Every year there is a collection of highly anticipated and heavily promoted films that build fan expectations to the point where they are disappointed with a lacklustre movie that doesn’t approach the standards we hold. Fortunately, Black Panther is not on that list. The film not only effectively fuses traditional superhero movie elements with a powerful message about oppression, it does so with an impressive, principally black cast and many female characters in positions of power. The production commits to authenticity through great attention to detail, using African elements for everything from music to costume design.
The movie begins with an animated presentation of the African kingdom of Wakanda, as the Black Panther and King of Wakanda, T’Chaka (John Kani) tells his son, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) about the origins of his country. Wakanda is disguised as a third-world country in order to protect its resources and technology from falling into the wrong hands. No mystery why, considering the ravages white colonialism has left in its wake on the African continent. Wakanda is secretly more technologically advanced than anyone could imagine, in large part due to those resources. Namely, the kingdom relies on vibranium, the world’s strongest metal, which found its way to Wakanda by a meteorite which struck Africa thousands of years ago.
Part of Wakanda’s development involves sending spies to other countries, and it was T’Chaka’s younger brother, N’Jobu (Sterling K. Brown), who received the undercover assignment in Oakland, California. He lived in a poor apartment complex where his son, N’Jadaka (Michael B. Jordan), would play basketball with the other children using a milk crate and plywood. Having seen the issues of inequality and mistreatment present in America, N’Jobu and N’Jadaka dream of using Wakanda’s technology and weapons to empower oppressed black Americans and assert their dominance. This conflicts with Wakanda’s commitment to only resorting to violent measures in times of necessary self defence. Additionally, this would expose the world to the reality of Wakanda, a well-kept secret for many years.
What makes Black Panther noteworthy is its ability to maintain a relevant and resonant theme while still satisfying those looking for the traditional Marvel elements
While N’Jobu and N’Jadaka plot an uprising, T’Challa’s ex-lover Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) works undercover in Nigeria, observing the country’s human trafficking problem. She re-joins Wakanda to assist T’Challa on a field mission in South Korea, accompanied by countless references to her capacity to be a powerful Queen of Wakanda – if she wanted to, that is. Having seen the conditions of some of Wakanda’s neighbours, Nakia can’t help but wonder what Wakanda’s technology could do to help. While her curiosity seems less aggressive than N’Jobu and N’Jadaka’s dreams of a world-wide Wakanda empire, supporting others of their race with Wakandan technology is what drives the film’s plot. There is clearly something wrong beyond the kingdom, and as King of Wakanda, T’Challa needs to determine how his country can help while keeping its third-world country disguise and staying true to its anti-war values.
What makes Black Panther noteworthy is its ability to maintain a relevant and resonant theme while still satisfying those looking for the traditional Marvel elements: some comic relief, a devious villain, and a bold protagonist who carries the world – and a franchise – on his shoulders. The hero, whose title is inherited by T’Challa following the death of his father, drinks the nectar of a magical plant and is given incredible strength. Additionally, the black panther has a suit woven of vibranium, which is bullet-proof and absorbs all kinetic energy, storing it to be used later.
The suit was designed by Ryan Meinerding and Ruth Carter, whose resumé includes costume design for Malcolm X and Selma. Carter emphasized her intention of designing a triangular surface pattern on the black panther’s suit. According to Carter, who calls it the Okavango pattern, the triangles represent the sacred geometry of Africa. She wanted close-up shots to show a beautiful design consistent with African art. While wearing that suit, which is stored in a necklace, the black panther is essentially indestructible. This leads to stunning and innovative battle scenes, using the suit as both a weapon and a shield.
The film’s commitment to authenticity and to its message extends beyond what’s seen on the big screen
A soundtrack for Black Panther was released just a week before the film’s opening night, and was produced entirely by Kendrick Lamar and Top Dawg Entertainment founder Anthony Tiffith. The soundtrack featured hip-hop and R&B music from some of the industry’s biggest stars, including The Weeknd, Khalid, Travis Scott, and Future. While the film seldom used the music curated by Lamar, it often made use of the same African drum beats heard on the soundtrack for ceremonial scenes throughout the movie. This complemented the authenticity of the culture portrayed in the movie and was surely a pleasure to those who had the Black Panther soundtrack on repeat all week.
Finally, one of Black Panther’s most noteworthy accomplishments is its positive black representation throughout the entire film. Prior to Black Panther, there has never been a black Marvel superhero, let alone a superhero movie with a predominantly black cast. Not only did Black Panther make that a main focus of its production, the movie itself is a celebration of blackness and diversity. T’Challa is the leader of an uncolonized African country who prioritizes family, forgiveness, and alternatives to violence throughout the entire movie. T’Challa’s sister and the princess of Wakanda, Shuri (Letitia Wright), is an innovative scientist who uses her intelligence to help the kingdom grow and flourish. The film portrays the King and Princess of Wakanda as powerful role models, showing young kids that they can be anything they want to be. Black Panther reminds the audience living in a broken system that the colour of a person’s skin should not be a limit to their potential, any more than an indication of their character.
One of Black Panther’s most noteworthy accomplishments is its positive black representation throughout the entire film
The film’s commitment to authenticity and to its message extends beyond what’s seen on the big screen. Director Ryan Coogler insisted on bringing in collaborators from his previous productions to differentiate the film from other Marvel productions, and staffed the production team with a diverse group. He sought the help of John Kani when writing the Wakandan language, which was based on Xhosa, and co-wrote the film’s script with a black writer, Joe Robert Cole. Almost every section of the production crew, from costume design to make-up and hair, had a diverse staff, exemplifying Coogler’s goal to showcase outstanding black talent within the film industry.
Overall, Black Panther displayed an incredible effort to underscore an action movie with a strong and purposeful theme. The film found a happy medium between the two, presenting something incredibly novel but long overdue with traditional techniques that made it feel especially familiar. Black Panther used the audience’s comfort with a classic Marvel storyline to seamlessly broadcast a message that would stay with the audience without casting a shadow over the plot. Black Panther is a commendable and successful attempt to take superhero movies a step further, advancing representation in a new genre, an old industry, and broader society.