Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther is the film that will change everything. When you see it, you know that from here on in, everything will be different. Whilst a Marvel story through and through, fitting perfectly into the MCU post-Captain America: Civil War, Black Panther stands alone as a masterpiece of filmmaking.
With Afro-futurism at its core, and tackling racism, slavery and colonialism head on, it offers a refreshing new take on the stereotypical white-centric Hollywood sci-fi canon, replacing it with a never-before-seen Afro-centric utopia. It’s glorious, beautiful, and a feast for the eyes and heart. After the death of his father, King T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) returns home to Wakanda, the secretive, technologically advanced African nation, to serve as his country’s new leader. But T’Challa soon finds that factions within his own country challenge him for the throne.
When two foes (Michael B. Jordan as Erik “Killmonger” Stevens, and Andy Serkis, as Ulysses Klaue) conspire to destroy Wakanda, T’Challa must take his hero form as Black Panther to prevent a world war. He teams up with C.I.A. agent Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman), his ex-lover, spy Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), and the Dora Milaje, Wakanda’s all-female special forces, led by General Okoye (Danai Gurira) to protect both his country, and the Black Panther ancient legacy.
There’s so much to enjoy in Black Panther’s stellar cast: it’s full of wonderful performances. Boseman’s powerful presence demands instant acknowledgement; alongside incredible action sequences as Black Panther, his T’Challa oozes charisma, balanced by a restrained, dignified power. T’Challa seems almost Shakespearean; Boseman offers up a rich, captivating depth to the character.
Nyong’o brings a measured calm to Nakia, a warrior in her own right. Early on we see her fighting to free a group of women seemingly captured by Boko-Haram type militants; in a rejection of the usual love-interest-centred-around-a-man trope, Nakia’s focus is outside both T’Challa and Wakanda. Okoye, T’Challa’s right-hand woman, is also a force to behold. Not only is she clearly the best fighter in the kingdom, and the protector of the crown, she’s smart and brilliant. Played with loyal stoicism, Okoye offers some funny, yet poignant, lines.
When going undercover outside of Wakanda, she remarks that the wig she’s been forced to put on “is a disgrace” and dispenses with it the first moment she gets, ripping it off and using it to distract an enemy she’s fighting. This isn’t a throwaway (pun not intended) scene: it’s noteworthy that Camille Friend, the Head Hairdresser, made all the actors grow their hair natural for the film: hair styles, like many other aspects of the film, are about paying dues to ancestry, history, and authenticity, and showing the audience that pride in those things is empowering.
This is celebrated even more fully in the Oscar-worthy costumes in Black Panther. The five tribes of Wakanda are each represented with a unique aesthetic, clothed in the most incredible outfits. Costume Designer Ruth E. Carter’s gorgeous creations were inspired by a blend of ancient African tribes and Afropunk, and beautifully compliment Rachel Morrison’s rich cinematography, as well as Hannah Beachler’s lush production design. It’s a rich visual treat and every scene is filled with colour that tells a story.
It’s noticeable how many women are in leading crew roles on this film (I also spotted a female 1st assistant director and 2nd assistant director in the credits). This shouldn’t necessarily be relevant to a review of the finished product, but it is so unusual, particularly for such a huge Hollywood production, that it is worthy of note.
Women are also at the forefront of the action onscreen as well as off: they are the army and the warriors; even the futuristic military and medical tech using the rare metal Vibranium is designed by Shuri, T’Challa’s sister (played by Letitia Wright). No women have second place in this film: they lead the battles. They aren’t tokenistic “strong female characters”: they are just characters. How they should be. Strong, and brave, and funny, and smart, and conflicted, as all people are. Can all female roles be like this from now on, please?
This is a film for everybody, Marvel fan or not, but kids especially will be rewarded by it. In one of the final scenes, a young American boy playing basketball sees T’Challa and his spaceship. “Who ARE you?” he asks T’Challa, and we see the awe and wonder on his face, as if he was looking at a future version of himself. Black Panther is the dream for all these kids of the future: it will enrich their hearts and open their minds.
Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther is available now on IMAX screens nationwide. imax.com/movies/black-panther
Zoe Margolis | @girlonetrack