With the possible exception of “Wonder Woman,” it is hard to imagine a more symbolic (and memorable) film arriving at a more timely historical moment than “Black Panther.” Opening right before Valentine’s Day week 2018, “Black Panther” grossed more money over its opening weekend than all but four other films in history, along with huge acclaim from audiences and critics alike – and for good reason.
Begin with the firsts.
“Black Panther” is the first major Hollywood action movie to feature a black superhero (at least since Wesley Snipes’ “Blade”), the first to star a majority black cast, and the first Marvel film to employ a black writer/director (Ryan Coogler, who gave us “Fruitvale Station” and “Creed”). Lest you think this isn’t a big deal, the $13 billion Marvel Cinematic Universe juggernaut has produced 17 (!) action hero movies to date. ‘Bout time you went multiracial, Marvel. “I have never been on a set with so many black people before,” observed actress Lupita Nyong’o. Enough said.
The story? “Black Panther” tells the tale of the holographically-hidden African kingdom of Wakanda. For centuries, Wakanda has been powered by a meteorite named Vibranium, allowing the Wakandans to craft a remarkable civilization shaped by both traditional African culture and high-tech futuristic wizardry. Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther (who made his brief on-screen debut in Captain America: Civil War) is known in Wakanda by his African name, Prince T’Challa, the heir to the Wakandan throne. Surrounded by a trio of powerful women – his beautiful techno-geek sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), former girlfriend Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) and his badass bodyguard Okoye (the fierce Danai Gurira – “Michone” from “The Walking Dead”) – T’Challa’s claim to Wakanda is soon challenged by a US imperial special forces agent named “Killmonger” (Michael B. Jordan). The two rivals battle it out for Wakanda’s destiny, which pits T’Challa’s desire for Wakandan peace, prosperity and global ambassadorship against Killmonger’s desire to see Wakanda kick ass and take names, using Vibranium technology to challenge the Euro-American empires that for too long have oppressed people of color around the world. (Think Booker T. Washington versus W.E.B. DuBois, or Martin Luther King Jr. versus Malcolm X, and throw in microcomputers, warrior rhinoceri, and advanced spaceship travel).
A visual and metaphorical feast, “Black Panther” is one of the most compelling superhero movies yet made. Coogler and his team create a potent story that takes a “deep dive” into African history, mythology, and memory, posing “what could be?” questions that mirror our current global conversation about the power and meaning of “blackness” at a provocative political moment for the United States and the world. Throw in one Euro-American CIA agent (the adroitly cast Martin “The Hobbit” Freeman) as a foil and a bit of comic relief, and combine with Coogler’s fast-paced directing, gorgeous costumes and sets, and an A list acting cast having the time of their lives, and boom – Black Panther delivers. Don’t miss it on the big screen.