Image: “Wakanda Forever” (Marvel Studios, Disney)
I saw Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther (2018) with a few friends on the night it was released. Going to the premiere of a film that has long been anticipated can be quite exciting, especially when the film is as good as Black Panther was. At the end of the film, spontaneous applause burst out from the row behind us.
Audiences here aren’t the only ones enthused about the film. Black Panther has been shattering box-office records since its release on Thursday — as of today, it has made about $242 million domestically and $427 million worldwide, and has had the fifth biggest opening for a Hollywood film ever (“Black Pather‘s Four Day Total“). It has also received much critical acclaim. Reviewers have called it “iconic,” “a cultural touchstone,” and a “momentous event in pop culture history.” Gil Robertson, co-founder and president of the African American Film Critics Association, captures some of this excitement: “The black community is certainly bursting at the seams for this film to be released…For representation in Hollywood, Black Panther is a ‘critically important’ project: it’s a gate-opener opportunity for other black-centered projects” (“Daring, Diverse“).
Black Panther is a groundbreaking and refreshingly different superhero film, not only because it affirms and celebrates blackness, but also because of its project of subversion (grounded in Afrofuturism), and the political issues it negotiates with. The setting of the film is a fictional African nation called Wakanda, the most technologically advanced country on the planet (think flying cars and and beads that act like cellphones). Wakanda is extremely prosperous, thanks to a material called vibranium, but it has played to the stereotypes of the West by posing as a poor, underdeveloped Third World country and has isolated itself from the rest of the world. Its new king, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), wants to continue shielding the country from the prying eyes of other nations. However, right from the beginning of the film, this stance of isolation is questioned by T’Challa’s ex-girlfriend Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) who believes Wakanda is in a position to help other African countries. On the other hand, the antagonist of the film (played brilliantly by Michael B. Jordan) is angry about the abjection of black people around the world and wants to use Wakanda’s power for a project of reverse colonization. The film raises important questions: what is the ethical response to black people’s continuing oppression? What relationship should Wakanda have with other African nations, the black diaspora, and the West? In her review of the film, Jamelle Bouie aptly points out that though Black Panther is not a political thriller, it is the most political movie ever made by Marvel (“Black Pather is a Marvel Movie Superpowered by its Ideas“).
Black Panther is also thrilling for the powerful performance of its female leads. These multidimensional female characters follow their own callings instead of being appendages to the male superhero; in fact, the film shows how much T’Challa relies on the women in his life. Like other Marvel films, action-packed, suspenseful scenes are interspersed with many moments of tenderness and humor. One of my favorite scenes in the film is when Nakia and General Okoye (played by Danai Gurira) are being pursued by some villains but remain unscathed. “So primitive,” scoffs General Okoye about their pursuers’ technology. There are many such delightfully subversive moments in the film.
I could go on, but I won’t, so that I don’t give more away! If you haven’t watched the film yet, I highly recommend watching it! At the very least, it’s an enjoyable blockbuster film. But even more, it is deeply satisfying for its affirmation of black pride, culture and power, and its utopic vision of a radically different geopolitical future.
— Anuja Madan, Assistant Professor