by Peter J. O'Connell
Black Panther. 134 mins. Released: Feb. 16, 2018. MPAA Rating: PG-13 for prolonged sequences of action violence and a brief rude gesture.
Black Panther, directed and co-written by Ryan Coogler, is a blockbuster featuring a comic-book hero, but it is also more than that. In some respects it can be seen as a kind of parable about the historical and current situation of the world's black people.
The movie begins aeons ago when a meteorite containing an extraordinary mineral, vibranium, crashes into Earth. After a warrior in Africa ingests a heart-shaped herb affected by the metal, he gains superhuman abilities and becomes the first Black Panther, a superhero. He unites various tribes to form the kingdom of Wakanda.
The movie then develops the interesting concept that Wakandans use vibranium to create a highly advanced technological society but hide that society behind a perceptual veil, as it were, that allows them to appear to the outside world as an isolated, primitive, pastoral society, not a prime target for colonialist exploitation. The underlying idea here, of course, is that Africa—and people of African descent—have an enormous unrealized potential.
The movie then moves to Oakland, California, in 1992. If black potential is to be realized, questions of leadership and legitimacy have to be settled. T'Chaka (John Kani), king of Wakanda and potential Black Panther, has placed undercover operatives in various parts of the world to report on what is going on there. T'Chaka's brother, N'Jobu (Sterling K. Brown) is in Oakland and has become convinced that Wakanda's isolationist policies have done more harm than good.
Thus N'Jobu has decided to work with black-market arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) to remove vibranium from Wakanda and share it with people of African descent around the world in order to help them overcome their oppressors. T'Chaka confronts N'Jobu over this plan and kills him in a struggle. The clash of the brothers is perhaps a distant echo of the divergent perspectives on strategies for black advancement advocated by Booker T. Washington vis-a-vis W.E.B. DuBois in the early 20th century and Martin Luther King vis-a-vis Malcolm X in the mid-20th century.
The movie then moves back to Wakanda and forward to the present. T'Chaka has died, and his son, T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman), returns to Wakanda to take up the kingship and the potential Black Panther-ship. After M'Baku (Winston Duke), a warrior from a dissident tribe, is defeated by T'Challa in ritual combat (not using special powers), the new king looks forward to a peaceful and prosperous reign, surrounded by: Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o), his former girlfriend; Okoye (Danai Gurira), head of the all-female special forces of Wakanda; Shuri (Letitia Wright), T'Challa's technologically brilliant young sister (who can function as a good role model for young black women); Ramonda (Angela Bassett), T'Challa's mother and one of his main advisers; and Zuri (Forest Whittaker), Black Panther's version of Star Wars' Obi-Wan Kenobi.
But a peaceful and prosperous reign by T'Challa is not yet possible. Klaue reappears and links up with Erik Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), born N'Jadaka but nicknamed “Killmonger.” Killmonger is actually the son of N'Jobu, T'Challa's uncle. The killing of N'Jobu by T'Chaka, T'Challa's father, was kept secret, and the young N'Jadaka was left behind in Oakland. Eventually, he served as a U.S. “black ops” soldier. Now aware of his heritage, he has his own ideas about how Wakanda should be run—and they are not the same as T'Challa's. They are more like N'Jobu's.
In pursuit of his plan, Killmonger carries out a museum theft, clashes with CIA agent Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman), who becomes a T'Challa ally, and eventually arrives in Wakanda, where he challenges T'Challa to ritual combat and then leads a fierce rebellion. After much spectacular fighting and the emergence of the Black Panther, a future course for Wakanda is determined—and a direction for the world's black people initiated.
Black Panther has fine acting throughout by its African, African-American, Afro-British, and white American (Serkis and Freeman) cast, with Michael B.Jordan particularly notable. His Killmonger is screen-scorchingly intense. The film's costuming and makeup are outstanding, mixing traditional African elements with modernist ones. One cavil might be that the settings sometimes have the feel of Cecil B. DeMille-era ones rather than products of the latest computer-generated imagery. This situation somewhat takes away from the notion that Wakanda is very technologically advanced,. But overall, Coogler's Black Panther is a both an exciting and a thoughtful film. One might say that it has both emotional and intellectual bite!
“Footnote” to the film: The first “Black Panther” comic book came out in 1962. The militant Black Panther Party was organized in Oakland, California, in 1966.