I wasn’t the biggest Captain America fan, but increasingly, I see him as a great character. Winter Soldier really got into what it meant to actually represent America.
That is a quote from Ta-Nehisi Coates, from an April 2015 interview with Vulture, in relation to the 2014 Marvel Studios release Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Coates is an award-winning journalist and novelist, writing about cultural and social issues – about African-Americans, in particular. With Winter Soldier, he viewed the film through the prism of what America had become after 9/11: a surveillance state that kept tabs on all inhabitants, both foreign and domestic.
Beyond his writing, Coates is a Marvel Comics superfan. While others may look askance at the medium Coates embraces. So when Marvel proposed that Ta-Nehisi begin a new era for the first black superhero, Black Panther, he pounced. Coates’ take on the character, which Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created in 1966, served as a primer for Ryan Coogler when he signed on to bring Black Panther to the silver screen.
As the pendulum swings and social media hashtags have given rise to movements and call-to-action in matters of gun control, police brutality and discrimination among others, what better time than now to have a superhero movie where persons of color are at the forefront instead of just being a token? A year after Wonder Woman proved the general public would support beauty and grace in the form of a kick-ass heroine, Black Panther arrives adding to the discourse promoting diversity in feature films.
The eighteenth entry of Marvel Studios’ lucrative cinematic universe should not be exalted because it is a major blockbuster release predominated by dark-skinned actors and actresses. It is to be championed because, fifty years after the end of the civil rights movement, it broaches competing ideologies with regards to skin color and what lives matter.
Cowriter/director Ryan Coogler takes to the source material and, much like Ta-Nehisi Coates, presents T’Challa’s story with a ponderous importance than what we have come to expect with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Yes Coogler incorporates the comic-book tropes we’ve seen in countless others – action in great quantities and special effects that will widen eyes and leave mouths agape. Still it is in moments after the action quells that is most rewarding, as certain characters recognize how a nation, when inclusive, can do much more than generally perceived. This is in reference to T’Challa’s homeland, Wakanda, a fictional African country. The country has isolated itself from the outside world, allowing its third-world designation to dissuade interlopers from plundering its most valuable resource: vibranium (the same element used to make Captain America’s impenetrable shield).
When Black Panther debuted in a supporting role in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War it was a hurried introduction. Picking up in the aftermath, Coogler bypasses the need for an origin story and allows the audience to learn of Black Panther’s powers and abilities as he assumes the throne to the African nation. Around T’Challa are three empowering females: Shuri (Letitia Wright), his smart (and smart-alecky) sister – a super-scientist whose extensive technological advancements would make Tony Stark shed tears; Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), a former lover that specializes in intelligence and infiltration; and his chief military leader, Okoye (Danai Gurira).
If T’Challa didn’t have the regal distinction he would be a super spy. Globe-trotting from Wakanda to South Korea, star Chadwick Boseman walks into an underground casino parlor stylish. He’s looking to apprehend mercenary Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis in human form for a change!), who traffics vibranium on the black market. Also keeping a watchful eye on Klaue is CIA agent Everett Ross (Martin Freeman). The mission is a failure and leads to a stranger showing up to Wakanda’s borders with a gift. The stranger is Erik Killmonger and the offering comes with a shocking admission that allows him to challenge T’Challa for leadership.
Killmonger is a great adversary, and Michael B. Jordan plays him with boisterous aplomb. The motivations behind his actions are spelled out to the extent to draw our empathy. Lies spoken and misguided actions by those strong of character unescapably affect Killmonger, who grows into a man that wishes to liberate black people by having them lethally silence their worldwide oppressors. Killmonger is not a scene-chewing megalomaniac. He’s a consequence to his environment.
Across the board Black Panther gets strong marks for casting. Chadwick Boseman has shown his versatility having played historical figures and personalities (from Jackie Robinson to James Brown to Thurgood Marshall). T’Challa adds to his repertoire. Screen legends Angela Bassett and Forest Whitaker represent the elders of Wakanda. The combined talents of Nyong’o, Gurira, and Wright as representations of women who are strong and self-assured is without notice. But the true star is Jordan as Killmonger. Having watched Jordan mature as Wallace in The Wire to narrowly escaping the dumpster fire that was Fantastic Four, it is his pairings with Ryan Coogler (in Fruitvale Station and Creed) that have proved Jordan is a star on the rise. (Coincidentally, Coogler and Jordan are teaming up again on Wrong Answer, co-written by Ta-Nehisi Coates.)
Black Panther is a superhero movie but it isn’t exclusive to the label. The movie celebrates African culture while its opposing views on matters of race offer introspection. The fact that T’Challa’s creation was a direct response to the civil rights movement in America is not lost. Nor does the fact that Black Panther arrives a half century after the end of the civil rights movement – though the struggle continues and will for the foreseeable.
Perhaps Christopher Nolan was on to something when he spent a trilogy on DC Comics’ famed dark knight conceding that Batman was a symbol for hope. Who’s to say that Black Panther isn’t a symbol for change?
Travis Leamons is one of the Inside Pulse Originals and currently holds the position of Managing Editor at Inside Pulse Movies. He's told that the position is his until he's dead or if "The Boss" can find somebody better. I expect the best and I give the best. Here's the beer. Here's the entertainment. Now have fun. That's an order!