By Suzanne Karioki
Marvel announced Black Panther back in 2014, and while many fans were overjoyed, more still were anxious: after Exodus: Gods and Kings or Dreamworks’ attempt at Ghost in the Shell, it was obvious that Hollywood had a problem with sticking to the source material. What if - to the surprise of no one - they added a white sidekick to make T’Challa more palatable? What if the cast of a movie set in Africa was more White than Black - because who, Hollywood insisted, would want to watch a movie without a white face?
As time went on, Ava Duvernay (Selma, A Wrinkle in Time) was considered as a director and ultimately passed; Duverney was then replaced by Ryan Coogler (Creed, Fruitvale Station); the movie’s release date was changed from November 2017 to July 2018 to February 2018; then Lupita Nyong’o was in talks and it wasn’t long before the cast list was released.
It wasn’t until the cast list announcement that most of my fears were assuaged. Here was a cast that hadn’t relegated its black actors to supporting crew and a token main character. Here was a cast as black as the movie re-runs on BET. But most important, this was a cast of some of the most talented people in the industry for a movie in a genre that I’ve loved since childhood, set on a continent that’s portrayed in pop culture as a single country that’s entirely mud huts and child poverty.
Black Panther begins with Wakanda’s origin story, visually planting the film straight in the continent of Africa within the first minute; a man tells his son the story of their country, of the five tribes that make up the most successful nation in the world. There’s been plenty of skepticism from white nationalists (some of whom loved the movie for...their own reasons) on the plausibility of an African nation being so technologically advanced. This skepticism is also often coupled with scathing reminders that Wakanda is not real. This criticism is especially interesting considering that it’s been absent from other films, including Thor (a character from Norse mythology) and Iron Man (in which Tony Stark’s greatest inventions are almost entirely the product of science fiction). But this image of Wakanda - an African nation that has never been colonized, has governed itself in secret and enjoyed hundreds of years of peace - is long overdue. There are countless other black movies - Coming to America, Blade, Get Out to name a few - but this film has achieved tremendous success that hasn’t been seen in a long time. Coming to America, the most successful of the three, made almost $290 million in the summer of 1988; Black Panther, released in the notorious dead zone of February, has made $1.3 billion internationally.
Black Panther is an especially vibrant film, both cinematically and in its beautifully crafted costumes. The film’s greatest inspiration comes from Afrofuturism, a sort of science-fiction aesthetic through a black lens. Each tribe represents a part of real African culture, from the Masai people of Kenya to the Zulu in South Africa.The film’s primary costume designer, Ruth Carter and her team created a fusion between traditional, powerful symbols of present African culture and technology. Allowing Wakanda’s people to appear both distinctly African and modern. In one shot, a man wearing a tailored green suit and a lip plate sells a new holographic system to a crowd of interested customers; in another, one of Wakanda’s most skilled fighters fends off 4 mens with guns using a vibranium spear equipped with a taser.The style is present in the queen mother’s tall, white headdress and dreadlocks, and in Shuri’s rebellious blend of traditionally patterned dresses with modern additions, like cutting in-season sneakers.
Further, for a film named after its titular character, the Black Panther T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is not the only hero of this story. He is supported by Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), a skilled fighter, introduced to the audience during an important rescue mission and as T’Challa’s love interest; Okoye (Danai Gurira), the leader of the Dora Milaje, an all-female special force of Wakanda, the; and Shuri (Letita Wright), T’Challa’s teenage sister who has both a brilliant sense of humor and immense skill and talent. These women interact and fight alongside each other, influencing every aspect of Wakandan politics. T’Challa is one of Wakanda’s best fighters - he would not be the king of the Black Panther if he wasn’t - but he and the film would be nothing without the women who also protect Wakanda.
Other women in the Marvel Universe have been afforded their own moment in the spotlight at one time or another (Iron Man’s Pepper dons one of the iconic suits in Iron Man 3, and Thor’s Jane Foster is both scientist and love interest), but Black Panther’s women are allowed to have their own separate, autonomous lives that aren’t intricately tied to other men. Out of all of them, Shuri stands out as a young girl who oversees all of Wakanda’s tech while still managing to be playfully rebellious. Shuri’s style is peak Afrofuturism - a blend of the traditional and the modern that raises the eyebrows of adults. She pulls out a meme in one scene and manages to make the audience laugh despite the joke being already outdated. She constantly roasts her brother for everything from how he behaves around his ex girlfriend to his fashion. And yet she still has the time to not just operate the technology of an entire nation but innovate too. With a sequel unannounced but seemingly inevitable (despite the film now skyrocketing past $1billion internationally), it’ll be especially interesting seeing her interact with other Marvel geniuses in Infinity War - namely Tony Stark and Bruce Banner.
Black Panther is a film that must do so much while still being as entertaining as the Marvel movies before it, and it is acutely aware of this responsibility. It is the first major movie of its kind in a long time, released at a moment in history where racial tension seems to be at an apex, but it’s not the sort of heavy, ponderous film that one would expect from the subjects it explores. It broaches these topics in a collection of spoken and unspoken moments, from the costumes to the actions and reactions of its characters, while still being incredibly fun to watch.
It’s been years since a major movie marketed towards an international audience has given Africans so much time to shine. Marvel is no stranger to exploring difficult topics within its universe, but Black Panther extends beyond Marvel and creeps into the real world. One of the most important questions it raises is how to heal after the trauma of slavery, an institution which tore generations of Africans away from their homes and forced a divide between people in the diaspora. Although the film figures out a way to begin this healing, it’s something that the real world is still left to grapple with. Even as a blockbuster film made by one of the world’s most powerful corporations, Black Panther is an incredible cultural milestone