Marvel Studios: Superhero/​Action/​Drama. 135 minutes.

By: Tim Cogshell

Black Panther, the first stu­dio pro­duced, major motion pic­ture to fea­ture a Black super­hero and a pre­dom­i­nant­ly Black cast is a very good movie, excep­tion­al beyond its big-​budget enter­tain­ment val­ue in a num­ber of ways. The film is full of all the stan­dard big-​budget enter­tain­ments. Computer-​generated bells-​and-​whistles are all over the place, from vis­tas of the fic­tion­al African land of Wakanda to the sleek, midnight-​black tech-​enhanced super­hero suit of the Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), there is plen­ty of Wow, Smash and Bang! Yes, Black Panther is as well-​produced a Marvel movie crap-​fest as any, but none of that CG-​poo is why this is a very good, indeed often excep­tion­al super­hero flick. 

High praise from a crit­ic — me — who has been expe­ri­enc­ing a dimin­ish­ing return of enjoyment-​to-​time-​spent-​in-​the-​theatre ratio as relat­ed to most recent super­hero fare. I was dis­ap­point­ed (to say the least) by Man of Steel, Superman V. Batman and Justice LeagueDeadpool was a hit but I thought it was a crude, loutish bore of a movie, while Suicide Squad made me want to kill myself, if not the film­mak­ers of that pile. As for those Thor movies, which many enjoy, and did have a cer­tain Shakespeare for Dummies” qual­i­ty, they’ve become tire­some. Wonder Woman, Logan and the first Guardians of the Galaxy movies were all good. Those movies, like Black Panther, issue a cer­tain humor and charm along with a mea­sure of grav­i­tas with their req­ui­site CG crap.

In any case, Black Panther does not dis­ap­point even a fair weath­er fan­boy such as myself. Its great­est achieve­ment is its abil­i­ty to be a movie in deep con­tem­pla­tion of tribu­la­tions of Black peo­ple while not being a movie against or even about White peo­ple. It even man­ages to ren­der one white guy (only one) a hero­ic, if com­ic, fig­ure. Martin Freeman repris­ing his role from Captain America: Civil War as CIA oper­a­tive Ross, is a comic-​hero rep­ping White folks in much that same way that Black side­kicks and foils have pro­vid­ed com­ic relief for the White heroes of all oth­er super­hero films. It’s Anthony Mackie’s job in the Avengers series. He’s a good sport and Martin is too.

Written by Ryan Coogler (who also directs) and Joe Robert Cole (television’s American Crime Story”), Black Panther is a film with wide appeal and delib­er­ate inten­tions. It’s moored in con­tem­po­rary issues wrapped in imag­i­nary cir­cum­stances. Some of those issues were rel­e­vant even when the hero was con­ceived by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby back in 1966 about the time of the cre­ation of Black Panther Party for Self-​Defense, which was found­ed lat­er the same year by Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton in Oakland, California.

Oakland, CA cir­ca 1997 is where and when the movie opens. Aside from being the birth­place of the Black Panther Party it’s also the city from which Coogler hails; and a city that has suf­fered more than its share of pover­ty, crime and oth­er depre­da­tions over the years. In 1997 Oakland was the polar oppo­site of the mys­ti­cal nation of Wakanda, a hi-​tech land-​of-​plenty with an abun­dant Black pop­u­la­tion and the fic­tion­al ele­ment vibra­ni­um, source of the nation’s advanced tech­nol­o­gy and wealth. A source of pow­er, actu­al­ly, that Wakanda has cho­sen not to share with the world. Not to share with oth­er Black peo­ple — chil­dren of Africa one might say — oppressed and left behind because of the choic­es of the many kings of Wakanda.

In this nar­ra­tive the mis­eries of the descen­dants of Africa, mis­eries that con­tin­ue to this day, are prin­ci­pal­ly because the Kings of Wakanda will not share with their kin the means to bet­ter them­selves and rise. Perhaps even rule. In this sce­nario Whitey” is most­ly irrel­e­vant. Which is refresh­ing. Although, one of the prin­ci­pal bad guys in Black Panther, Klaue (Andy Serkis), is a white guy. Klaue is a car­ry over from Avengers: Age of Ultron (also a whiny bore of a movie), and Andy Serkis plays him like a rav­ing loon. Klaue is a crazy, mur­der­ous mer­ce­nary, but he’s not par­tic­u­lar­ly racist. Which is also refreshing.

