When Black Panther came out I told everyone it was going to be a cultural event and it was. The film was not only a fantastic Marvel superhero story, but it meant so much to people who appreciated it.
The movie gets off to a great start with a scene in Oakland, California. That was a nod to director Ryan Coogler’s hometown. Not only that but in the background local rap star Too Short is playing.
The story focuses upon the conflict between Prince T’Challa the Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan). T’Challa has just taken over the throne of Wakanda after his father was killed in the Captain America Civil War movie. He was the rich privileged son who was still learning how to rule. Killmonger on the other hand had his father Prince N’Jobu (Sterling K. Brown) killed by T’Challa’s father for betraying his country. He grew up poor in Oakland and then joined the U.S. military to learn how to become a warrior so that one day he could return to Wakanda and take what he felt was his. Killmonger wanted to use the wealth and power of his country to free black people around the world in an international revolution and create a Wakandan empire. You could say he was an anti-hero as he wanted to fight for the oppressed. To have an effective movie like this you need a good villain and Killmonger provided that in spades. He was even more interesting than T’Challa for much of the movie.
Winston Duke as M’Baku the head of the Jabari tribe also stands out as a character. He stole almost every scene he was in and had one of the great lines when he threatened to serve CIA agent Everett K Ross (Martin Freeman) to his kids and then laughs and says they are vegetarian.
The importance of the film is on display throughout. First, Wakanda is the most technologically advanced country in the world based upon its vibranium, a rare metal that has special powers. The West has always portrayed Africa as a backwards, impoverished continent full of conflict. These stereotypes started during the colonial period and exists to the present. The Black Panther reversed all of those images with its portrayal of Wakanda, its people and its civilization. This is one reason why the movie was such an event, because it presented such an inspiring image of an African nation.
The Black Panther also championed African culture. The costumes were amazingly designed and often used real African designs such as the blankets many of the characters wore which come from Lesotho a nation in southern Africa. None of the Wakandan women had straightened hair either. Straight hair is considered “good hair” in black culture because of centuries of cultural imperialism that have told them being white is beautiful. Thus they use all kinds of hair products to straighten it like Europeans have. The only time there’s straightened hair is when the head of T’Challa’s pretorian guard Okoye (Danai Gurira) is wearing a wig. She ends up throwing it off because she looks so ridiculous in it. Last, the Wakandan language was a real African dialect from South Africa. Again, these all instilled pride in people.
Last, the movie had a series of strong female characters. Besides Okoye there was Princess Shuri (Letitia Wright) T’Challa’s sister who at only 16 was the head of the country’s technological development. Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) was a Wakandan spy and T’Challa’s love interest. Last Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) was T’Challa’s mother. To have so many leading women especially in a superhero action movie was a rarity.
All together this is what made The Black Panther so special. The conflict between T’Challa and Killmonger worked out differently than your usual good vs bad dichotomy because Killmonger actually thought what he was doing was right. You had the overturning of centuries of stereotypes with a celebration of Africa, and you had a great supporting cast. It’s the reason why I have watched Black Panther over and over again both in the theater and at home since it came out. It’s still as good as the day I saw it on opening night.