Ryan Coogler captures the conflicted spirit of a hero as leader
Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa, otherwise known as Black Panther
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
Adaptation versus evolution, that is the question at the heart of the narrative of Marvel’s Black Panther film. Logic would seem to dictate that Ryan Coogler’s movie, which kicks off the 10th anniversary of the creation of this cinematic universe, would pursue a vision of the character that hews closely to the lauded recent iteration penned by Ta-Nehisi Coates. His T’Challa has returned to his African kingdom, after engaging in conflicts involving psychological inversions, planet-devouring cosmic life forces, and collapsing parallel universes, to find a nation divided. His subjects question whether or not he is (or wants to be) Wakanda’s king. Along the way, T’Challa has to corral the spirits of Black Panthers past and his fragmented people and usher in a new democratic age. That’s a tall order that can only be achieved in an ongoing narrative that would be revolutionary from the perspective of a binge-based streaming service series. Within the pages of a comic, well it’s still quite ambitious.
So, when it comes to a big screen take, what’s a conscious filmmaker like Coogler supposed to do? He sets quite a different scene than audiences familiar with the Marvel Cinematic Universe might expect. The world of Wakanda becomes an Afro futuristic dreamscape. Talk about black to the future. Too often, we’ve been presented with visions of timelines without people of color, as if we never existed in the first place – never enslaved, never abused by the hands of oppressors, and never turned into second-class citizens by the arbitrary application of the rules of law – which would seem to absolve the mainstream culture of its guilt and sin.
But Wakanda veers far and away from this notion, by imagining a kingdom in Africa that escaped colonization and utilized its main resource (an alien metal known as vibranium) to create a technological haven, an advanced hidden gem of a society that protected itself via isolationism and deception. The film version of Wakanda has pretended to be a Third World nation, while holding tight to its Prime World status. Of course, any nation seeking to thread this international needle does so at its own moral risk.
The question becomes how long can such a country sit back and watch as others, (in particular enslaved people of color) suffer, attempt to spark futile mini-rebellions, and wallow in ghettos in the so-called First World nations of the world. We see how T’Challa’s father T’Chaka (Atandwa Kani), as a younger king, employs spies known as War Dogs to maintain a level of vigilance over hotspots without getting involved and we see how he makes the coldly calculating choice to leave a key War Dog orphan behind, disconnected from their nation and birthright.
And it falls to T’Challa to reconcile whether or not he wants or needs to alter this course. Much like the comic book iteration of the character, this Black Panther has dipped his toe into the world beyond his kingdom. He failed to defend his father on the United Nations stage, which necessitated him taking over the throne. As part of his coronation, T’Challa has to fend off a challenge from within (Winston Duke’s rival chief M’Baku) and inevitably from outside (Michael B. Jordan’s African American soldier of fortune Erik Killmonger).
Coogler and his co-screenwriter don’t exactly rush us through this process, but there’s an underlying sense of urgency that means certain elements must be excised from the cultural landscape. We get the strong warrior women of the Dora Milaje who protect the crown (much like Wonder Woman’s Amazonian legion on Themyscira) although there is an elevation in their impact on the social order that acknowledges the fierce female intelligence behind the technological advancement of the society (especially in the puckishly independent form of Letitia Wright as T’Challa’s techno-wiz of a sibling Shuri who deserves her own movie), but we don’t get to see the realities of passions between these women that might also define them and their relations beyond their fealty to their king.
Somehow, this cinematic version of Black Panther weaves a seemingly disparate set of strands together rather seamlessly, presenting more than enough comic book acrobatics and mayhem to satisfy the core fan base, while also speaking a necessary degree of truth to power about the responsibility such a fictional nation might have to its scattered kin around the globe. And it is impossible to miss the message T’Challa receives at the end of the film, the call to engage; it is a lesson for us all.
Rating: PG-13; Grade: A