Chadwick Boseman’s por­tray­al of T’Challa, the Black Panther, is state­ly, suave and hero­ic. His accent, ever so slight­ly Kenyan, yet not Kenyan, is mea­sured to reg­is­ter but nev­er over­whelm a sub­tle, clean per­for­mance. He’s nev­er loud. He is nev­er angry. He is guilty over being unable to save his father (killed in a pre­vi­ous film), but not venge­ful. He is, per­haps, a bit naïve about what it means to be king, and he is strug­gling with the dis­turb­ing lega­cy of his forefathers.

Mostly, he’s wor­ried about his people.

The theft of enough vibra­ni­um to wreak hav­oc in the world osten­si­bly dri­ves the action of Black Panther. T’Challa and his roy­al entourage must pre­vent the ore and the loca­tion of Wakanda from becom­ing known to the world. To this end the film is ordi­nary in its super­hero movie pur­suits. There are a half-​dozen big set piece bat­tle sequences where­in all the laws of physics are bro­ken in ser­vice of cool… stuff. T’Challa’s prae­to­ri­an guard, Danai Gurira (“The Walking Dead”) as General  Okoye and  Lupita Nyong’o (12 Twelve Years a Slave), as Nakia, an accom­plished spy and war­rior, lead most of the bat­tles and do a lot of the cool stuff. These are some seri­ous ass-​kicking women who find them­selves sav­ing their king’s ass on more than a few occa­sions. This is a cor­rect rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the rela­tion­ship of most Black women to most Black men in my per­son­al expe­ri­ence as a Black man. That said, the Panther’s mom is played by Angela Bassett with an over­ly meek demeanor for a Queen Mother. She looks like Toni Morrison with thick white braids, but she has no agency. She’s the only gal in the movie that don’t break some­thing (or some­body) on pur­pose. I didn’t care for that.

As not­ed, beyond the ordi­nary pur­suits of a Marvel com­ic book adap­ta­tion Black Panther has its present-​day con­cerns. It’s con­cerned with the lives of boys raised with­out fathers and what that man­i­fests. It’s con­cerned with our per­son­al respon­si­bil­i­ty to set our­selves free from the cir­cum­stances that oppress us (what­ev­er our race or creed or gen­der), and it ques­tions what we should be pre­pared to do to affect our own cir­cum­stances. The slave-​turned-​preacher-​turned-​freedom fighter-​turned-​martyr, Nat Turner, posed these ques­tions. Black Panther is con­cerned with our respon­si­bil­i­ty to our sis­ters and broth­ers when they are being sub­ju­gat­ed — when — we have the where­with­al to free them. The fire­brand abo­li­tion­ist preach­er and American ter­ror­ist, John Brown, felt that respon­si­bil­i­ty, too. To that end we have the extra­or­di­nary film-​stealing per­for­mance of Michael B. Jordan (pre­vi­ous Coogler-​written-​and-​directed films Fruitvale Station and Creed) as Erik Killmonger. One imag­ines the character’s name gives away his nature. Yet it does not speak to the ratio­nale of his rai­son d’être; a right­eous indig­na­tion of Nat Turner and John Brown pro­por­tions, that, as with those hero­ic fig­ures, is not exact­ly wrong.

Killmonger is pissed and he’s got good rea­son to be pissed. We empathize with him even when we can­not con­done his actions. Michael B. Jordan gives a per­for­mance in this movie akin to Heath Ledger’s Joker in Batman Begins. He’s that good. He’s gor­geous. He’s dark­ly fun­ny and he’s hell­bent on vengeance. Hellbent. And some­times we root for him. At least I did. Sometimes. Michael B. is act­ing his ass off in this deeply-​layered, highly-​motivated role. He embod­ies every young Black man (per­haps every per­son) who has ever been filled with an abid­ing hatred of a sys­tem that wrong­ly stole their life away — and all those who stood by while it hap­pened — and did noth­ing. Especially the Kings.

Next year this time — awards sea­son — I’m going to remem­ber this per­for­mance. I am, and you will too.

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