic masterpiece, Black Panther.
After the death of his father in Captain America: Civil War, a reflective T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) returns home preparing to take the throne, as well as all of the responsibilities that the role entails. In addition to serving as ruler over a multitude of different non-monolithic factions in his land, he is responsible for protecting the anonymity and precious resources, Vibratium, that are contained within his borders. But before he can settle on his throne, he must partake in one of Wakanda’s ritual of ascension, “The Challenge,” open to anyone of royal ancestry who wishes to battle T’Challa for the throne. M’Baku (Winston Duke), leader of Wakanda’s mountain tribe, the Jabari, answers the call foreshadowing the impending conflict that T’Challa will endure throughout the story.
While T’Challa is charting his own course in his homeland, trouble is brewing another continent away. Harboring a deadly secret that can threaten the throne of Wakanda, Erick “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan) is working in concert with South African black-market arms dealer, Klaue (Andy Serkis) to sell a valuable antique that contains the precious metal, Vibranium, one of the most precious in the world. Already an enemy of the state for killing a Wakandan elder, T’Challa orders a mission, accompanied by two members of his elite all-female fighting unit, the Dora Milaje, General Okoye (Danai Gurira) his ex-girlfriend and operative, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) to bring Klaue to justice.
This revelation sets up a thrilling encounter in an underground casino culminating in a high-tech car chase between Klaue, T’Challa, Nakia and Okoye which showcases some of the best weapons and gadgets that Wakanda has to offer. The end result sets up a final confrontation that will reveal surprising revelations that will expose deep family secrets, betrayal and the ultimate threat to the throne.
Since the inception of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) in 2008, the studio has released seventeen films but none with a Black actor taking center stage. Beginning with the announcement in 2014 that Black Panther would become a feature film, the excitement and anticipation has been building. From the much-ballyhooed appearance at San Diego Comic-Con last summer where the introduction of clips from the film sent Hall H into frenzy, there has been immense anticipation and pride in a story that means so much for representation for young children of color, as well strong, political and cultural messages not often seen in superhero films.
Much of that falls on the shoulders of the brilliant visionary and director Ryan Coogler, who helms this transcendent tale like a comic political manifesto. Co-written by Joe Robert Cole, Black Panther is equal parts a James Bond thriller, interspersed with elements from The Godfather, sprinkled with elements of the dualing methodologies of community that would both Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X proud. The film explores the question that with so many people of color suffering for centuries and dealing with hardship and inequities if one had the means to alter that course and raise their people up, should you only help those that have pledged their loyalty?
There is so much richness not just in the screenplay but the world of Wakanda that audiences experience onscreen, thanks to the immersive and elegant costume design work done by two-time Oscar nominee, Ruth E. Carter. From the technological marvel, which serves as our heroes suit, to outfitting all of the various tribes of Wakanda, Carter’s work serves notice that despite the film’s early release date, there needs to be a campaign later this year to acknowledge the outstanding job that she performed in this film.
After a career spent starring in several biopics, Boseman has adjusted nicely to his royal lineage in the MCU. Despite his character being somewhat downplayed in this story as several of his co-stars shined more brightly, a case can be made that after his thrilling introduction in Civil War, this story focused more on his humanity than his sheer will as Wakanda’s protector. The supporting performances in the film were all equally stellar including Jordan’s laser-focused turn as a former mercenary whose heart has burned to right the wrong that has been done to him and his family as well as extracting much-needed vengeance from his enemies who stole EVERYTHING from him.
It has been acknowledged that Coogler briefly received pre-production assistance from brothers Donald and Stephen Glover regarding the relationship between T’Challa and his younger sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright) and judging from the final product, Wright makes the most of her screen time nearly stealing every scene she inhabits. Easily, the smartest woman in the country, she plays “Q” to her older brother’s Bond, ensuring that his technical edge will give him an advantage over every opponent he faces. Also shining in a limited role is the comic’s controversial “Man-Ape,” now refashioned as M’Baku, British heavyweight Duke. His character represents the dynamic which runs like a lifeline through the story of the constantly changing dynamics where allegiances change but there is respect and a code of honor to the country which serves as the final word.
Ultimately, what would Wakanda be without it’s fierce and loyal elite fighting force and personal bodyguards to the King, the awe-inspiring Dora Milaje, led by General Okoye (Guirara), whose loyalties lie with the throne but respects the man that T’Challa models for the country. The most fierce warrior in the land, she and her charges (along with fellow warriors in neighboring tribes in Wakanda) also display their strong sense of service and welcome change to the portrayals of women not just in the MCU, but could be an example of much-needed change of perspective in many other stories as well. Playing the love interest to the King and the countries’ top operative, Nakia (Nyong’o) must balance her duty to her country with her feelings for T’Challa without sacrificing either.
Technically brilliant, expertly told, supremely well-cast and superbly costumed, Coogler’s rich tale of family dysfunction in this instant classic completes his ascension to an A-List director. Out of the eighteen films released in the current MCU, only Captain America: Winter Soldier eclipses this film making it one of the strongest debut standalone films released in the impressive Marvel canon of comic superheroes. “Tell him who you are” a character implores Boseman during a key scene and the same can be said for Coogler whose marvelous Black Panther serves the same purpose defying the film’s central message that while “it may be hard for a good man to be king”, three films into his burgeoning career Coogler clearly is poised to wear the crown in the crowded MCU and beyond!