Black Panther, Marvel’s latest superhero film, has been hailed as groundbreaking due to its predominantly black cast and vision of the high-tech African city of Wakanda. But its true bravery lies in celebrating African culture, highlighting the plight of African-Americans, questioning the value of immigration and exploring a rich nation’s responsibility to the world – a bold and unprecedented move for a superhero movie pitched at mainstream audiences.
The film features a who’s who of black actors including Chadwick Boseman (Get on Up), Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave), Danai Gurira (The Walking Dead), Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out), Letitia Wright (Black Mirror), Angela Bassett (What's Love Got to Do with It), Forest Whitaker (The Last King of Scotland) and Sterling K. Brown (This Is Us), supported by Andy Serkis (Lord of the Rings) and Martin Freeman (The Hobbit). It follows in Wonder Woman’s footsteps by endowing female characters with depth and agency. Nakia (Nyong’o) could have been pigeonholed as T’Challa’s (Boseman) love interest and damsel in distress, but challenges him on political issues and contributes to her ‘rescue’ early in the film (we soon find out she was working undercover). Okoye (Gurira), head of the Royal Guard, shines in combat; Shuri (Wright) upgrades T’Challa’s Black Panther suit, mercilessly teases him throughout the film and delivers the panther’s share of the jokes; while Ramonda (Bassett) serves as Wakanda’s matriarch. Black Panther also evades the common pitfall in superhero films of a forgettable, one-dimensional villain: Klaw (Serkis) is playful, deranged and taunting, while Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) has a compelling reason to resent T’Challa and Wakanda.
Black Panther also brings the futuristic Wakanda to life, combining technological marvels such as sky trains with African flora, fauna and artwork. The film features a unique aesthetic, showcasing weird and wonderful elements of African culture such as colourful dashikis, clicking, dancing and bongo drums. It’s shameless in its celebration of Africa, to the point of risking ridicule and baiting racists: one of Wakanda’s council elders has a giant lip plate and a wardrobe of vibrant suits, while members of one tribe glorify apes and make gorilla noises.
African symbols and traditions are juxtaposed with wealth and technology in Wakanda, then starkly contrasted with the poverty and grime of inner-city public housing. This sets the stage for the film’s main antagonist: Killmonger, who grew up in the latter and resents T’Challa and Wakanda for ignoring the violence and oppression visited upon other Africans and African-Americans. “Our people suffer because they don’t have the tools to fight back,” he shouts in anger, accusing Wakanda of abandoning the rest of the world and doing nothing to combat slavery, racism and mass incarceration. This leads T’Challa to the central dilemma of whether to open Wakanda to the world or keep his people in isolation, securing their way of life and protecting them from external threats. Lines such as “If you let the refugees in, they bring their problems with them” and "The wise build bridges while the foolish build barriers" are clear references to the refugee crisis in Europe and President Trump’s wall.
The film excels in other areas too. It features cool technology such as a remote driving system and a nanite-powered suit, stylish cinematography including an upside-down shot of the throne after a critical event, thrilling action sequences such as a trio of simultaneous battles straight out of Star Wars, and plenty of laughs. It also harkens back to The Lion King, itself based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, with a power struggle between family members and a meeting between the deceased king and his son under the pink night sky.
Black Panther is a remarkably daring film for Disney to release, given it’s spent a fortune and nearly a decade perfecting the formula for superhero movies that have mass appeal and generate blockbuster returns. Few would have predicted that the 18th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe would be the most original, controversial entry to date. Disney deserves kudos for giving director Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed) the freedom to celebrate foreignness and tackle issues such as race and immigration at the risk of potentially alienating millions of fans. Disney must be betting it gains the loyalty of more people than it loses; let's hope its glorious gamble pays off, so we can enjoy more of the same.