SPOILER ALERT: I will attempt to steer clear of any overt spoilers in this review, but if you have not seen Black Panther yet there will certainly be some discussion that you may want to save until after you've watched it. You've been warned. Once you have seen the film, I'd love for you to come back and join in the comments on this post.
Black Panther is such a cultural moment - a nationwide topic of discussion - that it probably would have been easy for the team behind its creation to get distracted by a million different avenues and opportunities for this film. That it stays true to character and story and that its storytelling is of such high quality are sure signs of its stature as a film.
In so many areas of our lives today, it has become increasingly difficult to separate politics from the discussion. Movies are no different. Long before Black Panther was released, it carried the burden of being a political conversation point. On top of that, within the moviegoing community, there are the inherent film politics associated with every superhero film. With all of that (for lack of a better word) "baggage" it can be difficult to simply watch and experience Black Panther. I encourage you to make the effort.
Black Panther tells the story of King T'Challa aka Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and his ascension to the throne of Wakanda - a fictional African nation with many competing tribes. To the outside world, Wakanda is seen as a third-world country. But its hidden secret is that it contains a wealthy store of vibranium that has enabled it to advance far beyond any world power in technology and military strength. Now, King T'Challa must decide whether he will continue the isolationism that has dominated Wakandan policy, or whether he will share their riches with other countries and peoples in need.
Here is a film that has a definite care for the intentions and obstacles of its characters. As I've said before (with heavy influence from the great Aaron Sorkin by way of Aristotle's Poetics) intention and obstacle provide the basis for all drama. Black Panther handles this with great skill. Much praise has been heaped upon Michael B. Jordan's performance as the movie's villain, Killmonger - and rightfully so. But I was also impressed with the way King T'Challa was written. For both characters, you have a very real sense of their intentions and the obstacles that face them as they attempt to achieve their desired goals. And Lupita Nyong'o is simply incredible in everything she does, so her presence alone elevates the entire cast (which also includes such incredible actors as Daniel Kaluuya and Sterling K. Brown).
This is first and foremost a quality piece of filmmaking. Its writing, acting and direction are all worthy of plaudits, but I think Rachel Morrison's cinematography is worthy of specific praise. She is quickly becoming one of my personal favorite cinematographers after her incredible work in 2017's Mudbound (which garnered her the first-ever nomination in Best Cinemeatography for a woman). Black Panther is certainly a technical achievement, with Morrison's cinematography always at the forefront.
But what has made it more than a quality film (which it is) and vaulted it into a lofty air of films that have captivated the nation in a rare way, is the uniqueness of its story. This is a story with black origins, about black characters, told and created by black storytellers and showcasing the incredible talents of black actors and actresses across the board. Even though this is a fictional story about a fictional place, it is firmly rooted in reality. Coogler even opens the film in 1980s Oakland and draws parallels to the modern black experience. That is an experience with which I am, admittedly, not as familiar as I'd like to be. I am encouraged that films like Black Panther, Get Out and Moonlight are being made, because I want to learn from and listen to black artists about their experience. More than anything, Black Panther has shown that, not only does representation matter, but the masses want it.
I grew up never having a dearth of stories about people who looked like me or with narratives that were familiar to me in some way. It has been incredibly encouraging to see how the black community has especially responded to Black Panther. I loved seeing the African outfits worn to Black Panther showings across the country. In a community that has been comparatively underrepesented in movies (especially blockbusters of this scale), they now have a hero and a storytelling universe all their own.
That celebration would have been softened a bit if Black Panther was not a quality film. But Ryan Coogler so obviously knocked this one out of the park with a film that, not only stayed true to its diverse origins, but is a quality film with a story well-told.
Having said all that, this is certainly a genre film - specifically the superhero genre. I must admit that superhero films are not necessarily my cup of tea. Before I saw Black Panther for the first time, though I was encouraged to see a film with this level of diversity and representation, I was a little worried that I might have some "superhero fatigue" from so many similar films that have come out recently.
But that is actually part of why this film is so powerful.
Coogler takes the genre and subverts it in smart ways to tell a superhero story through the lens of the black experience. That is a completely new take, and it makes Black Panther feel fresher than any superhero film I've seen in a long time.
Again, Coogler and company also showcase an incredible care for each individual character in this universe. Though the scale here is still large (Wakanda is an entire country with many different tribes), it is comparatively smaller than what we often see from superhero films (saving this world or completely different ones, events with galactic implications). That adds to the feeling that the film is fresh, but it also provides opportunities for more personal stories and narratives to come to the forefront.
I think it is important for those of us who are white to join into the conversation surrounding films like Black Panther. I think all critics - no matter racial or any other background - should be honest about their feelings about a film. Movies are incredibly personal experiences, and different people will react differently to any given film. I think that's beautiful, and it should be celebrated.
Having said that, I think it's even more important for those of us who are white to take some time to listen and learn before diving in with our opinion. These are films of inclusion and with messages that all of us can learn from. In that spirit, I wanted to share a few Black Panther reviews that come from black writers that I found to be helpful after I watched the film.
- Odie Henderson for RogerEbert.com
- Ira Madison III for The Daily Beast
- Recap of a cast talk about the film with Ta-Nehisi Coates
There were a few points from that third article that I found to be particularly interesting. One is that, again, the villain in this film is so well-written that you can easily relate with him. That's a tough balancing act, but the film handles it perfectly. Also, not only does this film elevate a discussion about race, but the way it handles its female characters is also incredibly compelling. Take, for instance, the following excerpt from the Rolling Stone article linked to above that specifically discusses Nakia - the character played by Lupita Nyong'o:
I don't think superhero movies will ever be my favorite genre. But even if you aren't a fan of superhero movies, you should be able to appreciate when one tries to take a different twist on the genre and bring fresh perspectives into the story. Black Panther does that with incredible skill, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. This is highly-skilled blockbuster filmmaking, and I would recommend this film to anyone.
Note on content: There is violence throughout the film, but I did not find it to be gratuitous or overly gory. It may be too much for younger children, but that is certainly a decision for each parent to make for their own children. There is no sexual content to speak of, and the only profanity is one obscene gesture. This film should be appropriate for most audiences, and I personally found its powerful and inclusive messages to outweigh any levels of violence or other content that may be present.