This essay is part of our 2018 Rewind, a look back at the best, worst, and otherwise interesting movies and shows of 2018.
Black Panther is the greatest celebration of African and African-American culture to ever grace a cinema screen. Based on the Marvel comic book property of the same name and created by the late Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, this 18th entry of the Marvel Cinematic Universe reawakens your imagination and dares you to think of something grand.
No more slaves, drug dealers, or white saviors, Ryan Coogler‘s superhero blockbuster, which stars Chadwick Boseman as the title character (aka T’Challa), bucks the usual stereotypes of its characters, setting, and genre, giving audiences young and old something to believe in and inspiring a change not just in film, but society.
The greatest premise of Black Panther is that of a technologically advanced nation — Wakanda — which has existed for hundreds of years watching as the world waged its wars, while its people hid within its secret borders. And this civilization has a resource more valuable than oil, and the power to defend it: vibranium.
Wakanda is the most fleshed out setting of the Marvel films, as it represents the beauty of Africa and scientific and social advances that human minds in the real world have yet to develop. The harsh but gorgeous Jabari Mountains, the mighty rivers, and majestic plains surround cities unaffected by colonialism or racism.
Every character has significance, as the screenwriters made sure to embed each with a complexity that transcends their original comic book concepts. For example, with valid reasons for challenging Black Panther, M’Baku (Winston Dukes) rises above a one-dimensional minor villain to become a fan favorite. From his first appearance at the waterfalls to aiding T’Challa, he demands our attention.
Feminism and black beauty also take center stage with a cast of powerful women. Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright, Angela Bassett, Florence Kasumba — just to name a few. There are no damsels in distress, and often it is the women doing the saving. For instance, the Dora Milaje, personal bodyguards of T’Challa are more than capable of holding their own and inspiring awe and fear in whomever they come across.
The costume design, which is often overlooked in blockbuster movies, is the key to making Wakanda believable. How can you have a grand civilization if the clothing that the citizens wear doesn’t reflect that? Clothing has symbolism, as well as empowerment, in Black Panther. The costumes pay homage to real-life fashions found in different regions of Africa. It is the first step to making the characters appear radical yet also authentic.
More importantly, cinematographer Rachel Morrison aids Coogler in creating luscious shots not common to the comic book movie genre. The spiritual plain where T’Challa speaks with his ancestors makes for a scene that will be long remembered for its imagery.
And the visuals are heightened by the original score by Ludwig Göransson, which adds to the gravity of each scene. The African flute used to cue Black Panther in Captain America: Civil War is no more. Göransson’s score is a perfect blend of modern hip-hop and traditional African instruments and choirs.
When the main villain, Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), ascends to the throne, we get the ultimate combination of cinematography and score. The way the scene bends to the music elevates it to a higher level signifying a new reign of Wakanda.
But what about the overall message? For every hero there is a villain, but what happens when that villain serves a just cause? Killmonger represents a feeling that is oh so real in African-American culture — resentment. How we feel as a minority subjected to racism, violence, and disdain is always addressed in film, but he raises the question of what if someone or something could have freed you from this abuse and, in a sense, your prison.
Yes, Wakanda is the most advanced nation in the world. It can create what most would consider impossible. To maintain its way of life, it was shielded from the world. But with that comes a moral problem. Wakandans sat idle as their sisters and brothers were oppressed across the world. Choosing to hide additionally produced a great, resentful adversary.
Black Panther embodies its moral dilemmas and identity issues in the two main opposing characters. T’Challa and Killmonger have parallel paths leading to their climactic duel. You cling to their words as they speak about social injustices. Coogler was very careful in how he framed these two against each other.
The contrasts between the calm and calculated king vs. the radical and energetic newcomer are intentional. The two characters represent personalities and traits found in people of color. Their viewpoints and ideologies resemble Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. T’Challa represents the former, seeking peace, and Killmonger is the latter.
Even more, Killmonger represents our anger and bitterness against injustices performed against us for hundreds of years. He represents how easy it would be to give in to anger and violence and fight back against oppressors. T’Challa represents our doubts about what is the right thing to do — should we rise above the violence and seek peace, or match fire with fire? Rich character study and progression of these two characters leaves you with something to reflect on long after the credits roll.
Thus, to look down on Black Panther as just a superhero film belittles everything it accomplishes on and off the screen. It is a cultural phenomenon portraying people of color in a positive light, and it forces society to look at its ugly past of slavery and general prejudice. What better way to hammer that message than with Killmonger’s last line of “Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from the ships because they knew death was better than bondage.”
Finally, we have a hero who looks like us, and thinks likes us, someone who strives for greatness, and as a black man that is one hell of a feeling. And to have the Film School Rejects team chose it as Movie of the Year, it feels as if Black Panther has broken the stigma associated with other superhero films and blockbusters.