There is a lot of hype surrounding “Black Panther,” the long-awaited Marvel film from director Ryan Coogler. This project is something that is unheard of in Hollywood: a big budget comic book movie about an African-American superhero that’s directed by an African-American man and features a largely African-American cast. The cultural significance of this alone tends to make the film’s serious flaws (and there are many) fade away, but I wish it had more edge, more outrage, more passion, and more anger. The movie may be breaking down enormous barriers, but it does so with a dull cry instead of a powerful roar.
Yes, I was bored by large portions of this movie, from the lifeless flashback opener to the often tedious early origin scenes. Some of the fights and action pieces ramble on for far too long, and all of the actors have given better performances in better films. The two (count ’em, two) mano-a-mano fight challenges take place with the most ridiculous looking CGI backdrops that look so cheap it took me right out of the moment. The visual representation of the mythical world of Wakanda is at least fully realized if sometimes humdrum. But sometimes the sheer societal importance outweighs stumbles in craftsmanship, and this is by far the most interesting, most powerful, and dare I say most crucially relevant Marvel movie to date.
It’s not even that “Black Panther” is a considerable step forward for black actors and filmmakers in Hollywood, it’s that this project is packed with an angry wisdom and a determined call for serious political discourse that will no doubt empower and inspire a new generation to rise up and demand justice. It’s just the sort of movie our society needs right now, and it’s one that serves to band us together instead of tear us apart. The film embraces and celebrates the cultural differences as well as the worldview of oppressed minorities, refusing to shy away from hot-button tensions of gender, class and race. And there’s something beautiful about that, especially in a film that is also shattering audience (and box office) barriers.
The movie tells the backstory of T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) who returns home to his technologically advanced African nation of Wakanda to take his place as their new King. But when power-hungry enemy Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) emerges as a tough and worthy contender, a conflict erupts that puts the entire fate of their nation at risk.
The plot is straightforward but the characters are among Marvel’s most fully realized. Jordan steals the movie with his complex, angry, and impassioned performance, a truly heartbreaking yet stirring take on a bitter and resentful young man whose father was ripped away from him at a young age. Much of the story revolves around the sins of the past and flawed heroes, but it also calls on people everywhere to be the change we all want to see in the world. There’s something very powerful and universal about the message that’s presented.
Ditto with the strong, forceful female characters. Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright, and Angela Bassett portray significant leaders and lend substantial elements to the story. These ladies are nurturers, warriors, scientists, and queens. There are no weak women waiting to be saved — they’re standing right beside their countrymen, ready to fight to defend their home. I left the theater feeling even more empowered than I did after last year’s “Wonder Woman.” Even better is that there are black women working on the crew too; the real MVP of the movie is costume designer Ruth Carter. She’s taken inspiration from African art, craft and culture and incorporated indigenous tribal wear from across the continent. Her work is phenomenal here, from the Black Panther’s suit to Queen Ramonda’s regal wardrobe.
We need to face facts, however: this is a 2.5 star film that people desperately want to be a 5 star film, but the gravity of the project is what’s so great about it. I do not wish to discourage people from going to see and wholly supporting this movie. Its importance cannot be understated, and its determination to inspire social activism is something to be commended. Now let’s hope Hollywood will listen and put more people of color both in heroic roles in front of the camera and in creative roles behind it.